EPISODE 404: Neuroscience in Selling Expert John Asher Says This is Mandatory for Future Sales Success

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Creativity in Sales Webinar sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on July 15, 2021. It featured sales expert John Asher from Asher Strategies. John is the author of the best-selling “Close Deals Faster.”]

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JOHN’S TIP FOR EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “Figure out what your post-pandemic strategy is and recognize that your company must invest more in digitization and automation in the future. They go together.”


Fred Diamond: Today I’m very excited, we have our good friend John Asher. We’ve had John on many times before with Asher Strategies. John, for my money, he’s one of the top sales trainers, thought leaders and speakers. Of course, he’s also a published author and as I like to say, Close Deals Faster. John, this is a book that I keep a foot away from me, as you saw. We’ve sold a bunch of these to IES members and we’ve also given out them frequently as well.

John, it’s great to see you. I also want to thank you, you’re a platinum sponsor of the Institute for Excellence in Sales, you’ve been there for a number of years. We also just had our 11th Annual Sales Excellence Awards and you were recognized as the IES Member of the Year for all of the service that you’ve provided to sales professionals around the globe. You look great, how are you doing?

John Asher: Thank you, fabulous, mind-blowing.

Fred Diamond: Today we’re going to be talking about post-pandemic marketing strategies for CEOs and also for the sales leaders and sales professionals that we deal with every day. John, I’m going to turn it over to you. I’m excited to hear what you’re going to be talking about. Again, we’ve had you on the podcast and the webcast, I think this is probably your fourth time, it might be your fifth time.  It’s been very interesting for us to learn from you as we’ve gone from stage to stage and of course, here we are, 16 some odd months after the pandemic begun.

John, just a quick note. I don’t know if our listeners know this, I recently went on a road trip around the country to meet IES members and speakers in places like Minnesota and other places and I’ll tell you, the pandemic still continues. There’s a lot of people that are nervous about the Delta variant. As I wrote on some of my LinkedIn and Facebook posts, midtown America, small main street areas are just obliterated and destroyed.

People are delaying going back to work, everybody thought we were going to be back in September, now some companies are saying we’re going to hold off. People are starting to wear masks again indoors so the fun continues. Give us some of your insights on what we should be thinking about from a sales and marketing perspective.

John Asher: Thank you so much, Fred, for the introduction, as always. Fifteen months ago when the pandemic got underway, we started looking at the various studies coming out. McKinsey, LinkedIn, Forrester, Gartner, keep on going down the list. We were using that information integrating it together to advise some of our larger clients. As of now, we’ve looked at 303 of these studies because as we all know, things change. What I’m going to show you is not just our opinion, it’s really an integration of everybody who’s pretty smart, most of them smarter than me, their opinion. My value add really has just been integrated all together.

Let’s take a look first at the lessons that have been learned from the last three recessions, this is a McKinsey study. There’s six of them, all the same in every recession, also in this pandemic. First, always cut-out spending, always unnecessary things because there’s uncertainty ahead, except sales and marketing investment. An increase in that for obvious reasons.

Second, it’s a great time to take a quick look at your company processes and strengthen them, it’s a great time to sharpen the saw for all employees, especially salespeople. It’s also a great time to hire talented salespeople and the reason is many of them who are great salespeople get furloughed or laid off in recessions, and especially in this pandemic. It’s not their fault, so it’s a great time to find new ones. It’s also a great time to look for mergers and acquisitions for even small companies.

Three recessions ago, one of our bigger clients in Tampa, mechanical contractor during that 11-month recession bought 6 other smaller mechanical contractors, came out of the recession twice as big, twice as strong and three times their footprint. Those were the first five and the sixth lesson learned, maybe the most important. That is rapidly innovate new products, new services and/or new processes.

When McKinsey does a lookback between the last three recessions from when the recession was over till the next one started, typically 10 years, the rapid innovators grew at 16% per year. The companies who did not innovate only grew at 4% per year. If you compound those out for a decade, the difference in revenue at the end of the decade is 270%. So, maybe the best lesson learned from these recessions and of course, this pandemic, rapidly innovate new products, new services and new processes. When you look at what the IES has done throughout this recession, IES is the perfect example of rapid integrators.

Now, let’s integrate everything the buyers have been telling us. #1, their use of digital self-service solutions like vendor apps and interactive portals on websites is up 100%. The vendors that have developed these have a very strong ROI for them because in most cases, you don’t need a salesperson. You just go right to the website and buy it. Next, buyers are buying big online without talking to a salesperson and 10% now will spend over $1 million in one transaction online without talking to a salesperson.

Example. I was doing one of these in Toronto recently and one of the members who’s a CEO said, “My wife’s a buyer, she’s 39, she never talks to a salesperson. She just buys everything online.” The current interactions as of today average across the United States in B2B sales is face-to-face, 20%. Remote, like a Zoom call, 45% and digital sales service, 35%. We asked the buyers, do you like this flexibility? 80% of them will say, yes, we like this flexibility.

A summary of some of the surveys is when a recession starts, since buyers typically can’t have – especially in this with the pandemic – face-to-face interactions, the next best thing for a buyer to trust a new company, a new vendor or a new salesperson is a strong referral. We all know referrals have always been important, now they’re extra important.

Next, three quarters of the buyers believe a virtual meeting, a Zoom call is more effective than a face-to-face meeting. That has big implications for the future. Four out of five buyers would prefer a Zoom meeting to a phone call and so you might ask yourself, I wonder if closing is higher or lower on a phone call or on a Zoom call? Oh, just a bit higher on a Zoom call. 127% more likely to close on a Zoom call than a phone call.

Most buyers now say that this remote buying has made the purchasing process easier for them and they’re recognizing more than ever the inefficiencies of travel, in-person meetings and meals with salespeople. Whereas all of us are very used to using reviews before we do anything from a consumer’s standpoint. Example, my wife won’t go to a new restaurant unless she goes to Yelp to see what the rating is for the restaurant and actually looks at the menu too. Now that has gravitated to B2B in a big way.

Now buyers really don’t want to deal with a company unless they can see some pretty good reviews on your website. Especially for sales leaders, this has really become important. Most companies do not actively solicit these reviews. Three out of five buyers believe salespeople do not have the skills today to help them, which is shocking.

Three out of four buyers no longer want to interact with salespeople in person, huge implications for the future. Then, this next piece of data is crazy, right now 60% of the B2B buyers are millennials, about early 40s or younger. When you ask them, 50% of them would prefer it if they never had any interaction with a salesperson again, ever. No phone calls, no Zoom calls, no face-to-face meetings. Huge implication for the future. Now the cold call success rate pre-pandemic, 4%, now down to 2%. You’ll see large companies just telling their salespeople, knock it off. Example, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch has banned cold calling by their brokers and by the trainees going through the training.

Now, if you ask buyers about the future, what’s it look like in the future? Essentially, 4 out of 5 want salespeople who have deep insights into what’s going on with them. They get real frustrated with salespeople who really don’t know what the buyer knows they should know, because they know all that information’s out there on their website or on the internet somewhere or with their competitors. Now they get real frustrated with salespeople who don’t know what the buyer thinks they should know, those who haven’t done research very well at all.

One of the ways to think about this in the past was two or three recessions ago, salespeople were mainly starting with the buyer by giving a presentation. Then a couple of books came out, Solution Selling, Consultative Selling, both about the same thing. Don’t start with a presentation, first build rapport, make the buyer comfortable. Second, do a needs analysis, find out what the buyer really needs. Third, offer a solution. Solution Selling. That’s always been the standard now up until several years ago.

There was an article in the Harvard Business Review that essentially said this, “Solution Selling is Dead.” What they mean by that is essentially, if the salesperson doesn’t know what the buyer thinks they should know and starts with what’s keeping you up at night or their standard 10 discovery questions, buyers get very frustrated. For them, Solution Selling is dead.

Finally, buyers want an automated demo of your offer. Another reason for that is since most salespeople are not particularly good, they’re not particularly good at giving a demo. They try to oversell to the buyer instead of overeducating the buyer. Now, buyers would like to have an automated demo or a choice of an automated demo or a demo with a salesperson or in some cases, both. They got the salesperson online, they got the demo going. The buyer is watching the automated demo, has a question, the salesperson can pause the demo, answer the question, then keep on going.

Finally, if you ask buyers about the future, about this whole digitization and automation, this rapid change, is it here to stay or not? 90% says it’s here to stay, that we aren’t going back to normal. Now let’s think about what we just covered. We’ve looked at the lessons learned in the last recessions, we looked at the surveys of what the buyers are telling us, that nationally would lead to 7 potential action items for our company.

#1, rapidly innovate and deploy new offering. It’s not too late because we’re not out of this mess yet. #2, make it easy for buyers to buy on your website, when they’re mobile as well. Develop an automated demo. #4, develop this app for buyer purchasing. #5, emphasize obtaining Google reviews for your company from buyers. #6, increase research on buyers. Salespeople as appropriate can graduate from Solution Selling. Then #7, train salespeople on these VC platform technologies.

Buyers get very frustrated with salespeople who don’t know how to set up a Zoom meeting, can’t get the time zone right, can’t pull up a document like a proposal, can’t modify the document in real time, don’t have guidance from the company on how much they can modify it, don’t have DocuSign or some other electronic means to get the buyer to sign the proposal. When salespeople can’t do this, many of the savvy buyers get frustrated and they’re not going to get the sale.

Fred, we’ve finished the first half. Let’s see if there’s some questions from the listeners.

Fred Diamond: We’re 16 months into this new world and I had a long conversation with a VP of Sales the other day who told me that they have done an analysis, that they waste the first 6 minutes of every sales meeting that they do because of the usual stuff, “Hey, Bill, you’re on mute” or someone has multiple screens up type of a thing, and they’ve really trained their people to be ready. Let’s say the meeting’s called at one o’clock, at one o’clock they’re ready but the customer may not be ready. Or maybe they’ve had to go from Zoom to WebEx to Microsoft Teams or whatever it might be. That’s still a challenge, but you as a sales professional, you need to be ready to go the moment the meeting is called for.

I want to talk about #6, increase research on prospects, graduate from Solution Selling. John, as you know, we’ve been doing webinars at the Institute for Excellence in Sales every single day since the pandemic kicked in back in March of 2020. There’s words that appear a lot, value is a big one, empathy is something that we’ve spoken many times. One of the top three words is preparation, and I agree with you so much that if you start asking your customer today, “What are your pains? What keeps you up at night?” The customer’s going to be like, “What Value are you providing to me?” Talk about that for a second, talk about the preparation. We’ve been saying this even before the pandemic, that you shouldn’t be going into the sales call asking questions that you should know the answers to. Let’s talk about your ideas on preparation.

John Asher: I’m going to cover this in my talk in September when we kick off the in-person event, but it basically goes like this. No, salespeople have to be fanatical about research. #1, of course, research the company and the competition. #2, research the buyer themselves. #3, go to Crystal Knows so that you understand the buyer’s personality style so when you reach out to them, you’re targeting exactly to their personality style. Find out everything you can about what’s going on, what their needs are.

Let’s take the fourth one. When you go back to the neuroscience information, you’ve heard me present on that a couple of times. Harvard has the biggest research department on sales, 42 years. They also have a neuroscience lab, been around for 10 years, and those two talk to each other in the last several years.

If you do great research with a buyer before you interact with them, after rapport building you can start with, here’s my understanding of your needs. Bullet, bullet, bullet. Whatever they are.  Ask a simple question like this, do I have this about right? The research at Harvard shows you don’t have to have it perfectly nailed, you just have to have it about right. If you do, in 95% of the cases it causes a big conversation between the buyer and the seller which naturally morphs or gravitates into the needs analysis and as opposed to being very frustrated, the buyer is very impressed.

Now, can you do that in every circumstance? Of course not. But in my experience, you can do that with about half of the prospects. The other half, you just have to fall back to the normal discovery process.

Fred Diamond: I agree. People come up to me all the time and say, “How can I be great at sales? How can I have a tremendous career in B2B sales?” I usually say there’s three ways to do this. One is just become an expert on the industry, maybe it’s aspects of the government or insurance, financial services or entertainment. You are just a guru on the industry and you happen to be selling products or services that will support the industry.

The second is to become truly an expert on the technology or the service that you’re providing. You’re a guru on CRM solutions, or you talked about marketing automation before. The third way, and this maybe goes over both of them, is you just need to be a professional. You need to be a sales professional. If you’re a golf professional, you’re working on 15 different aspects of your game. Same thing in sales. Preparation, preparing for the call, knowing ahead of time what you want to be talking about is so critical. I know you got a lot to talk about, so let’s keep moving.

John Asher: I’ll add one overlay to the three things you just said, and that is the average salespeople are really passive listeners, not very good at all, and to most buyers, they come across as having commission breath. Meaning, the buyer knows they’re just there for their commission. The elite salespeople have this whole different mindset and that is, “I’m not a salesperson, I’m a problem solver.” When you have that mindset, the buyers can really sense it. You’ve had all these podcasts on mindset, Fred, that’s some of the stuff that I’ve taken away from as well.

Fred Diamond: That’s actually a great way to look at life, is if you’re constantly looking for transactions and some type of return on all your engagements, you’re going to fail. Take the longer look at how you’re just there, how you’re providing value, how you’re providing service to everybody you interact with. All right, let’s move on.

John Asher: Here’s some of the sales trends that have accelerated in the last 15, 16 months. The new multitalented hybrid salespeople now will dominate, and I’ll show you what that means in a minute. As the world gets more and more technical, then the SMEs – the subject matter experts – will continue to shine as rainmakers. In field sales now, you’re seeing them shift to inside sales, customer service and digital self-service solutions. Because of all three of these, the number of salespeople will decline steadily in the future. If you’re going to stay in the game, you’ve got to be doing everything Fred just mentioned so you can stay in the game.

Let’s look at what the hybrid rep looks like, and this is what 85% of the sales managers think they’re going to look like. They’ll be able to interact with buyers in virtual meetings expertly, like Fred mentioned. Phone calls – warm calls, not cold calls – apps, social media like Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, social networks like LinkedIn, Facebook, and now text messaging has really come on strong.

To give you a fun example, we have a team in China, I’ve been over there a hundred times in the last 30 years. My GM over there, Simon and I five years ago were meeting with the deputy mayor of Beijing. She was in charge of making sure the state organizations changed their behaviors so they could make a profit, because they’ve always just been a job bank and that was it, losing money hand over fist. We’re talking to her about our sales training.

Simon’s phone rings and he answers it, and he’s now going to chat in Mandarin on the phone. The deputy mayor smiles and leans back on her chair and after about a minute, Simon finishes the phone call and continues the conversation with the deputy mayor and she engages again. I don’t understand Mandarin so I’m just listening to him talking Mandarin. By the way, I’m dying, I’m thinking, “How rude can you get?” Well, no phone in China has voicemail. Business proceeds at the pace of no voicemail, everybody answers them all the time and solves the problem right there. Ask somebody to pick up here in the US. And fewer and fewer of their interactions now will be in person.

Now, let’s look at the capabilities of the new hybrid salesperson. High sales aptitude so you can no longer hide average salespeople in companies that just don’t have this aptitude. They really need to be a subject matter expert as Fred mentioned, burn the midnight oil, become the expert, which means they have to have at least a moderate IQ, they should have a high emotional intelligence, tireless work ethic, be independent, self-motivated.

Now there’s three new characteristics that are going to be needed. One is the ability to sell up at the C-level, the CFO, CEO. Two, excellent writing abilities. If there’s not going to be so much face-to-face, then writing an email, writing an in mail, writing a proposal becomes important. Finally, these new neuroscience-based sales skills so salespeople can get what that means when we talk about Solution Selling is dead. And a digital transformation is really needed for most companies.

The latest McKinsey study shows that in the future, 60% of all productivity increase potential will be digital opportunity. Most companies now are on a roll investing in a new overarching digital strategy for their company. There was a Harvard Business Review article about a year ago that basically said coming into the pandemic, a third of the companies have this and coming out, two thirds of the companies will need it. Essentially, it means all of us will need one.

You can see the transformation in sales strategies happening from seller-centric to buyer-centric, from analog to hyper-automated, face-to-face to digital interactions and modest technology investment to robust technology investment. It’s pretty obvious to all of us, I think, that companies are going to have to be spending a lot more money on technology. And a whole marketing strategy transformation is needed.

This whole lack of face-to-face has made our websites so much more important and they need more robust content than ever so that when a potential buyer comes and looks at your website, as we say in sales, they can literally qualify themselves and they can understand from the information on your website, what would the change journey look like for them shifting from their current vendor to your company? And pre-pandemic, this is B2B sales now, buyers were 70% through their purchasing process before the interaction with a salesperson.

Now in this pandemic it’s 90%, so buyers are 90% through their purchasing process before they’ll interact with their short list of maybe 2, 3 or 4 potential vendors. For many companies, including ours, marketing is essentially taking over the first third of the sales cycle. If you asked the head of marketing, “What’s your objective? What’s your main job?” If they know what they’re doing, their answer will be, “Get qualified leads for salespeople, that’s my job.” In this emerging reality, this is from the Forrester’s status of sales 2025, about three or four years from now, the first interaction with a prospect for your company will be digital, and four out of five of the interactions will be digital.

I’m going to give you some interesting comments from CEOs. Some of you, I’m sure, know I give maybe 170 presentations a year to groups of CEOs. When you talk about new normal, I’m just going to tell you what some of them say. Here’s one CEO from the Midwest, he said, “I’m going to be using Zoom and Teams more. I ran myself ragged in the past, travel for my salespeople is no longer very efficient. My costs of sales now are much lower and I feel more balanced, healthier and happier.” He isn’t going back, you can tell that.

Another real interesting one came from a woman CEO in Canada. She said, “Will the buyers embrace this lack of face-to-face going forward and just do Zoom calls or will they actually need to take the face-to-face meetings to justify their existence?” It’s actually a very good question. I’m not quite sure what the answer is either.

Here’s another CEO in the bay area. He said, “We’ve just shifted to a no-negotiation sales model. It’s increased growth margins, lowered transaction times and increased customer satisfaction.” They’re a distributor, “We’ve moved from #7 in the bay area by volume to #3. If we had the products, we could go to #1. This took a lot of training and discipline with the salespeople.” To my question, once the pandemic’s over, are you ready to go on back? He said, “We are not going back.”

Just some interesting comments from leaders, typically CEOs, talking about the future. Now the question would be, how about your company? What will be the post-pandemic normal? I’m going to give you an example for our company just to illustrate that we all have a post-pandemic normal to figure out, because you can tell it’s not going to be the same as pre-pandemic for many, many companies. Here’s a case study for us. Pre-pandemic, 90% of our global sales training was in person, 10% online.

I’m in a business group with the CEOs of most of the other sales training companies, Miller Heiman, Sandler, etc. We’re in the business group and we’ll compete, we’ll team up, we’ll refer each other, we’ll meet for dinner and trade shows, we know each other. Now, if you were to ask us pre-pandemic, which is more effective, in person or online? The vote would have been 15 to zip, in person is better. Now we’ve all been doing only online for 16 months and here’s the feedback we’re getting from salespeople and sales managers, not just our company but all of us combined.

Now we’re getting access to a sales training for two weeks instead of a day, we’re getting 14 hours of instructions instead of 7, we have flexible start times and stop times, it’s all self-paced learning, we can go back and rewatch videos as we want to. There’s a written quiz on each skill so sales managers can see how the students are doing as they go through the training. New sales techniques as you go through the two weeks can be immediately applied. This is what we’re all hearing.

Now if you ask us, which is more effective, online or in person? The vote will be 15 to zip, online is better. Now, what are we going to do post-pandemic? Here’s what we think we’re going to do. For large companies where we do sales training, always done it in person, we’re going to continue to do it in person. For the 120 public sales training days all around the country, the bigger cities, we’re going to do it in person. The smaller cities, online. We’re testing it out now and we’re trying to get feedback from customers on whether they think that’s the right idea, we’re not sure yet. My point in showing you our post-pandemic normal analysis is every company has this potential to look at.

Here are some other potential action items. One, determine your company’s post-pandemic normal. It isn’t easy. In fact, Fred was just telling me that he’s hired outside firm CFOs who actually have been helping him with his strategy coming out. Another one being develop this overarching company digital strategy. Strengthen your company’s digital presence, invest heavily in your website, increase investment and digital marketing, make marketing’s primary job to get qualified leads for salespeople, identify or hire, develop and train hybrid, multitalented salespeople and develop a subscription model. These are another grouping of potential action items that frankly, most companies should be working on one way or the other.

I’ve got a number of things I’m willing to offer to you all, they’re all complementary. If you’d like any of this, just email me. If you’d like a copy of the slide deck, all IES members come to our online sales training with a discount, we have the sales aptitude assessment if you’d like a demo of it. We also facilitate these digital strategy workshops. If any of you would like an electronic copy of my latest book, The Neuroscience of Selling, if any of you that are a manager would like a consulting call with me for a half hour or so, happy to do that as well. Fred, let’s open it up to more questions.

Fred Diamond: John, thank you so much for these offerings. We’ll have a link to your email address in the show notes. Again, I want to thank you for all the great insights here. One of the key takeaways is you’ve got to be thinking about this. It’s like we talked before, you’ve been with us for a long time, you’ve been with us through the entire pandemic. We’ve had you on the webcast and the podcast at least four or five times and again, you’re going to be our kick-off speaker when we go back to live events on September 8th in Washington, DC.

The date keeps moving forward. I remember we thought maybe in September of last year we were going to start back to – I hate to say normal because it’s obviously shifted. One of the major shifts, John, I believe, and we didn’t really talk about this too much, is on the personal level. Obviously, there’s sales process, you talked a lot about virtual selling and you talked a lot about preparation and all those types of things. But everybody’s been impacted by this.

Like I mentioned, I just did a road trip across half of the country for close to three weeks, I talked to tons of people, everybody had a different story. Some people blossomed from this for a lot of reasons, some people had personal tragedy, close people to them dying. Companies that have nearly gone out of business because of the markets that they were serving. It is important to innovate, but if your customer was the sporting’s arenas, you had a really tough year, you probably were furloughed and you probably were going to be home. There are so many dynamics that we’re beginning to truly understand as it relates to everything that we’ve all gone through in the last 16 months.

You painted a real nice picture. Sales professionals and sales leaders who listen to the Sales Game Changers podcast, you got to be thinking about what it’s going to look like because it’s definitely going to be different. John, I want to thank you again. I want to acknowledge you for the tens of thousands of sales professionals and CEOs in the Vistage world that you have helped over the years. Again, that’s the main reason why we acknowledge you as the IES Member of the Year for 2021.

Why don’t you give us one final action step? You’ve given us 30 great ideas. Give us one specific thing that people must do right now when they finish listening to today’s podcast or webcast.

John Asher: Two, but they go together. Number one, figure out what your post-pandemic strategy is and recognize that your company must invest more in digitization and automation in the future. They go together.

Fred Diamond: John Asher, you did a great job as you always do, you look great as you always do. To everybody listening to today’s Sales Game Changers podcast or today’s webcast, thank you so much for your time.

John Asher: You’re welcome. Good to be with you, Fred.


Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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