In the B2B marketplace there is always an unending flood of books and articles being written around the latest hot new thing in sales methodology. In recent years it has gone from “Solution Selling” (find out what keeps your customer up at night) to “Challenger Selling” (tell your customer what should be keeping him up at night) and every conceivable variation.
What is the right approach? Is there something that might be called “Leadership Selling” that integrates the best ideas of both while smoothing out the rough edges of arrogance and dilettantism that can pollute challenger sales? What might its core principles be?
Here are three:
- Be situationally aware; all customers and opportunities are different so be sensitive to how you should tailor your approach. There is no one right way for every experience. This means you must have contextual knowledge of your customer in order to lead. This knowledge needs to be institutional, organizational and individual. Understand who you are speaking with and why. A technologist examining a complex solution has a different set of expectations and priorities than a buyer of commodities who is incented to lower his unit price and build ever more favorable commercial terms.
- Be expert but not arrogant. Once I mentioned “challenger selling” to a meeting of corporate CIOs and they all rolled their eyes and registered complaint after complaint about salespersons who knew only superficial things about their customers’ business and yet argumentatively represented themselves as “experts”. Leadership sales means knowing your stuff and knowing your customer’s stuff but without overselling your understanding of his business. Know enough to be asking thoughtful questions and continue learning at an ever higher pace. Most of all use your knowledge of similarly situated customers to broaden his understanding of his industry. You cannot match a customer’s expertise in his own company but you can report back what you have seen and heard from his competitors, customers and industry partners.
- You can’t win them all…at least not all at once. It is especially hard, for instance, to bring innovation to incumbent market leaders. They have so much to lose that it takes almost superhuman presence of mind for them to assume risk and innovation at the same pace of companies who may be new market entrants. But always be learning. You may not make the sale to the industry incumbent but that experience will give you all the more valuable perspective to share with new entrants in the same market.
Leadership selling requires an intelligent salesperson who can develop thoughtful value propositions and a thinking customer who is willing to hear them. Those two situations don’t uniformly manifest themselves in every commercial transaction but when they do it is likely because the salesperson has taken time to build a robust personal relationship with his customer founded upon his or her understanding of the customer’s context, the seller’s capabilities, and the larger tidal movement of priorities that flow back and forth across organizations, constantly smoothing the sands, removing the traces of old footprints and setting the stage for new ones.