Salespeople, Provoke Your Prospects!

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by: John Caddell

A wag might say that many salespeople already provoke their prospects–you know, the old foot-in-the-door technique, the bait-and-switch, etc.

This is different. In the March Harvard Business Review, Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin and Geoffrey Moore (the “Crossing the Chasm” guy–didn’t know he was a sales expert) outline a method they call “provocation-based selling,” perhaps to link it to, and distinguish it from, the tried and true “solution selling” model.

In brief, the method asks a salesperson to:

develop a provocative point of view on a critical issue and lodge it with a line executive. To reach that senior buyer, scrap traditional lead-generation methods and focus on referral based-marketing. This two-pronged approach will strengthen your competitive position – and give you an understanding of customers’ problems that can fuel ongoing innovation.

That approach will be utterly unsurprising to any successful consultant. It’s the best way to sell consulting services–and could have been ripped from the McKinsey playbook. It is rare, however, for product selling to occur in this way, and I think there’s much to be learned from the provocation-based technique.

A sales team should develop a strong point of view about their industry, and how their products deal with the urgent issues facing their customers. A corollary–if their products don’t deal with the urgent issues, they have the wrong products or the products are wrongly positioned.

In my experience, when salespeople speak timidly about their product’s business value or deeply emphasize the product’s internal workings, it’s because they aren’t confident in their knowledge of the industry and now their product specifically helps with the current issues of the day.

If a team has confidence in its understanding of the urgent issues, and a clear knowledge of how their products add value within those urgent issues, then they can speak with confidence in a way that makes sense at the top of the prospect organization.

Using stories to communicate how the products have addressed urgent issues (”here’s what we did for Company A regarding that issue…”) allows the top-level management to participate in the discussion and enables “calling high.” Too many product companies dive into the technology of their solution right away, forgetting the crucial tie to the customer business issue, and drive away all but the most die-hard techies on the prospect side. This inevitably consigns them to “selling low” and, these days, that is as good as a loss.

Most product companies will find their challenge is gaining the understanding and mastery of the industry’s urgent issues from the prospect’s viewpoint. This is one manner of “bringing the outside in,” as John Kotter wrote in his recent book, “A Sense of Urgency.” This means going to industry conferences, reading journals, monitoring blogs. It also means talking with your existing customers, and seeing how they view the urgent business issues, and how your products help with them. [If you don’t think they’ll tell you, try asking them.] Then taking that insight, and looking at it across customers to develop industry-wide insights and solutions that you can share with new prospects.

“We already do that,” many companies will say. The intent is there, but few act on it. Levitt’s assertion that customers aren’t buying a 1/4″ drill bit, they’re buying a 1/4″ hole, is as true as ever. Stop selling bits, start finding holes that need to be drilled and selling those.

Related posts:
Bringing the outside in
The salesperson’s point of leverage

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