I read a great article this morning on the Harvard Business Review Website. The article is titled “The Worst Question a Salesperson Can Ask,” and if you haven’t read it yet you should check it out.
The crux of the article is that top-performing salespeople tell their customers what they need, not vice-versa. This runs counter to traditional sales approaches (not to mention countless sales training courses) that focus on teaching their reps to ask better questions and understand clients’ problems. In other words, traditional sales training approaches focus on developing relationship builders, not thought leaders who are willing to push their customers in new directions.
The article states that the traditional approach is wrong for two reasons. First, because improving reps’ ability to diagnose needs is highly challenging, especially among average performers who make up the bulk of most sales teams. Second, and perhaps most importantly, because this approach is based on a flawed assumption in the first place – namely, that customers actually know what they need in the first place.
Having worked in technology sales for more than 10 years, I can tell you that this is usually case. In my experience, even if customers do know what they want, much of the time it is incorrect and based on faulty assumptions or drivers (such as a directive from finance to, say, cut costs by 10 percent) that run contrary to their program’s objectives.
The conclusion of the article is that top-performing salespeople are thought leaders and who “offer unique and valuable perspectives on the market” and “educate them on new issues and outcomes.” Not only that, customers prefer doing business with reps who have the skill to provide information so interesting and valuable that the customer would actually be willing to pay for the conversation itself.
I think this explains why I’ve experienced some of my most successful sales meetings where my team quite literally ran roughshod over the customer, telling them what to do and why. I was quite surprised on several occasions when I thought the meeting went quite poorly, because the customer was very quiet and simply listened attentively… only to sign a contract afterwards without the slightest push back.
On a couple occasions, believe it or not, I’ve even seen a rep tell the customer he had no idea what he was talking about… and still get the sale. I guess in the end of the day, it’s more important to be respected than to be liked.
Got any thoughts? I’d love to hear them.