It's popular to describe pretty much every business function as "strategic." The classic strategic weapon in business is mergers and acquisitions, while various business pundits claim strategic weapon status for long-range planning, business intelligence, quality, design, operational excellence, and even less obvious candidates such as creative thinking and warehouse management.
One glaring exception to this list is sales. The reason is obvious: Sales is seen as a commodity.
Sales is the process of identifying leads, qualifying them into pipeline opportunities, and nurturing them down the sales funnel until some turn into closed deals. But what about selling? The many conversations between prospect and salesperson needed to build enough trust and share sufficient information that both parties conclude that the situation calls for a transaction as a necessary step to a solution.
I agree that sales is not strategic. No matter how structured your sales process, how sophisticated your CRM system, or how talented your sales team, your competitor can buy the equivalent. But selling is another matter. What happens in the conversations between your sales reps and your prospective customers belongs to your company and no one else; powerful intellectual property that can’t be bought or replicated by competitors.
A focused program of conducting selling conversations, with the right people, at pace and scale, can reliably deliver a level of visibility and control over the competitive landscape that goes beyond any other business tool, making selling the ultimate strategic weapon.
How can you leverage selling conversations to change the game?
- Avoid competition. The best competitive strategy is to win without fighting. Be the first to have a real conversation with the actual buyer, the human being whose personal interest must be understood and accommodated before a sale can be made.
- Identify and characterize your buyer. The only reliable way to learn who you should really be having conversations with is to have more conversations with the "right" people and the "wrong" people until you learn something your competitors don’t: the characteristics of ideal buyers and how your offerings can actually address their problems.
- Win with speed and agility. Speed kills your competitors. How long does it take after someone fills out a form on your website before they have a real conversation with someone on your sales team?
- Business intelligence of the human kind. If you want to know what’s going on, you need to listen. More selling conversations means more listening, which means more reliable facts to inform your strategy. Don’t just depend on hearsay. Personally listen in on lots of selling conversations to obtain firsthand information on how prospects are responding to your sales message. Sales numbers are a trailing indicator of how you are progressing in the marketplace. Selling conversations are at the leading edge of your business and will tell you more than expensive research or gazing at past performance numbers.
- Really know your customers. Instead of relying on numbers and surveys for your understanding of whether your customers are planning on doing more business with you or looking for the door, you need to ambush them kindly with conversations. By building your future business where your competitors have no business, you can easily secure your strategic territory and use your position to launch new offensives.
- Really know your competitors’ customers. It may feel like a waste of time to talk to someone who has gone with another solution, but it often isn’t. The fact that they bought a solution at all means their need is great enough to drive real action. The fact that the solution came from the other guys says that you have something to learn. Why not learn it directly from the source? You don’t need to change their mind to have a sincere selling conversation, just call to see if they will talk about how it’s going and what problems remain to be solved. You may end up knowing more about the buyer and his needs than your competitor does, and knowing more than your competitor is a solid foundation for your next strategic move.
What can you do with this insight?
- Have more conversations. Lots more. This isn’t easy to do if you keep making calls the way they did in 1978, given that it takes some 22 dialing attempts these days to reach one strategic target. New technologies and disciplines address this challenge. Buy them. Use them. Don’t get left behind.
- Make sure your best salespeople are having the most, and most important, conversations.
- Listen, personally, to as many conversations as you can.
- Maintain high-quality lists of the people important to your business and make sure selling conversations are happening as often as they must to get strategic outcomes. Follow up religiously.
Business, and particularly sales, is war. You can certainly decide to stick to conventional weapons, but hoping that your enemies play by your rules is rarely a winning strategy.
Shawn McLaren is Chairman and CEO of ConnectAndSell.
[Image: Flickr user Nuno Miguel Correia]