When we introduced the Action Selling system at GoTeam two years ago, a lot of attention was placed on the concept of “orchestrating your resources,” especially in a complex selling situation. So far, I think our orchestration in the Amstand deal deserves an A.
Maybe I should be a tougher grader and say an A-minus since, tactically speaking, Carrie Overton brought me into play too soon. She could have held me in reserve as a lever she might need to gain Nancy Winslow’s agreement to let us meet with her VP, Victor Herstad. Instead, Carrie panicked a little and dragged me in to do the heavy lifting in the earlier meeting with Nancy.
On the other hand, though, maybe it’s best that I was there early in the game to backstop Carrie. It was vital to enlist Nancy as an ally who would willingly take us to Victor. At this point in her development, I’m not certain that Carrie could have pulled it off without some direct help from me.
I am confident that she’s ready right now to manage the Amstand account once it’s up and running. Carrie is perfectly capable, though she isn’t my favorite employee on a personal level. Sometimes I look at her and see a hammerhead shark. She complains about having to be her household’s primary breadwinner because of her husband’s family business deal with his stingy father, but I suspect she enjoys the upper hand she gets in the relationship by out-earning the poor guy. How’s that for a creepy thought about someone’s marriage?
‘The whole company is involved in the sales process. Selling has become a team sport.’
Still, as I say, she’s capable. And she’s perceptive enough to recognize most of the beauty in the Action Selling system (not all of it yet) and to take advantage of it. That’s why she’s still here. A few of our other reps aren’t.
Whether she presented me to Nancy too soon or not, I’m certainly glad that Carrie consulted me as soon as she recognized the potential in the Amstand account. Before we institutionalized Action Selling we expected our reps to act single-handedly: “Go out there and make it rain business.” A few of them did just that. But now that Action Selling has given us a common sales language—and everyone speaks it—the whole company is involved in the sales process. Selling has become a team sport at GoTeam. We talk to each other about deals. We discuss strategy. We test ideas. Everyone has a common vision about how we’ll get the business.
Because Carrie consulted me, I could consult our CEO, Darrel Sharp. Darrel made a huge contribution by penetrating the fog surrounding Amstand’s growth rate. When he revealed that the company’s expensive sales force actually is underperforming the lowcost competition, we gained a tremendously valuable key to the account.
That key helped open doors all the way to the top of the client’s organization. It explained Victor Herstad’s new job. And it let us know why Amstand’s CEO, Stan Hall, is eager to do whatever it takes to boost sales performance. What’s more, it turned out that Darrel knows Stan personally. They’re acquaintances rather than close friends—they belong to the same country club—but that gave Darrel enough of an entrée to schedule a phone call with Stan to do some top-level prep work for tomorrow’s proposal meeting. Victor Herstad may have the formal authority to buy from us, but nothing on the scale we’re shooting for will actually happen at Amstand without Stan’s approval.
Did I say tomorrow’s proposal meeting? I mean our “working” proposal meeting. I could not be more delighted with that modifier. Nancy and Victor will be acting not only as our advocates but as coaches and guides, helping us craft a solution practically guaranteed to satisfy everyone on Amstand’s executive team.
‘Nobody is a mere obstacle…Everybody is a potential ally and coach.’
A lot of vendors in our position would have dismissed Nancy, and maybe even Victor, as mere “influencers” and tried to maneuver around them to get to Stan Hall, the ultimate decision-maker. They’d have thought themselves clever for doing it.
Of all the insights contained in the Action Selling system, my favorite might be the one about how to deal with decision influencers in a client company. Nobody is a mere obstacle in your headlong charge to get to the person with ultimate buying authority. Everybody is a potential ally and coach who can help you navigate through the shoals of a complex sale. The goal is not to maneuver your way around lower-level people as if they were slalom poles on a ski run, with the final buyer at the finish line. The goal is to sell in such a way that those people want you to get to the ultimate decision-maker—for their reasons, not yours.
‘The goal is to sell in such a way that those people want you to get to the ultimate decision maker.’
I came up through the sales ranks the hard way, making cold calls on businesses and “doing the numbers” on initial appointments, demos, proposals, and so on. Bitter experience eventually taught me that the advice I kept hearing about how to skip over the heads of lower-level people was deeply flawed. But not until two years ago, when Darrel Sharp passed along an Action Selling book he had found, did I ever see the “everyone’s a coach” concept built into a systematic approach to the entire sales process. That’s one reason I championed the system at GoTeam.
‘Action Selling teaches that everyone is a decision-maker on something.’
I’ve had a lot of sales training in my career. One concept that bugged me about many training programs was their notion of putting people in various quadrants based on their personality styles or their authority to buy. There are so many exceptions that I could never agree to the rules. Action Selling teaches that everyone is a decision-maker on something. The whole key is that you don’t try to sell someone something that they can’t possibly agree to buy; but you do sell them what they can agree to buy. Nancy couldn’t agree to buy our solution to Amstand’s sales force problems. But she could agree to introduce us to Victor. In fact, she could coach us through the sales process with him.
How do you enlist people as coaches? You get them to buy YOU.
‘With client advocates coaching you every step of the way, a complex sale isn’t nearly so complex.’
And how do you do that? With questions. Asking the best questions earns you the right to ask more questions. Questioning is the true art of selling—and it’s the magic of Action Selling. Here’s the best part: Everything you need to know about what to ask and how to ask can be learned. Effective questioning is not a talent that you have to be born with. Hallelujah!
Once they’ve bought YOU, every Nancy and every Victor out there can help you plan and fine-tune your entire selling strategy—your next question, your next move, your next commitment objective, your next sales milestone, all of it. With client advocates coaching you every step of the way, a complex sale isn’t nearly so complex.
Our sales process for the Amstand deal turned out to be surprisingly similar to our usual format. With Nancy and then Victor acting as our guides, with their own vested interests at stake in our success, the Amstand sales process wound up looking like this:
As of today, we have completed the first four milestones. The final two milestones have yet to happen. The actual deal should be as good as done after Milestone 5—tomorrow’s meeting.
A bit of insurance: This afternoon our CEO, Darrel, will make a phone call to their CEO, Stan Hall. Darrel will assure Stan that his best people are on the project and that he will be reviewing the proposal personally to make sure that it covers all the bases. He’ll take Stan’s temperature to ensure that he is behind the initiative. If Darrel uncovers any snags that might affect tomorrow’s meeting, we’ll be prepared to deal with them.
‘When you sell yourself first and customers buy you, everything else about the sales process gets easier.’
Beginning with Carrie’s initial call on Nancy, the driving force behind our whole sales process can be expressed in one word: Questions.
Why does Action Selling work so well? Because it teaches how to sell in a way that matches how customers really buy. When you sell yourself first and customers buy you, everything else about the sales process gets easier. Questions are both the roadmap and the vehicle that takes you where you want to go. Asking questions tells you what the customer’s issues and preferences are. Questions “open” the sale and create desire for a solution. Questions help you develop your sales strategy. Questions allow you to achieve your commitment objectives. When you ask the best questions and base your actions on the answers, magic happens. People who might have been deal killers enlist in your cause. You find out that those despised “influencers” really do have a lot of influence.
‘You find out that those despised “influencers” really do have a lot of influence. They use it for you, not against you.’
And they use it for you, not against you.
Going into my initial phone call to Victor, I didn’t know if he was aware of the underlying issue that landed him in his new job. Since it might come as a revelation, and since I didn’t want to embarrass him if it did, I decided that the best way to broach the subject was with a question. Though I didn’t phrase it quite this way, my question amounted to: “Victor, I see that Amstand’s real-growth rate is lagging the industry average. How big a role did that play in the creation of your new position?” That allowed me to throw the organic-growth numbers squarely on the table. And of course I was prepared to show him the documentation on his own web site.
It was pretty obvious from his reaction that Victor hadn’t known about it, not that I appeared to notice. So much the better. By revealing it, I not only showed him GoTeam’s initiative in researching our clients, I did him a great personal service—the kind of favor a person in his position ordinarily would expect to get from a trusted colleague or consultant, not from a salesperson.
When Carrie and I had prepared for our first meeting with Nancy, we included some questions that she probably couldn’t answer. We expected that this would create a need to include Victor in a future meeting. Our commitment objective, after all, had been to gain her agreement to bring Victor into the process.
In my call to Victor, on the other hand, I gave him our agenda for the needs-assessment meeting, including the key questions we’d want to ask. For instance:
I wanted Victor as well-prepared as possible, because if we intended to craft a great solution for Amstand, we required the best information we could get. By the time I actually met him face to face to begin the meeting, I think he already was about 80 percent sold on me.
‘We didn’t just want to sell him some products, we wanted to make him a star.’
To go the rest of the distance, Carrie and I had to make it plain that we didn’t just want to sell him some products, we wanted to make him a star. How did we do that? With questions. Like Question 3 on my list, several of our queries in the needs analysis meeting were designed to get Victor to visualize what success on a big scale would look like. If we could take him that far, he could fill in the corollary visualization mostly on his own: “How would I feel circling the bases, having hit a grand slam in my company’s version of the World Series?”
Victor and Nancy are intelligent people, and we also had to make it clear that we weren’t just throwing pixie dust in their eyes. This notion of a big win had to be a vision, not a mirage. We questioned Victor persistently about just what needed to happen for him to get his win, how the implementation would work, and what kinds of metrics we could use to prove that his solution—his, not ours—had made a significant difference.
‘What would success look like, and how could he get there?’
Nailing down those metrics has advantages for GoTeam, as well. Much as we want Victor to feel ownership, in the end it’s still our solution. Let’s just say that if we have the ability to prove, with the client’s own numbers, that our answer works…well, that kind of helps to keep customers for the long haul. It helps us acquire new customers, too.
By questioning Victor in this manner, we helped him think through his job: What really matters and what doesn’t? What would success look like, and how could he get there? Clients tend to appreciate it when you do that. They especially appreciate it when you do it by asking them instead of by pitching them. That’s how we develop strong partnerships with clients; It shows we’re on the same team. I’m glad that GoTeam’s competitors don’t seem to know the secret.
‘They especially appreciate…asking them instead of pitching them.’
By the way, GoTeam’s growth for the first full year since we adopted the Action Selling system is downright spectacular. And none of it came through acquisitions.
‘A sale is made or lost before the formal product presentation begins.’
Action Selling teaches that a sale is made or lost before the formal product presentation begins. Amstand is a classic case in point. We’ve sold ourselves. We’ve sold our company. And our product? The clients don’t yet know the details of the solution we’ll propose tomorrow. For that matter, we don’t know every detail ourselves, since Nancy and Victor will be fine-tuning it with us.
But am I pretty sure that GoTeam is about to land a major new account and that Carrie Overton will get the paycheck of her dreams?
You tell me.
ABOUT DUANE SPARKS
Duane Sparks is founder and chairman of The Sales Board, the authoritative source of practical and leading-edge information about the art and science of selling. He has created Action Selling sales training products and learning systems that transform sales organizations. Duane is author of these best-selling books: Action Selling, Selling Your Price, Questions (the Answer to Sales), Masters of Loyalty (How to turn your sales force into a loyalty force), and Sales Strategy from the Inside Out (How complex selling really works).
Discover how the best sales training process can make spectacular improvements in sales skills. Action Selling: How to Sell Like a Professional (Even If You Think You are One).