The conspiracy to keep sales people away from executive decision-makers by trapping them in purchasing processes conducted by non-executive gatekeepers is real. You are not imagining it. Organizations continue to seek efficiency through automating and regulating the buying process, which is code for “kicking sales people out of the picture.” This is evident in the trend of companies standardizing the buying process to the point that a spreadsheet or technology often replaces the need for a sales consultant. In fact, Gartner estimates that by 2020, customers will manage 85 percent of their purchasing transactions without talking to a human.
Common consultative sales approaches used by many middle market companies can actually play right into the gatekeeping processes that are designed to keep sales people away from executives. In fact, your entire sales process might be built on an approach that automatically relegates your sales team to lower level decision maker—ouch.
It is still possible to reach executive decision makers, but only a select few will make it to the executive suite. Now you have to decide what you are going to do. You can either accept that your sales team will never step foot into an executive decision makers’ office again and face decline sales, or you can step up your game and have executives come to you. (Hint: the latter option is where the revenue growth is.)
Below is a look into three sales approaches, two of which limit access to decision makers and one that will land your sales team in front of executive decision makers.
Consultative Selling—“What is your pain?”
Most of us who were trained in sales since the 1970’s were taught the principles of “consultative selling.” Consultative selling, which was made popular by a book published byMack Hanan in 1970, moved sellers from product-based selling to customer-focused, needs-based selling. Consultative selling is rooted in the concept that sales people should take the time to learn about a customer’s needs by asking, “What is your pain?” Consultative selling provided a much-needed transition from the old days of pushing products without gaining a sufficient understanding of a customer’s needs, but, beware, it has limitations in today’s buying world.
Consultative selling skills of listening, relationship building, product knowledge, and implementation of incremental recommendations are no longer sufficient for reaching executive-level buyers. If you take a consultative approach to an authority level decision-making body, you will be pushed down the decision-ladder faster than you can say, “What are the big issues you are facing right now?” Instead of speaking with a decision maker, your sales team will land in front of a buyer with a lower level specification and a smaller threshold of purchase. Why? Because executive buyers simply don’t have the time (or patience) for in-depth, face-to-face “discovery meetings” about single-issue problems. And limiting your sales team to interactions with buyers who can only make small purchase that solve small problems is not exactly a strategy for leading your sales force to victory.
Expert – “Here is your pain and proven ways to address it.”
Expert selling is characterized by not just uncovering needs, but also providing recommendations and advice beyond the product or service sold. Experts take on a whole-company view instead of just addressing individual problems, which is a step in the right direction, but not enough to get the job done. Experts are valued for providing counsel on specific directions to take, as well as providing assistance in narrowing options offered by others. This usually moves you up from lowest level of decision makers to mid-tier decision makers (i.e. the purchasing department), but that’s as far as things will go. No third base. No executive decision makers in sight.
While expert selling can take you higher in the decision making process than consultants, there is a critical element missing that prevents expert sellers from gaining access to the executive suite—an industry wide view.
Authority – “This is the pain of your industry and how you can uniquely overcome it.”
As the market in which companies compete becomes more complex, executive buyers are looking for insight that provides them an advantage in the marketplace. This industry-wide perspective comes, not from a consultant or expert, but from an industry authority. Authority selling is the approach that moves you to the top of the food chain because it creates unique courses of action that help executives gain market position. Industry authorities do not talk in terms of improving internal metrics; they talk in terms of advancing market position.
An authority understands where an industry is going and what the pains of the future will be. Industry authorities are validated by the industry through consistent coverage in industry publications, as well as frequent speaking engagements. Industry authorities are also respected in the area of providing original research that is often cited by various organizations. Being seen as the authority in your industry gets your company invited to the buying executive’s office, while your competition is trying to sneak in through the back door.
A consultant asks, “What is your pain?” An expert says, “Here is your pain,” but an authority identifies, “This is the pain of your industry and how you can uniquely overcome it.” If you want your sales team to thrive in life after the death of sales as we know it, it is time to ditch consultative selling in favor of an approach that more closely aligns with the executive decision making process. Success in this new world of sales depends on your sales team’s ability to offer insight, not as a consultant or even an expert, but as an industry authority.
Tom Searcy is CEO & founder of Hunt Big Sales, a sales strategy company that helps CEOs double the size of their company. Searcy is the author of RFPs Suck! How to Master the RFP System Once and for All to Win Big Business, co-author of Whale Hunting: How to Land Big Sales and Transform Your Company, and How to Close a Deal Like Warren Buffett: Lessons from the World’s Greatest Dealmaker, as well as the upcoming book Life After the Death of Selling: How to Thrive in the New Era of Sales. For more information, visit www.huntbigsales.com