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What? So What? Now What?

3 simple questions to learn more than you thought possible about your sales process

The US Army trains its best fighting brigades by pitting them in war games against an elite unit called OPFOR (stands for “opposing force). The brigades-in-training get every advantage: better intelligence, better technology, more manpower. Yet OPFOR almost always wins. Why? Because OPFOR systematically employs a powerful learning tool: the After Action Review – or AAR.

It’s the same with sales. The best way to get better at your craft is to conduct consistent and thorough debriefs of your action.

There are two kinds of debrief: the process debrief – taking a look at what you did that worked and what could be improved – the how of your meeting, and the content debrief – analyzing what you learned about your client’s strategies and challenges – the what of your meeting.

Both debriefs are critical to your success. Because the content debrief helps you plan your next steps for winning business, there’s a good chance it will produce near-term benefits. On the other hand, the process debrief will make you a better salesperson. It may produce some results in the near term, but its real benefit lies in the longer term, as you become more aware, more confident, and more skillful.

Because the content debrief can produce immediate results, you’ll be tempted to start there. But beware. Once you start pursuing business possibilities, you’ll quickly put aside your process debrief, even though it may be more useful in the long term – helping you become better at your craft. Sadly, the process debrief is a classic example of a high-value, low-urgency task – otherwise known as “stuff we don’t do.”

As tempting as it may be to get down to business, do yourself a favor and debrief your process first.

3 Questions

The most basic way to do a process debrief is to ask yourself three simple questions after your experience: What? So what? Now what?

In answering What? recall the details of your meeting, as objectively as possible. Describe what happened – what you said and did, what your client said and did.

In answering So what? look for the effect of what you said and did. What did it mean to you? What did it mean to your client?

Finally, in answering Now what? identify what you might do differently next time. What lessons can you take away from the effect your words and actions had?

The What? So what? Now what? discipline is a simple, but powerful way to do an AAR. One of its great values is that it can help you derive the right lessons from your experiences.

Here’s a simple example.

Salesman Bob had an opportunity he thought was perfect for a prospect. He was selling ad space for a TV show on sustainability. The theme was in line with his prospect’s mission, and Bob could offer a discount.

He called and left a message. It wasn’t returned.

Within 48 hours, Bob called 35 times, leaving 15 voice mails. Finally, by chance, he got through. His prospect was so annoyed she told him never to call again.

The next day, Bob did phone again, apologized, and asked for one minute of her time. He laid out the premise and the price. She loved it and bought on the spot.

Bob filed this story under “perseverance.” He’s told it hundreds of times over drinks: persistence = sales. But is that really the story’s lesson? Let’s debrief it using a quick version of What? So what? Now what?

What?Bob called 35 times, leaving 15 callback messages. When he finally got through, his client told him never to call again. He called back anyhow and in one minute outlined the offer and price. The client was impressed and bought.

So what?Because Bob had the gumption to call again and the skill to outline his proposal in one minute, he got the sale. So far so good. But Bob’s actions also irritated his client. He labeled himself “pest’.

Now what?If 15 messages resulted in no callbacks, and a one-minute script resulted in a sale, was it really persistence that won the sale? What if, after one or two unanswered messages, Bob had left a short, substantive voice mail, giving his client a reason to call back, perhaps: “The advertising opportunity is for a show about climate change. As I understand it, your mission is linked to the climate issue.” He might even have mentioned the discount.

Seen through the lens of a disciplined process debrief, the real takeaway from Bob’s story is not the value of persistence but the importance of compelling messages.

Try the What? So what? Now what? discipline. Debriefing your process with a systematic AAR can help you become a more productive salesperson each time you use it.

Excerpted from “Never Be Closing: How to Sell Better Without Screwing Your Clients, Your Colleagues, or Yourself” by Tim Hurson and Tim Dunne with permission of Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company.

Tim Hursonis the founding partner of ThinkX Intellectual Capital, an international speaker and author of the book “Think Better: An Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking.” He has aided in creating new marketing, innovation and product development programs for Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 organizations worldwide. Tim Dunne is a consulting partner with ThinkX, KnowInnovation, and New & Improved firms. He is based in France.