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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 and hosted by Fred Diamond on December 21, 2020. It featured Sales Expert and Author Michelle Vazzana.]
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MICHELLE’S TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “There are 5 factors that consistently drive the biggest changes in selling behavior and become most important in helping sellers determine the right sales approach. If you look at these 5 factors, there are different elements within these factors: (1) the customer’s awareness of the problem, (2) the competitive landscape, (3) the specific dynamics of the customer buying team, (4) the buying process itself and (5) solution definition. These were the 5 factors that over time have become the most important in determining buying situations. There are also four patterns of selling behavior: (1) consultative, (2) disruptive, (3) competitive, (4) financial. These four patterns are alive and well and consistently exhibited by high performers. The key is to marry the buying situation factors with these different selling patterns.”
Michelle Vazzana: Thanks, Fred, I’m thrilled to be here. I’ve got a message that’s a little bit unusual, it’s becoming more prevalent as more companies are aware of it, I’m going to be talking about sales agility. Most salespeople that are either listening to this or will listen to it at some point in the future would say, “I’m already agile, what are you talking about? What is this whole point of sales agility?” We’re going to share with you some research that we’ve done and some of the findings that will hopefully cause you to think differently about how you approach your sales job and how you approach your interactions with key prospects and customers.
Why are we on this agility train? There are billions of dollars spent every year on sales tools, technology and training and the most recent LinkedIn state of sales report indicated that there’s $18 billion dollars spent every year in the US alone on sales training. These are staggering numbers and this money is spent so that we can equip the sales force, drive more sellers to quota, drive higher win rates, achieve more revenue but the results of many of these investments are horribly disappointing and this cycle just goes on and on. Quite frankly, sales leaders and sales enablement leaders are a little bit bewildered because it’s very difficult to know which investments will work and which ones won’t work. How do I really get my salespeople to the next level? When you think about this $18 billion dollars spent per year in the US alone on sales training we know that it’s not getting the desired outcomes. How we know is that over the last 6 years, the percentage of sellers at quota has been in a steady decline and right now the numbers are hovering around 40%. Only 40% of sellers are actually at quota and this indicates that a lot of these really expensive investments are not hitting pay dirt.
So the next question is what do I do about it if I’m a sales leader or a sales enablement leader or a salesperson who wants to get better? I’m going to share with you outcomes of a series of research studies that we’ve done. 7 studies over 8 years, 27 global sales organizations, over 10,000 salespeople and over 1,600 sales managers and some of this research has been published in the two books that you see there, Fred, Cracking the Sales Management Code and Crushing Quota primarily targeted at sales manager populations. However, this most recent research that we’re going to share with you actually targets the salesperson and the salesperson’s interactions with the customer. What we found through this research is there’s this faulty assumption that’s alive and well in the minds and hearts of most sales leaders and sales enablement leaders. That assumption is if only we could get our salespeople to standard around a given specific methodology and behave in that way, if we can get everybody behaving the same way we would do well, we would improve our execution, we would improve our results, life would be good. We know that isn’t working because only 40% of people are making quota so this whole idea of, “Let me standardize my people around a given methodology” sounds good in theory but it just doesn’t work very well in practice. Let’s take a look at why.
If I’m a sales leader or a sales enablement leader and I want to train my sales force on a particular approach to selling, what are my choices? Well, quite frankly, they’re pretty vast. We have Solution Selling, we have Solution Selling – The Strong Man Process, The New Solution Selling, Strategic Selling, The New Strategic Selling, CustomerCentric Selling, The Science of Sales, The Challenger Sale which was a big one that came out in 2012, we’re going to talk more about that. We have The Sales Gurus, The Masters of Sales, The Greatest Sales Book Ever Written, The Best Damn Sales Book Ever Written, The Smartest Sales Book You’ll Ever Read and then we start getting legal about it, The 21 Laws of Success, then we go to the top of the mountain and we come down with The Sales Bible. You can just imagine, and these are just a small sampling of the vast array of sales methodologies that you can find out there in the marketplace. If you’re a sales leader and you’re trying to figure out, “What the heck do I do to get my salespeople executing more effectively?” how do you make that choice in this very crowded space? We’re going to talk more about this research that we’ve done around sales methodology in just a few minutes but I put just a smattering of some of the sales books out there in the marketplace.
What I’m going to do now is I’m going to do a quick poll, Fred. If you could please go ahead and introduce that poll, the people that are on our meeting today, how many sales methodology they’ve actually been exposed to.
Fred Diamond: I see some people who are chiming in here which is great. We have dozens of people from around the world watching today’s webinar. 60% have done 3-4 various sales trainings which means they’ve been around for a while.
Michelle Vazzana: Let’s think about that for just a moment. The vast majority of people have had 3 to 4 different methodologies and when you think about that, a lot of these methodologies have many elements in common and what we found in this process of this research is that most of them are actually very complex and they tend to be over-engineered. The reason they tend to be so complex is, for example, if you buy SPIN Selling or Strategic Selling, they’re designed to be applicable to a wide range of sellers in a wide range of circumstances. They have to put more in the methodology to make it universally applicable which also makes it more complex and makes it harder to execute. We’re going to share with you some research that began at the Florida State University Sales Institute back in 2012, was brought into Vantage Point in about 2017 and we’ve continued to expand that research and take it to the next level.
Let’s share a little bit with you about this research journey, we’re going to talk about the series of four studies. The first study was conducted back in 2012 and the Florida State University Sales Institute has a consortium of 40 global companies who come together once a year to discuss industry trends, sales trends and then to come up with really interesting research questions that they want answered. Back in 2012 when this first study happened, that’s when The Challenger Sale hit the street and it was all the buzz. These leaders within these 40 companies wanted to know, “Is Challenger really a thing? And if it is, is it the best sales methodology? If it isn’t, what is the best sales methodology?” The first study was a study that The Sales Institute designed in order to see if they could replicate the Challenger research that was conducted by the Sales Executive Council. What they found is if sellers are asked to self-identify what kind of seller they are, high performing sellers are more likely to identify as either Challenger sellers or Consultative sellers. After that study, one of the sellers that participated came back to the research team and said, “This was a really interesting exercise but I found it really hard to answer your questions.” The researcher goes, “What do you mean?” He says, “You asked me what kind of seller I am and that’s not really the right question because sometimes I’m a Challenger, sometimes I’m Consultative, sometimes I’m a relationship seller, it really depends on the buying situation that I’m facing.” The researchers went, “Maybe we were just asking the wrong question.”
What they did is they designed another study where they had sellers from three different companies in three different industries and they gave them three very unique buying situations that were relevant to their industry but different from each other. They did this to see if sellers actually adjust their approach when they face a different buying situation and if they do, how do they adjust it? What they found is high performing sellers absolutely adjust their approach based on the buying situation – more to come on that. The next question they asked themselves was, “When the sellers adjust their sales approach based on the buying situation, does that actually lead to higher win rates?” They found that it absolutely does. The next step was to come up with a way to reliably identify a way to tease out for any given company what the buying situations they’re facing are and what are the sales approaches that are most likely to lead to a win. They developed a very specific diagnostic survey instrument to gather situational information about the buying situation and tease out the tactics the sellers use in order to either win or lose in those situations. Those are the four studies, quite frankly, the most ground-breaking studies I had ever seen prior to 2017 so we were very excited to work with this research team and see if we could take this to the marketplace and make this commercially viable.
What were some of the research findings? The first one was yes, Challenger is a thing and people will self-identify as Challengers or consultative sellers if they’re high performers. High performing sellers absolutely adapt their sales approach to the buying situation they face and sellers who adapt win more deals. The last one, Fred, actually is one of the most interesting. Not only do they identify in a reliable diagnostic but what they found is that average sellers are the ones most likely to only use one approach, not multiple approaches regardless of the situation they face. What they found is across companies, across industries, for each company there’s typically four to six unique buying situations that their sellers face that are different from one another. In addition, they found that top performing sellers exhibit four discreet patterns of selling behavior – not one but four – and this was reliably identified time and time again. These four patterns held together, we’re going to talk about the patterns. The buying situation drove the winning strategy and average performers used only one strategy regardless of the buying situation.
Let’s think about what that means for a minute to those companies trying to instill a one-size-fits-all sales methodology. If you select a methodology, regardless of what it is – Challenger, SPIN, Consultative Selling – and your sellers follow that methodology, you’re basically training them to be average and that’s really not very good news for sales leaders and sales enablement leaders. So, how do we then equip sellers to be able to tease out and identify a given buying situation? When the researchers first did this series of studies they were looking at over 30 different buying situation factors and then doing some pretty sophisticated analysis to see which factors were actually most significant in determining changes in seller behavior. Over time, what we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able to identify that within those 30 factors there are really 5 factors that consistently drive the biggest changes in selling behavior and become most important in helping sellers determine the right sales approach. If you look at these 5 factors, there are different elements within these factors: the customer’s awareness of the problem, the competitive landscape, the specific dynamics of the customer buying team, the buying process itself and then solution definition. These were the 5 factors that over time have become the most important in determining buying situations. What we also found is that these four patterns of selling behavior – we call them consultative, disruptive, competitive, financial. Consultative, think SPIN Selling, think Consultative Selling, think Strategic Selling. Disruptive is think Challenger selling. Competitive is really more of a product or service-focused and financial is more like building an ROI case, it’s more value-type sellings. These four patterns are alive and well and consistently exhibited by high performers.
What do we do with this information? How do we marry the buying situation factors with these different selling patterns? That’s where this instrument that was initially developed by the Florida State Sales Institute and then continued to be amended and adjusted by Vantage Point, what we were able to do is we were able to gather deal level data from individual clients and analyze that data to identify two things. First of all, how many unique buying situations exist in any given client organization and how do we know? And I won’t bore you, Fred, with the details of this but there’s a very sophisticated algorithm that uses machine learning to identify which specific factors are most significantly important in the buying situations and how those factors cluster together to form these different situational archetypes. What you’re seeing here is five unique and discreet buying situations from one of our actual clients and with this instrument and this set of analysis that we have, we’re also able to identify of the four patterns of selling behavior how those patterns manifest in the pursuit of these deals that we’ve analyzed. What you see here is the relative use of each of these patterns of selling behavior and what you’ll notice is that in this particular organization, top performers were much more likely to use a disruptive or Challenge approach and everyone else meaning average and low performers were significantly more likely to use a competitive or product-focused approach.
Not only can we determine how these patterns unfold within any given organization, we can also identify for each of those individual buying situations which pattern of selling is much more likely to lead to a win and this is where it really gets interesting.
Fred Diamond: Michelle, we have a question or two, just a couple clarification questions.
Michelle Vazzana: Sure.
Fred Diamond: We have a question here from Lou, “What’s the definition of a top performer?” I’m just curious on your thoughts. We’ve actually had some people on from The Challenger over the years and we just had Spencer Wixom on the show recently, one thing that they talk about in the book is that there’s different situations that need to arise here and you have to be a different type of a sales professional. I love the way that we’re singling out top performers, Lou just wants to know, “What is Michelle’s definition of a top performer?” Give us a little idea on what that looks like.
Michelle Vazzana: Lou, that’s a great question. What we found over the years is that we can’t just use quota attainment although that is the primary way that we determine top performers. Typically, we take the top 20% of sellers in any given sales force as the top performers based on percentage of quota attainment. In some cases, what we’ll do is we’ll include other elements. Some customers say, “Quota attainment is one of them but we also have specific product targets on new products and I want to incorporate percentage of new product sales along with quota attainment.” We can take multiple factors but whatever factors the customer chooses to use to determine high performers, we will then look across the entire sales force based on those measurements and take the top 20%. In some cases we do the top 15% but that’s typically how we do it.
Fred Diamond: Lou says, “Thank you so much.” Thanks, Lou. We have one quick question that comes in from Joe and Joe actually frequently attends our webinars, Joe is in northern Virginia. Joe says, “How has 2020 redefined top performer?” That’s an interesting question, not everybody is going to hit quota this year because of all the reasons that we’re familiar with, I’m just curious on your definition of what a great sales professional in 2020 looks like and of course, we’ll be defining this in the next couple of slides.
Michelle Vazzana: There’s not a simple answer to that, we’re still going to look at the top 20% regardless of how many people made quota. For example, if you have a whole sales force that is under quota for the year we would still look at the top 20% of that. However, the question about how has COVID or this pandemic impacted this situation, what’s interesting is if you take a look at these buying situations, if we were to run this diagnostic with the same company right now we would identify very different buying factors because the buying environment has changed, and that’s the beauty of having a reliable way to evaluate deals and see what’s changed. Our clients who utilize this instrument with us, when we’re in a subscription with them, once every 12 to 18 months we will rerun this diagnostic and I don’t know of any other way in this current environment to quickly get a data based bead on how things have actually changed and what that means about the selling approach. So, it’s highly likely that different buying factors are coming into play and we know that when we analyze deals and then do the math with this machine learning that we have. It will allow us to identify the nuances of what’s changed with a particular sales force and their set of customers.
Fred Diamond: Let’s move on, we’re very excited and curious to learn about what the people watching today and listening to the webinar can be doing to take their sales career to the next level.
Michelle Vazzana: This is a really interesting slide here, Fred, and I’ll tell you why. This actually maps the five buying situation for this particular customer and which sales approach was most likely to lead to a win in each of these buying situations. Let’s just say that this particular customer had been trained on Challenger, for example. If you take a look at this first buying situation, tell me what’s new. A competitive or product-focused approach was much more likely to lead to a win in situation 1. A disruptive or Challenge type approach was the one most likely to lead to a win in situation 2 and only in situation 2. In situation 3, it was a financial or value-based and in situation 4, the same. The final one, cutting edge, that’s the only one where consultative selling was most likely to lead to a win so this is why it’s so risky if we train our sales force either in Challenger or in Solution Selling and we say, “This is the way we want you to sell.” We found in our research that any given pattern really only works 25% to 30% of the time, what about the other 70% to 75% of the time?” So it became incredibly important to be able to identify how you actually train agility, how you equip salespeople to be able to respond to buyer situations in a way that aligns with buyer preferences. Let me tell you why this is so acute right now, Fred, because we are so used to having very personalized buying experiences. We go on Amazon and they know what we’ve already bought, they make it easier for us to rebuy it, all of our preferences are stored and in our personal lives we experience very tailored buying experiences. In the B to B world, the artificial intelligence hasn’t caught up because you have people dealing with people, you don’t have machines dealing with people for the most part.
What the research team found when they tried to figure out how to train agility, because they looked at lots of sales training companies, they could not find one sales training company that actually trained their sellers on agility. They were a little bit bewildered by that so they decided they had to go to other industries, other domains. If you take a look at these three different types of roles, fighter pilots, athletes and first-responders, you think, “What on earth do they have in common?” It’s pretty straightforward, the decisions they make and the actions they take have immediate and dramatic consequences and they’re not always good, but they’ve got to be able to make decisions quickly and act on those decisions quickly. What this research team did is they actually interviewed leaders from these different domains, they went to different military installations, they interviewed coaches from different sports teams, they even visited different trauma centers. What they found is there’s a process that all of these types of roles go through in order to be able to be agile in the moment.
We’re going to take one of the examples, Fred, and one of the examples would be first-responders. First-responders have a process they go through when they’re dealing with a patient, the first thing they do is they assess the patient’s symptoms, what’s their blood pressure? What’s their heart rate? How’s their breathing? They’re taught to analyze a set of factors, there are health factors that first-responders analyze. Then they choose the appropriate medical treatment, they administer that medical treatment, then they monitor changes in systems. This approach of assessing, choosing and executing and then giving feedback, this is true for fighter pilots, it’s true for first-responders, it’s true for quarterbacks, this is a method for how to be agile in a systematic way. If we then take that same example of assessing, choosing and executing and monitoring feedback and move it to the world of sales, what we see is we can apply this same approach in order to help salespeople be more agile. We can teach them how to assess different buying situation factors and make sense of those factors and once they’ve been able to make sense of those factors, they can choose which sales strategy is most likely to lead to a win given those buying situation factors. They can then execute the tactics that are involved in that particular sales strategy and then they can monitor buyer reactions to see the degree to which they’ve been affected.
Here’s what’s interesting, Fred. This whole idea of analyze the buying situation and choose your approach is a bit oversimplified and here’s why. I can identify a particular buying situation based on a set of factors but then something changes in that buying situation, a new decision maker enters, a new competitor enters, some market situation changes. This idea of assessing, choosing and executing is an ongoing thing and this happens from interaction to interaction so while it may be true that the buying situation factors indicate that a disruptive approach may be the most effective because there’s a blind spot this customer’s dealing with, I may have a new decision maker come in that’s highly aware of the buying problem and I have to deal with that person differently.
This is a process for helping sellers evaluate the situation they’re facing, select the right approach, execute that approach and then monitor, it’s this ongoing process of being aware of and in tune with your buyer, choose the approach that’s going to best align with that buyer and increase your chances of a win and determine the reactions you’re getting. This is how the team at Florida State University and the team at Vantage Point have moved toward in order to equip sellers to be more agile. Whether or not this very in-depth diagnostic is used, it allows us to identify the specific buying situations and the specific approaches, that’s not necessary. They can still learn how to analyze buying situation factors, make sense of what they’re facing, choose the sales approach that most aligns to that buying situation and then execute those tactics. You don’t need the discreet insight based on a diagnostic to do that, this is a skill that can be utilized by small sales forces, big sales forces, individual sellers, sales managers, really across the board.
Fred Diamond: Michelle, quick question here that comes in. We went through the slide you had before of all the various historic sales methodologies and many of them are obviously still in play. You’ve trained tens of thousands of sales professionals and you work with thousands of sales managers and leaders, how has this been accepted by them? You work with large companies, small companies all over the world, you’ve written one of the best books in the history of sales management, Cracking the Sales Management Code. How has the response been over the last two years or so or is this brand new that you’re going out with this?
Michelle Vazzana: It’s not brand new, we’ve been heading down this agility path for the last three years but I can tell you, before that, we did have another methodology called Reflective Selling which just wasn’t that different than SPIN or any of the other thousand flavors of vanilla that are out there. When customers first see this, what they often say is, “That makes so much sense, why didn’t I figure that out?” They say the same thing they said when they read Cracking the Sales Management Code. “This seems so simple, why didn’t I figure this out?” That’s because in order to answer really hard questions you have to do your homework, you have to do your research. We have many clients who’ve done Challenger and they’ve done either Strategic Selling, SPIN Selling or some other Consultative Selling methodology we say, “You don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water.” Challenger is a great model if you need to disrupt the client buying process, Consultative is a great model when you have a buyer who is willing to work with you and is willing to answer your questions and help you understand the problem and is willing to get help. Those different methodologies are all alive and well and that’s fine, we’re not saying any of them are bad, we are saying they’re a little bit over-engineered because they’re trying to fit every circumstance. When customers see this, the first question is, “I can’t get my salespeople to execute one methodology, now you’re telling me I have to do four?” The answer is no, you don’t have to do four because each of these sales patterns, what we found in the research is they’re not that complex. Typically there’s three core tactics for each of these approaches and Consultative tends to be a good base line to pivot off of to get to these other ones.
There’s a lot of education that has to happen with our clients in order to allow them to get their heads wrapped around this. Intuitively it makes sense, high performing sellers will tell you it makes perfect sense, sales enablement people will tell you, “Our high performers are the ones least likely to adopt our one-size-fits-all methodology” so we are a bit on the cutting edge here, Fred. Some clients feel like, “This makes total sense, I understand why this works but I don’t understand it, I’m a little scared by it” so then we have to really simplify it. That’s what we’ve been doing over the last three years, making this easier to execute, easier to train and easier to adopt.
Fred Diamond: It fits in really perfectly with a lot of the things that we talk about at the Institute for Excellence in Sales. We’re interviewing world class sales leaders every single week, we’re doing daily webinars and we’re converting them to podcasts but to get to the highest level of your game you have to be able to deploy these things. We’re going to ask you at the end of today’s webinar for your action step for today like we do at the end of every webinar, something that everybody needs to do today on December 18th to take their sales career to the next level. There are things but if you think about it, to get to the top level of performance – and that’s what our mission is – to help sales leaders motivate, retain and elevate top tier sales talent, you’ve got to be exceptional at these things and you have to know when to deploy them. I love what you’re describing here because now you also need to know how to shift and how to shift who you are like, “I’m not a consultative seller at this moment because the customer challenge is dynamics, buying steps, whatever it might be, this is who I need to be.” The top performers want to know how to do that and are looking for ways to be that sales professional when they need to be, or deploy those skills, I should say.
Michelle Vazzana: What’s interesting is that salespeople adapt all the time, the problem is they don’t necessarily adapt in ways that improve their situation. They know that something isn’t working but they don’t always know what will work. One of the things that I recommend because I know that I’ve given you a white paper along with this, Fred, if they’re interested in this topic they should read that white paper. That white paper identifies how to tease out your buying situations and which approaches work in which situations.
The one piece of advice that I would give people is you better make sure you understand your buyer and then sit back and ask yourself, “Based on what I’ve learned about this buyer, if I were in their shoes, how would I want that seller to approach me?” Because that’s one of the biggest issues in progressing deals, aligning seller behavior to buying preferences. If I can really understand those buying preferences, then I can sit back and say, “I found these things out, what do I need to do about these things in order to ensure that I’m in lockstep with my buyer? Because it’s not their job to adjust to me, it’s my job to adjust to them. They don’t give a shit about my sales process or the steps that are within my CRM, they don’t care, they care about being heard, attended to, given a tailored experience and getting their own needs met.”
Fred Diamond: That’s a message that we’ve been talking about for the last year every single day, especially now because every customer on the planet is dealing with one of three things. They’re getting past COVID, all the things related to pandemic, secondly they’re getting past the financial challenges, economic realities that have occurred from COVID and they’re getting past a third thing, whatever it might be that’s endemic to their company or their industry.
Michelle, we’re coming down to the end here and you’ve given us such great thoughts, I know you have a couple of specific things that you want to get across, I want to make sure that we get to those.
Michelle Vazzana: People ask, “What happens to a sales force when they move away from a standardized methodology and instead they choose situational agility?” What we’ve seen over the three years we’ve been doing this and the years prior when the Sales Institute was doing this, average improve in quota attainment is 24%, win rates improve dramatically and revenue improves, these are numbers you can take to the bank. It just goes to show that sellers that are agile outperform sellers that aren’t and they outperform them in ways that are quantifiable and meaningful. If there’s any more questions, Fred, that you want to take, I’m happy to answer them. Otherwise, let’s send out the white paper and have people read it and hopefully they’ll gain some insights there they can apply as well.
Fred Diamond: Absolutely, we’ll make the white paper that Michelle eludes to available to all the IES members and also everybody today. Michelle, we have time for one or two more questions and then we’re going to be asking you for your final thought. We have a question here that comes in from Bill – Bill’s a frequent listener, he’s a second line sales manager, he’s a director. He says, “What should I start doing ASAP to get my team to follow this new direction?” Before I ask you for your final step for everybody, what do you recommend managers do? We’ve all realized that the toughest job right now is first line sales manager, imagine you became a sales manager in January for the first time. I hate to put you on the spot with this, but give us a couple of your tips for people first or second level in management.
Michelle Vazzana: I’d really dive into your pipeline, I’d dive into your deals and I would make sure that your salespeople are not making decisions based on faulty assumptions. Salespeople tend to want to take short cuts and there are some nuances in some of these deals based on these buying situation factors that get misread. One of the things I would do as a sales manager in today’s business environment is I would question everything about a deal, I would ask for evidence, I would get inside the seller’s thought process. One of the biggest reasons for lost deals is misqualified deals, sellers don’t do a thorough enough job earlier in their buying process because customers have done a lot of work before they get to the seller at this point. Ensure that sellers are being thorough and questioning their own assumptions.
Fred Diamond: Give us one action step, we like to end all of our webinars and podcasts with a specific action step. We’re going to get the white paper to everybody so something they all should be doing right now today to take their sales career to the next level.
Michelle Vazzana: I would have them test their assumptions with their buyers. Clarify, clarify, clarify and when it comes to deciding which actions to take, less is more. We found that in our sales manager research and we found that in our salesperson research. The most effective path is usually a pretty direct one, it’s just selecting the right path. Less is more when it comes to execution, just make sure it’s aligned.
Transcribed by Mariana Badillo