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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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.

Listen to your Salespeople

Ok, you run a company and you think the purpose of hiring of a salesperson is for them to go find new business and grow business with the existing customer base. This is true but you may be missing a critical part of their job that could make a huge difference in your company if you would just spend some time talking to them.

I work with numerous privately held manufacturers helping them move into new markets and find new customers. My company will do the research, the cold calling, arrange the initial meetings, and manage the entire sales process. I am constantly talking to new customers and prospects about my client’s products and services.

Seldom do I have a president of one of my clients interact with me in a way where it becomes obvious to me they are trying to learn through me why customers/prospects are behaving the way they are behaving. Seldom do I have a president interact with me in a way where it becomes obvious they are trying to learn and understand their market place. These senior managers will regularly ask me when a particular customer is going to buy or to rate my proposals for probability of a sale, however they seldom go beyond this line of questioning. They seldom seek information where it is clear to me that they are trying to deeply understand their market.

I always wonder if they are not interested in getting this market feedback, not aware of the importance of it, or simply do not think my opinion as a salesperson matters to solicit this information from me. Business owners assume that their offerings are competitive and current. This is a huge assumption and can be extremely costly if it goes unchallenged.

I know salespeople are supposed to sell and bring in new business and this is their job, however, there is an aspect of their job that continually gets ignored and missed. Good salespeople have an excellent understanding of the market and what customers and prospects want and need. These salespeople can help identify trends, opportunities, and risks. In the day to day hustle of landing new business seldom discussed is whether the company has any competitive advantage in the market place and whether the company’s products and services are meeting a real need in the marketplace.

Isn’t this knowledge important? How much easier would it be for your salespeople to sell if they understand the competitive advantage their products had in the marketplace and this competitive advantage was real? How effective and efficient could they be prospecting if they knew specifically the needs their company’s products met in the marketplace and knew the type of prospect they should be looking for?  As a salesperson, I can tell you it would make my job a tremendous amount easier.

The intimate knowledge of a market does not come quickly or overnight. It takes years to develop an excellent sense of a market. It requires a ton of work, thinking, reflection, and questioning. Management needs to develop theories and hypothesis testing their beliefs regarding their market and then determine if these are accurate.

It is not difficult to sell if this work has been done. Understanding the market and recognizing that the market is constantly changing and evolving requires senior managers to be constantly paying attention. Recognizing the value your company provides in the market place is the best insurance companies have to grow their business, maintain and grow their margins, and protect their long term business viability. Owners need to decide they want this information and be willing to confront reality. Owners need to build a culture in their organization where everyone is trying to understand the market and actively trying to identify opportunities to differentiate their company. Salespeople can provide tremendous insight in this pursuit. Ownership just needs to listen.