Much of what you read here comes from my experience selling and leading a sales force in a highly commoditized industry. In some cities, there were as many as six hundred competitors all vying for the same set of clients.

There were a number of factors that would cause a company to change partners, including failing to fill their client's orders, complacency, a sense of entitlement, apathy, a lack of communication, resentment, and new stakeholders. None of these factors provided a reliable way to make a change, as every company had the same challenges and same failures.

After years of selling in the industry, I stumbled into a strategy that was more reliable than waiting for my competitors to lose the client. What I noticed was that my competitors left certain needs unaddressed, especially the systemic challenges that prevented the company from producing the results they needed. After years of selling, I recognized that asking the client about their problems didn't do much to compel change, and I started teaching them why they had their problems and what changes they would need to make to improve their results. It is impossible to work in an industry for a decade and not already know what problems your clients experience from day-to-day. My approach was to deal with the larger, systemic, and more strategic challenges, which turned out to be a more reliable way to displace a competitor.

In a commoditized industry, one with little meaningful differentiation from one company to the next, there is no reason to change. Without a compelling reason to change, creating new opportunities is incredibly difficult.

The Problem with Problems

There are a number of reasons that problems are not a reliable strategy for creating opportunities in some industries. The first reason problems don't always result in the client changing is because they will still have the same problem, even though they have a new partner. Because the problems are pervasive in the industry, changing partners doesn't change the set of problems. The second reason problems fail to compel change is that the switching costs are too high. When a change is certain to interrupt the company's operations, it's easy to retain the devil you know instead of opening up Pandora's Box.

pandora's box

The salesperson trying to create a new opportunity by explaining how their solution will solve the client's problem isn't going to compel change when their contact has changed suppliers four times without getting the better results they need. Unless the salesperson can solve the systemic problems, there is little chance of creating and winning a new opportunity.

The Problem of the One-Down Salesperson

The problem with the One-Down salesperson, a salesperson who isn't capable of being truly consultative, is that they are afraid to address the real obstacle preventing the client from getting better results they need, fearing it is not their place to tell a decision-maker how to run their business. When the reason the client isn't getting the results they need cannot be solved by your solution, you must look at what the client is doing, or more frequently, what they are not doing.

salesman with hands crossed

In the industry in which I spent the most time selling, the client would not be able to improve their results by changing suppliers because they had constraints around what they paid their employees and the shifts they offered them. Sometimes they had cultural problems that caused people to seek other opportunities. None of these problems could be overcome by switching to another provider. To resolve their problems, the client had to change, and someone had to help them understand the true nature of their problem, and that it wasn't.

The Importance of Answering Why Change

It's important to be able to answer why change. Most of the popular sales approaches today are a version of Neil Rackham's SPIN Selling. They start by eliciting a problem, the implication (the pain), and what Rackham called the Need-Payoff, the better future state the client would experience. Most of these approaches get the Need-Payoff backwards, by telling the client the benefits of change instead of asking the client to tell the salesperson how the change will help them.

The "why change" is always about improving the client's results. But a large number of obstacles are not easily solved by the salesperson's solution. Here is a simple example. The sales organization sends their sales force to training. After the training, the sales force goes right back to doing things the way they've always done them, leading the senior sales leader to suggest that "sales training doesn't work." The leader now believes that it's a waste of time and money to train their sales force, as it does nothing to improve results. At some point, someone has to explain that without sales managers holding their team accountable for the behavioral changes, they will never be able to improve their sales results.

salesman explaining a deal to a client

Why change requires that you remove and replace the client's false assumptions with a paradigm shift that would cause them to see something that was invisible to them before the sales conversation.

The reason some people don't believe there is a "why change" in their industry is because they believe the client needs to be aware of a problem before they will change. When this is true, you have to look past the ordinary problems and look instead for the systemic challenges that most salespeople cannot see, and are too afraid to address when they can see them.

sales-call-planner

Post by Anthony Iannarino on May 9, 2022
Anthony Iannarino
Anthony Iannarino is a writer, an author of four books on the modern sales approach, an international speaker, and an entrepreneur. Anthony posts here daily.
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