Product selling dead: Sales people must become experts in listening
Selling is no longer a product monologue where salespeople come in as so-called experts talking about their products while curious buyers look on. And long gone are the days where sales, especially B2B sales, were male dominated. Here, we will explore the death of product selling and what’s in store for 2011 and beyond.
When I began my career as a professional sales person in the early 1980s, sales professionals were trained on product benefits and communication skills, which focussed mainly on handling objections. Our toolkit was simple. We were armed with a business card, product brochure and a geographic territory of clients to manage and grow and a car to get around in. The end goal? Make sales.
Yet many people felt at odds with the way they were taught to sell because so little attention was paid to what comes naturally to people: how can I help you and be of use to you with my products, services and talents?
Instead we fell for the product trap, where we waited for the latest gadget or gizmo from the vaults of businesses who could afford to produce ‘stuff’ that was supposed to satisfy our needs. In most cases, those ‘needs’ were created by clever ideas and marketing people looking for ways to make money. So, welcome to the world of mass consumerism. In the ‘70s it was all about ‘Product Features’ – if your product was distinctly different from your competitors, it met these so-called needs and you could get first to market you were then granted lead time to make hay while the sun shone.
However in the ‘80s, technology produced by these great ideas sped up the manufacturing process, allowing competitors to copy products quickly. Now we were talking about ‘Product Benefits’. You cansee that we were still stuck in a product monologue, with the client still treated as a passive by-stander. As technology sped up, it also made it cheaper to produce product and the margins began to disappear as products became more commoditised.
Welcome to the ‘90s, solving problems and productivity drives. Now we start to talk to clients about what they are trying to address, what problems they want to solve, what efficiencies they want to achieve. Yet, in some way, problems were created so we had products to sell. They were sold as an aggregation of products which when combined solved problems and brought efficiencies and other benefits.
But now the margins are being eroded in this space. We are seeing more and more packaged solution offerings such as print solutions, financial planning, education and car leasing, become commoditised. Companies who cut costs, reduce levels of service, and move customers online and DIY are stripping away any real value and reduce packaged/aggregated solutions to price negotiation. Selling packaged/aggregated solutions is at risk of losing its profitable edge. So, where to from here?
If you only sell based on your product you are in a commodity space unless that product is so exclusive that people will pay a premium. But now even some exclusive brands are at risk of losing their exclusive appeal. Just see how fast new technology like iPads and iPhones have been copied Smart phones and prices reduced, allowing more and more access to what was once considered an exclusive brand.
Unless you want to stay in the world of low margin commodity selling, which can be easily done at very cost effective ways over the internet, you need to recognise that the product is only part of the sale. Smart salespeople and their businesses know the real value, and what clients are prepared to pay for lays in the collaboration and production of real ideas and results. Despite offering aggregated solutions, they will look for ways to accelerate their client's businesses or personal lives, to produce more outstanding results. This requires thinking outside the product and solution boxes, dealing with variables and ambiguities which, by nature, are messier and less defined. Working together to achieve real results will bring with it whole new partnership arrangements
This brings with it a whole new skill set. Think of the types of conversations you now need to have with your prospective customers where listening, questioning, resolving problems, collaboration, empathy and understanding are encouraged.
For the better part of the last 50 years of selling especially in the heady days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the emphasis on B2B selling had a distinct aggressive ring to it. So much so, that you could walk down the halls of many businesses and think that you were involved in big game hunting. Many of these teams saw selling as an extreme sport.
Customers were ‘Targets’ and getting a sale was referred to as ‘the Kill’. Customers were regarded as objects to be possessed or trophies to be placed in their cabinet; to be shown off and admired (perversely so) like stuffed animal heads on the wall.
The profession of sales has been out of balance for some time and to its detriment.
If we look at how selling has been evolving over the last 50 years, we can see a distinct shift occurring from the aggressive one sided approach where conquest was king (too much yang) to a more delicate balance between the masculine and feminine aspects of yin.
It cannot be denied that selling requires a proactive, focused, go-out-into-the-world and find opportunity approach (prospecting).
However, selling must now be balanced with the ability to genuinely listen and respond to the subtleties of more complex relationships, which involves patience, nurturing, and dealing with ambiguity.
2011 is about really understanding this fact and remembering that at best, customers can be our finest sales team, advocating our products, services, people and brand with their endorsements.Smart salespeople are using their advocates to engage with their prospects and customers, encouraging and influencing them along the buyer’s journey.