Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: How Complex Selling Really Works

I Found A Secret Weapon – Darrel Sharp, CEO, GoTeam Unlimited

It’s moving like a freight train.” That was Stan Hall’s first laughing response when I asked what he knew about the deal our people are working on with his man Victor Herstad.

In part, Stan was flexing a little muscle, letting me know that he wasn’t going to be run over, and he could derail us if he chose. But there was more admiration in his voice than warning. He was impressed.

I know just what you mean, my friend, I thought. That’s what Commitment Objectives bring to the table. You’d be amazed how many of our deals gain momentum like this since we adopted Action Selling ®.

The Commitment Objective concept was the first thing that really leaped out at me when I happened to pick up the book, “Action Selling ®: How to Sell Like a Professional Even If You Think You are One.” That was almost two years ago now. It was the first step on a journey that has completely transformed our business.

‘Action Selling ® insists that you always have a Commitment Objective for sales calls.’

Action Selling ® insists that you always must have a Commitment Objective for sales calls. This is a predetermined goal to gain the customer’s agreement to take the next logical step that will move the sales process forward: Gain Nancy Winslow’s agreement to bring Victor into the process. Gain Victor’s agreement for a working proposal meeting. The ball never stops rolling. The momentum never stops building.

My phone call to Stan had a Commitment Objective: to gain his agreement that he and I would talk again after GoTeam’s proposal was presented. I had additional goals, of course. During the call I wanted to reassure him that GoTeam was the right choice and that I, as CEO, would make it my personal business to see that our solution meets all of Amstand’s needs. I described Ron and Carrie as my best people and pointed out that his team, Victor and Nancy, has forged a great relationship with my team. But above all, I succeeded in gaining Stan’s commitment to take that next step.

‘Commitment Objective forces our salespeople to identify what that next step should be and then ask the customer to take it.’

There always must be a next step. Always. No matter how complex the sale, or how winding the path to reach the moment when the ultimate authority makes a final buying decision, having a Commitment Objective for every call forces our salespeople (and me) to identify what that next step should be and then ask the customer to take it. Our rule: “No Commitment Objective, no sales call.”

When I first encountered the concept, I thought of Woody Allen’s line in “Annie Hall” about how a relationship is like a shark: It has to keep moving forward or it dies. Then and there the idea struck me that if GoTeam institutionalized Commitment Objective as a requirement for every salesperson on every call, we would have a built-in mechanism to ensure that our client relationships kept moving forward.

I still picture a shark, but if the momentum made Stan think of a freight train, that was fine. His metaphor actually may be better because it suggests a machine with a lot of moving parts. It isn’t the Commitment Objective concept alone that moves our deals ahead but the fact that it is built into a systematic process. The elements in that process work together to make it far more likely that customers will, in fact, agree to take that next step.

‘A customer who has been expertly questioned has every reason to believe that the salesperson
cares about him.’

Action Selling ®’s emphasis on questioning skills is key. Great questions do a lot for a sale, but above all they build trust. No matter how good the pitch, a customer who has been pitched has no reason to trust a salesperson enough to keep on taking those steps. But a customer who has been expertly questioned—and listened to, and understood—has every reason to believe that the salesperson cares about him and his real needs. Of course a customer will walk hand in hand toward a solution with a partner who has earned his trust and obviously is dedicated to finding the best solution. I would. So would you.

In an average one-hour sales call, our top reps now spend about 50 minutes in what Action Selling ® calls Acts 2, 3, and 4: building personal rapport, asking the best questions, and checking their understanding of the customer’s needs until they’re sure they’ve reached agreement on what those needs are. That’s where the real selling takes place. Our people spend maybe 10 minutes of that hour “selling” GoTeam and its products.

That is a 180-degree reversal of the way most salespeople handle a sales call. It’s a complete reversal of the way our own sales reps used to operate.

It was a great day for GoTeam when I found that book. I’m glad I didn’t have to push and prod Ron Jensen to turn Action Selling ® into our standard business process. He came up through the sales ranks, like I did. He’d seen a lot of training programs, like I had. Once he got a look at Action Selling ®, he ran with it. All I had to do was let everyone know I was onboard with the idea, then stay out of Ron’s way.

I’m happy I was able to help him out with the Amstand account by uncovering Stan Hall’s problem with organic growth. I knew that something was peculiar as soon as Ron told me what Carrie Overton had learned on her initial call. Stan isn’t the kind of CEO who hands out VP titles like Halloween candy. Why would he suddenly create a position for a new “vice president of business development” whose sole job actually was to shake up the sales organization?

I called my stockbroker and asked for some research on Amstand. One of the things he sent back was a link to an audio recording of the company’s last quarterly investors’ meeting. It was in the Investor Relations section of Amstand’s web site. I listened to Stan Hall reiterate his commitment to a value-added sales strategy and vow to instill it in the new division created by Amstand’s latest acquisition.

I began to sift though the financial reports that were distributed at the meeting. Sure enough, hiding in plain sight on a PowerPoint slide, there was the smoking gun: Take away the acquisition, and Amstand’s real growth rate was pathetic compared with its industry’s average. Stan’s sales strategy wasn’t working. Hence, Victor Herstad’s new job.

‘When an account is a public company, sniff around in the Investor Relations section of its web site.’

When I laid it out for Ron and Carrie, he understood the implications immediately. She got the gist but tried unsuccessfully to hide her confusion about what, exactly, the numbers meant. I stressed to both of them that when an account is a public company, it is always worthwhile to sniff around in the Investor Relations section of its web site. You won’t often find something as dramatic as I did in this case, but you will always learn things that point toward avenues to explore when you prepare questions for a sales call.

I’m afraid that advice won’t be much use to Carrie unless we educate her somehow on the workings of corporate finance. Maybe we should do that with our other salespeople, too. Invest in a course on “business literacy”? It’s something to think about.

As for Ron, I believe he was disappointed with himself that he hadn’t beaten me to it. Next time, he might. I have more grounding in finance than he does, but he is perfectly capable of extracting meaning from a company’s numbers.

If I’m better than Ron at this kind of investigation, I suppose the reason is that he went straight into sales on purpose while I got there by accident. I graduated with a business degree. I actually thought I’d be hired as an executive right out of college. I took my first sales job as a fallback option, feeling unappreciated by dimwitted executive recruiters. But the experience transformed me. I found I was good at sales, and I loved the excitement of winning business. I never looked back. Eventually I became a sales manager, then came to GoTeam as VP-sales, then president, and finally CEO.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of sales books I’ve read or seminars I’ve attended over the years. My first two employers put their salespeople though so many flavor-of-the-month programs that nobody knew what the heck to do from one day to the next. I picked up some helpful ideas here and there, but finally I came around to the point of view that great salespeople are probably born, not made. I quit expecting to find a systematic program that relied on learnable skills to drive the entire sales process in a predictable direction.

So Action Selling ® came as a wonderful surprise. It relies entirely on skills and techniques that really can be taught, from “relationship skills,” to questioning, to handling objections and gaining commitment. So far, the only people I have found who can’t learn the system are a few veteran pitchmen whose bad habits are too deeply ingrained to unlearn.

‘The system has formalized our call-planning process…It has formalized our sales management process.’

The system has formalized our call-planning process so that we pay far more attention to developing the best questions to ask. It has formalized our sales management process by pushing us to think in terms of specific milestones for every account. Our salespeople always know where they are with a client and where they’re headed, just as Ron and Carrie know that tomorrow’s milestone is a working proposal meeting with the Amstand people, and that it has a high probability of success. That makes revenue forecasting a whole lot easier.

We even speak a new language at GoTeam. Business jargon has a bad reputation, deservedly, because it so often disguises meaning instead of clarifying it. But good professional jargon is a form of shorthand that allows insiders to communicate complex information quickly and precisely. Two auto mechanics can have a more productive conversation about a “Ujoint” than about “that half-circle doohickey underneath the car.”

‘A precise vocabulary makes everything about the sales process far easier to judge, coach, and discuss.’

Action Selling ® brings with it a precise vocabulary that makes everything about the sales process far easier to judge, coach, and discuss. Since we make sure that everyone at GoTeam is trained on the system, even the customer-support people talk in terms of Commitment Objective, Agree on Need, Company Story, and so on. When Ron or I tell a salesperson to walk us through an Act 9, the rep knows we want a thorough debriefing on a call, with an emphasis on areas to improve upon in future calls.

I have always believed that effective communication is a key to success in any business. We never had a precise, efficient language to speak when it came to sales. Now we do. Our conversations are as clear as the skyrocketing trend lines in GoTeam’s revenues and market share since we began to master the Action Selling ® system.

We also talk more often with each other about what’s happening with accounts. It has to do with leveraging our people resources. Two years ago, Carrie Overton might not have gone straight to Ron with the news about Amstand’s new vice president, and Ron might not have discussed it with me. I never would have found the problem with real growth that provided him with such a powerful lever.

‘Our new sales language is a model for the effective communication that we seek to establish with customers.’

I think of our new sales language as a kind of model for the effective communication we seek to establish with customers. After all, what is the real purpose of a sales call in which the rep spends 90 percent of the time asking questions, listening to the answers, and checking understanding? Here’s my answer: The purpose is to achieve crystal-clear communication. That’s what enables trust. It happens only when the salesperson learns enough to understand the customer’s situation, the business challenges behind it, and the personal needs that drive it.

‘Crystal-clear communication: That’s what enables trust.’

More than anything, that’s what Ron and Carrie did at Amstand. They clarified the business challenge and kept digging until they understood how it personally impacted all of the players—Stan, Victor, and Nancy. That’s why this deal started with Nancy’s reluctant meeting with an unfamiliar salesperson and progressed to the point where Nancy and Victor are acting as GoTeam’s coaches, guides, and champions. In a complex selling environment, the competitor who achieves that understanding best…wins.

‘They kept digging until they understood how it personally impacted all of the players.’

Speaking of GoTeam’s competitors, they’re naturally curious about how we’ve been winning so much business lately—including business they thought was theirs. At an industry conference last month, no fewer than six of them tried to pump me about the secret behind our recent surge.

‘The competitor who achieves that understanding best…wins.’

I told them we’ve just been on a hot streak. “I’m only worried that our luck will even out eventually,” I said. The longer they think that, the better. Because things aren’t going to even out. Not unless they discover Action Selling ®. And I sure won’t be the one to tell them.