Oct 072011

Sales Leader: The Worst Question a Salesperson Can Ask

Sales Leader: By Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson,  Friday October 7, 2011 , Via Harvard Business Review

This post, the second in a four-part series, is also part of the HBR Insight Center Growing the Top Line.

“What’s keeping you up at night?”

This one question is probably asked by more sales people in a given day than any other. But while it seems innocuous — maybe even the right thing to ask a customer — it’s a question that simultaneously prevents sales while also destroying customer loyalty.

To understand what makes this question so destructive, we need to first understand where it comes from. For years, most sales training has focused on a single core principle: the shortest path to sales success is a deep understanding of your customers’ needs. If we can understand what’s keeping customers up at night, we can build tight linkages between their problems and our solutions, thereby improving our chances of selling something.

As a result, companies have poured money into teaching their reps to ask better questions. But while it sounds great on paper, this approach suffers from two major problems. First, improving reps’ ability to diagnose needs on the fly proves colossally difficult — especially among average performers. Second, and more to the point, this approach is based on a deeply flawed assumption: customers actually know what they need in the first place.

But what if customers don’t know what they need? What if customers’ single greatest need, ironically, is to figure out exactly what they need? If this were true, the better sales technique might be to tell customers what they need.

In our previous post we described a type of rep we call a Challenger. These gifted, high-performing reps succeed by doing just this, revealing to customers problems — and solutions — that they don’t even see. This isn’t your standard solution-selling approach, focused on open-ended needs diagnosis. A sales conversation with a Challenger provides valuable insight to customers instead of extracting it.

What does this sound like in practice? In our book, we present several case studies, but one of our favorites is from W.W. Grainger, Inc., the distributor of maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO) supplies. In the past, Grainger reps led with facts and figures about their company — how old they are, how many items they stock, how many distribution centers they have, and so on, all leading to the inevitable “So, that’s who we are. Now tell me, what’s keeping you up at night?”

Today, a conversation with a Grainger rep is very different. It focuses almost exclusively on a series of proprietary insights Grainger has developed about its customers that prompt them to think very differently about how to manage their MRO spending — in ways that could potentially save them millions. Rather than trying to convince customers to go with Grainger as their supplier of choice for planned MRO purchasing (which inevitably leads to a price-focused discussion), Grainger reps start by showing them how much money they are likely wasting every year on unplanned purchases, which Grainger’s research shows can be up to 40% of the average company’s MRO spending.

No supplier wants to be in the business of free consulting — and Grainger is no different. The key is to teach in a way that leads customers to your unique benefits as opposed to leading with them. After reframing the way customers think about MRO spending, Grainger reps create an opportunity to talk about a set of capabilities they can offer to better manage that spend, ultimately leading to higher-level sales conversations and bigger deals.

These conversations aren’t happenstance. There’s a specific art to getting them right. We’ve found that insight-led sales conversations like Grainger’s follow a distinct choreography that’s markedly different from your standard sales pitch. Importantly, this isn’t something to leave to your individual reps to figure out. Marketing plays a critical role in identifying these teachable insights and equipping reps with the tools to deliver them to customers.

Done well, this sort of sales approach creates a powerfully differentiated interaction for customers because it leads with insight, not tiresome questions. And, as it turns out, that difference really matters.

In a survey of more than 5,000 business customers, we found that of all of the possible factors that could drive customer loyalty — including brand, product and service quality, and price-to-value ratio — by far the biggest driver is something most companies don’t even think about: the sales experience, accounting for 53% of the overall total.

Customer loyalty, it turns out, is more a function of how you sell than what you sell. Specifically, customers reward suppliers who “offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market” and “educate them on new issues and outcomes.”

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Tom McDonald, tsm@centurytel.net; 608-788-5144; Skype: tsmw5752

sales leader, McDonald Sales and Marketing, LLC