Over the last couple of months, some significant amount of what I have written and published was intended to allow you to see something that might not have been visible to you. I started to try to illuminate this concept in a past newsletter with a thought experiment about how you might sell were you to have no product or service. More recently, I attempted to provide a view of the difference between selling a drill or selling a hole, suggesting that a lot of salespeople believe the hole allows them to sell their drill, which finds them having the wrong conversation early in the sales conversation.
You might not see this clearly if you haven't sold a commodity or have been taught and trained to believe what you sell is different in some meaningful way. It's also difficult to recognize this idea if you believe your product, service, or "solution" is the value you are selling. Your product, service, or solution is valuable, but it is a drill, not a hole.
What if your product is no better or no worse than your competitors? What if, after doing your best work to differentiate your company and your "solution," your prospective client recognized no significant difference between you are your many look-a-likes?
The value of selling a commodity is there is no differentiation, making it incredibly difficult to use all the crutches available to salespeople, like the first eight slides of most companies' slide decks. It causes you to have a different—and more valuable—sales conversation.
The Value of the Sales Conversation
If talking about your company and your "solution" doesn't result in you differentiating and creating a preference to buy from you, what would you talk about with the contacts inside your dream client's company? When left with only the sales conversation, the way you differentiate is by creating greater value inside the sales conversation.
It's hard to explain this shift because the legacy approaches to sales blind salespeople to this idea, making it invisible to many in sales. When you have little chance of winning a deal by pointing to your "solution," your focus shifts to your client and what they are doing.
In the industry where I have spent a good deal of my life, doing a poor job for your client would find you replaced by a competitor, as you would expect. For about a decade, I sold using the traditional, legacy solution sales approach, one still practiced by most sales organizations. At some point, I recognized I could lose clients—even though they were the root cause of their poor results.
To win and retain clients, I shifted the sales conversation to what the client needed to change to improve their results. Instead of being solely responsible for producing better results, the client would also have to make changes. I offered insights, counsel, advice, and recommendations instead of the promise my company would perform better than my competitors, even though it was true.
Why You Lose Clients and Why Buyers Have Regrets
The nature of consultative sales is to provide insights, counsel, advice, and recommendations about what a business needs to do to improve their results. The problem-pain-solution pattern doesn't look deeper into the nature of the problem and what the client needs to change. The sum of the advice this approach provides is "buy my solution from me and my company," with no concern about what the client needs to do to improve their results.
The reason you and your competitors lose clients is because they were not consultative, avoiding telling their contacts what they must change to improve their outcomes. Because the client didn't make the necessary changes, they end up with the same problem they thought they solved. After two or three of these experiences in a row, the decision-makers recognize there is no difference.
The salesperson upset by the fact that their company's operations team is failing their new client doesn't understand why. Their operations team, on the other hand, is dealing with a client that has made none of the changes that would help them improve their results. They know exactly what the client needs to change.
Neither the salesperson nor their operations team is responsible for the clients’ problems, as the salesperson wasn't provided with a consultative approach, one that would recognize the value of sales conversation is not simply acquiring a problem that leads to your solution. Instead, your approach must cause your client to discover the nature of their problem and what they need to change to do better work.
What You May Eventually See
You won't find too many people who will argue with the idea that you win deals in the discovery phase. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who would disagree you also tend to lose in discovery, even if your prospective client uses you as proof that they looked at other potential partners. What you might realize is that your best discovery conversations are the ones where your "solution" is completely absent.
The sales conversation is the only vehicle you must use to create a preference to buy from you. The more you focus your sales conversation on the better results—and not your solution—the easier it is for you to ask a set of questions that allow you to understand what part of the client's problem they created themselves.
Go back over your last five or six deals and list the advice and recommendations you provided throughout the sales conversation. Count how many of your recommendations were something the client would have to change to improve their results. The fact that your client took advice outside of buying what your company sells is proof positive you were consultative, that your conversation was valuable beyond your "solution."