Sales isn’t for Sissies

One of my fellow speakers (and fellow Bay Staters) at the MWEC Conference was Mike Schultz of Rain Group.  He’s a tremendous speaker, and has written a couple of books about sales that have done well.  I’m not a big fan of most sales books, because what sales requires more than anything else is personal discipline to run the process right and to keep on swinging the bat when things aren’t going well.  There are lots of processes, and many of them work.  (I’m most intrigued by what CEB has discovered in their work about The Challenger Sale– the most successful reps push their clients’ thinking, and don’t just buy drinks and nod their heads.)

Any number of sales methodologies will work.   But if you don’t get rigorous about them, then every one of them will fail.  Sales isn’t about being charming.  Sales is about helping people diagnose and solve problems.  And to lend a sense of urgency that prevents people from staying idle.   Especially at a time when every buyer comes to the table armed with reams of content (that you and your competitors put on the web for free), sales reps have to be smart and bring something special to the table, not just spit out talking points and features.

Mike’s sales philosophy is simple and hard– every successful sales rep needs to do three things:

  • Resonate, or create the belief in the client’s mind that there is a real, relevant problem that needs to be solved
  • Differentiate, or show that you are not like everybody else, but in fact the only one who does what you do.  (I like to call it distinctiveness, but hey, it’s his model.)
  • Substantiate, or offer proof that it actually works

That’s it.  Very simple and clear, and every one of them is a meaningful challenge to execute.

Some people can do well on the first criterion– they are selling something that has real relevance to a real business problem.   But for most of us, we’re not selling water in the desert, we’re selling nice, useful, perfectly adequate solutions to well-understood problems.  Not a whole lot of urgency there.  So how do you generate that resonance and urgency without compromising on intellectual integrity (a/k/a lying)?  There’s a lot of homework to be done, to understand not only your client’s industry, but your client’s positioning within that industry.  Not a shoeshine and a smile.

Differentiating can also be challenging.  The narcissism of small differences means that we know exactly how we differ from our competitors, but those differences– significant in our eyes– really don’t matter much to customers.  Is there really a big difference between Mazda and Hyundai?  In the eyes of Mazda and Hyundai dealers I’m sure there are.  In the eyes of car buyers, I don’t think there’s much. This also requires deep understanding about what your buyer cares about and doesn’t care about.

Finally, substantiation is the hardest for most startups.  When you have no track record, how do you prove that your solution works?  It takes a strong personal relationship and a steady hand on the tiller to pull this off.  The guys from Accenture can afford to miss a beat– they have a bulletproof track record.  You are selling a promise of what’s to come.  That means you can’t miss a trick.  It ain’t easy,and it’s one of the reasons why most startups fail.  Until you have a track record, every sale is an act of faith, or to be more honest, a gamble.  Sometimes you can play the startup card in your favor– “We’re smaller, we’ll hustle more.”  But until you have a track record, this will be the hardest part.

Schultz’s three criteria are easy to remember but hard to deliver on, which makes them a useful mantra for every salesperson and executive.  Until your sales machine is purring, you need to make progress every day on making your story resonate, your value proposition genuinely differentiated, and your value substantiated.

You also need to be running a disciplined sales process.  This all sounds hard, and it is, but sales isn’t for sissies.

P.S.  Check out Mike’s change.org petition about the Melody valve, which helps treat kids with heart trouble, and which needs an exception from FDA Standard Operating Procedure.  Great cause, and great story.

Photo credit: Flickr

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