I predictably get strange looks whenever I tell salespeople that “real” selling isn’t necessarily about the product. It’s such a counter-intuitive concept to the untrained, amateurish seller of goods that they convulse involuntarily when I espouse the notion.
If you look as closely and as frequently as I do at the profession of selling (which already ranks among the most maligned of occupations), you’ll see very distinct camps or schools of thought and these demarcations are easily put into a hierarchy representing progressive levels of expertise. In a fairly simplified way, I’ve arranged them for you here:
At the very lowest level is the “TRANSACTIONAL” approach. This is the bastion of the much revered but hopelessly obsolete features-and-benefits style of selling. I have a product to sell. You have money. I’m going to keep spewing facts until you buy. The seller sees features and benefits as a logical, linear pathway to fulfilling your prospects needs but the buyer sees only trivial BS. Need proof? Just look at the expression on your prospects face when you’re engaging in transactional selling. You can always tell you’re amid a transactional sale because the salesperson is the only one talking. In the very worst cases, the seller has never bothered to even qualify the need of the buyer with a few simple questions. For those of us who know better, it’s excruciating to see the profession of selling being clubbed to death before our very eyes.
The next level “up” is (clear-throat, put hands around own neck in a choking position) the much touted “CONSULTATIVE” approach. While this was certainly a breakthrough in sales technique when Jimmy Carter was President, this selling style, too, is as outdated as a public payphone. I know, I know! Many of you reading this believe this is cutting edge stuff! For a lot of you, this is as far as you’ve progressed in your sales skills. Completely unaware that “modern” selling has evolved significantly in the last two decades, you continue to hang your hat on the idea that once you’ve asked a few off-the-shelf, qualifying questions, you’re free to launch a diatribe of your products’ features and benefits. The central pillar of both the transactional approach and the consultative approach is still the presentation. And that, my friends, is how you can tell whether you are truly a professional salesperson – how much emphasis you put on the presentation.
Jeff Thull, in his book, Mastering the Complex Sales, says that presentations suffer from 3 major flaws. Too much information presented too early in the sales process to the wrong people. This overemphasis on presentations is so ubiquitous it’s very hard to get anyone to see its futility. A practical tip for getting out of this “trap” (which is exactly what it is) is to ask yourself, “Is this presentation focused on my products or the buyer’s well-qualified, well-researched needs?” I think everyone reading this knows the answer to that question.
The highest level of sales expertise, in my well-qualified opinion is what I call a “MODERN” approach. The distinguishing mark of this level of sales proficiency is that it doesn’t look like selling at all. In fact, in all my training classes, I frequently use the following phrase to vividly capture the spirit of the idea, “The more you act like a salesperson, the less you will sell.” As proof that I’m speaking the truth here I ask you to take a moment right now to conjure up in your mind what it means to “act like a salesperson.”
If you aspire to this level of professionalism (and effectiveness), I know of no better place to start than Daniel Pink’s book, To Sell is Human. Among the many pearls of wisdom put forth by Mr. Pink, my favorite is the shift from buyer-beware (Caveat Emptor) to seller-beware. This caution flag truly conveys why a more modern approach is needed today. The relationship between buyers and sellers has changed dramatically due to the astounding availability of product information, social proof, and transparency via the internet. Buyers no longer lack access to high-value expertise, product information and category insights previously offered by sales people decades ago. As a result, THE SKILLS REQUIRED to be successful in sales have also changed.
A modern selling approach is about taking the focus off yourself and your products and placing it on he needs of your customer. It’s about postponing the urge to talk about your products and services long enough to find out what the buyer really wants. Sometimes THEY don’t even know so you’ve got to do a lot of research and bring real solutions/suggestions to the table. A modern approach is about empathy because, truth be told, quite often your product is not the solution they need. You have to EARN the right to ask for the business and that takes time. So a big part of the modern sales approach is patience. A saying that very much captures the spirit of the modern approach is this: You can get anything you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.
In almost every instance, I begin my sales training classes with the question, “Selling has changed- have you?” It’s natural to blame individual salespeople for not taking the initiative to keep up with the times and continually upgrade their selling skills. But, instead, I prefer to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of sales leaders and training departments who perpetuate antiquated sales approaches in their organizations. I do a lot of recruiting of salespeople for my consulting clients and I make it my personal mission to eliminate candidates with “old school” sales approaches as early as possible in the hiring process.
I’m sure the same can be said for a lot of sectors of the business world these days that if you’re still operating in the same ways you did ten years ago, you are already obsolete. “Transactional” sales people are a dime a dozen and offer no enduring value to an organization. By contrast, a “Modern” salesperson is one who truly understands a sale is merely a by-product of a much larger relationship and that adding real business value is the key to achieving greatness in sales.