Posted 17th March 2011.
An email I got last week from a fellow consultant made me think about how the way I sell has changed in some important ways over the last few years. I thought you might be interested and it might help you make some changes in the way you sell too.
What's triggered the change is a difference in clients.
What I'm finding is that more and more, clients approach me having done a much more thorough exploration of their problems and opportunities than before. And often they have a solution in mind already, even before they've spoken to me.
Perhaps you've found this with your clients too?
In the “good old days”, I found clients were aware of the symptoms they were seeing in their business. But they usually didn't have the knowledge or experience to know why they were happening, what the true depth of impact was, and what the solution might be.
So my sales process focused on diagnosing their problem, exploring the true impact, and suggesting some potential solutions. Basic consultative selling really.
This process did three critical things. Firstly it established what the real issue was so that I was proposing the right solution. Secondly, by exploring the true impact, we could see whether the problem was worth solving (and if it was, it motivated the client to hire me to solve it).
Thirdly, behind the scenes, it established me as an expert.
Because I was able to diagnose their problems – show them what the real issue and the true impact was when they had been looking primarily at the symptoms – it gave me credibility. It gave clients the confidence that I'd be able to solve those problems because I'd understood what they were when they hadn't.
But fast-forward to today and it's a different scenario.
Now they've done their research online. (I knew nothing good would come of that darned interweb thing).
And if they're coming to you believing they've already diagnosed their problems and have the solution then your relationship is very different.
You're no longer a trusted partner and advisor guiding them through the problem-solving process. You're a vendor they're telling what they want.
If all you can do in response to what they're asking for is to nod and say “yes, we can do that” then where's your value added?
In particular, you're not filling the client with confidence in your expertise. Worse still, you're not providing any differentiation from all the other vendors he's been to see who say “yes, we can do that”.
How's he going to choose if all you vendors look the same?
So, how do we get out of this “vendor trap”?
Well, one great way is if they've educated themselves on your website and they see you as the leader in the field and the only one they want to work with. That's what I'm aiming for with my marketing and it's something I encourage you to aim for too.
But in many cases (even with all the effort I put into the web) that won't be the case. They'll have educated themselves via other sources. Maybe good ones, maybe bad ones. But either way they're coming with much more information about their issues already.
How do we handle that in a sales meeting?
Well, the good news is that you're still the real expert.
A few hours of research on the web may point them in the right direction – but it doesn't give them the depth of experience and knowledge that you have.
You just have to get that across to them.
Now telling them you're an expert isn't going to cut it. You know that.
Even testimonials, awards and all those articles you've had published in prestigious magazines don't cut it.
What works best is creating what I call “lightbulb” moments.
These are where, in your discussion with your potential clients, lightbulbs suddenly go off in their heads. Something you say helps them see things differently.
They get deeper insight into their problem. They suddenly see a much better solution. They realise they're looking at the wrong issue.
Anything that makes them take a mental step back.
And most importantly – anything that makes them realise there's a bit more to this that they first thought. And that you really know what you're talking about. And that you're different from those other guys who just nodded and said “yes, we can do that”.
So how do you get those wonderful lightbulb moments?
Well, you could do it by being a genius. By being so smart that on-the-fly you can spot new issues, ideas and insights that trigger the lightbulb moments for your clients. Personally, I don't rely on this method.
I use an approach I learned from the rather excellent book Escaping the Price Driven Sale
In essence, what you do is a mini audit of your services and the projects and other work you do for clients.
Normally what you'd do in these audits is think through what problems each service solves for your clients. The typical benefits they deliver and what they could be worth to your clients.
Here you go a bit further. You look for surprises. For each service you've delivered you look for what was new, insightful, unusual and surprising to the client you were working for. Try to find the things that are often “news”. The things that most clients didn't realise before they started working with you.
Let's say you're a supply chain consultant and you find that clients are often surprised that on inventory reduction projects, you usually get better results not by improving forecast accuracy, but by improving production flexibility. (I just made that up by the way – please don't email me if you're a supply chain expert and I'm talking nonsense).
Or you do sales training and you find that most sales training initiatives fail not because of the training itself – but because it's not followed up and reinforced by coaching and mentoring afterwards.
In fact, lightbulb moments related to implementation and making stuff work in practice are often the very best – because they show you don't just know the theory – you're really been there and done it.
Turn your most common examples into questions you can ask, and gentle responses you can give.
“Where do you believe most of the cost reductions are going to come from?”.
“Hmmmm. You know, with most of the clients I've worked with, they've found that in practice, …”
You mustn't upstage your client and make them look like an idiot. What you want to do is ask enough insightful questions that they come across the answers themselves – or at least begin to see a glimmer of them. Then you build on that and share some of your experience. They'll take much more ownership of ideas you seeded that they got to themselves (and they'll give you credit for them too).
I can't promise this will work every time. Sometimes the client really has come up with the right answer themselves already. Or they've got their mind set and they just don't want to listen. That's just the nature of the game these days.
But very often using this technique will help you change the game so that you're not just a vendor saying “yes, we can do that”. You're an insightful trusted partner that they'll want to do business with.