This week, I'm taking a short break from my series on selling into corporate environments where office politics and isolated resistance swarm and defeat the uninitiated. If you missed the first three articles in the series, you can read them here, here, and here. For this week, since the subject of "educating" prospects has been coming up too often to ignore, I believe you're going to like having this common sales misconception cleared up once and for all.
Interviewing a sales candidate recently for a client, I asked him why people bought from him. His response was, "They trust me and I make sure have all the information they need." And then I said to him, "Walk me through your sales process." And he said, "First I find out what they are using now (hydraulic hoses and valves). Then I educate them! That's what I do. I believe it's the best way. You have to show them you know what you're talking about. By the time I'm done, they know a lot more about valves and usually, one of the things I told them will be just what they need. I want them to see me as the guy with the answers."
When I checked out his resume, I noticed he'd been selling valves for 2 years. Before that, it was phenolic wheels for industrial use - 18 months, truck bodies - one year, cellular phones - 2 years. That's a lot of jumping around. Before I cut him short on one of the answers to a question, I had learned why I might want to use wheels without king pins instead of with them for my industrial applications. He didn't ask me if I had any industrial applications but I got educated anyway. Now I know how his prospects feel.
It was probably the the cell phone experience that "taught" him to "throw up" on his prospective new customers and no one gave him another tool. Apparently, none of his sales managers along the way trained nor coached him on how to use an effective sales process.
A common belief held by many salespeople is “I must educate my prospects.” There has been a misconception brewing about this idea for many years. We're going to clear it up right now. For the past three decades, sales expert and hall-of-famer Dave Kurlan has shown that in one context, educating prospects doesn't work. At the same time, research from consultants, Mike Schultz and John Doerr have shown that in another context, it's the most important part of the sales conversation separating winners from second place finishers. What gives?
The confusion lies in the word, 'educate.' The way that most salespeople interpret the idea of educating prospects is based on product knowledge. I want them to know, they might say, all about my product, what it does, how it does it, and why it's better than the other options. The salesperson has spent a huge amount of time learning the products well enough to sound like a seasoned auctioneer. It flows right off the tongue, and there's no way the prospect knows as much as they do, so the thinking goes, and why not sound like THE most qualified expert in the room. The more you showcase your knowledge, the more impressed your prospect will be and the more likely they are to choose the product from the guy or gal that knows the most, right?
Unfortunately, that's not how it usually works out. Spilling your guts about your products or what is most commonly referred to as the "show up and throw up" approach fails for several reasons.
- It's not targeted. Maybe I need phenolic industrial wheels right now or maybe I don't, but why talk about them if I don't?
- It's boring and distracts from a more productive sales conversation.
- The information will be stolen and given to the incumbent to help keep them honest.
- The information will be stolen and given to the competition to help them bring their service offerings in line with yours.
- It exposes a lack of inquisitiveness in the salesperson, leading prospects to believe that the salesperson is more interested in a sale than in understanding them.
This approach is masking an underlying inability to listen carefully to prospects. What's important to them? What are they saying they need vs. what do they truly need? Why are they talking to you? Legendary songwriter and guitarist, Eric Clapton, once said, "Well, I think part of my gift, or if I have one, is that I love listening." Listening to his music, one can feel him holding back to deliver exactly what is needed for the song in that moment, never playing to impress, and always impressing.
Following Dave Kurlan's well-honed advice, by taking a more consultative approach and following a sales process that emphasizes listening, asking questions, digging deeper, and uncovering compelling reasons to buy, we educate in a different way. This means holding back on all that knowledge. It means using your listening skills and being curious to ensure that the focus is on the prospect/client/customer, and not the salesperson. It's about knowing when it's the right time to talk about your stuff and having the patience to wait for that time (said Lancelot).
When we're curious and inquisitive and willing to spend the time to listen and learn and direct the conversation toward what our tremendous experience and knowledge tells us will be useful to the prospect, something magical happens. We uncover new possibilities. We serve our prospects by discovering together "new ideas and perspectives." It's in this manner that we educate them. That's what Schultz and Doerr found was the difference. Looking at 42 factors, they found that clients reported this form of education as the #1 factor in their decision to go with the winner. Second place finishers, on the other hand, did this hardly at all, coming in at number 42 out of 42 factors. Dead last!
So we're aligned after all. We could simplify it this way. Educating prospects about your awesome stuff before you understand them: bad. Educating your prospects with new ways of looking at their problem: good. As long as we don't confuse the two, we won't find ourselves pitching industrial wheels to human resource specialists, unless they really need them.
Note: Our Sales Leadership Intensive in the Boston area in May is sold out. Click here to get on the waiting list or to be contacted when the next one comes up, most likely this fall.
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Photo Credit: olegdudko