Those of us who have had the experience of selling in a highly commoditized industry adapt to the lack of differentiation. Even if your company does something different than your competitors, your prospective clients aren’t likely to find this compelling. As a result, some of us in the red ocean remove any conversation about our companies and our offerings. Instead, we focus our conversation on the client, their business, and what they need to achieve.
For example, when I was selling staffing my company had a database of candidates to send to our clients. Many of those candidates were also registered with my competitors. We did background checks and drug screenings, like our competitors. Telling the client that our candidates were better than those provided by our competitors would get you laughed out of the room because the people who use staffing companies have enough experience to know better. Instead of lame talk tracks about our company and services, I talked with clients about labor markets, availability, the changing labor force, workers’ preferences, and wages. Most importantly, we discussed the implications of these elements as they related to the client. It’s better to be an expert and authority in your industry and field than to be an expert on your company and your offerings. Despite this, every day, salespeople get sales training about their products and services by companies that believe their differentiation is their solution.
The two books that will help you leverage your expertise are Eat Their Lunch: Winning Customers Away from Your Competition, and Elite Sales Strategies: A Guide to Being One-Up, Creating Value, and Becoming Truly Consultative. To get a quick start, here are some major obstacles to effective selling:
The Collapse of Cold Outreach
Every morning business people around the world find a fresh, new batch of emails from salespeople. We have tools that allow sales organizations to build lists of strategic targets. It saddens me that instead our technology is being used to execute a spray-and-pray approach to prospecting. Many of these emails end up in the spam folder, as email platforms try to prevent them from cluttering up our inboxes.
There may have been a time when sales was a numbers game that could be won when salespeople called out of a phone book, but even back then, the salesperson with the highest level of sales effectiveness would win competitive deals. Sales leaders who want efficiency should worry about effectiveness instead. Here is what I know to be true: The only reason sales leaders ask for greater coverage in their pipeline is because they recognize their sales force has a low win rate, meaning they lose a large number of deals. We sometimes forget that there are second-order effects. When your salesperson loses a big deal, your competitor may lock you out of that client for years.
A poor performance by a salesperson can cause potential customers to believe they don’t need a second look. If you create more opportunities than you need, try your darndest to win them. That means increasing your sales force’s effectiveness, which means you stop wasting your prospective client’s time. Also, turn off your automated sequences.
Failure to Lead Clients
In 2018, I published The Lost Art of Closing: Winning the 10 Commitments That Drive Sales because I watched salespeople struggle to deal with a sales process that was no longer linear. For more than a decade, I had ensured that I confirmed a next meeting, which was my attempt to control the process (not the person).
I also had a list of common conversations that seemed important for helping clients improve their results. To make this approach work, I always presented the client with the value they would gain from the next meeting. In the book, I called this the Trading Value Rule. It’s an easy rule to follow and it allows you to lead the client. Most sales organizations have salespeople who don’t recognize their obligation to help the client by facilitating their buyer’s journey.
The salesperson who can’t lead the client will likely lose to a salesperson who can and will give them guidance. This is one element of being One-Up in sales.
Lacking Effective Talk Tracks
The only vehicle for creating value for your prospective client is the sales conversation. Yet, few sales organizations allow their salespeople to learn how to talk to clients. Because a lot of salespeople work out of their homes, they don’t have the opportunity to role-play the common conversations they need to succeed. Instead, they practice on their clients.
If the only thing to win a deal is a conversation, you would think that sales leaders and sales managers would obsess over the quality of the conversation, the value it creates for the client and the sales experience. Getting in a room with salespeople and allowing them to improve their ability to talk to clients will do much to improve their performance.
Taking the Advice of Non-Salespeople
In every company there are people who believe they can help salespeople succeed. What is unfortunate is that the person doling out ideas for what sales needs to do has never done it themselves. If you need heart surgery, you will not ask your dentist about the procedure. Marketing is a one-to-many approach and sales is a one-to-one approach, so the way the two departments connect with prospective buyers is completely different.
Everybody has an opinion and an idea. Few have the experience necessary to provide good advice. In Leading Growth: The Proven Formula for Consistently Increasing Revenue, I wrote a chapter on protecting the sales force. If you are a sales leader, you have the right and obligation to protect your sales force from well-meaning but bad advice about how to sell.
Deliver Value to Sell Effectively
Once you are aware of the obstacles to effective selling, you can avoid them. In their place, practice and implement an approach based on a conversation that will educate and interest your prospective client. That’s the way to differentiate yourself. After all, you can be a deal’s most valuable resource.