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Why sales mindsets are the new competitive advantage

14th Sep 2015
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I’d like to start with a question. What do the following have in common? Growth in Toshiba photocopiers and printer sales in the UK by 76% in one year - in an otherwise flat market - and Sony Mobile doubling market share in one quarter in a Latin American region?

The answer is that they both decided to take a radically different approach to educating their sales organisations. They have thrown away the traditional ‘sheep dip’ sales enablement model and focussed instead on what really, really matters to their customers; namely caring deeply about what their customers care about and selling according to what gets results.

The thought leadership around sales is currently dominated by doom and gloom about the future of selling. One of the most respected authorities in the field, CEB, recently conducted a study of more than 1,400 B2B customers across industries which revealed that 57% of a typical purchase decision is made before a customer even talks to a supplier. And Forrester forecasts that a million US B2B salespeople will lose their jobs to self-service ecommerce by 2020; that’s more than 20% of the B2B salesforce!

Why the gloom? Why would so many customers prefer to deal with a website than a person? We assert what’s very simple and obvious to everyone. The human element frequently makes the customer experience so poor that lots of buyers prefer to work with a machine. This, despite companies spending £billions on sales training every year.

They crave a great customer experience

Companies’ salesforces are still not respecting what their clients crave, which is a great customer experience. Our Doctoral research on what C-Level clients’ want has shown that, if done well, customers really appreciate a great sales experience and recognise that innovative suppliers and solutions are key to the future success of the customers’ business. The problem is that such experiences rarely happen. In fact, our research has consistently shown that only around 10% of sales people meet executive customers’ expectations. So, an obvious question is “what do that 10% do differently?”

As an example, how did one business manage to get so close to their prospective customer and their needs that, having awarded them the contract,  the customer stated that “you were so close to us, it was hard to tell in the end who was working in your company and who was working in ours.”

The four sales mindsets

Our rather startling discovery is that it’s not about competence and it’s only partially about behaviours. It’s actually about something much deeper. It’s the values of the person selling which then drives everything that the buyer then experiences, for good or for bad. From this searing insight a very simple yet telling framework has been developed: The Four Sales Mindsets of top sales people. These are:

  • Authenticity: be open, honest and trustworthy and respect clients at all times.
  • Client-centricity: care about what the client cares about, not what you happen to be selling; and don’t hound them purely so you can seal the deal by quarter end.
  • Proactive-creativity: bringing creative and innovative solutions, based on what the seller’s company does brilliantly that helps the client’s company win in today’s tough world.
  • Tactful audacity: the art of knowing how far to go too far – courageous in challenging the client but emotionally intelligent so as to know the boundaries.

Genuine client-centricity is surprisingly rare in sales and when was the last course you went on that challenged you to be authentic? Yet, when our Masters’ students interviewed their own customers about how they want to be sold to, these customers start with wanting these two basics mindsets in place, as they too rarely see them.

Working in practice

Working this to your advantage as a seller is surprisingly easy to achieve. One business, selling into a major telecoms operator, carried-out simple yet insightful analysis on the competitive pressures and opportunities for growth that the operator faced. They then went on to share some proactive creative ideas whereby the seller could help make the operator more successful. The customer was so taken aback by the focus and time taken on THEM that they firstly expressed astonishment that in more than 20 years of buying, no sales person had ever shown such client-centricity. Then, they rewarded the seller by giving them insights on the details of what was going on in the operator’s business, so that the company was able to seal a major deal, carefully tailored to these tough-to-find-out details.

How about this as another example of client-centricity? The account team selling IT to a bank that was experiencing customer service issues went out and interviewed the bank’s own customers on video, summarised the issues back to the bank, together with how the IT company’s solutions were part of the answer. The result was the largest software sale in the region in the period.

Customers particularly value proactive creativity and tactful audacity. We have found that these are both mindsets that can be enhanced in sales people.

Part of the answer of how to become more tactfully audacious is to talk about it as a sales team and to make it a conscious issue to improve. This led one of Sony Mobile’s key account managers (KAM) to successfully challenge their customers’ thinking on the best way forward:

”After collating the (customer) research data...I felt comfortable refusing to back down and to stand by my original offer. I received confirmation that (the customer) would accept this. Far from damaging the relationship, the customer described my team as ‘the best in the business.’ “

Remember that this KAM had first built a very strong relationship with the mindsets of authenticity, client-centricity and proactive creativity. They knew their customer’s business intimately and knew what would really help their customer succeed, in a way that the customer did not until being respectfully challenged. Used with skill, tactful audacity is the most valuable selling mindset of all.

A second Sony KAM successfully used a similar philosophy in Latin America when faced with a very difficult change in their market:

“Working on creating an insight scenario allowed me to identify flaws in their business model. Pointing this out to them was not easy. After several weeks of discussion, the policy was modified and sales started to increase, contradicting their analysis that further price decreases were necessary. As a result, we had the best Christmas season in five years. Sony Mobile market share doubled in less than two months.”

The results are so dramatic that we believe that these companies have started to build an enduring competitive advantage in their sales teams. It is enduring, as it comes from educating people to think smarter, learning more quickly and responding to the needs of their customers in unique ways that are provably more effective. It rewards the customer with innovative solutions that makes them more successful in their own markets and transforms the selling organisation’s performance in the process.

Now what CEO or head of sales can afford to ignore that?

Ian Helps is a director of Consalia, a global sales performance improvement consultancy and a member of Cranfield University’s Practice Advisory Board. Ian has worked for major companies, including BP, Shell and E.ON, where he held a variety of roles including strategy manager and European business development manager focused on major transnational deals. Whilst at Shell, he was a global consultancy manager and launched and turned around businesses throughout the world.

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