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Embracing Conflict is a Natural Part of Sales – Part 3

This is my 3rd blog about embracing conflict and I think there are a few more to write. I could probably blog about this topic for the next month. The willingness to ask questions and to artfully challenge or question preconceived notions is critical for your success in sales or executive management.

Just recently I was in a meeting with a prospective customer for my company. We were meeting with the president and the VP of Sales. One of my sales guys had arranged the meeting on a cold-call so the two we were meeting with did not know much about us.  We help companies grow by bringing in new customers so if you are the sales manager for a prospective customer you may not be enthralled with meeting with us. A sales manager can and many times does see us as a threat or an admission that he/she is not doing a good job, however, this is many times not the case. There are many reasons a company may not be growing and attracting new customers and in many instances, it is inaccurate to simply blame the salespeople.

In this particular meeting, the VP of Sales was clearly unenthusiastic about our visit. After the meeting had lasted about 30 minutes and we had a pretty good understanding of their situation, I said to the VP, “Obviously you are skeptical?” I then finished my sentence and turned to him to allow him to respond. His body language and the way he participated in the meeting was shouting out that he resented being in this meeting with us. He responded saying, “I am not skeptical” and then he said a few more things and realized that he was not being honest and admitted that he was very skeptical.

There you have it, the importance of embracing conflict and dealing with the obvious. When I spoke directly to the situation I gave him the opportunity to verbalize the information that he was feeling. He commented on a few concerns, which frankly many of which I had heard before. I did not address his concerns at this point in the sales cycle. It would not have made a difference. The important thing was to get him to put those concerns on the table. By doing this we established a precedent:  we will address the obvious and we are not afraid of bad news. 

The significance of doing this cannot be overstated. Success in sales is dependent on gaining trust. In this simple act, we sent a message that we understand that discussing significant organizational challenges starts with a willingness to deal with the obvious. Break through success does not happen by avoiding conflict but by embracing it.

Now, I have no idea whether this prospect will turn into a customer. We are just beginning so time will tell. I can say with certainty though, we made an impression and our chances of doing business with them are significantly higher because of how we handled ourselves in this first meeting.

Embracing Conflict is a Natural Part of Sales – Part 2

I was on a teleconference yesterday talking with the COO of a $90 million dollar company.  This particular company buys an amount equal to the total sales of my client.  Landing this customer would be a huge win for us.  We have been chasing this company for numerous years and have met with them a handful of times.  We have quoted doing 3-4 of their projects.

We talked for about 15 minutes and the COO was clarifying some of the details about the quote.  The conversation was part negotiation and part him expressing his company’s position.  As the conversation was winding to a close, I asked him if he had any more questions.  He said that he didn’t and then I asked him,

“Are you going to give us this business?”

The purpose of our efforts over the last 5 years culminated in this question.  The moment of truth arrived.  My client and I sat quietly waiting for his response.

I was absolutely interested in his answer and was hoping for a resounding “yes” but I also asked the question for other reasons.  Whenever we begin establishing a relationship with a new prospect, we are committed to laying a foundation where our customers/prospects can be honest with us and tell us their unvarnished opinion.  I would rather have concerns or critical feedback communicated directly to me rather than left unsaid.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…..

I was asking for the order but more importantly, I was opening us up to hear information we may not want to hear.  When I say to other salespeople that they have to embrace conflict or embrace bad news, this is the point. Have the courage to ask tough questions.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…..

When people feel like they can answer your questions honestly and openly they start to trust you.

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock…..

I am not going to tell you how he responded; this would obscure my point.  The point is to ask clarifying questions throughout the sales process – not just when you are asking for the business.  Send the message to your prospective customers that they can say what they need to say regardless of whether this is good for you or not.  Be willing to hear bad news and embrace disagreements. Professional sales is the byproduct of strong relationships.  Strong relationships happen when people feel like they can say what they need to say.

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Embracing Conflict is a Natural Part of Sales – Part 1

Twenty- five years ago I was going door to door working for a consumer protection organization in Boston. Every day we would meet about 3 pm go over a little training and then walk the neighborhoods in and around Boston from 5-9pm. In my time there, I met a fellow who was a master canvasser which in the non-profit world basically means a master door to door fundraiser. He was an ex-Harvard Law grad who had found his niche in the non-profit world of canvassing. It was not uncommon for him to come back to our office with $300 or $400. Though the amount may seem small, this was not easy.

From the savant canvasser I learned the art of persuasively communicating enough information in a couple of minutes that resulted in people reaching for their checkbook. He would tell me that you do not want to be so overly friendly at the door that you forget why you’re there. He would emphasize and share, “You are not their friend, a little tension is ok, sometimes this is what it takes for them to make a decision.” Now over two decades later, I deeply understand his teaching that tension and even conflict are normal and a natural part of selling.

Today, the salespeople I work with and coach struggle immensely with this concept. Many feel the need to go overboard ingratiating themselves to the customer.  It’s unnecessary if they are clear about the value their solution will provide and willing to ask tough questions.  In these moments, people reveal critical information that helps sales professionals understand their customer’s situation and how their organization operates.

Gathering this type of information gives the salesperson an incredible advantage over competitors who choose to avoid these questions.  In fact, great salespeople look for these moments and embrace them. They welcome deep significant conversations which reveal the true reality of their prospect’s situation.  This enables them to offer solutions that take into account the customer’s real problems.

Being liked is not the secret ingredient that produces sales. The secret recipe of my success is asking tough and probing questions, a willingness to embrace tension and conflict and solving real problems for my customers.

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Persistence

paris

I am sitting in a meeting this week with a large French Aerospace company right outside of Paris, (note to self; this is a pretty sweet sentence, I am sitting in a meeting right outside of Paris; How could you not love this job?)

My meeting was with one of the VP’s of this company who has been in his position for just the last year.  We exchange pleasentries for a few minutes.  He then asks me about my flights and we discuss rain in Paris.  He then smiles and says to me, “You are very persistent – very persistent – my assistant thinks we should hire you.”  I smile at his comments and nod my head and respond, “You probaby should” and we both laugh.”  I continue, “I am being persistent because it appears to us that you may have a problem.  When you are ready, we would like to solve this problem for you.”  He nods his head smiling and says “Yes we do have a problem and I do think you can help us.”

Persistence is useless unless you know what you are being persistent about.  After I qualifiy a prospect and know they have great potential for my client I am persistent regarding two things: 1) Finding a problem, and 2) Finding the right person who is going to want the problem solved.  I am never persistent trying to close a sale.  If you find a significant problem and then you find the person who has the authority, the responsibility, and will actually benefit from solving the problem, you are well on your way to a sale.

In this particular instance, we have been calling on this company for four years.  They are the biggest company in their industry.  Their business over a period of time could be worth millions to my small business client.  Although the sale is not complete, our sales effort is an excellent example of how we sell.

  1. We qualify the prospect making sure that if we do become a new vendor, they have enough work to do that it is worth the time and effort to win their business.
  2. After we have qualified them, then we learn the business well enough to identify a problem.   This takes time, knowledge of the business, and creativity.  In order to identify a problem you have to understand your product and services and you have to understand the company you are calling on.  You have got to get exposure inside the company so you can understand the company.  Eventually if you are working and paying attention, you will find a problem.
  3. Find the right person who will benefit from solving the problem and then hound (persist) until they will meet with you.

These are the steps.  If you work them, you will have conversations like the conversation described above.

Denis, the guy I met with said, “You are very persistent” and “You are right, I do have a problem.”  These are the words and phrases that tell me we did an excellent sales job.  We worked the process.  Sales is not black magic.  It is not difficult to understand.  It is just a process that has to be intelligently worked over and over and over again.

The Consequences of Unaware Leadership

The above title for this blog is a bit of a mouthful so you may want to read it a few times; the consequences of unaware leadership.

Another way to say this is the consequences of a leader’s actions/words work many times against them and they have no idea.

So here is the point:   Employees are a helluva lot more interested in pleasing their boss than they are the customer.

Are you surprised? Don’t think it is true? I bet you lunch for a year in many of the organizations I walk into I can find examples of this happening. The needs of the boss become more important than serving the needs of the customer. I scratch my head every time I see this and when it affects the work that we do, I want to scream.

You see, I am like everyone else. I like to be respected and appreciated. I appreciate having my instructions followed and to be listened to.  I like to think I am a pretty good manager and leader,  however, when team members become more concerned about keeping me happy at the expense of satisfying the customer, we are heading towards a nightmare.

In one of our clients a few years ago, the president of the company prided himself on running a very lean management team. When his department heads periodically had too much work, they would not bring this to his attention and just soldier through it. Their response to customers would lag, and they would not respond when promised and the customers would be annoyed.  Not enough to leave or complain just enough to be annoyed and put out. Just enough of an aggravation that they start taking our competitor’s calls. In another example, one of our clients lost one of the biggest customers we had ever landed. This one cost our customer tens of millions of dollars in sales. The person managing our new customer was extremely deferential to his boss and would go out of his way to shielded him from bad news. If his boss was upset with a customer, he would try to solve the problem only taking the company’s perspective and ignoring the customer’s interest. He avoided problems and did not address them when they were laid right in front of him.  It did not take long for the new customer to dismiss us.

In both of these examples, the boss never had an idea that their management wasn’t working. Not once did it dawn on the boss that their management style may have had something to do with these problems.

Our management style and approach has positive and possibly negative affect being unaware of the consequences of your leadership is a recipe to continue to have the same problem.

Earning the Conversation

One of the skills of the best salesperson is getting people to talk to you. I have no right to expect, busy business leaders to speak to me. Decision makers in busy organizations who are being approached by numerous salespeople do not have the time to talk with everyone who calls. Those who receive a lot of calls become very selective about whom they speak with and what they reveal. This is a common characteristic of buyers and executives in busy companies in competitive industries.

When one of my salespeople is having a hard time getting a hold of someone, I ask them, “how are you earning the conversation?”

  • How are you distinguishing yourself to the buyer?
  • Are you using all methods of communication; phone, emails, and regular mail?
  • Are you calling at different times?
  • Do you have a relevant and pertinent message for this person?
  • Are you embracing the challenge of getting ahold of someone?

In one of our recent projects, we sent out 30 toy trucks to buyers that we had been chasing for months and in some cases for years. Our client was a last-mile delivery trucking company and we were calling on some of the biggest retailers in the country. The logistics folks for these companies are involved in deciding on millions of dollars of business over many years. Literally, one contract can be worth tens of millions of dollars. These folks can be extremely difficult to reach and even when we did happen to reach them, many were quick to dismiss us.

The trucks were white, about six inches long by two inches high. They looked like a typical delivery truck and made a nice toy for a logistics professional to place on their shelf or bring home to their child. We placed our client’s logo and name on both side panels of the truck and included a letter tucked into the back of the truck that stated, “We will load out your Last-Mile, White-Glove delivery problems.”  We also included a handwritten note that was tailored to each person.

The first week after we sent the trucks we earned our first meeting with a prospect we had been chasing for over a year. The next week we arranged two more meetings and the following week we earned yet another with a very high-value prospect. Each time we talked with these buyers, they mentioned the trucks. In fact, one actually called us to set a meeting.

This strategy worked because over a period of time we had been very consistent being persistent. The buyers knew who we were and why we were trying to reach them. The trucks broke through the busyness of their day and made an impression. We were communicating, “Hey blow us off, ignore us, don’t return our phone calls but we are going to still keep coming.”  In effect, what we were saying is we are willing to earn the conversation which we did.

Professional selling at its’ best.

It is the process, Dude!

 

I was just involved with one of my long term clients bidding on a huge annual contract from one of our relatively new customers.  We lost.  It was a huge disappointment
and one we were expecting to land.  This customer has enormous potential for us.  They annually outsource corporate wide ten times our total sales volume, (10 times our annual sales volume).  We presently have less than 1% of their annual spend, (less than 1% of their spend).  Pretty good customer/prospect, huh?

Obviously, we were upset when we lost this sale.  My client’s business is a little slow and they, like me, believed we were going to be awarded this business.  The customer gave us every indication that they were going to award us this business so when the thing turned we were a bit blind-sided.  This was the first big transaction we had bid on that was hotly contested and had a high profile.  We have primarily picked up small pieces of their business here and there and this package would have increased our business by three times.  We were competing wih one of their top vendors.  We lost the deal for a couple of reasons, neither of which is terribly important in this blog.

One of the things that is important though is after we learned that we had lost, we spent an hour over 2-3 conversations talking with the buyers understanding why they had made
this decision.  We asked them numerous questions about the selection process and checked to make sure they actually followed the process as it was explained to us initially.

We inquired into the role the bosses at corporate headquarters played.  We clarified certain terms.  We were told in the beginning by the plant buyers that all vendors would get one opportunity to come in at their best price, however, a few weeks before the decision was made the Supply Chain Manager at Corporate told us the incumbent vendor would get a final look to meet the lowest price.  We learned whether this had actually happened.

Because of this follow up and the actual experience of the competition, we now have a better understanding of their selection process and how the company, and the people involved make decisions!  When we are successful and we do not understand the process it is for the most part luck.  It is like a baseball team who does not understand the rules and still wins the game.

When selling to a big corporation, usually they will explain to you the selection process, who will be involved in the decision, and the selection criteria.  Any decent salesperson will spend a significant amount of time understanding this process.
You cannot win unless you understand the rules.  You cannot direct your organization’s resources nor develop strategy, if you do not understand how the process will work and what the customer is trying to accomplish.

Even after the customer explains the process, it does not mean that they will follow it. Some unknown criteria or person might influence this process.  Even when people have the best intentions, the buyers and supply chain folks have their own interpretations and each decision has its own twists and turns.

In this particular transaction we lost, however, our customer saved hundereds of thousands of dollars because through the process they were able to get two qualified vendors to compete for their business.  It was a huge win for them.  Because of this I am sure that they will be back quoting some of their other business.

This next time though, we will understand the rules much better and may even be able to negotiate how the process will work.  Knowledge is power.  Understanding what is important to your prospects and how they go about pursuing these objectives is an incredible competitive advantage.

When we win these next deals and triple or quadruple our business it will not be luck or being at the right place at the right time.  It will be because we understand the process, and have managed the process to give ourselves the best chance at winning.  The primary reason we will have this success is because we paid attention in the first go around.

You see, when I say it is the process, dude, I mean it is the process dude!