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Can Your Sales Plodders Become Sales Stars?

In a recent article, (“Do You Secretly Believe You Are Smarter Than Your Customer?”), I chastised Jeff Thull, the author of Mastering the Complex Sale, for saying in his book that most customers of the complex sale “are not equipped to make a good buying decision – that the salesperson selling to them must guide them through the process.”

My response in the article: “Bunk!” I went on to say that this concept promotes the dangerous myth that you are smarter than your customers – especially when it comes to their buying process.

Jeff read the article and sent me an email saying that it was the first time the word “bunk” had been applied to his book, and he’d be glad to talk with me. I took him up on his offer.

He’s a nice guy, very calm and measured. During our conversation, he said, “It would be good to clarify for Revenue Journal readers that ‘Jeff Thull is not calling the customer stupid.'” So now you know.

Jeff does think that the customer making a complex buying decision is not necessarily equipped to make that complex buying decision, and his goal is to provide tools and techniques that the salespeople can use to help the client make that decision.

At the core of his method are diagnostic questions that a good salesperson can ask. In the book, he says:

All salespeople are taught to use questions in the sales process, but most use questions in ineffective ways and in dubious pursuits. They ask questions to get their customers to volunteer information they have been taught is critical to the sale. Their goal is to identify who makes the decision to buy and to determine how much the customer is willing to spend on a solution. They want to maximize their contact with customers and get customers to pinpoint their own problems. All of these reasons subvert the most valuable use of questions — to diagnose.

The most successful salespeople are sophisticated diagnosticians. They understand that to effectively and accurately diagnose a customer’s situation, they must be able to create a conversational flow designed to ask the right people the right questions. They also know that they gain more credibility through the questions they ask their customers than anything they can ever tell them.

Jeff has broken the diagnostic questions down into four categories:

1. A to Z questions frame a customer process and then ask customers to pinpoint specific areas of concern within it.

2. Indicator questions uncover observable symptoms of problems.

3. Assumptive questions expand the customer’s comprehension of the problem in non-threatening ways.

4. Rule of Two questions help identify preferred alternatives or respond to negative issues by giving the customer permission to be honest, without fear of retribution from the salesperson.

On the face of it, this is perfectly logical. However, with a typical salesperson, the scene goes like this: The salesperson is given a list of magic questions. The salesperson gets a potential client on the phone. The salesperson asks a question about the client’s problem. The client describes the problem he’s dealing with. But instead of engaging in a conversation that would lead to a solution for the client, the salesperson just drops the subject and asks the next question on his list. As soon as the salesperson jumps to the next question, the customer figures out that the salesperson is just asking questions from a canned script and is not going to be helpful, and that it is a waste of time talking to him. The customer’s switch flips to “Not interested.”

The salesperson thinks that his magic questions have given him special insights. Because he talks to customers all day, he also thinks he has become an expert on their problems (even though he never listens closely when they describe them, and usually interrupts them before they’re done). All of this makes him think he knows more about the customer’s problem than the customer does – while it’s obvious to the customer that he doesn’t.

This sounds ridiculous, but this is exactly how a bad salesperson operates. I’ve seen it thousands of times.

When I brought up these issues in our conversation, Jeff agreed, saying, yes, “the majority of salespeople who are attempting to execute this would sound arrogant and would make the customer ‘feel stupid,’ and would get tossed out on their ear.”

These salespeople are the “plodders.” The plodders always know less than the customer about the customer’s buying process. These salespeople are not able to help the customer ask the right questions, or imagine the product in use, or anticipate the questions that other approvers would have. All they really care about is their commission; the sooner they can get it, the better. The customer can see that this is what is driving them, and is immediately put off.

These are the salespeople I was describing in my article – a description Jerry admitted was “spot on.”

The stars

Jeff – in his book and in our conversation – says that his research has shown that 3% to 7% of the salespeople in a sales organization are stars.

Jeff elaborated in our conversation: “If you look at any high-tech, complex solution sales organization, you will probably find that three to seven percent of the [sales] organization is using the [diagnostic] method consciously, or more likely, unconsciously. Their performance is running about three to four times what the average of the rest of the organization is. Also, they are not using whatever marketing collateral, presentation, and sales training tools are provided by the company. And, they can’t explain what they are doing to anyone else.”

In other words, the company’s best salespeople are consciously or unconsciously “guiding their customer through a more robust decision process.”

Let’s look more closely at the characteristics of the stars. They:

1. Are operating outside of the prescribed training and provided materials. This is confirmed by my own experience. All too often, marketers don’t spend enough time interviewing real customers, which means their materials don’t resonate with customers – making it more difficult for the salesperson when he’s presenting. The content in the materials often raises more questions than it answers. So the star salespeople create their own materials – which may have customer-relevant concepts in them, but won’t necessarily be “branded” properly or be graphically sophisticated.

2. Know how to sell successfully themselves, but they can’t train anyone else to do it. The best salespeople would rather spend all their time selling; that’s what gets them up in the morning. They often don’t have the desire or patience to share what they’re doing. Plus, they would have a hard time describing what they do naturally in a way that would help someone else learn how to do it.

3. Are out-performing the rest of the sales group by as much as four times. Obviously, this is compelling incentive to see if the other salespeople can be trained so they behave more like the better salespeople.

Can “plodders” be turned into stars?

Jeff says some can. He says, “Depending on the level of systems support, training, coaching and reinforcement, our programs with clients can help up to 35% reach that top level of proficiency.” He says that one client went from 110 salespeople bringing in $150 million in sales to 44 salespeople bringing in $850 million in sales.

Of course, these are “best case” numbers, but the 35% number is achievable, in my experience. Thinking about all of the sales departments I’ve led and salespeople I’ve coached, if you really do make a concerted, management-supported effort to provide proper systems, and ongoing training, coaching, and reinforcement, you can move about a third of your plodders to a new level. Their new behavior may never be as “natural” for them as it is for the stars, but if they continue to receive weekly instruction and daily coaching, their numbers will double and possibly triple.

It is definitely not realistic to expect that all of your plodders can turn into stars, and it ain’t gonna happen if you simply “tell them how to be more diagnostic” and then turn them loose. Without call-by-call, hands-on management, they will throw in a magic question here and there, but otherwise will continue doing what they’ve always done.

If you hire a decent engineer, and give him an assignment, you don’t have to listen to every conversation he has over the next week to make sure that he “got it.” For one thing, if he didn’t “get it,” he would say so, whereas the salesperson will say, “No problem, I’m on it,” even if he hasn’t got a clue.

The minute you turn the salesperson loose, he’s going to be interacting with customers, who refuse to follow the boilerplate scenario, and throw all sorts of monkey wrenches into the conversation. They have their own desires, needs, and process for making a purchase. The salesperson will immediately run into snags as he starts trying to do something new, and will need help. He won’t necessarily ask for help – salespeople tend to think, If I just try harder, this will work. A salesperson will doggedly make 100 unsuccessful calls, thinking that the next call is going to work.

So there is hope for about a third of your plodders; Jeff and I agree on that. Improving the closing rate for the salespeople you already have on staff is one of the best ways to increase revenue. But, like anything else, it takes work. First they must be trained in the new methods, then they must be watched very, very carefully and helped immediately when they run into a snag.

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