Until relatively recently, the United States Post Office (USPO) was a universal communication hub. It delivered birthday greetings and Dear John letters (For you youngsters, those were break-up notes – like you use text these days, only nicer.). It transported legal letters, work agendas, and Christmas gifts. It was how we moved information and communication between people and places.
Now we use the internet and social media for most of our communication. And the USPO? It became a relic of a time never to return, used now to send commercial ads and fliers, inundating us, invading us, with the originator’s needs to push data, separate from our need to utilize it. Superfluous to our lives, we discard these, even if the products they’re introducing are respectable.
SALES NO LONGER NEEDED FOR BUYERS TO BUY
The sales model is drifting down the same route. Until relatively recently, sales was universally accepted as a support and service model, representing expertise and products buyers needed. Sellers used their skill and product knowledge to help resolve problems; prospects actually sought meetings to get help figuring out how to improve their environments. And certainly, sellers knew their competition well and positioned themselves accordingly.
Those standards no longer apply.
- People can now choose our solutions without any involvement from us: much of the information buyers need is immediately accessible online – our websites, content marketing, and outreach efforts thoroughly explain our offerings, making a seller’s product knowledge expendable.
- Outside agencies – Google, social media – rate us independently, without our input, enabling customers to share their experiences of our products, accuracy aside.
- Our global competitors are at our door, at the touch of a button and shipped in days, often with lower prices.
- Buying decisions get made amongst large groups of stakeholders, some residing in other countries, often with no direct involvement with day to day operations and certainly well outside our scrutiny or touch points.
The sales model as we’ve known it has gone the way of the USPO – largely irrelevant; buyers now have a more extensive buying decision path that defies our standard practices, guaranteeing much is out of a seller’s control.
And yet we continue using the same prism to sell through, the same techniques we used in earlier times, even though our closing rates, now less than 5% for face-to-face and 0.0059% of tech-based sales, consistently decline. Our decades-long focus of placing solutions merely finds the low hanging fruit.
Here are some sales techniques we use that are problematic to the buying experience:
- Pushing, offering, promoting content is secondary until all the right people are on board there’s agreement they can’t resolve the issue internally, and any change issues/downsides that a new incoming solution will cause are addressed. Constant receipt of our marketing outreach becomes annoying and we’re blocked and ignored, regardless of the efficacy of our solutions.
- Gathering information is useless if offered before all stakeholder agreement. Our questions, biased by our need to match what we guess might be their requirements to our solutions, have little relevance to the complexities of their problem (that we cannot fully understand, as outsiders) and the intricacies of what a chosen solution must include. People buy only what is agreeable to the full set stakeholders (who we can never know, as outsiders); resolving their problem is secondary to staying stable or they would have resolved it already. Net net, they won’t have accurate answers to our questions.
- Our research into demographics and need doesn’t necessarily find buyers. Sure, we can uncover ‘target markets’ that would have a propensity to be buyers. But they’re not opening our correspondence and not open to connecting until they are ready, willing, able to become a buyer – someone who has addressed all complexities of bringing in a new solution and has gotten agreement from all internal stakeholders. Continuing to base our research and dissemination on our product assures we only close the low hanging fruit. Because a buying decision is a change management issue before it’s a solution choice issue, we can add the ability to facilitate buying to our goals and reach/convert a larger number of prospects.
- Our ‘conversion’ rates are based on a small percent of the total population of would-be buyers, yet we use these to try to convince ourselves that our efforts, our resources, our cost expenditures are relevant. We are not converting potential buyers who haven’t yet become buyers but who will buy once they manage their change. But they are easy to recognize and convert if we shift our prism. Indeed, I’m always curious what those ‘conversion’ numbers represent. Who we seek to ‘convert’ is merely a percentage of those who will/can eventually buy (I hate to keep saying this, but the low hanging fruit.) We miss over 80% of those who will eventually buy: they don’t heed our messages. When you see conversion percentages, ask how much of the potential buying population is being represented. Current conversion numbers are specious.
- The focus on ‘understanding needs’ is necessary only once buyers understand their own needs – at the end of their change processes: finding a route through to stability among the stakeholders and company/personal norms (Is the disruption from bringing in a new solution worse than living with the problem?) is paramount to buying anything. Until that’s resolved, they will not buy due to potential disruption. If you woke up tomorrow and decided you wanted to move, the first thing you’d do would NOT be to buy a house. You’d discuss with your family, looking at all sides from each perspective, organizing the full set of criteria that would keep the family stable first. A seller’s historic ‘need to understand’ (especially when using questions biased by our need to place a solution) is moot: until all stakeholders are on board with the specifics of how adding something new will affect them, there is no defined ‘need’, a seller’s biased questions aside.
- Our push to make an appointment is stupid: who is the person we seek to meet with? Why are they taking the time to meet with us? Does this person represent ALL stakeholders or just the few trying to push internal change? How does the person we meet with present our data to others? And at what point in the buying decision process? We’re so busy following the norms of selling that we haven’t stopped to think this through. We get rejected for an appointment not because of our solutions, but because they haven’t yet gotten the full Buying Decision Team onboard, because they’re still trying to fix the problem themselves, because they haven’t determined if it’s worth an external fix due to the disruption that might result. Looking through our biased prism of placing a solution, sellers aren’t looking at the entire picture that people must address en route to resolving a problem.
- We have a faulty assumption that our solution, data, convincing strategies, etc. will capture a buyer. What is it about the horrific close rates that isn’t registering? Why do we continue to believe if we just have better, faster, improved, advanced content dissemination that we will sell more when it’s a fact that we’re closing less? Why do we continue to assume that with great data, the ‘perfect’ solution, people will buy because WE think it will match what WE consider to be their need? And why is a 5% close rate (i.e. a 95% fail rate) acceptable? Isn’t it obvious there is a problem?
Everything about the selling effort is skewered to finding ways to place our solutions. But we miss the bigger opportunity: we can use our time, our skill, to facilitate Buyer Readiness. That means, leading people through the confusing stages they must – must – manage before they are buyers, before they have needs, before they know if, when, what they’ll buy. We wait on the sidelines while they go through this process; the sales model is not set up to influence this.
I have watched, over the past 35 years, as sales has drifted closer to my beliefs as it attempts to take into account the buying decision and the buyer. But because sales continue to consider buyers ONLY in relation to placing solutions, sales only reaches the low hanging fruit: people in the process of considering how to manage disruption will not have interest (yet) in our content. We haven’t accounted for the entire fact pattern of what goes into a buying decision (i.e. need, problem resolution, and product choice are the final considerations) and overlook the largest portion of buyers: those who will buy but aren’t ready yet.
People really don’t want to buy anything, they merely want to resolve a problem. And the problem is so much bigger than purchasing something. It involves
- getting all – all – the stakeholders and influencers identified and on board (often not obvious);
- trying to find a fix for the problem that’s familiar, and minimally disruptive;
- stakeholder agreement that the cost of a fix is smaller than the cost of maintaining problems (not always obvious) and that they need to go outside for a solution;
- recognizing/managing the challenges of melding something new as it replaces the old (not always obvious).
People issues. User issues. Tech issues. Human issues. Culture issues. All unique. As outsiders we can never understand the totality of what’s going on. And yet until all internal factors are managed to assure the least disruption, they are not even buyers.
It’s only when they are out of options AND get buy in AND manage potential fallout, do they become buyers. Making our solutions the focus relegates us to being noticed by those at the end of their change process – order takers – and robs us of our ability to enter at a stage that helps them become buyers.
Indeed, buying is the last thing people and groups do, and only then when there is agreement that an outside fix is their only option and have figured out how to manage fallout from bringing in something new in a way that avoids disruption.
You can’t buy a house without family agreement, regardless of how wonderful the house or how big the need. You can’t bring in a new CRM system unless the users are on board and are willing to use it, unless the tech folks know how to incorporate it into what they’re already using, until they’ve tried to fix what they’ve got, until a user training is developed and scheduled. It’s not about the house. It’s not about the CRM system. It’s about the change process.
So long as we focus on solution placement, we will only find those who have figured it all out. We could be helping them by shifting our focus to first connect via managing their change. Instead, buyers do all this change stuff without us as we wait and call and hope and call and send and hope and wait.
The sales industry has finally figured out that success has at least as much to do with ‘buying’ as it does selling. But it continues to use the prism of placing solutions even here: it has not gone so far as using new skill sets that help buyers manage the change.
SALES HAS A VERY LIMITED SCOPE
For goodness sakes, it’s time to stop focusing first on placing solutions. Why not help those who WILL buy be ready! And believe it or not, once we take off our ‘selling’ blinders and use a prism of facilitating the steps to change, it’s quite easy to use a different skill set to recognize people who WILL buy on the first call.
For this we enter with a different type of question (Facilitative Question) and a different goal: to recognize those who seek change in the area we can support them in, and facilitate them through their Pre-Sales change management activities they must complete before they become buyers.
Buying is a change management issue before it’s a solution choice issue – a process, part of systemic change, not an event. People become buyers only at Step 10 of a 13 step decision process that addresses the elements of recognizing and managing change. Until this is complete, buyers can’t buy and we are wasting a valuable opportunity to facilitate them, of entering earlier where we are now ignored. Let’s recognize that due to the complexity of change, selling doesn’t cause buying:
- Our information, website, marketing materials – information – is terrific. Our brand is well positioned, and quality. But from online sales we’re closing 0.0059%. We don’t know why site visitors come to our site. Our wonderful, expensive, information-rich, and creative site is not encouraging anyone but the low hanging fruit to buy.
- Our sales folks are well trained in content, relationship management, closing and pitching techniques. But they’re closing less than 5%. Why is this waste of expensive resource ok?
- Our marketing folks know how to target the ‘right’ audience, but less than one half of 1% even open our emails.
- The only folks who heed our great content are folks at the point of buying and we’re competing with global competitors for the same low hanging fruit.
We have chosen to sit back and wait while they go through their non-solution/buying-related steps. But we can enable Buyer Readiness. The sales model as we’ve known it is insufficient as a stand-alone model. It’s a Tier 2 model. Think about this:
1. People don’t want to buy anything– they merely want to resolve a problem and the last thing they do is bring in something new. People live in environments – systems, if you will – and try to resolve their own problems. It is ONLY when they cannot, AND they have the buy-in from the full set of stakeholders AND can manage any change that a new solution would incur, that they are willing to make a purchase.
When sellers push solution information before people recognize the complexities of the environment they’re seeking to change – they waste an opportunity to facilitate change (which has nothing to do with buying anything). Again, think of that junk you now get in your mailbox.
Buyers don’t even notice our content it until they seek out a solution that will match the intricacies of their buying decision and environment – at the point they are ready to change/buy. It will NOT convince them to buy something they haven’t yet determined they cannot fix themselves. The last thing they do is seek information. In other words, it will be ignored by those you wish to reach, no matter how accurate your demographic data. It’s about the buying, not the selling.
2. Until or unless everyone who touches a new solution is on board with whatever change will occur with a new solution, there will be no purchase. Talking to that one person who claims she has a need does NOT give us the necessary information to know what’s going on. We cannot ever know the internal dynamics. Ever.
3. There is a very specific process that everyone (buyers) goes through before they do anything different (change, decide, buy). It involves the 13 steps to all change, a purchase is a change management decision. The sales model only enters at step 10 when it’s agreed by all that the status quo cannot resolve the problem and everyone is ready to change. Hence, we do nothing more than find the low hanging fruit – and then we all fight over the 5%.
The time it takes for everyone who will touch the new solution and processes that come from it is the length of the sales cycle. Buying Facilitation® starts at the beginning and leads folks through each step, with sales taking over once they’re ready – and already buyers.
4. People become buyers only if they have a route to manage change. The sales model overlooks the change management piece of the equation, although sellers blame buyers for being ‘stupid’ or ‘not understanding they have a need.’ It’s not about the solution or the information or the buying. It’s about change. So long as sellers focus their interactions on placing solutions, they will merely take orders when people are ready to call in and buy.
The folks who use my Buying Facilitation® model enter all new conversations seeking who is ready, willing, and able to change. The prism is CHANGE, not NEED. Until all the elements of change are managed, people don’t even know what their need entails.
5. Until everyone buys in to change, the environment will prefer the status quo; whatever is happening now is baked in to the norm. Need has nothing to do with who buys. The prime focus is to maintain the environment. Until they know how to do that, they won’t buy, regardless of need or solution relevance.
6. We assume that people will understand they need us if we ask the right questions and create the right content, and that folks will wake up and notice of their need as soon as they read it!
We restrict our potential buyers to those who seek that specific information, overlooking their need to integrate information with unique circumstances, their status quo and rules, making much information provided conjecture. Not to mention we could easily reposition the way we discuss the content to meet real needs.
The sales model was designed to place solutions. That’s it. By entering early with a different mindset and skills, we can be closing 40% more sales.
A WHOLLY DIFFERENT SKILL SET
I have written extensively, and trained large numbers of global sellers, around this issue. In Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell I introduce a buying-based model (Buying Facilitation®) that explains the 13 steps all people and groups take (even for small individual purchases) on route to becoming buyers. Since the first 9 of them have nothing to do with buying anything but with managing change, it involves a different set of skills – facilitating the right people through their change to buy sooner.
No longer do we begin trying to ‘understand’ buyers, or make appointments, push our solutions, we first find folks who will become buyers and lead them efficiently through their change, and then – only then – offer solution details.
We can’t know anything about the person we’re speaking to, and if they haven’t yet gone through their entire change management process they certainly can’t answer questions about ‘need’.
By knowing each step of change, we can hear where they are along their decision path. Have they collected the full set of stakeholders or are they just beginning? Do they recognize the downside to their environment of a purchase? Are they still trying to fix the problem themselves? Change is complex. People don’t even understand themselves. Here is where we can help. We can facilitate people through the steps of change and convert more people into buyers now.
To shift the focus from selling to facilitating change and the buying decision process, Buying Facilitation® employs different skills:
- since our normal questions are biased by our needs, I developed Facilitative Questions to help Others figure out their own change process;
- Presumptive Summaries that help them recognize what they’re missing in their thinking;
- Listening for Systems as a way to truly hear what’s being said outside of our own biases;
- and the 13 steps of change, to lead them through each of the steps they must, must address en route to change.
The entire process is laid out in Dirty Little Secrets.
It’s not a sales process, but works as the front end of selling to help people recognize the elements in their own process that precedes seeking an external solution and teaches them how to become buyers. Because we seek out folks who CAN change rather than seek those who SHOULD buy, we enter their buying decision path and lead them through each step of change – helping them help themselves.
It’s a Servant Leader model that facilitates change, not a sales model that influences solution placement. It’s a very different mindset. I often ask: Do you want to sell? Or have someone buy? They’re two different activities. And sales ignores one of them.
THE COST OF NO CHANGE
The sales industry is like one of those buyers we disparage for not understanding they need us. Since 1987 when I ran my first Buying Facilitation® program at KLM (titled Helping Buyers Buy), I’ve trained about 100,000 sales folks, beginning with pilot programs that always ran alongside a control group selling the same product. Here’s a calculation of the typical results, regardless of industry or price:
- The groups I trained generally close between 6x-8x more than the control group.
- Buying Facilitators have a very good idea on the first call who will be a buyer, regardless of complexity of sale, eradicating the need to chase folks who will never buy and concentrate their time on facilitating the buying decisions of those who will.
- Marketing materials are created in stages of information that match the needs of each stage of change necessary prior to people becoming buyers.
- Buying Facilitators don’t try to make appointments and yet quickly are invited to meet with the full stakeholder/buying decision team.
- Prospects begin trusting sellers early due to their ability to help gather all stakeholders and figure out how to resolve the problem internally first.
- Buying Facilitators don’t discuss their solutions, ask needs based questions, until people have recognized themselves as buyers, usually in 1/8 the time of normal sales.
Kaiser Permanente: went from 110 visits and 18 closed sales to 27 visits, 25 closed sales.
KPMG: selling a $50,000,000 solution, went from a 3 year sales cycle to a 4 month sales cycle.
Boston Scientific: had a 53% increase in close rates and a one call close rather than months of follow up.
IBM: I personally sold $6,400,000 worth of business as I spoke directly with existing clients during the coaching portion of my onsite Buying Facilitation® training.
Sales professionals have told me my results aren’t possible. And I agree: using the sales model, the beliefs and skills of selling, it’s not possible.
SALES CAN MAKE A BIG CONTRIBUTION – BUT NOT THE WAY IT’S BEING USED NOW
With the skills they possess, sellers and marketers can have a vital role in facilitating people through their steps of change to becoming buyers. First they must understand the differences between selling and buying. Here’s what buying entails:
A buyer is someone (or group) who has tried to resolve a problem using their own known resources (People never, ever, start out to buy something first!), has gotten buy in from everyone who will touch the solution, and knows and manages any fallout that the new will cause. A buying decision is a change management problem first, a solution choice issue second.
Instead of assuming a buying decision is a solution choice issue and continuing as it has for millennia to push content, instead of assuming our job is still persuade folks to take action on our content, or place solutions (It’s not. It’s to facilitate buying.), sellers can facilitate the folks who CAN/WILL buy through the steps of change they must manage – and that we sit and wait for them to accomplish. I have written extensively on this. Here are some articles to peruse.
Plus, get ahold of my book Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell. It introduces each step of the buying decision process, along with how my Facilitative Questions lead prospective buyers, step by step, through to being actual buyers. It’s time to add the ability to facilitate the full buying decision journey into our sales efforts.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. She is the author of several books, including the NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity and Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell). Sharon-Drew coaches and consults with companies seeking out of the box remedies for congruent, servant-leader-based change in leadership, healthcare, and sales. Her award-winning blog carries original articles with new thinking, weekly. www.sharondrewmorgen.com She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org