SalesLoft and Gong.io recently shared a Discovery Call Benchmark Report that lined up well with my recent thinking on sales calls. A couple stats from the report that rang loudest:
  • Optimal number of questions a salesperson should ask is between 11 and 14 – about key topics, too, vs. small-talk.
  • Question flow should be throughout the discussion, not front-loaded.
  • Top performing sales professionals have a talk-to-listen ratio of 46:54.
  • Positive correlation of call success with speaker-switches-per-minute.

These findings weaved well together with my two current readings You Can’t Teach a Kid to Ride a Bike at a Seminar by David Sandler and the Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. (Book reviews to come.)

The overarching story in my head is the gap between the number of questions and type of engagement in sales calls (read: the lack thereof during calls). Reflecting on a few sales calls I’ve made recently, I realize how I was focused on a specific problem or outcome. This put me heavy in “pitch mode”. When in pitch mode, there’s not much engagement from the other side of the table. Instead, it’s me talking atthe prospect.
An analogy of this could be like a sports game – take soccer. In sales, we’re on the same team looking for a mutually beneficial outcome. (Sales is not an “us vs. them” game, right?) And in a soccer game, it’s highly unlikely to win if one player hogs the ball the whole time. Nor will there be a successful outcome if the passing is only done upfront. A successful – and fun – game is one where both parties are involved passing the ball together. The ball being the conversation in a sales call. In a sales call, it’s important to pass the conversation back and forth, and ensure engagement throughout.
In soccer training in my past, we sometimes played games like “one-touch” or “two-touch” which limited how many touches each player could make with the ball. It encouraged fast-thinking while discouraging ball-hogging. A similar game can be played in sales calls for practice. For every pass (question or comment) from the prospect, a sales professional can pass a question back.
Sales professionals today tend to ask less questions anyways, so the practice here will be to simply boost the number of questions. Creating this habit will naturally drive more comfort and confidence specific questions to ask – what, when, how.
Give it a go. Pass the ball.
In sales, process is king. Process enables repeatable actions and decisions to advance and obtain a sale. In this way, every step along the way should be an advancement towards a sale (or, close sale, good or bad). To do this, it’s often appreciated and strategically advantageous to be aware of not just the objective, but sharing the objective(s) with prospect as a means to guide them through a sales process. Otherwise, you may be thrust into no man’s land or harshly left to the buyer’s process (which could pit you against more competitors and into a price war). Though the overall objective is a sale, it’s not always attainable in a complex sale depending on the stage. Shooting for such an objective can be off-putting and lose the sale altogether.
With any call, it’s important to understand what is the objective of this call, this interaction. This will weigh heavily on where the prospect is in the sales process. From here, the objective may be to get confirmation of a buy-sell agreement. Or, in an early discovery call, the objective is to agree to a next call where more influencers and decision makers are present.
Walk through the objective(s) early on in the call to manage expectations. This doubles as confirming to the prospect that you’re here for business, and s/he should be assessing today’s interactions to make some commitment at the end. Then, at the end, be sure to close for the objective.
These objective-based calls help sales professionals stay on track on their own objectives. They also encourage commitment from the prospect to advance vs. stay stranded.
Understand, too, there are stretch objectives (maximum) and conservative objectives. Stretch objectives can be attained in the absolute best-case scenarios where the prospect commits to a “larger” objective like bringing on an integration team. A more conservative objective, then, may include introducing other key decision makers to evaluate a product or service. The objective of that call may be to bring on an integration team.
Before the next sales call, know where you and the prospect are in the sales process. Then, outline what the objectives are before the call to ensure proper alignment and talk-points are on track.
Get the objective.
Continuing my quest to read books and get more educated on all things sales, I wrapped up SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham. I went through this book twice. First, to pick up the low-hanging fruit, and then a second go to better absorb.
SPIN is one of the preeminent B2B sales books. In fact, the book broke ground on the factors for successful complex sales vs. transactional. In fact, Rackham identified why many sales training methods at the time were ineffective –methods were well-suited for transactional sales, but fell short for complex sales. The book lay the ground work for other sales studies like The Challenger Sale.
My take-aways:
  • Transactional vs. complex sales… The book did a great job at identifying why many closing techniques worked for simple sales, but failed for complex sales. Two of the more important points here were how the product/ service held such a primary role in the buying process of transactional sales. However, complex sales were about risk mitigation and addressing specific buying criteria.
  • Successful B2B sales persons excelled in the discovery process of sales – identifying pain points, understanding the implications, and illustrating the pay-off of the product/ service they were selling. This can be broken down in to SPIN – situation, problem identification, implication of problems, and needs pay-off.
  • Most sales professionals can perform situational and problem identification questions. However, successful sales more closely related to implication question and need pay-off questions. Implication questions can be thought of “sad” questions (lead to some quantitative cost or pain). Need pay-off, however, is all about “happy” questions (lead to some positive outcome, i.e. “what type of lift would this provide your sales team?”).
  • Though the preliminaries of a call are important in establishing some baseline of rapport, the goal of the call is to get an advancementof the sale – “a commitment”. Rackham identifies every successful sale can be broken down into four parts – preliminaries, investigation, demonstrating capability, and obtaining commitment.
  • There’s a big difference between features, advantages, and benefits. Though, many times, advantages are misconstrued as benefits, they are different in how they address explicit pain points to a prospect. This is the primary difference as Rackham states – benefits address the customer. Advantages can be fact-based – a prospect will be able to do XX. A benefit is what a prospect would experience – YY outcome. It’s important to note that selling by features is a major selling mechanism for low-cost, simple products/ services.
  • The best sales professionals address potential objections early so they never become objections. In this way, the best sales professionals experience less sales objections. If there’s an objection, it’s possible there has not been a strong enough understanding of the needs of the customer, or demonstration of how the solution can solve the explicit pain.

Rackham’s SPIN Selling is another fantastic read for… really anyone. We’re all in sales in some way shape or form. It’s beneficial to understand sales from a psychological perspective, if not to also understand how others sell to us.

There are many subtle lessons I didn’t recognize from consulting that have been hugely valuable since building startups, especially in the role of sales. One of those lessons is (two-part) the role of the champion and empowering the champion to overcome internal hurdles.
I remember a project I was working on many, many years ago. We had just done a tremendous amount of work after developing models and recommendations on the client’s technology stack. We also helped the company choose a large transportation management system (TMS). We delivered our recommendations and findings to the company’s C-suite. We completed our 3-hour discussion, and yet, were only able to get through half our recommendations. As a consultant only a few months in, I thought things went well other than missing half the slides. Our internal debrief, however, highlighted how our team had missed the mark. Our recommendations focused too much on the TMS and did not deliver on IT infrastructure improvements we needed to hit home on for our champion, the Director of IT. The President and CFO moved forward with the TMS, but the rest of the scope where the Director wanted to achieve didn’t make the radar. As such, he never got budget to move forward with key initiatives.
In today’s B2B sales world, there are 7-8 folks involved in the buying process (Gartner). The role of the champion is as important as ever, and empowering the champion is critical. Empowering can come in the form of delivering a set of recommendations to the C-level suite, and to providing the champion with information and a ROI to gain buy-in internally.
In a complex sale, most of the selling does not involve a vendor’s sales professional. Instead, the real selling is done internally. It’s important to remember the role of the champion. Then, ensure the champion has as much ammunition as possible to power through his/ her agenda – hopefully, includes you. 
Angus Lynch of CrazyEgg.com posted an article about buying modalities titled, “35% of Web Visitors Are ‘Spontaneous’ Buyers. Are You Alienating Them?”. He describes the four buying modalities:
  • Competitive (5-10% of web visitors) – buyer makes smart, quick decisions. These buyers are all about speed and quality to gain an advantage. They want to be the best… oftentimes, the first (advantage).
  • Methodical (45%) – buyers are very logic-oriented. They want to understand everything about buying a product or service including advantages and disadvantages of competitive options.
  • Humanistic (10-15%) – buyers believe in emotional/ altruistic purchases. They are looking for validation among consensuses.
  • Spontaneous (25-35%) – these buyers make purchase decisions based on feelings and gut. That is, they make quick decisions.

The four buying modalities help to understand the type of prospect you are engaged with, and what their preferred buying process looks like. Lynch’s article touches, specifically, on website visitors. The buying modalities will determine the layout, copy, and images to leverage on websites.
For example, to attract competitive buyers, it’s important to have copy reflecting the “best” aspects of choosing a product or service. Competitive buyers need to feel they are buying an advantage over anyone else. Testimonials must reflect the “best” or “largest” institutions.
Depending on the market you are selling to and attracting to your website, it’s likely the above website proportions of visitors is very different. Understand your ideal customer profile (ICP). Know who the personas are involved in the buying decision (consensus sales!). Make sure your website, sales collateral, conversations, and the like address the prospect’s buying modality.
I read an interesting article on LinkedIn the other day titled, “The New Normal in Sales: Customer Dysfunction” by Nick Toman, a sales effectiveness professional. The gist is buying processes are increasing at an alarming rate, and it is the dysfunctionat the customer that drives this and “poor” sales outcomes.
I thought about this for a while, and related it to my post, “We Appreciate Everyone Except Our Vendors, and It’s Killing Sales”. Toman’s article provides a perspective at the customer and the ailments killing sales.
A few take-aways from Toman’s article that I’ve noticed over the last year in modern B2B sales:
  • 2.5 years ago, the buyer group consisted of 5.4 stakeholders. Today, that number is 6.8 from 3.4 different functional areas. When you add heads into the buying process, there’s an expectation of a need to get consensus which, ironically, is the result of indecision due to more heads.
  • Customers citing high amounts of dysfunction are 60% less likely to make an ambitious purchase (vs. lower dysfunction companies). This leads to customers buying very simple, bare minimum purchases to assuage the consensus.
  • The average purchase decision takes 4.9 months while the average “no purchase” decision takes 4.7. There’s so much dysfunction that getting any type agreement (go or no-go) is virtually the same. No wonder prospects go radio silent before any feedback.

A few keys then arise from these thoughts. First, be prepared for the long haul and the difficulty of today’s sales. Second, nail the value prop as quick as possible with a very specific target group. Third, reduce the consensus. Get the sale. Expand later.

Remember, all it takes is one opponent (negative feedback) to derail a whole sale.
What are your thoughts? What have you noticed in today’s sales? How would you address the challenges?
I am a big fan of data, analytics, metrics and… you get it. So much so, I’ve recently published several posts:

Fitting that one of my colleagues shared a talk by the Director of Marketing, Diana Smith, of technology startup Segment: “Measuring for B2B Engagement”.

In this talk, Diana shares what and how to measure engagement in technology products/ services, especially (my favorite). It’s a quick sub-14’ video, but if you’re looking for the highlights, I’ve got you covered.
  • Develop a Tracking Plan. What events to track? Why? What properties should be captured? Location of the events to track (i.e. website page, app screen)?
  • Key to the Tracking Plan is defining a naming convention. The naming convention should start with the Object (i.e. user, account, document) and the action (i.e. signUp, delete, edit). Consistent naming conventions enable teams to easily and quickly align on metrics. Examples: userSignUp, accountDelete, documentEdit.
  • Question WHY you want to track. Understand WHAT you want to track and why. Start with 3-5 events. Diana recommends these three areas to start: Discovery(how the user has displayed interest), Engage (how users explore top feature(s)), and Convert (where users pay).
  • Pre-signup, be simple. When considering what to track pre-signup, track the origin of people hitting entering the site and conversion. Use Google Analytics.
  • Think about the important events of an app/ user from the very beginning. This enables everything downstream to be smoother and easier.

Diana gave a decent high-level talk on tracking without getting too technical. Check it out, and ensure your tracking aligns enables your business/ growth strategy.

What are your thoughts on event tracking and analytics? What are the metrics you care about and why?