How can you have win-win in competitive selling?

Last week I attended an excellent presentation by Michael Schiffner of Collective Intelligence – where he demonstrated a very interesting exercise that not only showed the directive power of verbal pre-conditioning, but which effectively rammed home the common error many in sales make – almost constantly. The fact that it got the audience to its feet and energised was an added bonus. I won’t tell you what he did, but I will encourage you to catch his act if you get the opportunity (I’ll certainly use it in some of my classes).

Michael has also contributed to a recent publication that I would recommend to all in sales and sales management – and in particular to those who manage sales management! “Emerging Trends In Professional Selling Vol 1” by Paul Sparks is an excellent compendium of innovative thinking and practice in selling – and Michael’s chapter on “Building High Performance Sales Teams” is both insightful and very well written – and as far as I’m concerned, bang on target.

Anyway, one of the points Michael stressed in his presentation was that sales aren’t made by ‘selling’ anymore; they are made by ‘assisting the customer to buy’. This was music to my ears because I have fervently believed this for most of my career (a long time) – but had often felt ‘wrong’ – at least in the beginning – when espousing this against the absolute torrent of opinion to the opposite. I can’t remember the last time I had to “close” a deal – customers just buy from me, presumably because they want to – I also try to make it easy for them, and to make them as enthusiastic as I am for the idea I’m selling. Yet much of the sales training material available today still focuses on stuff such as ‘closing technique’ – where the sales person behaves more like a barrister, trying to logically corral the customer into an inescapable ‘Yes’. That approach automatically sets the customer as combatant – someone you, the salesperson, have to beat. This effectively precludes the possibility of win-win!

Start by bending it

One way to perhaps ‘break the hockey stick’, is to put a kink in it. By this I mean to shift the start point of the curve – to make it happen earlier in the quarter.
By incentivising the sales team to get results earlier – and tapering those incentives as the true end-of-quarter approaches, it is possible to access the creativity of sales people to make win-win deals with their customers – deals that happen out-of-cycle. Of course, it is necessary that the new incentive-driven timing of sales closure is moved around over time so as to prevent the establishment of a new ‘1/4 cycle’ – by varying this inflection point one can effectively destroy the hockey stick by repetitive stress fracture.
An important point to make here is that effective incentives are not restricted to money – in fact many sales people respond better to other forms (recognition is a STRONG desire of most sales-folk).

Breaking the hockey stick

Have you trained your customers in “the hockey stick”? Probably.

Do they beat you with it each and every quarter? Almost certainly.

In our quarter-driven world, with its emphasis on quarterly sales targets and reporting – designed primarily to feed stock analysts, we have created a monster. The desperate measures that many companies undertake in the last few days of each quarter in order to ‘make their numbers’ have trained the customer to ‘expect a big discount’ – with the predictable result that customers now wait until that time to place their orders so as to take that discount.

So, not only have we trained customers to expect a discount – i.e. to reduce our margin; we’ve also trained them: to expose us to massive personal stress; to place unduly heavy cyclical stress on our supply chain, and for that matter on their own organisation as they try to work their procurement processes into this unnatural cycle.

Curiously, some sales managers are actually OK with this state of affairs – they see the hockey stick as an ‘incentive’ to their sales staff – and they see the ‘certainty’ of (heavily) discounted business in the last 24 hours as a compensation for the beating they took!

Whilst a utopian view might be that we should just get rid of quarterly reporting (a top idea in my opinion, but one which is unlikely to gain any traction with the majority of people – what would the analysts do?) it is clear that we should strive to decouple customer purchasing from this cycle by other means.