For many clients, May is the month when it’s time to pull up the bootstraps and really get down to business. Especially for those whose fiscal year coincides with the calendar year, the first quarter lull is now a distant memory; and believe it or not, there are only eight more productive months in which to climb the proverbial mountain and achieve your annual sales goals. Eight months can seem like a lot until you factor in the need to fill the pipeline with prospects, create a sense of urgency for them to want to move forward, and consider the length of the typical sales cycle.
In addition to May being a transitional sales month, it is also my favorite time of year simply because of the change of scenery.The springtime birds are chirping, squirrels have come out in full force and the surrounding foliage is coming into full bloom. This year in particular, April’s moist weather has created a floral masterpiece in every direction.I guess the old saying is true that, “April showers bring May flowers.”
Ironically, the sales forecast tends to follow a similar pattern, where the amount of effort you invest this month can yield an abundance of success down the road.Yet, the economy still seems to be teetering on neutral and many clients I’ve talked with in the past few weeks continue to experience anemic sales forecasts. Opportunities for some strange reason seem to be drying up rather than blossoming. This raises the question, is there anything you do to ‘make it rain’ in a way that will kick start the growth of these opportunities?
The answer is a resounding yes. But I’m afraid it’s not as simple as just making more sales calls. To truly increase production, sellers have to focus on the quality of the calls being made and their relative effectiveness as compared to everyone else who is also vying for a share of the prospect’s time and attention.
Let me plant a seed with you in this regard. Is it possible that the effectiveness of your current elevator pitch has been eroded due to an increasing number of competitive influences, all basically communicating similar messages? What about your voice-mail and email messages? Are they being deleted before the information is even being conveyed?
It’s all about ROI for the customer and ROISE (Return on Invested Sales Effort) for the salesperson. There is a lot of truth to the notion that sales is a numbers game, but one of the key factors that needs to be tracked isn’t going to conveniently show up on a report from salesforce.com. That’s because sales effectiveness has more to do with the quality of the calls being made than simply measuring quantity.
Just as one’s sales efforts in April can bring new and exciting opportunities to the forefront in the month of May, those opportunities must also be nurtured and developed to ultimately bear fruit. Meanwhile, with just under eight months remaining in the calendar year, it’s worth considering how far some of your well-targeted prospecting efforts in the month of May would go toward developing your pipeline in June, July, and so on.
That leaves the sales team with two choices. One is to continue pounding away at your respective territory in the hopes that sheer persistence will pay off. The other option would be to take a step back and re-engineer your approach to increase your sales effectiveness and ultimately raise your return on invested sales effort. Remember that success in sales is almost always based on cause and effect, or to use my analogy where ‘April showers do bring May flowers.’ Increasing your sales effectiveness is a function of “how” you initially approach your territory and “how” you choose to manage your sales opportunities moving forward. Call us today to find out how Question Based Selling can help you boost your entire sales team’s performance in the coming months so that achieving your year-end goals become a foregone conclusion.
“If you want to challenge the customer’s thinking about a product or service, you might first want to challenge your own on how it’s being positioned.” T. Freese
My first book was originally published in May of 1999, fourteen years ago this month—so this is a milestone anniversary of sorts. I have since published three additional sales books and a parenting book,along with countless articles,all of which have evolved into the Question Based Selling Methodology. Literally thousands of salespeople and hundreds of sales teams have been trained on the QBS Methodology, which continues to evolve and grow.
During this time, my first book (Secrets of Question Based Selling) has done exceedingly well, and become my publisher’s number one bestselling business book with multiple runs over the years. It also has the distinction of having outsold itself every six months for the past thirteen and a half years…and counting.
You never know until a book is actually released whether it’s going to hit the nail on the head, but my intentions with this first book were clear from the beginning. I wanted to publish a timeless work where issues like the salesperson’s need to gain credibility, pique the customer’s interest, and convey value were strategic concepts that would never go out of vogue. So, it’s no surprise to me that these concepts are just as important to the success of a salesperson now as they were when the ink was fresh in 1999.
That said, I am happy to report that I have spent the last ten months updating this book for re-release in the fall of 2013, entitled Secrets of Question Based Selling: Gold Edition. Essentially, I have taken the proven strategies of QBS and adapted the material to the current competitive environment. I have also added a new layer of anecdotes, examples and content to with that I believe pulls the QBS Methodology together into a tighter and even easier to implement package.
With a target release date of November 2013, we are hopefully on track to extend the relevance and longevity of ‘QBS’ for another 14 years. Thank you for your continued support and encouragement on this truly unique journey.More information about the book will be forthcoming as the release date nears.
Generating leads and filling the pipeline is a challenge that every salesperson faces. Soon after you close all the deals that were on your forecast, there had better be some business waiting in the wings if you want to have another successful quarter. And, if there isn’t a host of revenue automatically rolling in, then you need to find a way to regenerate your pipeline, and fast.
For years, cold-calling has been the chosen prescription offered by sales trainers and managers alike. Simply pick up the phone and start ‘smiling’ and ‘dialing’ until you find someone who might be interested in your product or service. Sales is a numbers game, a cold-calling advocate would argue, saying, “If you want to increase the size of your forecast, simply make more calls.”
While I do agree that salespeople need to initiate contact with some number of potential customers in order to create activity that will ultimately fill the forecast, I disagree completely with the notion of cold-calling.
To me, cold-calling is a huge waste of time. People hate to make cold calls and they don’t want to be on the receiving end, either. There’s a reason that most sellers have elected to be on the ‘do not call’ list—it’s so they won’t be bothered at home or during dinner by cold-callers. The net result of cold-calling is that a lot of effort gets expended, and after having incurred tremendous rejection, the sales funnel is still anemic. Anyone else ever experience these feelings of hopeless futility?
This is one of the many places where Question Based Selling diverges from traditional approaches. To me, there is a big difference between having a solid pipeline and what one could instead be characterized as a pipedream.
“But Tom, how am I supposed to fill my pipeline without making cold calls?” Ahhh, grasshopper, that’s where “Turning Cold Calls into Lukewarm Calls” (Chapter 12 of my first book, “Secrets of Question Based Selling) becomes the sharpened skill of a gifted salesperson. The technique is simply to make yourself sound more purposeful, relevant, credible, and valuable. How exactly does one do that? That depends on your situation because the context from one call to the next can be very different. But, the strategy of sounding more purposeful, relevant, credible, and more valuable remains consistent.
Let me give you some examples to solidify the point. If I came to work for your company, I might try to meet with one of your top product managers. During that meeting I would ask them, “What are five or six topics you think we should be talking with customers about?” Of course, they would gladly fill my cup with talking points, which would then allow me to easily make this call.
“Hello, Mr. Prospect, my name is Tom Freese of ABC Company and I’m on the team that works with manufacturing accounts in Southern California. I had a meeting with one of our product managers last Thursday just after lunch, and he brought up a handful of issues, two of which I thought might directly impact your manufacturing platform, one of which is time sensitive.” At this point I can either ask for a call back if I’m leaving a voice-mail or ask if I caught them at a bad time of they answered the phone live.
After a relevant and purposeful conversation with that prospect, it would be easy for me to pick up the phone and call another one saying, “I just got off the phone with one of your colleagues in another account and two issues came up that raised a flag and might also impact your business as well. Did I catch you at a bad time?”
I say, if you’re calling for no reason whatsoever, then my feeling is that you shouldn’t bother calling. But if you are calling for a purposeful, relevant, credible business reason, then you might as well make it sound like that if you want to be perceived as valuable. Of course, the more conversations you have with prospective customers, the more reasons you have to follow up with their “colleagues” in other accounts. Likewise, the more internal conversations you have with key people within your own company, the more fodder you gain for initiating contact with other potential buyers.
Put it this way, I don’t network just to meet new people. The real skill in networking is leveraging your contacts in an appropriate and purposeful way, such that the next person you contact appreciates that you thought about them and are calling to help in some way. At that point, making those initial sales calls creates more opportunity, and filling the pipeline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me say it like this. When was the last time you got “thanked” for making a prospect call?
I started writing this article on this past Sunday, just a few hours before heading off to a neighborhood Super Bowl party. This year, the featured teams were the Baltimore Ravens versus the San Francisco Forty-Niners. Of course, the question on everyone’s mind was, who’s going to win the game?
For this year’s big event, there was no clear villain or “golden boy” that defined the teams. If anything there was a virtual tie in terms of which team would most likely win the game. Couple that with the fact that the coaches for the opposing teams are not only close friends, they’re brothers. If you were the parents, which of the two would you root for? While there are always likely to be some die-hard fans cheering for one team or the other, basically it was a dead heat going into the most important game of the season—the Super Bowl.
Too often, this situation mirrors exactly what happens in sales. You get to the end of the decision cycle after a long hard-fought competitive sale, and the customer concludes that both you and your biggest competitor are indeed viable choices and either could do the job. Now your success in winning or losing the sale has almost come down to chance—a coin flip might decide it.
Me, I don’t want to have a 50/50 chance of winning. I want to know going in that I have an edge—a secret weapon or unfair advantage of some kind that would give me the nod, or influence the outcome of the sale in my favor. So let’s assume for a moment that there is no product advantage. My product and the competitor’s are both deemed to be viable options. Both companies also are considered to be financially stable with a long list of references, so there’s no advantage there either. Therefore, the difference maker that’s going to produce an unfair advantage has to come from me—essentially, the way the game gets played.
This year’s Super Bowl could have gone either way, but one thing’s for sure. At the end of the day, there can only be one champion. Similarly, the customer is going to choose one solution at the end of the sales process and someone is going to get the nod. That someone might as well be you. This is the challenge salespeople face on a daily basis. How can we gain a competitive advantage, not just from our products and company, but from the way the sales process is executed?
I sat down with a VP of Sales the other day and we talked about how sales continues to be the least taught profession in the world. Amazingly, revenue drives every company, but winning or losing a sale is often left to chance—the experience of your salesperson is pitted against the experience of your competitors. Once again, it’s a virtual coin flip. Is that the way you would choose to manage your company’s success, or your own? Most people wouldn’t.
In Question Based Selling, I teach differentiation techniques and strategies that give sellers a competitive advantage. Funny thing is, you don’t have to change someone’s personality to change the way they are being perceived. You might find some opportunities to change your approach, however.
I wrote five books explaining the QBS Methodology, so I’m not going to try and explain every possible nuance here, because I can’t. What I can do is give you a scenario where your approach matters. Frankly, the words you choose matters.
For example, I teach salespeople not to ask for “meetings.” Why not? While I do understand that the next logical step in the sales process might be to schedule a meeting or a demonstration, the word “meetings” tends to have a negative connotation. To prove it, find someone who gets called on by a lot of vendors and ask them this question: Of all the vendor “meetings” you’re been asked to participate in, what percentage of those ended up being a really good use of your time? The typical answer is usually between 5 and 10 percent.
Here’s what that really means. For the next vendor who calls, the customer (statistically) will assume there is a 90 to 95 percent chance that another vendor meeting is probably a waste of time. Not very good odds, huh? Here’s what that also means. With a 90+ percent chance that your requested meeting is going to be a waste of time, do you think they’ll invite their boss or other key people that need to be involved in the decision process? The answer is: Probably not.
Instead, next time you are trying to close a customer on an appropriate next step in the sales process, try asking this: “Mr. Customer, if (this) is what you need and (that) is what we do well, would it make sense to get the appropriate people together in front of a piece of paper in order to map out your options, impact on your business, and the associated costs?”
This question usually stops customers in their tracks. “Wait a minute,” they’ll say. “If we’re going to be mapping things out, my boss needs to be there, plus the IT people, and the CFO.” Perfect!
Net/net, who’s in control of the words you use? The answer is you are. Like the Super Bowl this year, trust me when I tell you that your success is going to be a function of your ability to create a differentiable edge in deals that would otherwise be very close. My recommendation is to use 2013 to become a student of the sale. Let me know how I can help.
-Thomas A. Freese
Companies spend millions of dollars trying to craft next generation messages to “arm” their respective sales forces with a more impactful elevator pitch. Then they hire me—and when I show up, I tell clients that starting with an elevator pitch puts the salesperson or entire sales team in an extremely weak position.
The phrase “elevator pitch” is a colloquialism that characterizes the initial statements salespeople often use to open their conversations with prospective customers. The reference comes from the visual one would get if you suddenly found yourself in an elevator with the key decision-maker at one of your important prospect accounts. As soon as the decision maker pushes the button for the 12th floor, you essentially have a small window of time in which to say something that would hopefully be impactful enough to get the prospect’s attention. This situation occurs at the beginning of every sales call as well. Knowing that prospects are quick to form impressions, salespeople feel a similar pressure to say something impactful that will grab and hold the prospect’s attention.
Starting your sales calls or presentations with a brief elevator pitch is problematic, because it is the quickest way to commoditize your value. Why? Well, let’s first ask: What issues are important to your customers? Reliability? Quality? Time to market? Cost effectiveness? Now, let’s ask: What percentage of prospects are likely to form an impression of the salesperson as they first engage? The answer is 100%. Literally everyone you talk with will start forming their impressions from the very beginning of your interactions with them. The question is, what impression(s) do you want prospects and customers to form about you?
When I respond to sales training requests, I figure that most Sales VP’s have already experienced plenty of training programs over the years—some good, and others not so much. Thus, it’s safe to assume that whatever I say about the QBS methodology will likely be compared to whatever impressions they have formed as a result of their previous sales training experiences. Knowing this, I definitely don’t want to start spewing buzzwords that will make me sound like the rest of the sales training establishment.
The standard elevator pitch for QBS might sound like this. Take a moment to digest and form your own impression.
Example of What Not to Do: Sample Elevator Pitch for Sales Training
“After 17 years in the trenches of corporate sales and management, I developed a high-end sales methodology called Question Based Selling and I now teach salespeople how to be more effective in penetrating new accounts. I help people uncover needs, increase the buyer’s sense of urgency, build internal champions, shorten the sales process, increase the size of their sales forecasts, close more deals, handle objections, increase margins, maintain market share, be proactive versus reactive …blah, …blah, …blah, …blah.”
Isn’t this what every sales trainer says about their program? It absolutely is! Everyone who offers sales training talks about pipeline generation, penetrating new accounts, handling objections, and closing sales. And you can be sure they all make similar claims of superiority that sales executives have heard many times before. Consequently, when prospects hear the same old pitch, they tend to form the impression that, “Hey, this person sounds just like everyone else.”
If the company you represent sells high value products or services, you don’t want to sound the same as everyone else. Instead, you want to differentiate your solutions, your company, and most importantly, yourself, causing prospects to form the impression that,“Hey, this person sounds very different (and potentially more valuable) than everyone else!”
Let’s me ask you, what do you suppose is more important to the typical customer when you first engage—their problems or a sales pitch? From my vantage point, it’s clear that the vast majority of customers are much more focused on their own problems, issues and concerns. Thus, it no longer makes sense for a customer-focused salesperson to open his or her presentation with a data dump of product information, rather than focusing on the customer’s problems.
Nonetheless, salespeople are quick to do exactly this, as countless training seminars and sales courses still espouse the value of sellers opening with a perfunctory elevator pitch about their products and services. I’m sure some of you might think to yourselves, “I don’t do that.” And maybe you don’t. But to prove how prevalent this elevator pitch mentality is among sellers today, try this experiment. Next time you deal with a salesperson of any kind, make it a point to ask them, “Can you tell me about your product?” Then, time them on your watch to see how long they ramble on about themselves, their products, or their company, before they realize that they have absolutely no idea what you might need, or even why you asked the question.
What’s the alternative to opening with the standard elevator pitch? Well, the answer will reveal itself if we apply some deductive reasoning. In order to even have an opportunity to provide solutions, one must first be able to identify the customer’s problem. To the extent that selling is about helping people accomplish their goals, objectives, issues, and concerns, then whatever advice and direction a salesperson ends up providing should be prescriptive in nature, as opposed to just a data dump.
Having good intentions is not the issue. Sellers who lead with their solutions do so in the hopes of engaging prospective customers in a more in-depth discussion about their needs. After all, uncovering potential problems is ultimately what creates sales opportunities. But leading with your solutions, in order to get into a discussion of the customer’s needs, follows an illogical progression. Besides the fact that an elevator pitch filled with industry buzzwords is so easily commoditized, positioning your solution first makes no sense. Prospects don’t have needs because a salesperson happens to call offering a potential solution.
To communicate the value of your product or service, you must first have something to build value against. Therefore, rather than trying to bond with potential customers on your solutions, you will create many more opportunities to provide value if you bond with them on their problems, issues, and concerns. To illustrate this point, let’s go back to my conference call with a Vice President of Sales from XYZ Company.
First, I introduce the call with something purposeful and look for the opportunity to say: “I would be happy to tell you all about Question Based Selling. Can I ask you a couple specifics about your sales team so I can give you relevant information?”
Of course, he will say, “Sure.”
Now, with one simple question, I have instantly transitioned the conversation out of “presentation mode,” and into discovery. This creates a perfect opportunity for me to ask questions that will help identify potential needs. Practicing what I preach, I usually start with a series of diagnostic questions—a QBS technique that enables sellers to establish credibility early in the dialogue.
TF: “How many people do you currently manage?”
VP: “Approximately 300.”
TF: “Does that include Systems Engineers?”
VP: “No,” he said, “we have another 65 SE’s.”
TF: “Do you currently leverage an inside sales organization?”
VP: “Actually, two,” he said. “One of our inside sales teams is in the Northeast, and the other is in Atlanta.”
TF: “Are most of your people centralized in regional sales offices or spread out in virtual offices?”
VP: “We have several regional offices, but many of our salespeople are transitioning to a virtual environment.”
Once the conversation was appropriately kicked off with a series of relevant diagnostic questions about his sales team, I switched gears with my questions to focus on needs development, in order to bond with this prospect on his specific needs. Let’s continue the dialogue.
TF: “Well, let me ask you this. Do you have salespeople out in the field trying to penetrate new accounts, making lots of sales calls and leaving lots of voice-mail messages, but not being called back?”
VP: “We absolutely do!” he said. “Penetrating accounts at a strategic level is a big challenge for us.”
TF: “Question Based Selling will solve that!” I said.
TF: “And, since we’re talking about your goals for the training, let me ask you about something else. Do you find that with newly hired salespeople, some ramp up in a very short period of time while others struggle along and sometimes never make it over the hump?”
VP: “Yes. Ramping new salespeople up is another challenge.”
TF:“QBS solves that too.”
VP: “Can you tell me how it works?” he asked.
Suddenly, the conversation we were having was very different than it would have been had I opened with the standard elevator pitch, where instead of fending off buzzwords, he is interested and inviting me to tell him or her more about my solution options.
After raising some key business challenges, you earn the right to engage decision-makers (like this VP) in a productive conversation about their needs and your solutions. Bonding with prospects on their problems is also the key to broadening the sale by creating many opportunities for you to provide value.
(Excerpt from revised edition of Secrets of Question Based Selling, Chapter 14 – Re-Engineering the Elevator Pitch)