B2B sales organizations with a complex, “platform,” or value sales process face some of their biggest challenges in the initial prospecting stage.
The process for a value sale is naturally longer than a simple product sale. Companies risk missing revenue growth targets when sellers are ineffective or inefficient at getting target accounts to engage. A couple of big deals can make a huge difference at the end of the year.
If your sales role is major accounts, you have even more at stake.
In addition to the basic causes — poor, undisciplined prospecting skills and techniques — I see a flawed general approach to prospecting for the value sale model.
Sellers bring a product prospecting mindset, approach and conversation to this task. This is exacerbated by buyer tendencies to apply a product buying mindset to initial conversations. We’ve all heard “what are you selling” questions, since the early days of our initial childhood selling initiatives. (“A $20 gift card sir to support our soccer team!”)
But we’re really not selling anything at this stage, right? I’ve written about bringing a “buying mindset” and really believe this is a critical starting point. (See Adopt a “Buying” Sales Mindset)
A core value selling principle is to create value and differentiate ourselves in every conversation we conduct. If you truly belief this, then my essential question is:
“What is the minimal information you require to conduct a value-creating initial conversation, with your target stakeholder in any key account?“
This is especially important if you’re selling to unseat an incumbent competitor. They mostly likely know this information.
I’ve been asking this question regularly of clients for more than two years. The answers are not immediately forthcoming. Clearly, sellers are not preparing properly for this critical conversation.
How to Prepare for Effective Early Stage Conversations
For over thirty years I’ve been selling new, often complex, and certainly “solution” offers. Few people I called on initially understood what I was selling. They weren’t looking and didn’t think they needed it. Of course they had no budget for it.
I developed a technique that most good value sellers use. But few sales organizations capture, document and share important discoveries, practices and techniques in real-time. So they go un-noticed. “Susan’s our best sales rep for large deals.” (But the organization can’t show a new rep why.)
The question I’ve posed is:
“What is the minimal information you require to conduct a value-creating initial conversation, with your target stakeholder in any key account?”
The general outline of the framework is:
Why — would a senior executive want speak with you?
Who — is the best person for you to speak with? This is both the target senior executive sponsor, but also the “change agent” who has the interest and will take the time for the initial conversations you’ll need to have.
What — are their current top two priorities? Does what you want to discuss naturally fit with those priorities (relevance and timing)?
How — will you best get their attention, interest and agreement for a conversation?
What — specifically do you need to know that will give you an edge, angle, or specific information to frame your conversation?
When — are the best times to ask for this conversation (months, weeks, days, times)? What conversation times will not work (quarter/year end, big events / launches, etc.)?
Six basic questions you need to answer. After you’ve done this a few times, you’ll get proficient and find it enjoyable as well as rewarding.
What is an Information Interview?
Too often sellers go into early stage sales conversations blind. Pick your metaphor, you need a map, guide, something to direct you. Without it, you’ll be inefficient at best, and most likely fail. This approach is not a guarantee of success. But if it doesn’t work, you’ll know you were as prepared as is practical, and will have a basis for understanding why.
Initially, most reps over-estimate the amount of information required for this approach. They expect it will be difficult, and require too much time. This is a natural reaction. How many times do we not try something new because we believe it will … be too difficult, take too long, cost too much?
Again, this is the reason for the conversation framework. It minimizes this thinking. It provides focus that keeps sales people from wasting time, rather than investing time to be successful.
I’ve applied the term “information interview” from a commonly recommended approach by job hunting specialists. “Do NOT go asking for a job, rather, conduct an ‘information interview’.” This is based on the reality that more people are willing to talk and help you learn about their business, even when they don’t have active job openings. This conversation will help you know who might. It may even lead to a subsequent referral.
I’m not saying this to discourage you, but to put what we’re talking about in a realistic context. This is why you need a different approach.
The key question you want to discover is, how are they experiencing the negative impacts of the business problem your solution addresses?
Initially, you’re looking for symptoms. You’re also looking for who would know and care. In my experience, this is usually not the person with the job title or even responsibilities you might expect.
Collecting this information is “bottom up” work. Find people who are experiencing the symptoms and are impacted by the problems you address. Often you can start with current users or constituents your solution ultimately serves. It could even be customers, partners, or other third parties.
An information interview is based almost exclusively on asking unbiased, open-ended questions. It’s important to appreciate you’re looking for “background understanding” more than data. You’re not building the business case. You’re not conducting your typical discovery call. That will come later. You’re looking for “smoke” so you can inquire if there might be an early, unnoticed fire underway.
Your mindset should be curiosity for understanding, rather than looking for ways to prescribe remedies. You’re the consultant trying to understand how and why things are the way they are. Stay in “active listening” mode. Ask “why,” “what do you mean by that,” “give me an example”. Use what’s called “clean language.”
You should be experienced by those you speak with as someone who is genuinely interested in helping. The reason I recommend thinking as a “buyer of accounts” at this point, rather than a “seller of solutions,” is this mindset will keep you skeptical. Buyers are skeptical. And skeptical people naturally ask questions.
Checkpoint for Executive Level Conversations
Once you have obtained this information you’re ready to make the call to your target senior executive. Ideally, you will work from direct referrals — internal as well as external — that will make this even easier. Make sure you arm referrers with the insight and message that provides the compelling reason for the executive to meet with you. You created this as a result of these interviews.
If you don’t know the difference between an executive level conversation and a tactical level conversation, you have no business requesting this conversation — or conducting it. This is why I believe changes need to be made to the role and activities of business development reps (BDRs). Too often they are making annoying and possibly harmful calls to schedule meetings for sales reps. Wrong person, making the wrong request, in the wrong way … and you wonder why you can’t get more initial engagements?
If you aren’t bringing a significant insight, you have no business requesting this conversation. This is the answer to question one above — why would a senior executive want to speak with you? Your insight must be account/function specific, not generic. Big, generic (marketing generated) statistics about universal propensities for a problem can help get attention but are generally ineffective getting an initial conversation.
If the nature of your solution is inconsistent with the organization’s beliefs, values, existing infrastructure or systems, it is most likely not a good fit (see your Ideal Customer Profile). You must provide a significant, compelling reason. Remember the adage, the first thing we’re selling is change. (No one wants to, organizations most especially).
Design Key Sales Conversations
This is an example of a key sales conversation that must be designed. (See B2B Sales Conversations — By Design) By design I mean a conversation framework, not a script. It’s a framework of the essential points, messages and sequence of an effective conversation.
When organizations design key sales conversations that are used consistently by all members of the selling team, several positive results occur:
Efficiency — each seller no longer has to figure out the conversation for themselves
Effectiveness — sellers, especially new sellers, or all sellers to a new conversation, are more confident and effective from the start
Feedback — common and consistently executed sales conversations provide a better basis for feedback to determine where conversations need to adjust, or where sellers are ineffective in execution
Discipline, shared learning and continuous improvement are advanced as core competencies of a professional selling team.
Discover and engage a relevant change agent within the organization. Use information interview conversations to find who would be a likely change agent for the business issues you address. This is probably not a senior executive. The change agent will vet your insights and ideas. They will teach you what you need to know to qualify the account, and how to proceed. They will help you get senior level attention the best way, with the right executive.
An early stage information interview is NOT a diagnostic conversation. When you first apply this approach, you will probably devolve into a traditional, diagnostic, data-acquiring, business case building mindset and conversation. This will kill this tactic. People will feel you in sales mode and shut down. Be aware of this. Catch yourself.
You don’t need to know everything. You simply need to know who, why, how, when, what from above. You could get lucky and accomplish this in one or two conversations. It might take more. Over time as you apply this approach you’ll become more efficient.
This is “selling ahead of the herd”. (See Selling Into the “Hidden Opportunity” Market)
This is selling before the proverbial 57% point where buyers invite sellers to meet. For value selling, entering accounts when buyers are ready for you is too late. You’ve missed the window.
Buyers have self-diagnosed their problem, or worse, been assisted by your competitor. The solution approach and key buying criteria have been defined. Affecting changes to either of these categories at this point often incurs resistance. Customers at this point want to complete their process by selecting — more likely verifying — the best vendor. You are in virtual RFP mode. You are in “red ocean selling.”
The best way to win more often. With the early stage information interview approach your potential accounts will engage quickly, easily and early in their consideration process. This will position you to provide guidance and education to influence buyer decisions to address the problem you solve. Through effective education you can help them decide to solve their problem in ways that set you up to win. Research from Forrester Research indicates sellers who first set the buying vision customers adopt have a 74% chance of winning the business. (See To Win Against Increasing Competition, Equip Your Salespeople With A Deeper Understanding Of Your Buyers)
In doing so you also have the potential to earn the coveted “trusted advisor” role to your customers. This sets you up for better referrals, which makes this approach faster and easier the next time around.