EPISODE 466: Salespeople Must Respond Now to Fast Changing Buying Behavior with John Asher

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on January 7. 2022. It featured an intense presentation from John Asher, the author of “The Future of Sales.”

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JOHN’S TIP: “We’re not going back to normal, so we really have to think about the future. Many, many companies have been innovating during this recession that we’ve been in and are starting to come out of. Our company now has eight new offerings that we did not have pre-recession. They are either totally new or totally upgraded from an old offering. We’re not going back. Think about coming out, when we finally get out, what’s the new stuff you’ve got to offer the new prospects?”


Fred Diamond: John has been a frequent guest. He’s the Alec Baldwin of the Sales Game Changers podcast, for you SNL fans. John, I believe maybe this is your sixth appearance on the Sales Game Changers podcast. John was also the Institute for Excellence in Sales Member of the Year 2021. John, you’ve helped so many sales leaders and business owners with your work at Vistage around the globe take their sales career and their business to the next level. Today we’re talking about sales strategies for the new reality. John, we’ve been talking about this for almost two years now. It continues to evolve, and I want to let our guests or our attendees know you’ve been at the forefront of understanding how sales and marketing has had to shift because of this. John, I’m going to turn it over to you. It’s great to see you. I’m excited for what you’re going to have to tell us.

John Asher: Thank you, great to be on again. Here’s a little background. Once the pandemic started, March almost two years ago now, all these prestigious organizations, McKinsey, Gartner, Forrester, Harvard, Wharton, LinkedIn, keep going down the list, started coming out with surveys of buyers. Also a few surveys of CEOs, sales managers, salespeople, about what’s changing. One of our larger clients, Lockheed, in this area, asked us to kind of put together all these studies as they were evolving and give us the big picture. We did, and a few other people heard about it, so I started giving it to others. Now I’ve been updating this presentation every two weeks because so much keeps changing, and it’s now an integration of 360 studies by major prestigious organizations. Let’s start with the buyers and see what they’ve been telling us.

Mainly what I’m going to show you is B2B sales or B2G. Both B2B, business to business, and business to government sales, probably an 80% overlap in the skills needed and those sorts of ideas, and some of this will apply to B2C as well, but not quite as much. You may see some of this that doesn’t look quite right for your company or industry. That’s because it’s average data over all 33 B2B industries. Most of it will apply to every company, but not all of it. Let’s get started. Here’s what the buyers are telling us.

They are using vendor apps, interactive portals, 100% increase in that activity. The ROI for companies that develop these, since there’s no salesperson involved, is very high. There’s an acceleration in this activity going on and buyers are buying big online without interacting with a salesperson. You can see here, one in 10 buyers will buy up to a million dollars of products or services, typically products, if it’s that big of a sale, in one transaction, without talking to a salesperson. Example. I was just doing one of these in Toronto, virtually of course, and one of the CEOs said, “My wife never talks to salespeople and doesn’t want to ever talk to salespeople. She sees no need to.”

If you look at it, this has been changing now, this next bullet with information on how buyers and sellers have been interacting. Now face to face is about 20%. Remote, like a Zoom call, is about 45%. Then just digital sales service, apps, or portals, 35%. If you ask buyers, “Do you prefer this whole idea of having this flexibility, especially the idea of digital sales service?” 80% say yes. They actually say yes to this.

One other thing about buyers in these surveys, since there’s been a lack of face to face, the second best thing for a buyer to trust a new salesperson or a new company is with a strong referral from somebody they know, and like, and trust. I think we all know referrals have always been important. Now they’re especially important. Buyers believe that a virtual meeting, like on a Zoom call, is much preferable to a regular meeting because of these ideas. It’s faster, more productive. All of our attention spans have been shortened, including mine. It was short already, but now it’s even shorter. Four out of five buyers prefer a virtual meeting, like a Zoom call, to a phone call.

You might wonder, “I wonder which one in those cases is the closing rate higher? Whether it’s a Zoom meeting with a buyer or a phone call?” Well, the data is pretty clear. It’s a huge difference. If you ask the people I’ve associated with at my two companies, they’ll all say, “We don’t talk to buyers too much anymore. We’re mainly doing GoToMeeting or Zoom calls. Text messaging has also increased.” More of the buyer input is they like this whole new way of being flexible about what they can buy. The inefficiencies of sales that we’ve all known about now have become very clear to buyers. Again, since there’s been a lack of face to face, Google reviews of your company on your website by your customers have become extremely important.

Now it’s always been important in B2C, business to consumer. Pretty much none of us are going to buy something from a company B2C if we don’t check out their reviews. They become very important to us. Example. My wife, Deb, and I, we live in Downtown D.C., we’re not going to a new restaurant, and they’re popping up all the time, in Downtown D.C., unless she goes to Yelp, checks out the reviews, how many stars they’ve got. Now you can see the decibel level in the restaurant to see whether you’d be able to have a conversation or not. She wants to look at the menu. She’s gluten sensitive. She wants to see it as well. That whole idea now has gravitated to B2B. Of course, the reason the buyers want to see these is because of the lack of face to face. Most companies do not solicit these reviews. Buyers, by the way, will also check Glassdoor to see what the employees think about your company, and your company’s LinkedIn profile.

Now, three out of five buyers believe that salespeople today had not kept their skills updated because of this new way of doing business. 75% of them no longer want to interact with the sales rep in person in the future. Now, that’s a shocking number. That means three out of four buyers don’t see any need to interact with a sales rep in person with all these new ways to do so. Even worse is this. Today, 60% of the buyers are millennials or younger, early 40s or younger. When you survey them, half of them, 50%, would prefer it if they never had another interaction by any means with a salesperson, ever.

This is actually pretty shocking. If you multiply those two together, 50 times 60, that’s 30%. A third of the buyers now, who are essentially buying, don’t want to interact with the salesperson at all, by any means. Example. One of my sons is a government buyer down in the Navy Yard, former SEAL, has done well, and left active duty Navy, became a Navy civilian buyer. He’s done really well, GS-15 at age 38, et cetera. He sees no reason to talk to business development people from government contractors anymore. For him, it’s a waste of time.

Now, I was just doing one of these presentations with a group in person. There were 17 key members, so the direct reports to the CEO. The chair, who was in my age group, did not believe this data. He asked, individually pointing to the people in the room. These are all COOs, CFOs, VPs of Sales, so the direct reports to the CEO. He asked them, “Do you agree with this data?” Every single one said, “Yes, I agree with this data.”

In addition, new subject, cold calling, which has always been staple for many industries and many salespeople, the classic close rate for cold calling has always been about 4%. The year before the pandemic started, it was 3.8%. It is now less than 2%, and many large companies, including two of them here in D.C., Bank of America and Merrill Lynch, have totally banned their loan officers or their brokers from cold calling. They have totally removed it from their training program for young people entering the bank.

Finally, to wrap this up, when you ask buyers about the future, “Are we going back to the way things used to be or not?” Almost four out of five buyers would prefer it if salespeople had done a lot more research than they’ve been doing. Again, because of the lack of face to face really drives this. But I think we all know as a salesperson, I’m one too, Fred’s one, we all kind of know, before you interact with a new prospect, whoever it is, you really should research them personally and professionally so you’ve got some information for rapport building if that’ll work, and also research their company. Maybe the elite salespeople will also research their industry.

Now the buyers expect more. When a salesperson shows up and says, after rapport building, “What’s keeping you up at night?” It really doesn’t go over too well with buyers anymore. They get real frustrated with salespeople that don’t know what the buyer knows they should know. Real frustrated. Of course, you could imagine if your prospect is real frustrated, how are things going so far? Not too good.

Now, a little history. In B2B sales, B2G as well, go back 30 years ago, salespeople typically started interaction with a new prospect with a presentation, “Here’s our stuff.” Then a couple of books came out, many of you are familiar with them, Solution Selling, Consultative Selling. They both said essentially the same thing, “Don’t start with a presentation. Start by building rapport. Make the buyer comfortable, if possible. Second, do discovery process, a needs analysis. Find out what the buyer really needs, be a great active listener, and then offer a solution that fits.” Hence the name Solution Selling. Now for half of the buyers, they will say something like this, “Solution Selling is dead.” What they mean by that is we want the salespeople to know a lot more than most of them now know. Coming in and asking me, “What’s keeping you up at night?” Or going through their 10 classic discovery questions when half of them they should already know, just doesn’t go over too well.

Last subject now. Many buyers get frustrated with salespeople who don’t know how to give a demo, don’t have enough product knowledge, can’t answer all the questions, try to oversell when they’re giving the demo, as opposed to overeducate. Using that old sales technique, “Get the buyer to say yes, yes, yes,” and that becomes pretty transparent, especially to the savvy buyers. Many buyers now would much rather have an automated demo, or a demo with a salesperson. Many now actually would prefer it to have both. They have the salesperson on the GoToMeeting call, and then the salesperson starts the automated demo, the buyer watches it. If they have a question, the salesperson can pause the demo, answer the question, and keep going.

Then finally, if you ask survey buyers, “Are we going back to normal? Is this digital transformation that everybody’s undergoing, this acceleration of digital transformation, are we just got to peel back and go back to the way things were?” 90% of the buyers are saying, “No. We like this new way.”

Fred Diamond: This first question comes in from Mason. “John says that 75% of buyers prefer no seller interaction. Does this vary by the complexity of the sale and does it change once the sale happens versus a simple transaction?” A lot of the people watching or listening today, John, are in complex sales. They’re in heavy duty tech, in some cases heavy duty media or large hospitality sales, if you will, multi type of transactions where it’s not just, “What do I got to do to get you to buy this pen?” type of a thing. Talk about some of your observations on what type of interaction the customer would want. If it’s a more complex sale, maybe something that takes years as compared to a couple of quick phone calls.

John Asher: I think the answer really is yes, and of course it depends on the sales cycle time. Remember, this data is averaged over all 33 B2B and B2G industries. In real short sales cycle times, obvious if the buyer doesn’t need a face to face, didn’t even need that face to face before the pandemic. Then you go to medium term and long term. I think you have to take all of this data with a grain of salt, recognizing its averaged overall B2B industries and B2G.

Fred Diamond: This question comes in from Jason. Jason says, “John talks about company reviews. How do I get more reviews for me as the sales professional to show that I am someone they want to work with?” It’s an interesting question there, John. We talk about how the sales professional wants to bring value. One of the last points that you brought up there was that you need to show the customer that you’re not coming to them with something that’s canned and you’re coming prepared.

We talk about that a lot, you need to be prepared and bring elite level of value. What’s your advice for the sales professional who wants to be presented as such? As compared to a commodity, someone who’s just an account manager or a prospector for a company. What is some of your advice on how the sales professionals watching today or listening today can raise themselves? Maybe they don’t get reviews, but get viewed as somebody that the customers do need to take their calls?

John Asher: I’ll cover some of that in the next segment about the importance of video marketing, for example. But one way to get a review for you personally is to get it on your LinkedIn profile. Anytime you’ve done a great job for someone, I just ask them to give you a recommendation. If you have a good rapport with them, you can trade recommendations. You’ll give them a recommendation if they give you one. You see that happen a lot. For companies, one way to do it – this is Harvard data. The best way to do it is to offer them something in return for giving you a review. It’s not really a bribe and you’re not trying to get a better review, you’re just offering them something if they will. You see this happen in B2C retail all the time.

For example, we have a sales aptitude assessment many of you are familiar with. It sells for $150. After we’ve done a job for a company, then if it went well, which it almost always does, thankfully, then I’ll email the head contact and ask if they would give a Google review on our performance and say that, “If you’ll do this for us, I’ll be happy to give you a free assessment that you can use for your friends, family, whoever you’d like to. Just let me know through email and we’ll send it as a gift from you.” The Harvard Business Review data says, “If you do this, the probability of getting a review for your company goes way up and you’ll get a better review.”

Fred Diamond: John, I’ll do something similar. If you’re not linked in to me and you’re watching today’s webcast, I will send you a copy of John’s book, Close Deals Faster. It’s a great book. We were actually going to be giving out a bunch of these today live. But if you’re not linked in to me, go to LinkedIn, link in to me right now and say that you listened to today’s webcast with the great John Asher, and I will send you a book, John’s Close Deals Faster. It’s a great book. All right. John, let’s move on to the next section here.

John Asher: That’s a good example of doing it, Fred. Well done.

Fred Diamond: Thank you.

John Asher: Now let’s see how all this information applies to those of us in sales. Building trust with buyers has changed a lot. There’s always been four ways to trust a salesperson. The first three are what it takes to trust anybody. Number one, we have to like them. Likability is important. Nobody wants to have a friend who’s a jerk or a salesperson. They have to be honest, tell the truth. They have to have high integrity, do what they say they’re going to do, the way it should be done, and they do it on time. Those three are always fundamentals for building trust with a buyer. However, the salesperson has to have strong product knowledge. It’s these four pillars that have always been fundamental for a buyer to trust the salesperson.

Now there’s five more pillars. First, I’ll show you this data in a minute. Of all the leads that have come to salespeople during this pandemic, 80% of the leads that have come through social media platforms and social networking platforms have come through LinkedIn. LinkedIn, especially if you’re a hunter and have Sales Navigator, has become an incredibly important tool. If you reach out to a prospect and they’re interested, the first thing they’re going to do of course is go look at your profile. If your profile is not complete, it’s all about you getting a new job as a salesperson as opposed to what your company can add, then they won’t connect. You can see here. The connection rate is very low if they don’t see a complete profile.

Second new technique to build trust. If the salesperson can’t get a Zoom call organized, if they can’t get the time zone right, they can’t show up on time. If they don’t have the ability to pull up a document like a proposal, they can’t modify the document in real time. If they don’t have DocuSign or some other technology to get the buyer to sign as appropriate, then for many buyers, they’re out. This technical and operational efficiency, proficiency on VC platforms is important. Again, as I mentioned earlier, you could see the buyers get real frustrated with salespeople who haven’t done enough research. Now they got to do a lot more research than before. The data shows now in 50% of the cases, you can figure out what the buyer really needs before you reach out, and 50% you can’t.

Also, consistent video marketing, which I’ll show you in a minute, and putting the buyer first. Putting the buyer first means really it’s a new mindset. That means we’re not thinking about our quota. We’re thinking about the buyer’s aspirations or challenges. There’s been six surveys in LinkedIn, three months apart, 5,000 random salespeople a piece, and two thirds of the salespeople say, “Yes, I put the buyer first.” Now, how about when you survey buyers? Any idea what they would say? It’s almost a Pareto Principle. Only 23% say, “Yes, the buyers I deal with put me first.” Most buyers now want to deal with the so-called trusted advisors. If you’ve ever read the book, here’s what it means.

There’s several of our salespeople, I’ll mention one, Kim, who has attained that level of trusted advisor. She has a number of ongoing accounts. If any of her accounts have any question about anything to do with sales, marketing, branding, sales management, you name it, they’re calling her, because they know if our company does it, we’ll do it and do it brilliantly. They also know that she will not fake it until she makes it. She won’t say, “I don’t know. We don’t do that.” She’ll immediately go, find the right solution for them. Then the buyers essentially know what a resource she is, “I can trust her because if she does it, she’ll do it, and do a great job. If she doesn’t, she’ll find the solution for us.” By the way, there’s a book written about this about 20 years ago called The Trusted Advisor. No need to read the book, I just summed up the whole book [laughs].

Let’s see what this putting the buyers first means. First of all, it means be a great listener, be a learn it all and not a know it all. Share robustly, empower the buyer with great information, make your main success metric problem solve. Ask our salespeople, “What’s your job? Are you a salesperson?” They’ll say, “No.” I’ll say, “What are you?” They’ll say, “I’m a problem solver.” That’s what we want the buyer to think about us, problem solvers. Then after a deal is signed, build that continued relationship, and to the tune where you become that trusted advisor. This is what the buyers mean now about salespeople putting them first, based on surveys of buyers.

I mentioned video marketing. This is also driven by the lack of face to face. As an individual salesperson, if you want to brand and market yourself. The best way to do it is with consistent, say once a week, video marketing. Where you make a video, say using Vidyard, which is a plugin to LinkedIn, and then you send it out to your social media on your website, et cetera. People can see your face, it becomes more personal, and I’m an engineer by training, so if you go back to physics and optics. The reason video has taken over the world is this, the comprehension rate of our brains for video is 2,000 times faster than reading words on a website. It’s essentially the reason video’s taken over the world.

Then you can use a catchy title. One of my friends has the Two Minute Tuesday. Easy to record on your phone with say Vidyard, and as I said, it’s also a plugin to LinkedIn. You can actually do it right on your LinkedIn profile. I mentioned the great salespeople are the great researchers now, and we have to be fanatical about research on prospects. We got to research their competition as well as them, they expect this. It’s pretty easy to do now. You can just Google the company’s name and the word competitor, or get a tool like D&D. Also research the buyer themselves with social media, social networking platforms.

I had a prospect, it was a big prospect in Philadelphia. I drove up to meet with Albert Bush in person. One of my assistants, Amy Sawyer, looked at his website, looked at everything about him, social media, and she discovered 43 items about the company and Albert. Then she gave me this list.

You might ask yourself, “Well, I wonder why Amy didn’t give him all 43 things she discovered. Why just this list?” Well, it turns out this is what Albert and I have in common. That’s a lot to have in common with another person. The point here is if you do great research, you can almost always find commonality, either professional, technical, business, or perhaps even personal. The general advice for rapport building, of course, is use business, technical, or professional. I use Vistage.

Then discover the buyer’s personality style with Crystal Knows. If you have a new prospect and you’re going to interact with them, it sure would be nice to know which of the four personality styles they are so when we meet with them, we don’t screw things up. An example would be if you go to Crystal Knows, put in the buyer’s name, the buyer’s company, so Crystal Knows you have the right person. It’s a data scraper and a data integrator. It goes out, checks all websites, social media platforms, social networking platforms, doing word association, words associated with your name. Integrates it together in less than a second, comes back and tells you which of these four personality styles the buyer is.

It prevents us, if we’re a thinker salesperson selling to a driver buyer, from giving too many details. The driver actually doesn’t want any details. Drivers want salespeople to be brief, be concise, and be gone. You can see, any of these interacting with the other three, knowing who they are and knowing how to give them what they need to make their decision is huge. As opposed to screwing it up because we just give what we want to give, what we like. This is also a plugin, Crystal Knows, to LinkedIn.

Here’s a prospect, the LinkedIn page, prospect for us on the left. Kyle O’Connell is a salesperson. You can see right below there it says view John’s personality. You click on it and John’s personality shows up. Click again. For every personality trait, it shows how far or close you are to John, what you should and shouldn’t do if you’re selling to him. Many of us in sales have a template. If I get an email from a buyer with an objection to part of my offering, I don’t have to write a big new email. I’ve got that email already saved in my draft folder. I can just bring it out, modify it a little bit, and send it. Now, the great salespeople, for every one of these templates has four different emails, one for each of the four personality styles, and then email advice if you’re going to send them an email. You can see how incredibly useful Crystal Knows is.

Now, I’m going to send anybody who wants this presentation, I’m just going to show you this. This is essentially, if you wonder if you’re doing the right things on LinkedIn, or if you’re a sales manager and wonder if your salespeople are, here are the 10 metrics that matter if you’re using LinkedIn. Then if you’re using the higher level Sales Navigator, and frankly, many people in this area included come to our training over there at the Army and Navy Club, once a month typically, and they understand and get trained on the use of Sales Navigator. They go back to the company and tell the sales manager or CEO, “I need Sales Navigator.” Then they ask, “How come?” Then the salespeople stumble around a little bit.

I’ve also got two other slides here on why you should get Navigator if you’re a hunter salesperson. There are 12 reasons. Again, I’m going to send this to anybody who’s interested. This gives the justification to get your manager to fund you with Sales Navigator. It’s not inexpensive, $79 a month.

Then the fourth area of research is develop a deep understanding of the buyer’s needs before you reach out. You can usually get this from the person who referred you perhaps, your inside coach inside the company, maybe your industry research. Then when you integrate data from the Harvard neuroscience lab and the Harvard sales department, once you have that information and you’re meeting with a new prospect, then you can essentially, after you’ve built rapport, start with a statement like this, “Here’s our understanding of your needs,” bullet, bullet, bullet, whatever they are. Then ask a simple question like this, “Do I have this about right?” Research in the Harvard neuroscience lab shows you don’t have to have it exactly right. You don’t have to have it perfectly nailed. You just need to have it about right. If you do, in 95% of the cases, it causes a big conversation between the buyer and the seller that naturally moves into the discovery process. Now the buyer recognizes this research you’ve done, and instead of being very frustrated, they’re very impressed.

Finally, when you’re in a virtual world presenting a proposal, the buyers ask for a proposal, now we’re going to send it. Don’t just email it back to the buyer and hope to hear back. Another sales book, Hope Is Not a Strategy. Better propose another VC platform meeting, Zoom, with an email like this. Now, just like we did it pre-pandemic, we could go over to the buyer’s office and go through the proposal with them. Now we can go through it on a Zoom call. This technique, B2B and B2G, is working 67% of the time. A third of the time, it doesn’t work. It’s a big box retailer, Fortune 500 company, government municipality, but at least in those cases, you can go over it with the main buyer before you email it into cyberspace.

Fred Diamond: We got an interesting question here. Jonah says, “I’m relatively new in B2B sales. Should I focus first on the relationship or my expertise in my customer’s industry?” That’s an interesting question. We have a similar question that came in from Michael, and Michael says, “It takes years for a sales professional to gain relevant industry expertise. What should the new salespeople do before they become experts?” I don’t know if it’s an either or, but if you had to choose one, John, would you tell the junior sales professionals, “Focus on strategies for building relationships,” so that you could do some of the things that you showed us in the Crystal Knows example? Or should you really get deep in understanding your customer’s industry so you could provide that value to them before they even ask it?

John Asher: Number one, if you see my other presentations, I’ll always talk about the five factors for sales success. One of them is natural talent for sales, and it accounts for a third to two thirds of sales success. In other words, if it’s a very highly technical company, relationships are nowhere near as important than in a company where it’s all about relationships, perhaps the fashion industry in New York or Toronto. If you’re in a business where it’s all about relationships, then relationships are incredibly important and the product knowledge becomes [inaudible 0:39:52] really. If you’re a salesperson and you have a lot of product knowledge, strong, it gives you a chance to make a sale. But if you don’t have sufficient product knowledge to come across as credible, you really can’t make a sale.

Our advice to many salespeople, especially starting out, is burn the midnight oil. Become the expert as soon as you can. Of course, a whole other overlay strategy is many companies will have technical salespeople or sales engineers. One of my customers in New York City, “No salesperson ever makes a call by themselves. It’s always a salesperson and a sales engineer together talking to a prospect. Closing rate’s 100%.”

Fred Diamond: We actually have a comment here that comes in from Vince Burruano. He says, “People don’t want to deal with salespeople. They want to interface with the business professional who knows what they are talking about.” That is correct, Vince. We have one more question here before we get to some wrap ups. This is an interesting question. Michelle says, “What are John’s opinions on The Challenger Sale?” John, you’re a student of sales. You referred to Solution Selling before, you referred to Trusted Advisor. Challenger sale came out 10 years ago, just celebrated its 10th anniversary. You and I have had many, many conversations about the value here, therefore, of Challenger Sale. John, before you get to your final comment, just give us your thoughts now. The Challenger, it’s been out for 10 years. Is it still valid? Has it increased in its validity, or no longer? I’m curious on your thoughts.

John Asher: It really came out because the world was going more and more technical and you could measure the ROI much better of solutions offered by companies than you could before. The Challenger Sale is all about politely challenging buyers to pick up their game to a whole new level, because if they change to your company, they can see the terrific ROI that they would get. That’s a way to think about the whole concept, still totally valid today, especially in technical sales.

Fred Diamond: John, we’re coming to the end here. We got about 30 seconds here. Why don’t you bring us home? As we like to do, wrap up with an action step so our sales professionals listening or watching can take their sales career to the next level.

John Asher: I think a final thought for me would be, we’re not going back to normal, so we really have to think about the future. Many, many companies have been innovating during this recession that we’ve been in, or starting to come out. Our company now has eight new offerings that we did not have pre-recession. They are either totally new or totally upgraded from an old offering. My advice is, we’re not going back. Think about coming out, when we finally get out, what’s the new stuff you’ve got to offer the new prospects?

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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