Business has evolved. How can you change to succeed with a new approach to selling.
I recently put out a request for proposals from some vendors for a project I needed help on. I reached out to three sales people at firms we work with for responses. They’re all professionals who have decades of experience serving companies like mine. They all also have very different selling styles.
One in particular really stood out to me and made me think about how the art of selling today is really a different animal than it was even just a few short years ago.
The Traditional Sale
My call to this person started with them mentioning some personal factoid about me that they picked up on from our last interaction, and dropping some other reference to something they saw in my LinkedIn activity.
They heard what I needed done, and assured me they could absolutely take care of that, how happy they would be to do so, and then mentioned some of their experience in doing exactly what I had asked for just recently. They then asked me to help them get business somewhere else in my organization.
It was very text-book, and it felt like I was being sold. Because I was.
It reminded me of an attorney trying to sell me on his firm’s services. He caught me in the hallway of my office when he was there to see someone on my team, and literally just started story telling for thirty minutes to drop big names in the industry to show that he has worked with everyone who matters and has been a big part of so many pivotal things in the industry (several of which, he probably should not be disclosing).
Similarly, I used to work with a financial advisor who spent most of the time we spoke asking me about who I knew that might be good clients for him. We talked about my financial situation very little in any meeting. And he had all these different, creative was of asking for referrals, as if I did not know he was just trying to score other business with each of them.
He asked me things like, “Who is the luckiest person you know?” “Do you think is a real rising star that is going to do something big in their career?” “Have you been able to connect with any of your business school classmates who may have recently moved to the area?”
In all of these cases, much time was spent on not-what-I-asked-for, and also left me less enamored with their services than before the interaction.
Historically, these people have had a lot of success in selling. And yet none of them won my business (or, in the case of the financial advisor, he lost my business).
A Modern Engagement Style
By contrast, the other two firms I spoke to about my request heard my needs, shared whether it was something they could engage in or not, what their reservations or constraints might be, and reserved judgment until they could see my ask in more detail. They mentioned nothing about my home town, the recent maternity leaves on my team, or how I must be running again now that the weather had improved.
Those were less personal interactions with less of an attempt at making a connection to me as a person, but much more to the point and realistic.
These interactions reminded me of a friend who went into real estate. He’s one of the most introverted people I know, and the last person you’d ever expect in any kind of sales role. And yet he has done exceptionally well. When I asked him about it, he said he thinks one of the key reasons is that he really doesn’t like sales, and people tend to appreciate that. They feel comfortable working with him because he does not seem to be focused on his need to sell so much as their need for their next home.
Which Sales Style Hit the Mark?
When I got the proposals back, two out of three nailed what I needed on the head. One was way out in left field. Can you guess which one?
The one who followed the more traditional “this is how you sell someone on your services” playbook proposed something far beyond what I needed, both in scope and in budget. What I had actually wanted was almost a side note in the big proposal they sent that detailed all their expertise, and the structure and seniority of their team (which I would be paying for, of course).
They were also more expensive than the two providers who listened to my ask and responded to exactly that.
That is the key here–the traditional sales person was not hearingme. The price difference was not large, so it was less about being more expensive than about demonstrating how little they had actually heardwhat their customer needed. They were so caught up in the machine of selling that they totally missed what was being asked for. And they wasted a lot of their time and mine in the process.
Selling in Business Today
This is not meant to talk about any one person or company in particular, but rather the thought it left me with.
This person was not wrong in their approach. At least not for how these things have tended to work in the past. I have no doubt they have had a lot of success throughout their career, and I have seen firsthand that they really knows their stuff.
But times have changed, and so has the definition of being good at sales.
People are so busy, business is so focused on being lean, and the pressure for results means there is no room for fluff. And yet the traditional sales style is the antithesis of this. It is about slowing down, schmoozing, kibitzing, and other Yiddish words people mispronounce.
What can you do if you are a traditionally-trained sales person?
You have to learn how to stop selling, which is a verb about pushing your wares. Instead, you have to solve.
A solution-focused approach isn’t worried about trying to build a personal connection artificially in the hope that the prospect feels like they have to give you the business.
Instead, it is about being inthe problem with your client. Be direct, honest and clear. Help where you can and admit where you cannot.
My day, like that of most decision-makers, is basically back-to-back meetings. If reaching out to you about an opportunity will mean at least a 30-minute call to go through your sales talk only to get a proposal that does not really address my needs without a follow-up call to redirect, I will not call you in the first place. Instead, I will make a two-minute call to a competitor to get a proposal back that speaks to my needs.
Sure, it is less personal. Something is lost in business interactions as we push harder down this path. And yet that does not mean it is worse. It can be far more productive and will mean you not only increase your chance of winning the business, but free up more time to win more.
Call it efficient selling rather than traditional selling.
You can make the change. You have to be willing to let go of what you learned about selling in the past and embrace the way business works today. Your clients will appreciate you more for it.