in November 2005
Agents For Change
By David McNutt
Developing a competitive advantage in your sales
be thought of in many ways. Usually it’s thinking
about other companies that make or sell products like ours
that are direct replacements, such as the choice between
two LCD projectors with similar features. Sometimes it’s
thinking about products that are alternatives to our products.
Instead of an LCD projector, a customer might choose a plasma
screen instead; same utility, different product. A third
way of thinking about competition is the alternative to
do nothing. In other words, a customer may decide not to
buy at all. For a salesperson, this is the ultimate frustration.
He has not lost a sale to a competitor salesperson or product;
he has lost to the customer.
As a result of many competitive
pressures, the sales environment has changed and has become
an area of increased competition. Competing with a customer
about a solution you are proposing is now much more common.
Customers are better educated, more sophisticated and more
value conscious. They are not only harder to please, but
they want more for their money. They want quality products
and lightning-fast service. They don’t want to buy
something they don’t need. They expect follow-up service.
If something goes wrong they want to know there’s
a person and a company that will support them long into
To become more successful in this
environment, salespeople must adapt to the change. They
must become more knowledgeable about their products and
services and more creative in devising solutions. They must
become more skilled in helping their customers recognize
value and derive satisfaction. Old style salespeople who
were product peddlers are being replaced by technology,
internet and other means of direct sales to the customer.
The salespeople who are left increasingly are called upon
to sell complex solutions to sophisticated buyers. For these
salespeople, success depends much less on what they are
selling, and more on their skills as a salesperson.
No longer is it enough to have
the right product, even a great design, although these help.
No longer is it enough to make plenty of sales calls and
rely on statistics. Success in today’s selling environment
requires a different approach. Professional salespeople
today have to learn how to become agents for change.
Change is a critical hidden factor
in every sale. The business and markets we serve revolve
around incompletely understood, infrequently purchased,
highly engineered solutions. When they are purchased, the
solution creates the opportunity to change the customers’
businesses; making work easier, making communication more
effective. The change may take place in their operations,
their organizational structure, their marketing or their
financial model. The change will mean either doing or using
something different from what they have in the past. As
these solutions move up the value scale where the buying
decision has greater effects on the company or institution
and are accompanied with greater uncertainty, the decision
to purchase will represent an even greater opportunity for
change. Helping a customer understand change, from a salesperson’s
point of view, is a much more difficult challenge than selling
a product. The failure to assist a customer in understanding
how to approach change has caused many a knowledgeable customer
to choose not to buy a perfectly sound solution.
Change agent offerings require
a different type of selling approach than routinely purchased
products and services. They require an approach that enables
prospects to change the way that they think, to revise their
perspective. Although presenting a set of facts and benefits
might be useful in communicating a perspective,
usually it is a poor way to change a perspective.
To change customer perspectives the salesperson must first
uncover them and then unsettle them in order to change them.
In other words, asking unsettling questions that go to the
core of a customer’s perspective typically is more
effective at changing perspectives than lecturing the customer
on the better perspective.
Asking carefully designed questions
to discover and change a perspective is the essence of what
is called a Socratic approach to selling. A Socratic approach
involves asking questions that lead to an obvious conclusion
to purchase. A Socratic approach performs better as the
dollar value of the offering increases. A good resource
for learning sales methods based on a Socratic philosophy
is Strategic Selling, by Robert B. Miller and Stephen
E. Heiman. There might even be a new improved edition available.
New copy or old, it’s a great book for professional
salespeople selling high-value, complex solutions to sophisticated
or upper-level customers. [Editor’s Note: The
New Strategic Selling: The Unique Sales System Proven Successful
by the World’s Best Companies (Revised and Updated)
by Tad Tuleja, Stephen E. Heiman and Robert B. Miller is
available in paperback from Warner Books.]
There is an old story that has
a point here: A family had an old horse that died in the
middle of their living room a while back. No one had the
heart to bury it, much less the strength to move it, so
the horse just stayed there. The horse had been there so
long that the family no longer thought it strange to have
a dead horse in the living room; they just simply worked
and moved around it. One day, a friend came by and said,
“Why do you have that smelly, dead horse in the middle
of your living room?” The family is immediately aware
of the dead horse and asks the friend to help them remove
The objective of a professional
salesperson in our industry is to learn to identify those
“dead horses” and offer to help remove them.
Companies who recognize this new competitive sales environment
and help their salespeople become so skilled will add yet
another competitive advantage.
David McNutt, a member of Sound & Communications’
Technical Council, has been involved in many business sectors
of the systems integration industry. Send comments to him