Many years ago, just as technology was becoming ubiquitous, I closed $6,400,000 worth of business in the sales reps’ long-term accounts during the real-time call portion of my Buying Facilitation® training with IBM. This particular group had had their accounts for 3 years on average and knew their clients quite well…. Or so they thought.
The funny/sad thing was that I had no specific details about what I was selling, and I certainly had no relationship with the clients I spoke with. But not only did the clients and I discover things they needed to buy during our facilitation process, they gave me the orders without a pitch (Obviously I couldn’t pitch anything.) in the first 15 minutes of speaking with me – a stranger with no prior relationship.
The group director who had hired me to train this pilot had mixed emotions. Incredulity that I could close so much given I was a complete stranger with no product knowledge and the long-term reps hadn’t thought of it; Excitement that I’d closed so much (in two days!); and Frustration that not only did these 15 top reps themselves know nothing about the needs or business sitting there (Sitting there!), but the other 235 reps in that group who hadn’t been trained yet most likely had that sort of business sitting undiscovered in their accounts also.
I asked some of the team members what they thought was the reason they weren’t upselling in their accounts. The two responses I heard led me to suspect that more sales folks might fall into the same traps:
- An assumption that because of the long-term relationship, clients would call with an order when they had a need;
- A belief that because they knew the client ‘so well’ that they’d know when/if the client had a need.
Obviously, both assumptions were false.
During the two days I made calls for an hour with each of the 15 course participants, I found client needs that went beyond what the reps had been selling them. I’ll recount a call I had with one of the clients below. In each call introduced myself as a new member of their rep’s team, and called each rep’s smallest client or one they thought had a need but hadn’t been able to close. The call below was to a man from student services at a small college who only bought a printer once or twice a year. And note: although I was given the client’s direct line, the number didn’t go directly to the client. Apparently, the rep had been receiving incoming calls and hadn’t placed calls himself for some time.
Note: This situation occurred quite some time ago but I believe the presenting problem remains valid: sales reps often don’t know what’s really going on in their long term accounts, and even when they do they don’t do more than sell what they’ve always sold to that client, or off-handedly ask if anything new is going on without facilitating a real discussion. I’ll discuss more after the story.
CALL WITH EXISTING CLIENT
Secretary: Hello. This is the technology support group.
SD: Oh. Hi. I was given this number for Charles. Am I calling the wrong number?
Secretary: No. Charles has been working in a team of 5 for about 9 months and I try to take care of them. Can I help you?
SD: Yes. I’m with IBM and work with Steve, and I’d like to speak with Charles if he’s around. But I’m curious. Is Charles no longer in the same student services group he was in before?
Receptionist: Well, yes and no. The group has vastly expanded its focus to include technology needs so we can help our students and school use the new technology and connections coming available. We’re trying to become tech savvy, and it’s been quite a learning curve for us. Let me get Charles for you.
C: Hi there. Susan said you work with Steve? How’s he doing? We’ve not spoken for a few months.
SD: Hi Charles. Steve is great. He’s just here. As I’m a new member of his team, I’m making calls to his regular clients to introduce myself. My name is Sharon-Drew. Hi! So… wow. Susan says you’re all getting into some kinda trouble these days.
C: We are! What fun we’re having, although the learning curve is steep. And it seems to be changing every moment.
SD: It’s interesting from this end too, as IBM keeps inventing new products for us to offer. I’m curious. Given all the change going on, what are you responsible for now that you weren’t responsible for before?
C: Me and my team are responsible for the student/university interface.
SD: I didn’t know you had one.
C: We didn’t. But we’ve decided to give all incoming freshman laptops as part of their matriculation so they can have access to all our departments. We plan on rolling this out next September when the new students come in.
SD: Are you set up for that?
C: What do you mean? What do we need to have set up? (Note: this was before the world was wired.)
SD: Well, you’d need to have the whole university wired so laptops and students could connect, you’d need servers – you’d need a massive overhaul of your grounds to get proper wiring so the computers could talk to the departments and to each other. It’s not as simple as just buying computers and it’s a pretty disruptive process. And it’s November now, and you want it all done by September? I’ll need a bit more data from our folks here to know the exact time frames involved, but I believe it would take many months to get your campus set up for technology. I’m not even sure it could all be completed to be ready by then.
C: Oh! I didn’t know that! We’d better get started now.
SD: Have you decided who you’d be purchasing your laptops from?
C: Well, you folks of course. You’d give me a good price on 2000 laptops, no? And are you able to set up our campus? I’d prefer if IBM did it all for us if possible.
SD: Sure. We won’t send you the laptops until you need them, and Steve will get back to you on the details of the actual work. But we should probably wait until we speak with the rest of your team, no? I notice you’ve got a team of folks involved in the same project. What would we need to do to help them buy in to such a large undertaking?
C: They’re all here. We just came back from lunch. Give me a moment and I’ll have Susan patch us all together.
C: Hey folks. Sharon-Drew works with Steve at IBM who has supplied me with printers for the past years and now can walk us through our project to get students laptops and wire the campus so the laptops and departments and students are all connected. I thought we could just buy computers but seems we have a much bigger problem.
I then brought Steve into the conversation, and for the next hour we noodled on the problems inherent in a project this size and how we could resolve them together. For this I posed Facilitative Questions such as:
Who would you need to involve to make sure you had the best data to make choices around, and get buy-in for, X or Y?
What would we need to set up together, at earliest, to make sure we would cause the least disruption to your campus?
Obviously we didn’t have all the details, but I gave them the questions to begin planning such a huge project; Steve became a partner in their discovery and delivery. And they decided during our meeting that they’d better begin immediately. They started with a $2,000,000 order.
Here’s one of the things I didn’t tell you. Steve was becoming a team leader in the next two months. If his clients had waited until the next September to place the $2,000,000 order, not only would they have to wait another year to implement their plans, Steve wouldn’t have gotten his very large commission check.
DO YOU KNOW YOUR ACCOUNTS?
Instead of assuming you know your accounts, why not call each of them and discuss with them what their future looks like, what has changed in their current situation, and how you can serve them best going forward. If they haven’t given you new business in a while, make sure you notice who else has been added to their team when you ask about what’s changed, because new stakeholders might have preferred suppliers that aren’t you.
One other consideration. Sometimes project leaders running teams that serve the healthcare and technology industries are not sales folks per se, but more technical folks who are only curious in a limited, ‘do-ing’ way without taking the ‘people’ side into account. This thinking might bias conversations and overlook future needs or unaware stakeholders.
When you’re ready to discuss potential needs, remember to include these issues:
- Have client include all stakeholders. See if there are new ones or folks from other departments, even if you think you know them all.
- See if the objectives have changed over time. You might have met these clients under different circumstances and aren’t aware of their growth.
- Notice if there are issues you think need to be resolved, even if they haven’t yet noticed or aren’t prepared to resolve them. If this is the case, use Buying Facilitation® to help them discover how to bring in all stakeholders, try workarounds, and figure out the cost of bringing in something new. Don’t put on your sales hat until then: there’s a reason why they haven’t resolved the problems yet so don’t use your own assumptions to push or sell, even if your solutions would help them.
In these times of change, reorganizations, mergers, and a shifting economy make it likely that your regular clients are going through some sort of transformation. Call them and check in. You never know when you’re going to find new business opportunities and ways to serve.
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’s also the author 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.