There are a number of questions I ask salespeople during job interviews. To measure “fit,” i.e., how well they’re going to do in a sales role, this one has proven helpful: "If hired, what will you need to be successful?" It’s open-ended and leaves a lot of room for the person to express their beliefs about support and leadership. However, one candidate I interviewed was very specific about what he would need to be successful in the role: "a product with extremely high demand from the market" and "the kind of marketing that ensures every prospect already knows about the company and their product." Our conversation ended about a minute later, as he missed a simple truth about sales: you must create your own competitive advantage.
Finding Your Competitive Advantage
Every salesperson wants a competitive advantage, but most assume (or actively believe) that the advantage they seek comes from their company, their product, or their marketing department. They believe that their company is competing against other companies and that their product or service is competing with other products or services. But they overlook that they are also competing against their competitor's salesperson, a fact that makes it rather difficult to blame losses on external factors.
It can be difficult to accept that a rival salesperson beat you fair and square. It’s even harder to realize that if you switched markets or product lines or even companies, that same salesperson would probably still win the client’s business again. One of the largest variables in the outcome of a contest is the individual salesperson, as they create and maintain the prospective client's experience in the sales conversation.
The Single Vehicle for Creating Value
Your single vehicle for creating value is the sales conversation. You walk into your client's office alone, without your company, without your product, and without your marketing. The person sitting across from you expects you to create value for them through the conversation, a conversation you requested. The fact that they agreed to a meeting is evidence that they need something, and that they hope you can meet that need.
A common mistake in an early conversation, especially a first meeting, is assuming that your client needs help finding a problem they need to resolve. Your client doesn't need much help identifying their many problems and challenges, as they experience them all day every day. Nor do they need information about your product or services at the beginning of the conversation. Consultative selling was never about products or services, and it won't be in the future. Consultative selling is providing good counsel, good advice, and good recommendations.
Salespeople who believe they need to query the client to identify a problem are woefully behind the curve, saddled with the legacy approach to sales that nearly all clients reject. Those who believe that their client only needs to change their existing partner or buy a new product or service are also setting themselves (and their clients) up for disappointment. A competitive advantage is not found in any of these things. So where should we look?
Creating a Commanding Competitive Advantage
If you want to create a commanding competitive advantage, you need to start by already knowing what problems your clients are experiencing, instead of repeating a completely commoditized discovery call that has long outstayed its welcome. How is it possible that a person who spends their time helping other people produce better results can show up in their client's office with no idea what kind of problem their prospective client is experiencing?
Instead of asking the client about their problems and challenges, you would instead explain why they have those problems, identifying the forces that are causing the client's problems, and making sense of a world they don’t understand well enough to be able to address their challenges. When your competition is stuck with a legacy approach to discovery, your conversation will look, sound, and feel very different. The difference is the value you created in the conversation, value that is missing from your competition.
It is difficult to overstate the value you create when you can erase your client's false assumptions, replacing them with a clearer view of their reality and the appropriate response. The person with the greatest ability to enable a decision and provide certainty is the person who is most certain to win the opportunity, earning the client's business and improving their results.
What Does a Decision-Maker Do?
The question "What does a decision-maker do?" includes the answer. A decision-maker makes decisions. If you believe that a decision-maker makes decisions, in what area might they need help from someone who has knowledge and experience around their specific decision?
When a client takes your advice and recommendations, you are making decisions for and with them. A person who has no greater understanding than their prospective client isn't someone they are going to allow to make decisions for them. When you have to ask your client about their problems or lean on your product or company to sell itself, your approach betrays you and eliminates any advantage you might have. The larger and more significant the deal, the more value you have to create, and the more work you’ll have to put in.
The great game of sales is won by creating enough value that your prospective client prefers to buy from you instead of one of your competitors. That differentiation is found in providing a better prospective client experience, something that only occurs within the confines of the sales conversation. If you want to win deals, you need to do the work to win the support of the people you want to buy from you.