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Be Flexible & Creative When You Sell

One of our business partners in the US and a good mate of mine Walter Rogers from Baker Communications wrote this excellent article about being flexible and creative when you sell. 

It really fits in with the way we approach our sales training too, and I thought you would enjoy it, so I have reprinted it below.

Walter interviewed me on CNN Radio about this very subject yesterday – I’ll copy you on the link when the interview appears online.

Until then – hope you enjoy the below article & as always very interested in your feedback!

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Get in the habit of being flexible and creative

 

“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”

 

This famous quote by Henry Ford reveals his strategy for mass producing the Model T automobile and launching the great industrial juggernaut of the early 20th century. For almost 100 years, this attitude also defined the baseline strategy of most sales organizations: “The customer can have any product or service they want, as long as they let us tell them what they can have.”

 

People have been buying and selling since before recorded history, and during all that time, the sales process has rarely varied. Sellers have identified a profitable opportunity and pushed their product or solution to a likely customer, along the way doling out options and information only as needed and trying to control the process so that the customer was dependent on the sales person and the company for everything.

 

However, the cumulative technological advances of the past 20 years – not the least of which is the way the entire business culture has been transformed by the Internet – has turned the tables; the customer is beginning to take charge and drive the sales conversation. The Internet supplies customers with immediate and highly detailed information about your company’s products and services, along with information about all of your competitors. The advent of social media accelerates this process by giving buyers real-life and near-real-time reviews and opinions of your product and service.  Now, rather than waiting for a sales person to approach them with something that they might find helpful, customers are proactively leveraging the Internet looking for the product or the company that appears best suited to meet their needs. In addition, these web-savvy customers prefer to do business online, using the tools, interfaces and amenities available through the Internet to do business their way, according to their schedule, to meet their specific needs.

 

Because today’s more sophisticated customers have a sense of power and entitlement, they are likely to be fully aware of the options and solutions available to them. They are no longer willing to settle for a product just because a sales professional says it is a good choice. Most customers these days aren’t necessarily looking for products at all. What they are interested in finding is a specific outcome. (Most sales professionals think that customers are looking for solutions. They are wrong. Customers generally don’t care what solution they get, as long as it delivers theoutcome they need.) For this reason, sales professionals must stop thinking about simply pushing products or solutions. The way to close more business and drive more revenue today lies in first being sensitive to the customer’s needs and then adopting a flexible, creative approach to customizing products and solutions that will help customers achieve their desired outcome.

 

Even in the most commoditized industries, highly successful sales professionals understand that when you can create options that are aligned with the customer’s needs and desired outcomes, you will differentiate yourself from a competitor who only sells widgets, and you will be able to sell on value and not price.   For this reason, it is vitally important for sales professionals to refocus their efforts on exploring ideas and options with their customers that may be outside of the normal box.  And all of this can only happen if the sales professional is creative in their thinking, curious about their customer’s business, and flexible in how they structure the product and solution mix to achieve the only thing that matters: the customer’s desired outcome.

 

Where does creativity come from?

 

Because creativity is such an important component in being able to work with customers to develop the outcomes they need, we need to stop and take just a moment to address it directly. Most of us would probably say that we are not particularly creative, because we don’t write music or novels or create visual art. Creativity is so much bigger than that. Creativity really refers to the ability to generate something unique that didn’t exist before, and you can apply that to literally any aspect of life. We were all born with the drive to be creative. When we were kids we were given a box of crayons and creativity flowed out of us in ways that were unique to us and which gave us joy.  We asked lots of “why” and “how” questions. We used our imaginations to bring life to toys and invisible friends. Eventually, though, that box of crayons was replaced with a geometry book and our creativity was replaced with rules and memorization and regurgitation. This “memorize and regurgitate” paradigm became the means to help us reach certain ends: pass tests, fit in with the system, meet acceptable standards, etc., but it came at a price; it suppressed our enthusiasm for creativity, because creativity didn’t seem to fit in with the way the rest of the world functioned.

 

This memorize and regurgitate process extends even into professional sales careers, as sales professionals are continuously exposed to product and service announcements, value propositions, and endless lists of features which are designed to be easily memorized and regurgitated.  We quickly accept the proposition that in order to become successful sales professionals, we only need to thoroughly memorize all these items and then effectively regurgitate them to our customers in order to make a sale. However, as we have already pointed out, today’s customers are much too sophisticated to have any patience at all with sales professionals who “show up and throw up.” Instead, you must “create and collaborate” to deliver the outcomes your customer is looking for.

 

Doug Conant, CEO of Campbell Soup, has built a highly successful leadership philosophy around the following phrase: “You can’t talk your way out of something you behaved your way into. You have to behave your way out of it.”[1] In a nutshell, the point here is that there is no shortcut to success and no substitute for clear, comprehensive, creative behavior change. If you want to truly succeed in helping your customers achieve their outcomes in ways that differentiate you from everyone else, you must change your behavior: stop regurgitating pre-conceived solutions and start creating options that make sense to the customer. To accomplish this, you will need to dedicate yourself to re-building your creative muscle and apply it religiously in every customer interaction.

 

Here is a specific list of actions you can take to re-build that muscle. Like anything else, you have to work at this consistently:

 

Expand your horizons.

 

  • Broaden yourself to more than one field.
  • Read widely.
  • Work on different projects at the same time.
  • Use visual as well as verbal representations.
  • Don’t follow “the pack”.
  • Use multiple methods.
  • Seek novel approaches.
  • Find new ways of making problems soluble.

 

Build enthusiasm.

 

  • Pursue projects that are fun.
  • Play with ideas and things.
  • Ask interesting questions.
  • Take risks.
  • Have a desire to understand the “why”.
  • Build different cognitive muscle

 

Associate and Communicate.

 

  • Associate with smart collaborators.
  • Organize good teams.
  • Study how others are successful and learn from winners.
  • Communicate your work to others.
  • Have confidants to rely on

 

Persevere.

 

  • Focus on key problems.
  • Be systematic and keep records.
  • Confirm early, disqualify late.
  • Concentrate tenaciously on a subject.
  • If someone says it can’t be done, do it.

 

 

More than anything else, the suggestions above demand that you get out of the selling rut you have plowed for yourself and learn new ways of doing things. The late Senator Harold Hughes was fond of saying: “The more you do what you always did, the more you will get what you always got.” If you are tired of getting what you have been getting, it is time to learn to do things differently.

 

As you start freeing up your creative, collaborative side, you will be able to integrate that creativity with these six best practices to connect with customers in new, exciting ways:

 

  1. Stop thinking about what you can sell the customer and start focusing on how you can help the customer reach his goals. – We have already thoroughly addressed this topic in previous articles, but it really is the only way to keep you grounded in today’s highly competitive selling culture. By thinking in terms of helping the customer meet his needs, you will avoid getting locked into a product mentality and maximize your ability to stay flexible and creative.

 

  1. Start thinking of your product as only one aspect of the value you can provide to your customer. It seems that almost over night, the philosophy of selling has shifted from a focus on products or services to a focus on consultative interactions to create outcomes. Highly successful sales professionals today want to be valued for their expertise, experience and ability to collaborate with customers and design customized solutions to deliver specific outcomes. The product or service is definitely a part of the solution, but the highly successful sales professional will also work with the customer to uniquely position and deploy that solution within the organization to produce maximum benefits, which adds extra value for everyone.

 

  1. Get used to a longer sales cycle. – The nature of this more creative, collaborative process may necessitate a longer sales cycle than you are accustomed to, even for products that might be considered commodities. You need to allow time to really get to know the client and understand their situation. This might require several conversations spread out over a few weeks or – in some cases – even a few months. You also need to devote more time to asking questions, processing answers, researching solutions and developing customized recommendations. These recommendations will then need to be socialized throughout the customer’s organization to get feedback and buy-in from key players. However, the longer sales cycle generally leads to a higher trust level between you and the customer; it also very often leads to bigger deals that close at higher margins, with a higher potential for developing into long-term relationships that drive greater revenues year over year.

 

  1. Focus on real discussions about real concerns, and steer away from cookie-cutter solutions. – The customer must feel absolutely comfortable throughout the sales process. Unfortunately, some sales professionals may feign interest in the customer’s needs and goals just long enough to steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go to position the solution they already want to offer. Customers won’t tolerate being manipulated like this. Once they sense that you are setting them up so you can deliver your preconceived solution, without spending the time to listen to their needs and understand the outcomes they hope to achieve, they will withhold their trust and become more resistant.

 

  1. Tell the truth, even if it means telling customers what they don’t want to hear. – This is a hard practice to follow, but it may be critical to helping you develop the kind of credibility with the customer that will pay off in the months and years to come. As a rule, sales professionals are very competitive, and they work very hard at winning new business. However, never let this desire to win tempt you to promise something you can’t deliver, or – what might be worse – agree to a solution that won’t really produce the outcome the customer needs, even if the customer asks for it and even if it will make you a lot of money. It is one thing to be flexible and creative; it is quite another thing to overpromise and then fail to deliver the outcome the customer expects. You and the customer may both be disappointed if, in the end, you aren’t able to recommend a solution that you feel will effectively meet their need, but when you face that fact honestly with the customer, you will be reaffirming that your true motivation was to help him instead of just sell him something. Without a doubt, the customer will remember your integrity the next time you call on him.

 

  1. Know when to assert your expertise and when to defer to the customer. – As a qualified sales professional with many years of experience within your industry, there will be times during the sales process when it is not only appropriate it is also important for you to respectfully assert your expertise when recommending solutions. Usually, these times will come towards the end of the process, after you have built a strong relationship with the customer and have patiently, carefully developed a thorough understanding of the outcomes the customer desires and the solution options he prefers. Ultimately, though, the customer is the expert on his business needs and the solutions he feels most comfortable with. After you have made your recommendation, you must be willing to trust the customer to make the choice that he feels is best for him. If you have maintained your commitment to be flexible, creative and collaborative during the rest of the process, you can usually trust the customer to make the choice that works out best for both of you.

 

Action Items:

 

  • Think back to your five most recent customer calls: did you already have a preconceived solution to offer, or were you focused on gaining a clear understanding of the customer situation in order to help design a solution that would meet their expressed needs?

 

  • How effective are you at presenting value to the customer based not only on the product you have to sell but on your ability to create customized, collaborative solutions that go beyond the features and advantages of your product?

 

  • As part of your planning for your next customer call, create a set of questions you can use to demonstrate to the customer that you are not just interested in a selling them a product, but you are even more interested in collaborating with them to design a solution that will effectively provide the outcome that will meet all of their needs.

 


[1] This phrase also appears in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

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