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 dispenses 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 potent 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 …

This article first appeared in the April 2016 edition of Today’s Seller.

Agree or disagree, all comments welcomed.

* 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.

All systems go for big data/automation?

Not half way through and already 2016 is shaping up as a bad one for the humans in the ongoing battle of man versus machine. Earlier this year, it was widely reported, another bastion of mind-over-megabytes fell when Google’s go-playing computer AlphaGo defeated world no. 1, Lee Sedol, 4-1.

It’s 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.

CWB

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?

CWB

This article first appeared in Today’s Seller, Feb 2016.