Whatever you’re selling, your regular sales tools won’t work now. There’s no one buying, regardless of what they might have needed before the pandemic. It’s not even time to forecast, as buyers now live in confusion and the unknown, with no idea what the norm, or their needs, will look like whenever ‘after’ happens. Until companies are up and running and things settle, there’s no way of knowing upfront what the priorities, people, or policies will be; needs they once had may not be needs now, or there may be others when the dust settles.
So trying to sell can’t work because the sales model needs buyers to buy. And there are no buyers. Any pitching, pushing, or convincing attempts are moot.
Obviously, you must do something different. As a bridge between your company and a client, you can play a very pro-active role in your company’s future and engage real prospects who will buy later – and truly serve them in the process.
TIME TO STOP SELLING
By pinpointing people who will most likely need your solution (and these folks may be outside your current target market right now), you can offer the one thing they need more than anything: managing the confusion; and helping them strategize and organize when ‘after’ occurs as they tackle their new normal. With your knowledge of how your solution operates in a user environment, you’re in a prime position to help them transcend the unknowns and organize around their future needs.
Will this make a sale right now? Nope. But it will enable you to serve someone as a representative of your company; will give you a fine reputation as a possible vendor going forward; and just maybe, you can really help them think through their confusion and put you on the Buying Decision Team going forward. Then, if it turns out they still need your solution, they’ll choose you.
This takes divergent thinking. Sales focuses on placing solutions, using market research, pitches, demographics, information gathering, content marketing to find probable buyers with a ‘need’. Right now, no one knows what they need; they certainly have no idea what Tomorrow will look like. But if you replace your ‘seller’ focus with a ‘facilitator’ attitude and serve customers, you can still grow your business and be in a position of trust and respect on the Buying Decision Team going forward.
There’s a huge difference between selling and facilitating. Sales places solutions; facilitating leads change. Sales is tactical; facilitating strategic. Sales resolves a problem; facilitating uncovers and organizes the elements that seek resolution.
The differences lie in the trajectory of change management. Buyers start off as people who want to resolve a problem in the easiest way at the lowest cost to the status quo. The last thing they want is to bring in something new that might upset the apple cart.
It’s only when they cannot resolve their problem on their own AND they get buy-in for change and a new purchase, they become buyers – i.e. their delay in making a purchase has nothing to do with your solution. They never start off as buyers – only folks trying to resolve a problem. In truth, a buying decision is a change management problem before it’s a solution choice issue. And unfortunately, the sales model overlooks this entire portion of how buyer’s buy.
So until or unless people know how to bring in something new in a way that doesn’t ‘cost’ as much as the status quo, they aren’t buyers, regardless of what their ‘need’ looks like to you.
WHY BUYERS DON’T BUY
Right now, there’s no way to know anything. Everyone’s status quo is shifting; the cost of the changes they’ll face is a mystery. But there is a way you can enter and be a vital component in the necessary strategizing going forward. It’s the one thing you can do now to serve them.
As a successful sales professional for many years, I figured it out by the seat of my pants when I became an entrepreneur of a tech startup in 1983 in London. My business took off quickly; to handle the hiring and team development, I contacted vendors to help me with recruitment and leadership training. The lovely, smart, charming, professional sales folks who showed up gathered info about my ‘needs’ and gave me presentations. As they spoke and questioned, I found myself resisting.
While they offered terrific solutions, my underlying issues were systemic: I couldn’t buy until I got buy-in from the team, and we had to figure out how bringing in new solutions would affect us all. With a new company and a series of new hires, I had to carefully support the newly-forming management team and add new skills and new members carefully.
So yes, I most likely had a need, but I didn’t know how – or even what! – to buy until I figured it out. While I bet the folks trying to sell me had the knowledge to lead me through all the decision factors I’d need to consider, they didn’t. If they had, I could have been saved months of trying to figure it all out myself — and made a sale.
I realized then, after all my years as a seller, the reason my buyers (who appeared ‘stupid’ to me at the time) weren’t buying. It had nothing to do with my solution and everything to do with the other considerations, the steps that had to be taken (later called Pre-Sales steps) before even becoming a buyer and the sales model overlooked.
The piece I was missing was systems thinking: my team, my company, was a system; and like in all human systems, people seek to maintain the status quo. Whatever problem they face is embedded within a myriad of people, policies, and relationships that keep it in place (The sales model overlooks these issues to seek out only those who have already figured it all out).
Optimally, a solution to a problem should come from within the system so there’s less disruption. But if they can’t fix it themselves, it becomes a cost issue: the ‘cost’ of something new (risky) needs to be weighed against the cost of leaving the problem in place. So buyers don’t want to buy anything, just fix something. And if they have no choice but to buy something to reach their goal, they’ll become a buyer.
One more thing I realized about the sales model: it ignores these Pre-Sales steps and focuses on only those who have finally become buyers (This occurs on step 10 of 13 steps!). This restricts a sale to the low hanging fruit who already have their ducks in a row, and overlooks a much larger group of people who WILL become buyers once they’re ready (and can be made ready). It’s certainly much easier to find and support those who WILL be buyers on the first call than trying to push solutions onto those who SHOULD buy. But you can’t do this with a ‘need’ focus.
DEVELOPING BUYING FACILITATION®
I decided to figure out the steps I was using en route to becoming a buyer, and use them to lead prospects through these steps BEFORE I pitched or gathered information. I developed Buying Facilitation® to easily find potential buyers with problems in the area my solution can resolve, lead them through their internal decisions without bias, and help them become buyers or at least serve them.
This saved me time following up those who would never buy (When I train Buying Facilitation® in organizations, we consistently have a 40% close rate against the control group with a 6% close.); brought me referral business; shaved about 50% off my usual close time (I only sold to those who were buying); and I truly served them all. Many who didn’t buy during our connection called months and years later to buy from me.
Here are the stages I delineated that all people traverse en route to solving a problem (and possibly end up as buyers):
1. Is there a problem? Can we live with it? Who and what would be involved with fixing it?
- Why haven’t we fixed it already before? What’s been involved in maintaining it, and how long are the tentacles that keep it in place?
- How will we know if it’s worth the cost of fixing? Who needs to be involved in this discussion?
Until everyone who touches the problem is involved, there’s no way to know if anything is missing, the full extent of the problem, or if a fix is viable.
2. How can we fix the problem with known resources? Can our old vendors help us? Is there a fix that a different department has that would work for us? What are our workarounds?
- Do we know enough to recognize if we can fix it ourselves? Can we keep this in house?
- How much risk can we tolerate when considering fix or stay the same?
Before we can go outside to make a purchase we must know for certain that we’ve done all we can to resolve it ourselves. That limits the stress on our otherwise overwhelmed environment.
3. What sort of disruption will occur when we bring in something unfamiliar?
- Everyone (or departments) who will be effected by the new solution must understand and agree with the changes, the disruptions, the differences, that the new will bring.
- The cost of the solution/change must be less than the cost of the problem, otherwise they might as well keep the problem.
Until it’s clear to all stakeholders the exact ‘cost’ of a new solution – people, rules, policies, outcomes, organizational changes – no decision will be taken. None. Regardless of the need or the efficacy of your solution, they cannot buy until they can calculate the cost of change. The change must ‘cost’ less than maintaining the status quo.
Obviously, there’s no way to even get to #3 in our Covid19 environment since no one knows how our lives and businesses and jobs will be altered. But imagine if you now use your efforts to help them discover their answers to 1 and 2. Then you’d have served them, and if they cannot resolve any ultimate problems, you’ll be the only one they’ll call.
To facilitate buying prior to selling, to engage folks who will be potential prospects (and give up selling for now) you’ll need a wholly different skill set as the current skills focus on discovering needs and introducing solutions – both necessary, once they’ve determined they need to buy something and are in the market for a fix.
Questions: I developed new form of question (Facilitative Questions) that facilitates folks down their steps of discovery. They are opposite to normal sales questions which are used to qualify, determine need, and gather data, and instead lead the route through discovery and change, through to purchase, which product knowledge on its own could never do.
Listening: A sales professional’s listening is biased to hear signs, words, that could be misconstrued as a ‘need’ causing sellers to follow up people for months mistakenly thinking they might be buyers. I developed a new way to listen (I wrote a book on this called What?) to hear the underlying meta messages and recognize those folks who might be seeking change – a real prospect – in my knowledge area, which I couldn’t hear with biased ears. People who are satisfied with their status quo have no agenda to change, and wouldn’t be buyers. Again, hearing what I think might be a ‘need’ doesn’t mean this person would buy.
Find prospects on a first call: Believe it or not, folks who will become buyers, people seeking change, are easy to recognize on the first call so long as you stop seeking someone with ‘a need’. By prospecting-by-need,
- You’re most likely only speaking to one person. How can that person know exactly what the rest of the Buying Decision Team thinks they need? Is that person representing the entire team, or just their personal views? You have no idea, but if it sounds like a possibility you unfortunately use it as an opportunity to pitch and follow up (and keep calling).
- Do you have any idea how this one person will share your data (if it even gets that far) with others? Will they use your data to compare against their current vendor? Again, you have no idea, and again, barrel forth pitching.
- Are you just listening for needs? Are your questions based on extracting data so you can pitch – and possibly ignoring some important data that would give you a broader understanding of the status quo?
- You have no idea where, or if, this person is along their Buying Decision Path. Are they in early stages of discussing how to resolve their problems and using your ideas?
- People who may need your product and aren’t yet ready to buy aren’t interested (yet) in speaking with you or reading/hearing about your product. Need has nothing to do with it.
One of the problems you’ll need to overcome when seeking prospects is using a telephone to have these conversations. Obviously you can’t visit; no one wants to make an appointment; and you can’t spend your time trying to get agreement for a Zoom call when no one is a buyer.
So do the following on the phone. Begin a call with voice rapport and a different sort of beginning:
This was going to be a sales call, but certainly you can’t buy anything now. I’ve been in the X field for many years. Maybe I can help you think through the issues you’ll need to consider as you go through this chaos now so when we come out the other side, you’ll know more about strategizing going forward. Is this a good time to speak?
Then, go down the stages above, helping them find answers to the questions at each stage.
I know you certainly are risk sensitive given what has been going on. I wonder if there are areas of my expertise that could lead you through the criteria you need to consider now. It would probably start with you getting a group of decision makers or leaders together to begin to figure out where you’re at.
Remember: you’ve got nothing to sell if they’ve got nothing to buy – and right now, they’ve got nothing to buy. Your entire approach must be based on something else: You’re not ‘gathering data to uncover needs’ (i.e. YOUR need to sell) or pitching (what YOU want to sell). You’re facilitating change and decision making. And when the environment goes back to ‘after’ – whenever that might be – and you have chosen the folks who will most likely be buyers, they will want to buy what you’ve got to sell.
Your new job is not to sell but to make a prospect. Help them figure out where, how, when, if they will be managing the new issues they’re facing. With your new goal you’ll be welcomed. And going forward, using this Buying Facilitation® approach will immediately ferret out those who are happy in their status quo and wouldn’t be prospects, regardless of whether or not they need your solution.
Everyone now is faced with change management, both in their current environment, and whatever the hell it will be once we’re back to work. Believe it or not, once you take your ‘sales’ hat off, people will recognize you’re helping them design their new fact pattern for going forward; when they arrive they’ll choose you when it’s time for a purchase. Not only is it win/win, but you’ll be a true Servant Leader.
Sharon-Drew Morgen is a breakthrough innovator and original thinker, having developed new paradigms in sales (inventor Buying Facilitation®, author NYTimes Business Bestseller Selling with Integrity, Dirty Little Secrets: why buyers can’t buy and sellers can’t sell), listening/communication (What? Did you really say what I think I heard?), change management (The How of Change™), coaching, and leadership. 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.