The secret schism in B2B selling

It’s the ideological split that has divided the sales profession for over 50 years, yet barely ever gets a mention. In the first of two articles, we take an overdue look at the two sides of this ‘secret’ schism, starting with the one based on the single most important ingredient in B2B selling today … Value.

imageBusiness technology is expanding at such a rate these days that even keeping track can seem like Mission Impossible. Here at Thesis, we maintain a database of business-related software that, while not by any means exhaustive, lists in excess of 2000 active apps and programs. Unsurprisingly, a considerable number, relating to automation, lead gen, CRM and so on, are aimed squarely at those of us whose job it is to sell. Indeed, it’s really quite enlightening to view the sales profession effectively through this lens of technology.

Yet the fact is that no matter how much professional selling appears to change or evolve, in one respect at least, it always stays the same. Individual experts and methodologies may come and go but selling value remains the undisputed king.

And why shouldn’t it? Isn’t that what people and businesses want? Come to think of it, isn’t it the very reason that businesses exist – to create value? As described in published works now regarded as foundational*, a business is the union of a value chain that first makes the stuff and a value delivery system that then disperses it. As for selling, from SPIN® to the Challenger™ and every scheme in between, adding to or enhancing that value is the name of the game. The only thing that varies is how.

All of which is great, except for one thing. In practice, selling value simply fails to live up to expectation.

It isn’t that seeking to maximise it can’t or shouldn’t be a major part of sales, rather that sometimes – and in our experience, far more often than is commonly admitted – value just isn’t the magic key it’s made out to be.
Why? Well check out these killers …

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♦️   A distinct lack of wow. Selling value is nothing new and more than likely, the people sitting across the table have seen it all before. As an essentially formulaic approach anyway, the risk is that it leads to presentations that are stilted and just downright ineffective. We’ve certainly seen a fair few of those!

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♦️   It crowds out rapport. We’re fully aware that focusing on value-based presentations doesn’t preclude the possibility of developing rapport, but in our view, when the seller goes into a meeting thinking primarily of the value prop, great rapport most likely isn’t uppermost in his or her thoughts. Even in complex transactions, business people are people first – don’t neglect growing the relationship in the dash to selling the solution.

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♦️   It’s a distraction. Maybe sometimes when there’s a deal to be done, it’s just a whole lot easier to talk about value than to have the direct discussion the situation really deserves. If the deal fails, then lo and behold it’s because the value wasn’t recognised, not because someone said no. Value becomes a sort of faux currency in a game of verbal ping pong when what’s actually needed is straight conversation. We’ve seen it happen. When value threatens to be a diversion, we suggest you apply the KISS principle and keep it simple, stupid. Or as we say, KIRI: keep it real, idiot.

image♦️   What is value anyway? It’s an unfortunate fact of selling value that the essence of it still makes good fuel for a decent philosophical debate. Businesses create it but buyers dictate it. So where does it reside? And what exactly is it? Benefits less cost is the usual working formula, but then how genuinely quantifiable are either benefits or cost? It’s very easy to talk about value as real stuff yet that appearance of solidity can begin to vanish the moment you start drilling down. On that basis, just maybe it isn’t the ideal stuff to have at the heart of your sales process anyway?

Weight Scale. 3D Balance Concept.

♦️   It lacks an inherent close. Because in practice selling value essentially does come down to maximising benefits less cost – and sales people are taught early on to build benefits rather than reduce cost (ie, price) – what this is apt to turn into is loading up one side of an imaginary set of scales. The seller finally plonks the kitchen sink on, looks expectantly at the prospect, and .. “I’ll think about it” comes the reply. Now it doesn’t have to be like this and in the hands of an experienced seller, maybe it isn’t. But the problem with building value is that sometimes you just never quite reach that step change moment when a ‘no’ or a ‘maybe’ flips all the way over to ‘yes’.

Ultimately, it’s not that we at Thesis are not fans of selling value, rather that as a methodology it’s often over-emphasised and, as a magic ingredient, decidedly over-rated. Plus, it most definitely is not the only game in Salestown. In Part 2 of The secret schism in B2B selling, we reveal and discuss what, in our view, not only rivals but beats value as the key to truly great selling. Stay tuned …

* Porter, Michael E. (1985) Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance – Simon and Schuster // Lanning, Michael J. (1998) Delivering profitable value: A revolutionary framework to accelerate growth, generate wealth, and rediscover the heart of business – Da Capo Press.

Business plans – worth the paper they’re written on?

At an event we attended recently, the subject of business plans got one of its periodic airings, as a speaker reiterated their importance in the grand scheme of things. All the usual sayings were there: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will do’, then again ‘How will you know when you’ve got there?’, not forgetting the daddy of them all, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail’.

imageThese were people who saw business plans as essential to doing business, not merely as something, say, to impress a potential investor. While broadly agreeing, we still thought there was far too much emphasis placed on the notion of getting things ‘down on paper’. Like a small piece of processed tree ever achieved anything …

For us, as for many others, the overwhelming benefit of any business plan is the activity that creates it. Planning is the fundamental activity of business. All that other stuff – producing, fulfilling, advising and so on – that’s just being an employee. Sitting down and actually making decisions about what we’re capable of and what we’re going to do about it – what’s our strategy, in other words – that’s doing business.

And therein lies the issue with emphasising the documentation side of planning. It invites people to breathe a sigh of relief and carry on like nothing happened. It’s the old SPOTS – Strategic Plans On Top Shelves – syndrome. ‘Plus now we’ve got that chore out the way, we don’t have to worry about it for a while either!’ For most of us, it seems, business planning won’t be winning any to-do list popularity contests anytime soon.

imageOne very possible reason for that may be the mystique that’s now built up around what planning should entail. Brainstorming, ideation, post-it notes, starting with why … No wonder most of us mentally run for the hills at the mere mention of it. It’s largely because of all this jargon stuff that we feel this way!

Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, for instance. Sinek fans look away now but has there ever been a more naff question to constructively open a conversation? Like, why? Why anything? Well, why not anything? .. SWW might, with hindsight, appear to fit the story of Apple, but the rest of us?

At Thesis we believe the fundamental purpose of any business is to grow. That’s the real Why. Planning is the ongoing process surrounding the steps we take to achieve that. Who’s going to do what with what? Once we’ve worked that out, only then can we decide what activities need to be removed, added, reallocated or amended (RA-RA) It’s a simple model but all the more effective for that.

It might even yield some fairly impressive documentation, but really, that’s no more than a bi-product.

As ever, the journey’s the thing, not the destination.

All systems go for big data/automation?

It has been reported that the last bastion of mind-over-megabytes fell recently when Google’s go-playing computer AlphaGo defeated world no. 1, Lee Sedol, 4-1.

Go is a game that has hitherto resisted all attempts to produce a machine capable of beating a human, due mainly to its astronomical number of possible permutations. So many in fact that the ability to perform a zajillion calculations a second still came up short against human intuition. Until now.

imageIn the year when so-called big data became mainstream, go finally went the way of backgammon and chess in the 90’s – a computer became the best player on the planet.

So what of big data? In truth, we’re always surrounded by oodles of it, only now we have the ability to capture, analyse, and act upon it. Groceries will arrive courtesy of orders submitted by the fridge, doubtless after consultation with the bathroom scales. Everything will connect to everything.

Which is, of course, the marketer’s dream. By connecting all of the dots in real time, the intention and most definitely the hope is to get inside our heads, to infer our thoughts, basically to discover what motivates us to buy.

But how realistic is that aim? Certainly there is room for improvement. Google anything purchasable currently and it’s not unlikely you’ll be bombarded for days by programmatic ads following up. Yet your reason for googling may have had very little to do with actually wanting to buy the thing. It just comes across as technology that’s too clever for its own good – ham-fisted and self-serving.

With big data, these kinds of disconnect will supposedly become a thing of the past. By combining all of our interactions with technology, ad servers et al will infer exactly what we’re about, will know how far through the funnel we are – indeed, whether we’re even in it at all. But will they ever really reach the point of knowing our thoughts and intentions even before we act upon them?

imageSome think not, that there’s a limit to how far brute force computing power can take us. Imagine, for example, that we can calculate the outcome of the coin toss before a football match, given the coin, the environment, and the myriad features of the pitch. Given the technology we have these days that may even be possible now … Yet calculating – not predicting – the outcome of the match itself, that still remains a challenge of a different magnitude altogether.

The sheer fact is that despite the hype, no matter how much technology we bring to bear – and we’re already seeing data management tools capable of tracking millions of marketing touchpoints across literally billions of attributes – there will always be a limit to what is and isn’t deducible. At some point, unavoidably, the Law of Diminishing Returns kicks in.

In truth the main issue with big data is not so much the expectation that currently surrounds it but that it will lead inevitably to the continued growth of sales ‘machinery’.

From the humble Twitter auto DM to the dreaded boilerplate autoresponder to the explosion in recent years of marketing automation, it seems there’s no end to what’s possible to automate. Yet if the end goal remains personalisation of the buying experience, is this really the way to go?

imageWhile there’s a balance to be drawn between automating dialogue and keeping it personal, there are many who believe that things have already tilted too far in the auto direction. Some even go so far as to put the growth in marketing automation more down to the ‘boiler room’ methods being used to sell it than any inherent value in the product. They argue that too much automation is a poor replacement for real person-to-person communication.

And therein lies the crux. Ultimately, and despite the ongoing march towards techno this and auto that, there will always be some things at which people simply outshine the bots. Okay so we’ve lost at go. We still hold the upper hand at poker. And don’t expect to see a machine winning Wimbledon any time soon. To that list, add holding a conversation, establishing rapport, making a sale. Because when it all comes down to it, people just do them better.