“If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.” –General Eric Shinseki
There is an old criticism that military leaders fight the last war, using the same strategies and tactics that won (or at least worked in) last time around. Especially on the battlefield, we can fall in love with what we know, what we believe, and what seems to have delivered success. But Vietnam wasn’t World War II, Desert Storm wasn’t Vietnam, and more recent wars weren’t either one of them.
This post isn’t really about warfare, as I have no experience in that domain. But I do recognize the sentiment and the human behavior that follows it, having been guilty of clinging to my past experience and my entrenched preferences. When something works in sales, over time it can become a “best practice” or “just the way we do things.” Eventually, though, contexts and environments change until there is an inflection point, change in direction that eliminates, destroys, or reduces the effectiveness of your venerable approach.
We have been fighting the same war in sales, not taking account of how much the world has changed, how difficult buying is for buyers, and the forces and factors that result in sales being broken. Besides missing the infection point and thus being slow to respond to these changes, we have also decided that the best way to help our clients improve their results is to build a giant tech stack, none of which serves the client. It seems we’ve forgotten that only salespeople serve clients, and always in the sales conversation.
Missing the Inflection Point from the Last Sales War
Many in sales missed the inflection point, the time when what had worked for decades started to decay, losing its power to create and win opportunities. In 2001, after the dot-com bubble burst, there was a sudden shift of power to both CFOs and their faithful devotees in the Purchasing department (or later, “supply chain”), despite the scant evidence that they were taking a longer view of relationships and value creation. If the CEO is the accelerator, the CFO and Purchasing often act as a brake.
About the same time, meetings moved from the “decision-maker’s” office to the conference room to accommodate the “task force” that would be deciding, with a senior leader (or sometimes, leaders) signing off on their decision. Because the legacy sales approaches offered no resources for dealing with the consensus sale, there was no way to help salespeople recognize the significance of this new reality. The paradox of consensus is that it makes for better discovery and understanding, at the risk of some contacts opposing any change.
In this light the problem-pain-solution approach lost its luster, with once-receptive clients now shrugging their shoulders, living with their problems, and often believing that sticking to the status quo is a better choice than undergoing a change initiative—one likely to fail anyway. The value of the conversation was under attack, as decision-makers demanded that salespeople ditch their slides, hoping for a conversation that would help them improve their results.
And then there is the Internet, the great transactional machine that has eliminated the value of the legacy sales conversations.
How to Fight the Next War
Our sales approaches are always a response to the environment, but this time is different. Our contacts are struggling to buy, the natural result of a complex environment, one of the major forces shaping our new reality.
The “legacy solution” approach won the last war, but it won’t win this one. How you fight the next war will require a new, monumentally different approach. The difference requires a new type of enablement, one squarely focused on enabling clients, decision-makers, contacts, and stakeholders to make good decisions, manage change, and produce better results.
Insights by themselves are no longer enough, especially when followed immediately by a “why us” conversation in a first meeting. Insights must provide a path through the complexity, helping your client make sense of their world and providing them with the confidence to explore—and eventually—pursue change, even though it isn’t going to be easy. A slide deck with some data and some pretty graphs isn’t going to move the needle without a compelling narrative and a deep understanding.
A Longer View and a New Approach
In the book Fighting Power by Martin Van Creveld, you will find an analysis of the German and Allied Forces’ effectiveness. The author concludes that each German soldier was as effective as a little over two Allied soldiers—and four if they were dug in. The Germans’ training, their discipline, and their ability to take the initiative without waiting for orders made them a much more potent force.
In much the same way, the individual salesperson is the key to value creation in the sales conversation. Their knowledge and experience provides them with the ability to explain the environment, offer advice and recommendations, and give good counsel. It’s no long enough to give a smiling salesperson a slide deck and pointing them at the client’s pain.
Checkbox training will not be adequate for winning this war or the next one. Nor will refighting the last war— and if your sales approach is pushing sixty, the war before the last war. The modern approach requires more than training: it requires a development plan that increases the salesperson's effectiveness over time, more time than you might believe. When time is of the essence, your main regret will be not starting sooner.