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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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!