EPISODE 607: Becoming More Agile to Win More Sales with Michelle Vazzana

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Today’s show featured an interview with Michelle Vazzanna, the author of The Sales Agility Code: Deploy Situational Fluency to Win More Sales.

Find Michelle on LinkedIn.

MICHELLE’S TIP:  “Not only do buyers need more information and have access to more information, they’ve got access to conflicting information and don’t really know how to make good decisions, oftentimes in this environment. Going into a sales cycle with a buyer, buying team today, you have to really acknowledge that.”


Fred Diamond: We’re talking today about seller empathy. Empathy is something that we’ve discussed many times. Just as further introduction, we first met Michelle when she was the co-author of Cracking the Sales Management Code: The Secrets to Measuring and Managing Sales Performance. She also is the author of Crushing Quota: Proven Sales Coaching Tactics for Breakthrough Performance, and the new book, The Sales Agility Code: Deploy Situational Fluency to Win More Sales. It’s published by McGraw Hill. The book’s out on April 23rd, but it’s also available via preorder as well. Michelle, it’s great to see you. We’re doing today’s interview, this is one of the last interviews that we’re doing in 2022. What a year, 2022, right?

Michelle Vazzana: I know.

Fred Diamond: We’re going to be talking about empathy and agility, and those are two topics that are very important. When I wrote Insights for Sales Game Changers, one thing that we did is we went back and we looked at the most commonly uttered words on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. Empathy was one. We have a whole chapter devoted to empathy. Let’s get right into it.

Empathy has always been important in selling. If you’re a sales professional and you don’t have that gene, you’re gone. There’s no possible way you’re going to be successful. But it’s emerged and it’s gotten so thrown around, commented on over the course of the last two years. How is it different in today’s selling environment?

Michelle Vazzana: I think the traditional way for those that have been in sales for as long as we have, Fred, was more around just being a really good listener and being empathetic toward the buyer’s problems and their overall situation. I think the buying environment has changed so dramatically, at least since I started selling, which is quite a long time ago, as evidenced by my white hair. But their environment is so much more challenging today and it’s more risky today. Buyers have so much access to information now, and it’s a lot of high-quality information according to Gartner, and a lot of it’s conflicting. There’s a lot of confusion that exists in pretty much every marketplace. There’s analysts in every marketplace making claims, sometimes different claims that contradict. Then we have the vendors out there making claims that sometimes contradict.

Not only do buyers need more information and have access to more information, they’ve got access to conflicting information and don’t really know how to make good decisions, oftentimes in this environment. Going into a sales cycle with a buyer, buying team today, you have to really acknowledge that. Say, “I know there’s a lot of information out there. You’re likely to encounter conflicting information. You probably have more people in your buying team than you’ve ever had before, and you probably need higher levels of justification than you’ve ever had to have before.” Knowing that going into a sales cycle with a buyer, acknowledging the difficulty of their role, really goes a long way. Being able as a seller to scan the environment from the buyer’s perspective, not only what do I sell as a seller, what do my competitors sell, and what else are they looking at? But what analyst reports are they reading? What industry journals are they paying attention to? Where are they likely to get other information to develop their point of view about the buying task ahead of them?

The level of empathy that sellers need today is not just during the interaction. It’s not just around buyer pain. It’s around the buyer environment and the fact that there’s a lot more eyes on decisions now, especially in economic clients like these. Lots of eyes on decisions. Going in and acknowledging some of those things with buyers, having mechanisms for helping buyers sort through that, and understanding that buyers in today’s environment, they’re more scared of making a bad decision than making no decision. That’s probably the first time in my entire career in sales that’s been the case.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk a little more about that, about what’s going on at your customer’s location and with your customer. One of the things, Michelle, that we talk a lot about on the Sales Game Changers Podcast is the sales process has always been about you as the seller understanding what the buyer’s going through. Over the course of the last two years, one of the big challenges has been that the buyer is just as challenged with their customer. Not just their customer, but their customer’s customer. Supply chain, all the impacts of the pandemic, everything related on the social side as it relates to the pandemic, if you will. Give us some more of your insights for the listeners.

Now, most of the people who listen to the Sales Game Changers Podcast are professional sales. They’re typically B2B enterprise sales, and also people who those people report to, leaders, software, technology, hospitality, whoever it might be. Give us some more of your insights into what’s really going on with customers these days. Again, we’re doing the interview in 2022, but the show’s going live in 2023. Give us some more of your deep insights, Michelle Vazzana, into what is happening all through the customer that they’re going through that us as sellers need to be aware of.

Michelle Vazzana:  For example, one of my customers who’s in the transportation industry, they simply can’t get enough employees to manufacture their product. They’ve had to be very transparent about that with their long-term customers. They’ve got customers that have been buying for them for 30, 50 years. Having to manage a very short supply of their product, and having to tell customers, “We’re not going to have this for you for another six months.” They just can’t get employees and they can’t get supply to make their product. Being aware of that.

It’s not just about talking to your customers anymore, or looking at their LinkedIn profile to see what their business does, or going on their website. You really need to dig a little deeper and find out what are the challenges that are not publicly available that you’re dealing with that I can maybe help you navigate to some degree. I’m finding that customers, at least the customers and prospects that I’m encountering, they’re a lot more candid now. They’re a lot more authentic now. There’s a lot less, I don’t want to say game-playing, because I don’t think buyers ever really meant to play games, but there’s none of this, “I’m going to try to manipulate you,” or you’re going to try to manipulate me. There’s a higher level of candor and authenticity on both sides.

I think salespeople that are really succeeding in this environment are being willing to say things like that. They’re being willing to say, “Look, I have other customers that are in your shoes, and they are really struggling with these five things because of these reasons, and it’s really made it hard for them to do their job. It’s made them hard for them to deploy what it is that we sell.” I think customers are, because of COVID, because of the economy, people are not the same people that they were three years ago. None of us are the same. We’ve all come through this, changed in some meaningful way, and I’m seeing a much higher willingness of customers, once you get to have a conversation with them, they’re more willing to be authentic, and candid, and open. Getting in front of them is harder than it’s ever been. But once you get in front of them and you’ve earned the right to do that, whether it’s on a virtual meeting like this or whatever, I think more people are wanting to have a get-real conversation.

Fred Diamond: Let’s pursue that a little deeper. The example that you used, because I heard something very similar from a corporate partner of the Institute for Excellence in Sales. They killed it. They made their number, they sold what they needed to sell to their customers. There’s going to be a year lag before they’re going to be able to deliver because of things related to the supply chain, which is still real. You did your job, sales team, we hit our quota, whatever all those things are related to, customer. We beat the competition. We have a great nice path in place. Then we find out that we’re going to be a year before we deliver. That’s always been a challenge with software.

A lot of times in historic, when we sold software, we’re selling futures and whatever. Then we got to do the dance that you talked about before. That’s something completely different here. Even if the customer is willing to be vulnerable with us, as a sales professional, how do I handle that? I did my job. I sold what my company told me to sell. I did it the right way, I exceeded my quota, and now I’m getting calls from my customer, “We went with you and it’s going to be a year before we’re going to get this technology to redo our call centers?” Whatever it might be. Again, you’ve counseled tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of sales professionals, what are you telling them right now to get through this?

Michelle Vazzana: We’ve had this experience recently as well. We had a few very large technology clients who had budgets slashed, just slashed. Of course, that impacted us pretty dramatically. We’re having these same conversations because one of our biggest clients came to us and said, “Look, we’re cutting your budget by 85% what we had contracted with you for, and we need to train even more people.” It’s causing customers to be in really tight spots that you can’t always help them out of. It’s not reasonable that I could do the same level of training for 85% less. It’s not reasonable that a salesperson does their job but can’t get the product to the customer for a year. These conversations have to happen, and contingency plans have to be put in place. That’s the bottom line.

Oftentimes when a customer bought a new product or service, they have something else in place. They just want to replace that, and they want to replace it sooner than later. Sometimes they can’t. Then it’s about having the conversation about how can we limp by together? How can we help you utilize what you have in place to accomplish what you need to accomplish while you’re waiting for this other product to be made available? The client that we’re having this problem with, we’ve had to really dig deep and find alternative ways of using a far reduced budget to get more people exposure to material that’s less resource intensive. Because all the way down the line, people have to make some level of profit, or they go out of business. There’s a lot more of these business conversations. How can we keep you afloat? How can we have this minimum viable product or minimum viable engagement to get you through what you need to get through till things turn around and free up again?

Fred Diamond: The book that’s coming out is called The Sales Agility Code: Deploy Situational Fluency to Win More Sales. I want to ask you two questions. I want to ask you to define agility. I think agility is one of those words that is often incorrectly, people think it’s, “You’d be agile, be flexible,” whatever that means. I don’t think it’s that. Define agility and then answer the question, as it relates to the buyer’s journey, how does that enable sales agility?

Michelle Vazzana: There’s some recent research that really puts juice behind that, the answer that I’m going to give you. Agility is really the ability to adapt your approach based on the situation you’re facing. The best example here in the US that we have is think about a quarterback. Think about Tom Brady. What makes him such a brilliant quarterback is he is brilliant at taking the snap, and then assessing the defense, and then calling an audible when needed. He’s very much a good decision maker, a quick good decision maker in the moment that allows him to then make better decisions and drive better execution. It’s the same with sellers.

Although there is a lot of in-the-moment agility needed as a salesperson, there’s also some strategic agility that’s needed, which is, “Let me step back for a moment and scan across the customer’s environment and understand the situation I’m facing”. Let me gather information and let me assess that information and orient that information so I can get as accurate of a picture as possible of what I’m truly facing. Agile salespeople do what Tom Brady does. They scan the environment, and then they use the information they’d gleaned, not only from social media, from websites, from analyst reports. There’s all kinds of ways that we gather information, including conversations with customers. But that’s probably a lot less important now than it was in the past.

The most agile salespeople, they don’t rush forward trying to sell their way into this next deal. They analyze the situation, they make sense of it, and then what they do is they determine, “Okay, what have I learned and what does this mean?” They make sense of this buying situation, we call that situational intelligence. Once they understand the situation they’re facing, then the most agile salespeople determine, “Okay, I’ve got a variety of tools in my tool belt.” In our research, we found that there’s actually four primary strategies that sellers execute. There’s a consultative strategy, there’s a disruptive strategy, think challenger, there’s a financial strategy, think value or ROI, and a competitive strategy that’s much more product service focused and about differentiation.

The most agile sellers say, “All right, here’s the situation I’m facing, and here’s the attributes of this situation. Which of these strategies and which of these tactics within these strategies best align to what’s going on with that buyer?” Not the other way around. They don’t say, “How can I get my buyer to align to my sales process?” They say, “Which approach do I need to take as a seller to best align to what I’m seeing in this buying situation?” They do all of that before they execute anything. It’s not like it takes a really long time, but it takes more than a lot of sellers spend right now.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk from a leadership perspective. You guys deal with many leaders, again, you wrote one of the classic books on sales management. Talk about what your advice would be for, I’m going to talk about two different types, senior sales leaders. People who’ve been around for 30 years, they’re managing the whole eastern region for whatever technology company that might be after a 30-year career of success. Then I also want you to talk about the person who is a sales leader two, three years into their job. Michelle, a lot of people were promoted into sales leadership in January of 2020.

Michelle Vazzana: Yeah. That’s a tough gig.

Fred Diamond: That’s a tough gig. They didn’t see their people for another year, and they couldn’t go into a conference room, and everything was over Zoom, and everyone was trying to figure things out. Talk about how to deploy this successfully for the seasoned sales leaders, the guy or lady who’s been doing it for 20, 30 years at the highest level of the company. Then talk about how sales leaders who are two years into the job should be deploying this type of leadership.

Michelle Vazzana: The way that they deploy really isn’t that different. It really depends on the audience that you’re addressing. For example, if I take a fairly new-to-role team, let’s say it’s a team of SDRs. I’m probably not going to start with situational agility, because situational agility acknowledges that different buying teams have different buying situations. It acknowledges that we have more than one sales strategy to pull from. What we found in our recent research is that consultative selling isn’t just one of the four strategies. It’s the foundation for all of it. Consultative selling is what the best sellers utilized then determine, “Okay, do I need to pivot to something else? If I do need to pivot, what do I pivot to?”

If I were to take an SDR team, I would say, “Let’s start them with foundational agility,” understand buyer psychology, understand the buying journey, understand how my behavior needs to adjust to them based on where they are in their buying journey. I would start them there. If I’ve got a really tenured group of territory managers, or even account managers who’ve had a very strong foundation in consultative selling, and maybe even some strategic elements of consultative selling, I would go right to situational sales agility. Let me give you an example of why this really matters and why this question that you ask is so important.

One of our clients who has put their entire sales force through the sales agility code situational, which is this middle layer, one of the senior sales guys came up to the sales leader and said, “We do consultative selling here. This is what we do, and this is what we believe in. Why are you bringing this in? This doesn’t make any sense to me.” The sales leader said, “Well, I understand your perspective and consultative selling matters. It’s always mattered and it still will matter. But there are some different ways of thinking about dealing with buyers now that are a little bit more flexible and agile and will help you utilize those consultative skills in much more aligned ways.”

The senior sales guy who had been in sales over 30 years went to this training and he came out and he said, “All right, you’re right. This was the best training I’ve ever had.” Now, he said that because he had such a strong baseline to pull from. I could not take an SDR and put him through that situational sales agility. They wouldn’t have the frame of reference to handle it, and their sale is probably not complex enough to warrant it. I think more about the nature of the sales team than I do about the sales leader, but let’s take it to the leadership level.

If I’m a newer sales manager versus a tenured sales manager, I might have a different task, and I might have a different team. If I’m a tenured sales manager, I probably have some very ingrained thoughts, ideas, and beliefs about selling. My organization may have decided to put all the salespeople and sales managers through the situational sales agility program. I’m probably not that excited about it, quite frankly, because I’m like, “Oh my God, how many sales training programs have I been through? Really? You’re going to teach me something I don’t know?”

The way that we have to handle that is a bit differently because the sales manager, the sales leader has to bring an agility mindset as well as a skillset, right? So it’s really about, that’s a little bit of an organizational change initiative, which is getting these leaders together, getting them aligned on what they’re trying to accomplish, and quite frankly, sharing the research that shows this is what the most successful people do. We didn’t make this up. We didn’t make this up. We studied high performers and here’s what they do. Do you want your people selling like the highest performers or not? It’s really up to you, because even if we train your people, if you don’t reinforce it, it’s not going to change anything. That’s really more of a buy-in, generating buy-in and credibility by sharing the reality of the research of high performers.

Fred Diamond: The key thing that you just said is, it is the reality. This is the way it is. This is it. We can’t go backwards anywhere. If you’re going to be successful, you’re going to have to be understanding these things. Why would people be resistant? Why would sales leaders be resistant to the way things are right now?

Michelle Vazzana: Because if I’ve been a sales manager for 20 years and I was in sales for 20 years before that, maybe I don’t want to apply that much effort. That’s also the reality of the situation. Do I really want to have to apply that much effort? They think it’s going to be a lot more effort, but it isn’t. It’s really taking a lot of what they’ve already been doing and giving them a framework for when to do what. It’s just like our sales agility program for managers, the organizational agility program called the Sales Management Code, managers think, “Oh my God, you’re going to give me another coaching class?” “No, we’re actually going to help you organize your work and your job and your seller effort in ways that drive maximum output,” to help them sell more stuff, to meet the KPIs that you’ve set, to reach the organizational goals that you have. When managers go through those frameworks, they say, “Oh my God, this makes so much sense. This actually makes my job easier and allows me to better prioritize so that I’m not so scattered and overwhelmed.”

Fred Diamond: As we talk about this, Michelle, we’re talking about the stages of the buyer’s journey and this motivator’s objective. But it’s also emotions. We’re touching on emotions in a lot of ways. I just want to ask one final question before I ask you for your final action step. I’m just going to make this a broad question on the concept of emotional intelligence. That’s come up a lot over the last two years as well. Give some of your insights onto how leaders can help their sales professionals get more in touch with their emotions so that they can be more effective today as sales professionals.

Michelle Vazzana: Let me just clarify your question. How sellers can get more in touch with their own emotions or how sellers can get more in touch with the buyer’s emotions?

Fred Diamond: Yeah. How sellers can get more in touch with their own. I know we talk a lot about it, or I think you touched it on the book on the buyer’s emotions, but I’m just curious from the seller’s perspective. Because it’s a huge challenge right now. Everybody’s going through things, like we talked about, understanding and managing your own emotions. We talk about emotional intelligence not infrequently on the Sales Game Changers Podcast. We’ve devoted episodes about it specifically. I want to go back to the concept of how leaders can help their people, their sales professionals, grow their emotional intelligence and apply that more as part of a sales tool in their quiver.

Michelle Vazzana: I think that it really starts with the relationship that the manager has with the seller. Managers know when their salespeople are struggling. It’s not a secret. If one has a pipeline that’s two million and everybody else on the team has a pipeline that’s five million, you know that person’s struggling. Being willing to acknowledge that people are struggling, and being willing to acknowledge that struggling isn’t fun. I think the first step is just to having people tell you what’s on their mind, what’s worrying them right now, what’s got them twisted around the axle. Encouraging salespeople to talk about it. As a leader you know, you’ve been in many different leadership roles. When you ask people what’s going on, sometimes they tell you, and you have to be willing to hear that, and sometimes it’s pretty intense. I think the salespeople see leaders that are a little bit more understanding and empathetic with them. It gives them more confidence to be understanding and empathetic with others, including their customers.

Fred Diamond: Again, I want to thank Michelle Vazzana. Michelle, I just want to acknowledge you again for the third book. This is your third book, right?

Michelle Vazzana: It is, yes.

Fred Diamond: The first one obviously is a classic, and the second one was a great book as well. This book is going to change a lot of lives because the sales profession is changing. It’s been changing for the last X number of years, there’s no surprise there, but it’s changing radically in many, many different ways that you touched on today. The concepts that you talked about, about being agile, deploying agility through the process, is it’s mandatory. It’s not, “Gee, should I be agile today?” You better be agile or else you’re going to be left in the dust, and for some reason you’re not willing to apply some of the skills and ideas that you talk about in the book. You’re going to be left behind if you’re not left behind already. I just want to acknowledge you and your company, VantagePoint, for the great work you’ve done for so many companies and continue. A lot of your work, that’s really impressive, is that it’s so research based. You guys have teamed with Florida State in the past to identify some things. It’s great stuff that you’re doing. I just want to acknowledge you and Phil and everybody on the team.

Michelle Vazzana: Thank you, Fred.

Fred Diamond: You’ve given us so many great ideas. Michelle, give us one final action step, something specific people should do right now after listening to the podcast to take their sales career to the next level.

Michelle Vazzana: If they’re intrigued about sales agility and want to learn more about it, they can always preorder the book, but that’s not going to come to them until probably May. But there’s a white paper that we’ve written that is available for download on our website. If you go to vantagepointperformance.com, there’s a white paper called Building an Agile Salesforce. That’ll give them a sense for what is agility, why does it matter, and how does it help equip the sales force? That would be a great next step.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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