Sales Consilience

Is there a “fundamental natural law” for sales effectiveness, and if so, what is it?  Consilience means the Unity of Knowledge around a few fundamental natural laws.  This esoteric term was popularized by Edward O. Wilson – a brilliant Harvard scientist – and was the title of a great book he wrote several years ago.  The goal here is far less ambitious than the unity of all knowledge, but it is a bit of a grand goal none the less: to explain how effectiveness in complex sales can be boiled down into one basic relationship:

More Value = More Effective

Of course effectiveness in complex selling requires many things.  From having selling talent, to the ability to build rapport, to having a product worth selling, to qualifying, to asking difficult questions and so on.  Truly great complex enterprise sales folks are really good at a lot of things.  But everything else equal, the single biggest impact – by far - you can make in your selling effectiveness is by focusing on value.   More still, almost every seemingly independent thing we attribute to success in complex selling is really just a result of a focus on more value.  You might be saying, “OK, smart guy, what exactly do you mean by ’more value’?”  Good question, because it is more than just a bigger ROI or better TCO.  There are basically three key components to selling value: learning, aligning, and quantifying.  If you’re doing these three things, you’re invariably qualifying better, converting more, improving your price point, and making deals happen faster.  Show me a world class enterprise sales person – say someone who has made over $1M in commissions, and I’ll bet you ten to one the key factor contributing to his success is a focus on value (even if they don’t know it).

Learning is a well documented talent and skill of pros in complex solution sales.  Many folks confuse learning with its two components: listening and asking questions.  Fact is neither of those two skills by themselves will get you very far.  Great learning requires the proactive approach of asking good questions tied to ability to listen empathetically.  Folks who are naturally curious people will find this skill much easier to master; it is in fact a natural talent of great salespeople.  Check out Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling for a detailed discussion of the kind of questions you want to ask and how to ask them.  But frankly, I’d be less focused on the kind of questions and more focused on the kind of learning.  I believe the best analogy to this part of selling is that of a great doctor diagnosing: he combines his expertise of the subject matter with a genuine interest to understand the situation and ability to gauge and relate the importance and urgency of any prescription.  Real learning is the foundation upon which every important thing about effective complex selling rests.

The idea that a salesperson is going to rearrange corporate priorities in any significant way is an admirable one, but it’s just not usually going to happen.  And yet a lack of urgency is the bane of many enterprise buying cycles.  What to do?  The way great sales people build urgency for the purchase of their solution is by helping the buyer see alignment with current initiatives, challenges, goals, or painpoints that already have urgency and deadlines.  Most likely that’s because they’re already viewed as important and critical.  To establish this alignment, you have to learn about what the prospect is focused on, why they have certain pains or are driving a particular initiative.  How those things impact KPIs for their department.  Only when you learn, and understand this, can you build a real, specific, value proposition for that prospect.  Before that any generic, but specific, value proposition (we’re going to reduce wasted DBA time by 20%) is really throwing a dart blindfolded.  And we all know that can be dangerous.

Putting a dollar figure next to the value of a solution or the cost of not acting is nothing new in complex selling, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t still the single best way to highlight your solution’s benefit.  There are, though, better and worse ways to quantify value.  First you should try to establish a rough quantified value as early in the process as possible.  An effective way to do this is by talking about some high level KPIs you’re confident a prospect will care about and eventually share how your solution has impacted those KPIs at other customers (some might call this the Selling to VITO step).  What VP of sales isn’t interested in better sales cycle times or improved ASPs?  What CIO isn’t striving for reduced costs and improved application performacne?  The goal is to have the prospect ask “how?”  Not how does your product work, but how are you going to improve, save, ensure, mitigate, or optimize something important to your prospect.  Seems subtle, but the two approaches are worlds apart.

Frankly, despite general agreement about how superior a value based, solution oriented, sales approach is, it’s amazing to see how rarely it’s actually practiced vs the same old features/functions/demos/numbers/efficiency approach.  That’s probably because it’s harder to break away from that approach than it might seem.  It’s not just sales people who are trained the old way: Make your pitch, demo your product, see if they like it.  No, buyers are “trained” that way too: how many times has the first question from a prospect been, “what’s your pitch?” or “show me what you got.” There are really no tools to help salespeople or sales management do it the better way.  Sales methodologies are a dime a dozen, but not ones that are essentially hidden within a tool.  It’s not easy to swim against that stream sometimes, but it’s worth it. 
Everything else comes back to Value.  More value will beat better relationships.  More value will trump a slicker presentation.  Aligned value will edge out better sales process.  If there’s one natural law in sales, it is More Value = More Effective.