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 …


♦️   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!


♦️   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.


♦️   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.

Seeing (and seizing) the opportunity

It’s a while ago now, we were talking to an interesting business, a supplier of specialised equipment. Turning to digital matters – we’d already seen their website was woeful – ‘So what’s going on with you online?’ we asked. We were met with the broadest of smiles, clearly we’d asked the right question.

img_0541‘Oh the website’s a joke – been there years. We’re on top of it now though. You’ll be able to see the new one by the end of the week – we’re just about to go live with it. Absolutely marvellous, it is …’ We were pleased for them; their enthusiasm for the shiny new cog in their sales process was palpable and infectious.

The end of the week duly arrived, did we check out the new website? Well no, actually, we forgot. In fact a month or two passed before it came back to us and we feverishly tapped it into Google.

So, the new website .. has it raised the bar from where they were before? Undeniably. Is it a masterpiece of minimalist design? No doubt. Is it yet another example of a company ticking a box whilst wasting a huge opportunity? Absolutely.

Looking beyond the occasional 404 and the occurrence of ‘also’ twice in one rather conspicuous sentence, what else is there that stands out?

Nothing. That’s just it – it’s a site with a personality bypass. In an industry of largely characterless websites, they’ve succeeded in adding another. Rather than standing out from the crowd, they’ve merely joined it.

img_0543Ironic though it may be, this essentially is the problem when sites are designed by erm, well, designers. Often they’ll even say that the new whatever isn’t about design awards, that it’s all about the business and contributing to the bottom line. Then they go and produce something far more suited to the mantlepiece than the engine.

Successful sellers know that ultimately, doing business is about personality and rapport. People still buy from people, yet for so many websites it’s like the normal rules of human interaction somehow don’t apply. Not enough attention to tone of voice – big on design, navigation and calls to action, low on personality, likability and humour.

Then there’s the impact any new website could and should have on the overall process. With a shiny new tool in the toolbox, referring back to it, using phrases and expressions taken from it, effectively corroborates what the salesperson is saying. To some extent it even provides social proof. And consistency is convincing.

img_0542Far too often, a new website is like a stone chucked into a pond: once the ripples die down, things carry on pretty much as before. For many, sales and marketing alignment is about where and when marketing people pass prospects to salespeople. But websites are marketing: how salespeople work with and refer to them – that’s alignment too!

In the end, as with anything new, how you introduce it is key. It’s about change management, seeing the bigger picture, deciding how and where the new component should fit. Above all, it’s about attention to detail. The genius sales process – it’s 10% constitution, 90% execution!

So the next time you contemplate a brand makeover, web refresh, or whatever, remember the true purpose .. It’s an opportunity, not just another to-do box awaiting a tick. Yes the clean new look will be stunning, but in 6 months time, what difference really will it have made?

Collaboration: what it means really

imageA quick online trawl shows that there’s certainly no shortage of businesses claiming to work ‘collaboratively’. But then a closer look will reveal that for many, collaboration is really just another way of saying they work with other businesses. More often than not, the term itself is little more than a buzzword used to pad out the value proposition.

Which is a shame, because real collaboration in business is a powerful instrument worthy of far more than mere lip service. Basically, when collaboration gets invited to the party, everyone stands to benefit.

So what does real collaborative intent in a working relationship actually look like? Herewith the necessary and sufficient conditions that underpin all true collaboration:

1. No ‘us’ and ‘them’  The usual buyer/supplier relationship is replaced by something more akin to a collective mindset, involving full two-way transfer of knowledge. The collaborative partner is materially on the same team – the idea of them being treated, say, as some kind of customer to be sold/upsold/cross-sold to, never comes into it.

image2. Neither party solely owns the risk  When this holds true, no one is left to carry the can should the project fail. If it doesn’t work out then the costs are effectively split – it isn’t the case that one party picks up the tab whilst the other merely collects their fee and moves on.

3. Neither party solely owns the reward.  Uncommon, though no less essential, project revenue doesn’t flow into one partner’s coffers before being paid on to settle the second partner’s bill. Instead it is viewed as entering a notional holding ‘pot’ from which all earnings are paid according to prior agreement.

So there it is – shared knowledge/aspiration, shared risk, shared reward – it isn’t rocket science but get these in place and you’re well on the way to true collaboration…

Goal-setting – the SMARTest thing? (Part 3)

imageIn our previous posts on goal-setting, we’ve challenged conventional wisdom and been generally sceptical about the benefits of goals and the evidence in their favour. By ‘goals’ we don’t mean the checkpoints that tend to occur naturally along the way to doing virtually anything, but rather the ‘aiming points’ we set – or more often than not, are set for us – as incentives.

All goals fall to us as individuals – even corporate ones are meant to ‘cascade’ – but as best-selling author Dan Pink (among others) observed, human motivation is really far too complex to be driven effectively by mere carrots and sticks. In this, our third and final (for the time being) look at goals, we consider a few more subtle approaches based primarily on understanding how motivation really works.

Perhaps the first thing to recognise with traditional methods of motivation is that despite its poor record as a reliable driver of behaviour, guilt often forms the active ingredient of carrot and stick approaches, most notably where ‘carrot’ equates essentially to ‘not stick’.

imageIn fact, our response to any long-term task is largely shaped by how distantly we view the finish line and how optimistic we are of reaching it. Take, for example, the ambition many of us have of writing a book. People who actually go on to become authors are not necessarily those with the best writing skills, nor even the greatest desire, but those best equipped to overcome Doubt and Delay – the twin enemies of progress.

Instead of focusing on the mountain, they have the ability to fast-forward and just know that they’ll get to the summit.

Self-awareness is another useful tool to have in the box. As individuals, we have varying abilities to apply ourselves: where some people seem blessed with prodigious powers of concentration, still others soon tire. The key is for us to accept our realities. Rather than beat ourselves up about them, far better to acknowledge our limitations and look for ways to work constructively around or through them.

Then again, it may be simply a matter of organisation. People often become less productive the more they have to do, due in no small part to their growing uncertainty about what they should do next. Salespeople can be particularly prone: should I make that call, send that email, respond to that RFI ..? There may be no right answer so even as they’re doing one thing, they worry they should be doing something else. It drags down productivity.

Ultimately, getting things done is less about giving ourselves superficial hoops to jump through – no matter how SMART – and far more about understanding the task at hand and the resources at our disposal. Certainly, when all else is said and done these are two aspects of management that, at Thesis, we never forget or neglect.

Goal-setting – the SMARTest thing? (Part 2)

Last time we took a brief look at the evidence in favour of goal-setting and generally found it rather unconvincing. In this, the second of three posts about goals, we consider some of their drawbacks…

imagePerhaps the most obvious issue with goals, whether corporate or individual, is that they’re generally as long as a piece of string – arbitrary. We come up with (SMART) goals and make them our be all and end all, but then to treat them as such over an extended period still largely requires an act of faith.

In true Micawber fashion, reaching our goals may result in happiness and missing them in misery, yet in reality the world continues to turn regardless.

According to a much-quoted saying, if you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know when you get there. But as Covey and others have pointed out, knowing where you want to go doesn’t necessarily say much about the best way to get there. Becoming overly focused on a distant prize may, however, be one sure way to trip over the rock right in front of you. Plus it restricts your ability to spot other, even better prizes along the way.image

In our view, the main issue with goals as motivators is that they’re really a very blunt tool that take no account of how we respond to them as individuals. As such, they speak only to the symptoms of procrastination rather than to their cause.

In Part 3 of this commentary, we’ll consider other, more effective approaches to motivation building – so make it your goal to watch out for that!

Goal-setting – the SMARTest thing? (Part 1) 

Goals are great aren’t they? They guide us along our chosen path, enable us to keep a check on progress, even help us get back on track if we wobble off it.

imageSince 1968, when psychologist Edwin A. Locke gave goals a modern day makeover, goal-setting has consistently ranked amongst the most favoured and widely used of all management tools. Now goal-setting in general and SMART in particular (everyone’s favourite acronym – it first emerged in the early ’80s) are all over the internet.

But are goals really all they’re cracked up to be? Do they actually work or do they just sound good in theory whilst delivering little in practice other than a guilt trip? How effective are they really at helping us get results?

For years, the most cited research in favour of goals was the famed 1953 Harvard goal study, which found that graduating MBAs with written goals went on to massively outperform their goalless peers. However, for the same reason that not all legless mammals are dolphins, its conclusions were based on false logic. Worse, it was also a myth: it never actually happened.

Now note that this is not about planning, forecasts and the like, all of which are undeniably vital. Rather, what we’re talking about here are goals, aka targets, aka quotas – numbers used to focus us, to spur us on to greater things, above all to motivate us. If we were all programmable robots, frankly they wouldn’t be needed, but then the evidence that they are is far from conclusive in any case.

imageNo less a guru than Stephen Covey once said ‘Stop setting goals. Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.’ In other words, without a plan, goals are bad news. The thing is that even with a plan they can be counterproductive.

In Part 2 of this exposé we consider further why goals often turn out to be own-goals in practice. So play it SMART and stay tuned for that…

Collabreativity – the new spice* of business life

(* Coming soon to a cinnamon near you)

Back in the early days of the new millennium, when anything and everything seemed possible, co-creation was but one of a host of ideas all poised on the launch pad.

The notion that suppliers and consumers could come together to shape the products of the future is what led ultimately, for better or worse, to what we now call social media.

But collaboration can take many forms and collaborative creativity these days is as likely to refer to businesses working together to be better businesses as to enable them to create exceptional products.

In particular, a major hurdle is cleared when B2B service providers opt to shift from front- to back-end charging.

imageSuppose, for example, you do spade hire and as a geolocation specialist, I’ve got a pretty good idea where the treasure’s buried. Do you still insist on your usual up-front hire charge, even though that will clearly eat into my calculation budget and may jeopardise the entire project?

Or do we simply agree to divi up the treasure and start digging? Even if we draw a blank, isn’t it better that we should try anyway?

Creative solutions like this may seem obvious, yet every day great projects get held back precisely because up-frontism takes precedence over longer-term potential.    The Opportunity Gap, in other words.

imageYet it’s a divide that with properly managed profit-shared and risk-balanced working arrangements can be bridged.

It isn’t trivial. But it is worth it. Collaborative creativity – someday maybe all businesses will work this way.

Until then, well, there’s us. Or as we like to say…

Welcome to the future.