Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: How Complex Selling Really Works
Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine! – Carrie Overton, Salesperson, GoTeam Unlimited
Amstand Companies has a brand new vice president with specific orders to improve efficiency and effectiveness in its sales operation??!! And he hasn’t yet figured out what approach to take??!!
When Nancy Winslow dropped that little nugget in our first meeting, I almost jumped out of my skin. Suddenly the Amstand account looked like a whole new ballgame. Dollar signs danced before my eyes. I wanted to grab Nancy by the throat and scream, “Take me to this Victor Herstad character! Now!”
‘When you deal with multiple levels of buyers, all of them are important.’
I did no such thing, of course, or anything remotely like it. I can be plenty pushy if need be, but this wasn’t the time. For one thing, the Action Selling system I learned at GoTeam—all right, the system I’m still learning—teaches that when you deal with multiple levels of buyers, all of them are important. Try to bulldoze your way through a mere “influencer” to get to the ultimate decision maker, and you might find out that while the lower-level person can’t make the deal, she can sure kill it. I suspected that Nancy might be able to blow me out of the water if she wasn’t handled carefully.
‘The lowerlevel person can’t make the deal, she can sure kill it.’
So I kept my cool and stayed in what Action Selling calls Act 3, trying to Ask the Best Questions about what Victor had in mind. Victor and Nancy, I reminded myself; must remember to show her respect. But Nancy quickly began to get uncomfortable with my questions about what “efficiency and effectiveness,” or E&E, would mean to Amstand.
She doesn’t know, I thought. This is Victor’s baby, not hers. Don’t embarrass her. Make her an ally. How? I’m not sure.
‘My original Commitment Objective…agreement to meet with me again.’
My original Commitment Objective for the call had been to get Nancy’s agreement to meet with me again for a deeper needs analysis of Amstand’s current situation. Now I knew about a significant need and that the key contact in the picture was going to be Victor Herstad. Should I ask for a meeting with her and Victor instead? No, I hadn’t established a strong enough need for that yet. Help!
That’s when I thought of Ron Jensen, GoTeam’s sales vice president, my boss and, I suppose, my mentor, though I hate that term. Ordinarily I’d rather break a leg than ask for help, but this account could be a whale. Action Selling talks about the salesperson’s role as an orchestrator—one who brings in people and other resources from her company and deploys them intelligently, especially with major accounts. That gives me permission to lean on people like Ron without worrying that they’ll think I’m incapable of doing deals myself.
‘The salesperson’s role as an orchestrator—one who brings in people and other resources.’
In fact, Ron had told me that he and Darrel—that’s Darrel Sharp, GoTeam’s CEO—suspected there might be untapped gold in Amstand. I assumed they just meant that my predecessor on the account, Old Marv the Mouth, couldn’t uncover an actual customer need with a treasure map and a backhoe. They tried to teach him the Action Selling system—boy, did Ron try—but for the life of him, Marv could not learn to shut his giant blowhole and listen to what customers had to say. So finally Ron told him to seek opportunities elsewhere. GabbyLand, maybe. Tragic and all, but geez!
This, however—a new vice president whose whole job was to improve sales E&E, which is basically what GoTeam does—this went way beyond the issue of Marv’s shortcomings. Not for the first time, I wondered if Darrel was clairvoyant. He has an uncanny sense about these things.
I really need a home run. I need to turn a company like Amstand into a gold mine. My husband works for his father, and the old man pays him peanuts. The idea is that one day my husband will take over the business, and then we’ll be on Easy Street. But in the meantime, if I want to keep the health club membership and the cleaning person, I need to bring home the bacon. I don’t want a little slice of Amstand’s business, sharing the pie with five or six competitors. I want all of it!
At the moment, that meant I wanted an insurance policy. Bring in Ron.
Instead of changing my Commitment Objective, I just altered it: Gain Nancy’s agreement to meet again for a needs assessment with me—and Ron. Together, he and I would figure out how to get her to agree to put us in a room with Victor.
‘TFBR: Tie Back (to a need you have uncovered), Feature, Benefit, Reaction.’
I did a quick Act 5—Sell the Company—telling Nancy about some clients we had helped, stressing the range of solutions that GoTeam offers. She seemed surprised that we could provide anything outside the narrow niche that Marv evidently had liked to yammer about.
Now, how to convince Nancy it would be in her interest to meet with Ron and me? In Act 6—Sell the Product—Action Selling teaches a method called TFBR: Tie Back (to a need you have uncovered), Feature, Benefit, Reaction.
I used the TFBR format, with Ron himself as the “feature” of GoTeam’s offering, which was pretty nimble, I thought. It went something like this:
Tie Back: Nancy, it sounds as if Amstand has placed a high priority on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your sales force.
Feature: GoTeam has an extraordinary vice president named Ron Jensen. He has run six sales organizations that had 100 to 500 salespeople each. I have personally seen him consult with companies that are experiencing challenges very similar to the ones you’re describing. (Not that you’re really able to describe much, I thought.) He is a master at diagnosing these situations and zeroing in on solutions.
Benefit: What that has meant to clients he has worked with is that they were able to put effective solutions into place very quickly and begin to see results almost immediately.
Reaction: How might having access to a specialist like that help you?
It worked! Nancy agreed to meet with Ron and me for a needs analysis. I couldn’t wait to tell him.
‘We replayed the call…Ron walked me through an Act 9.’
I rushed back to GoTeam headquarters, caught Ron in a hallway, and gave him the gist. Then he took me to his office, calmed me down, and we replayed the call. That is to say, in Action Selling terms, Ron walked me through an Act 9. I’m still learning the system, as I said. Ron is a grandmaster.
I told him what I’d learned about Nancy in Act 2—her history at Amstand, her twin sons, and so on. (By the way, why do people always expect you to find twins fascinating? I mean, two eggs get fertilized, or one divides, or whatever—big whoop. I didn’t share this thought with Ron, since he has urged me before to work on my people skills, and of course I didn’t share it with Nancy. But seriously, who cares?)
I took him through my Act 3, explaining what my questions had revealed about Amstand and Victor Herstad’s new role. “The broad need is to improve sales efficiency and effectiveness,” I said. “As for how to do that, they’re considering any number of specific needs.” Nancy had mentioned several possibilities, as my notes revealed:
“We could help them with all of that, Ron,” I said excitedly. “We could own this account.”
Ron looked thoughtful. “You said Nancy told you that Amstand is doing great, right? It owns a quarter of its market, the stock is performing well, and so on?”
“Right,” I said.
“So why the sudden concern with boosting sales E&E? Why has this become so important that they turned it
into a job for a new vice president? What did Nancy have to say about that?”
‘Why the sudden concern? Why has this become so important?’
Damn! That was a question I had missed entirely. I stuck pretty close to the truth in my reply, though. “I didn’t want to push her, Ron. She isn’t sure what Victor is up to, and she was starting to get embarrassed.”
If Ron saw through me, he didn’t exactly say so. “That would have been nice to know,” he said. “But I agree you were right to back off and regroup when Nancy became uncomfortable.”
The main thing, he said, was that I had recognized what kind of opportunity this Victor Herstad guy might represent: “Good job, Carrie.”
‘Leverage like titles to get appointments…You show me your vice president, I’ll show you mine.’
Ron had only one real criticism for me. In orchestrating large accounts, he said, a basic tactic is to leverage “like titles” to get appointments with people higher up the client’s food chain. It works kind of like, “You show me your vice president, I’ll show you mine.” Instead of bringing my VP, Ron, to the next meeting with Nancy, I should have held him in reserve as a bargaining chip to gain her agreement to let us meet with her VP, Victor. In other words, Ron is an ace in my deck, and I played him too early. Not that we could fix the problem now, of course.
I’m sure he’s right, in principle. Ron is almost always right. I nodded and agreed, like I was absorbing the lesson. Action Selling does say, “Be an orchestrator – leverage your people resources.” I understood that Ron’s point was about timing the leverage. But the truth is, I was glad that I did what I did. It meant Ron would be at my side from this moment on. I need to earn some commission. I need to land this account!
We agreed to get together in a few days to devise a strategy for our meeting with Nancy. We already knew what the Commitment Objective would be: Gain her agreement to introduce us to Victor.
In the meantime, though, Ron evidently talked over the Amstand situation with Darrel. Darrel Sharp, remember? GoTeam’s CEO. And Darrel—I still can’t believe this—Darrel figured out why Amstand was suddenly so worried about improving sales E&E!
Darrel explained it to us as a problem Amstand had with what he called “organic growth.” Then Ron explained it to me again in our strategy meeting because, frankly, Darrel understands the workings of public companies too well to be great at explaining them to people like me, who are hazy on the mechanics of stockholder meetings and so on.
In a nutshell, here’s what happened: Nancy had mentioned that Amstand recently made a couple of acquisitions. Well, Darrel dug up some public reports or documents that revealed (to him) that Amstand’s growth was coming not just partly but almost entirely from those acquisitions. Its organic growth—meaning its annual revenue increase without the new money coming in from the acquisitions—actually lags a few percentage points behind the industry average. In other words, when you look at how well Amstand really is marketing and selling its products, you find it’s doing worse that its competitors.
Amstand’s financial reports don’t show this clearly or directly, it seems, and according to Darrel’s research the analysts and shareholders haven’t figured it out yet. But they will. When they do, Amstand’s stock price could drop like a rock.
“And if the stock takes a big hit, so does Stan Hall,” Darrel said, referring to Amstand’s CEO. It seems that Darrel knows the guy. They’re acquaintances, anyway. “Stan has to be sweating bullets,” he said. “This is why he created a new VP and told him to go fix sales efficiency and effectiveness.”
Darrel looked at me. “I wonder if your contact Nancy knows about the organic-growth problem,” he said. Then he looked at Ron. “I wonder if even Victor knows about it. Amstand wouldn’t exactly want to broadcast this news. It wouldn’t surprise me if only Stan and probably the CFO really understand what Victor’s new job is all about.”
Darrel didn’t say, “You’ll have to be very careful how you use this information with Nancy and Victor.” He didn’t have to. But now we knew the underlying business issue that made sales E&E an urgent concern—for Amstand Companies, for Stan Hall, and for Victor, though Victor might not be aware of it. We wouldn’t need to uncover the client’s burning need. We just had to walk though what might be a minefield to bring it out in the open.
‘Then we’d move on to questions that Nancy probably couldn’t answer.’
By the time Ron and I called on Nancy, we had a well-rehearsed game plan for gaining her agreement to a meeting that included Victor. She really warmed to Ron during Act 2, especially when he pulled those twin nieces out of his hip pocket. (Twins again! And I guess Ron’s nieces actually exist. First I’ve heard of them, thank heavens.)
Act 3 went beautifully. The plan was to use questions that established the importance of improving sales E&E, but without exposing the organic-growth problem; if Nancy didn’t know about it, Victor and Stan would not be happy that we spilled the beans. Then we’d move on to questions that Nancy probably couldn’t answer, but Victor could. Questions like: How will you know when you have achieved the level of effectiveness you want?
It was vital to do this without making Nancy feel like road kill. Ron was especially good at protecting her ego—never a hint of impatience, never the least sign that he felt we were wasting our time talking to her. But by the time we finished Act 3 and told her a little more about GoTeam and its offerings in Acts 5 and 6, I think several things were clear to Nancy:
One, we were highly professional. Two, we knew a whole lot about their challenges. Three, we sincerely wanted to understand Amstand’s needs and to provide solutions that worked; in other words, we could really help. And four, to take the process to the next level, Victor had to be in the room.
‘The magic about Action Selling: You sell not by pitching, but by asking questions.’
As Ron and I had planned, I nailed down our opportunity to gain commitment with a modified version of the TFBR I had used in the first call to sell Nancy on the meeting we were having right now. I reminded her about Ron’s background, but this time, when I asked for a reaction, I said, “How would having access to a specialist like Ron help Victor in his new responsibility?”
Having gotten a good dose of Ron, she had no qualms at all about presenting him to Victor. Make that presenting us; I ain’t so bad either. To me, that’s the magic about Action Selling. You sell not by pitching, but by asking questions. By Asking the Best Questions in Act 3 – without discussing any specific products or services—we had sold ourselves to Nancy. Selling yourself is the salesperson’s first and biggest hurdle—and you do it with questions! That insight impresses me more every day.
‘Selling yourself is the salesperson’s first and biggest hurdle—and you do it with questions!’
Nancy also agreed to pave the way for a phone call from Ron to Victor—a peer-to-peer thing—before the meeting. It was during that phone call that Ron revealed Amstand’s organic growth problem to Victor. And yes, it did come as a revelation.
Suffice it to say that tomorrow I will present our formal proposal to the Amstand folks, with Ron along to help answer any questions that come up, and I am extremely excited about our chances. Based on our questions, the needs we have helped them clarify, and our confidence that we can meet those needs, they must have a pretty clear notion of the solution we’re going to propose. I think they already love it. And we haven’t even spelled it out for them yet.
Am I nervous? Sure. I’m not planning to spend my commission until Amstand’s check is cashed. But I do believe I’m going to hit my homer.