One of the most enjoyable parts of my practice is working with folks in a coaching capacity, and this includes everybody from the CEO to the frontline salesperson. I love coaching them both on the sales process as well as on specific opportunities and how to move them forward, and I have been working with one individual lately who has almost no sales experience but who does have a lot of industry and domain experience. The company this person works for actually brought me on specifically to help him get up to speed and work from a standardized process. As we’ve gone through sales process steps from prospecting qualification and discovery, I have found that, like a lot of experienced salespeople, he has a natural predisposition to quickly get to the part where he wants to talk about what he can do for prospects and how his stuff works.
As I talked about in a previous post, this tendency to rush past the problem and start talking about our solutions is not only very natural for selling organizations, it’s also natural for the buyers. Part of the problem in delivering the value of solution selling is that our buyers pull us into a solution conversation just as much as we push into one. As I tried to figure out different ways to explain this, the sales process steps we need to follow, and the reason that the process is important, I’ve happened upon a couple of things that I think helped make this clear so I wanted to share those with you.
Fundamentally I think about selling as prospecting qualification, wherein discovery should be the biggest part of the sales process steps and where the most effort should be focused. Once a problem or opportunity has been identified in discovery, we naturally move into the mode of solution presentation by telling what we can do, how it would work, how much it would cost, etc. After solution presentation is what is logically known as the decision process, which is when the prospect is makes a decision, be it yes, no, maybe, wait, look at other options, etc.
In coaching, I find the following situation all too frequently. While in the discovery process, the salesperson will indicate that their next interaction with the prospect is coming up. So, we’ll talk about the agenda for that meeting, and inevitably I hear them say things like, “They are really excited to hear about how our software works and what it can do,” which to me instantly flags solution presentation, selling words. It’s a situation where we start to tell them what we can do, which is most definitely selling, so a lot of times I pull them back in the discovery process before they start presenting a solution. Oftentimes this even involves resetting expectations with the prospect. So, for example, they might have a meeting set up, for which the agenda is very clearly centered around presenting a solution or demo. It’s a week out, so we basically have to backpedal by sending the prospect an email to reframe expectations and adjust the agenda by letting the prospect know that we’re moving a little too fast and that we’d like to ask a few more questions.
The gentleman I am currently coaching was really wrestling with how to keep from speeding through these sales process steps by jumping into solution selling and how to reframe expectations. So I told him that he had to understand a couple of things about discovery, solution presentation and decision. One is that it’s a linear process; it happens in a specific order. Think of each of those stages as a gate that you go through, and understand that when you walk through one gate into the next stage, it’s very hard to go back to perform activities and have the kind of dialogue you had in the previous gate. When we’re in discovery and we’re asking questions to better understand our prospect’s environment and how we can help, it’s very logical and makes a lot of sense to the prospect that we would be having those conversations. However, when we move into solution presentation, it’s very difficult to go back and retrace our steps to return to discovery. The prospect is in learning and understanding mode at this point and wants to talk about our stuff, so there’s a natural resistance. Plus, there is a certain momentum at this point. Both parties are excited, and let’s face it, talking about a solution is very engaging and rewarding. The fun leads us to believe that we’re moving towards real revenue, so there’s almost a Pavlovian reaction to talking about and presenting solutions.
The other thing you have to understand is that once we get into solution presentation, the prospect begins to move into decision mode, which is a normal function of how the mind works. As soon as we’re presented with information that represents a choice, our brain naturally moves into filtering and decision-making mode. The first problem is they are moving into decision mode without having gone through the exercise of fully understanding their own situation, not to mention the fact that we don’t have all the evidence and information about their situation that we might need to close the deal. The other problem is that once a prospect moves into decision mode, if a salesperson starts to ask discovery questions that are obviously pertinent to the opportunity, there’s the high likelihood that the prospect is going to perceive that those questions are being asked to persuade or to convince. They are no longer perceived as discovery questions, rather they are perceived as the leading questions and thus the prospect resists. Imagine a situation where a salesperson has done only a little bit of discovery and has started a persuasion presentation. However, when the prospect starts to push back on cost, the salesperson thinks to finally ask about ROI and current expenses. Well, that’s an absolute trigger for the prospect that the salesperson is trying to get information to get him/her to make a decision the salesperson wants, and every prospect is going to naturally resist that.
In summary, think about these sales process steps as very distinct gates to walk through, and know that once you pass through each of those gates, it’s very difficult to go back and recapture or recover information that you didn’t get the first time through discovery. Do your best to stay in discovery mode as long as possible even when the client pulls into a solution conversation and even when you’re getting excited and finding yourself driving toward that solution conversation. Your solution will be much more relevant to the prospects’ needs, and you’ll be talking through it from a level ground with a mutual understanding rather than coming across as a pushy salesperson that the prospect will only want to get rid of.
By Townsend Wardlaw