I plead guilty to enjoying a cold beer or two, and I’ve watched with amazement as the decade-long bull market in the craft beer industry shows no signs of abating.
Sales trainers often emphasize that in order to gain and maintain a level of competence in selling, salespeople must focus on the basics — Sales 101. That’s true, but there’s a wrinkle. If the basics are all your salespeople know and can do, competitive sales campaigns will be a battle among equals.
Millions of B2B salespeople have undergone what amounts to a fairly standardized sales training curriculum, where terminology is the only significant difference from one approach to another. Sales 101 topics can include territory management, prospecting, setting appointments, executing a sales call, questioning, constructing a presentation, managing objections, negotiating and soliciting referrals, among many other capabilities. Sure, I’ll admit that a salesperson who does all of these things better than a competitor will potentially gain some competitive advantage, but it’s not enough to consistently win.
So, if not Sales 101, then what? There are a number of correct responses to that question, depending on, among other factors, what your company sells, to whom, and who your competition is.
Let’s start with three advanced selling capabilities that, over the decades, have been proven to provide competitive advantage in highly competitive B2B selling.
The first skill is understanding and leveraging politics and influence within your customer accounts. Although procurement departments are gaining control of parts of the buying process within many corporations, politically savvy salespeople are able to decipher the business and personal agendas of those who influence decisions and are, more often than not, able to recruit them as allies and adjunct members of their virtual sales team. Having influential people inside the customer’s organization not only on your side, but literally selling on your behalf, is not only possible, it’s being done every day among best-in-class sales teams. The benefits? Influencing the content of an RFP, altering (in your favor) previously established decision criteria, overcoming product or service weaknesses, and minimizing the impact of procurement on your pricing, terms and conditions.
A second advanced selling capability is business and financial acumen. Sales managers who struggle to stay out of feature/function bake-offs and pricing battles would be smart to explore how their salespeople’s ability to quantify, very specifically, the financial value the customer will receive from their product or service can provide a significant competitive advantage. In the B2B world, after all, we’re selling business improvement to our customers; the ability to articulate how much, how soon, and the level of risk in not realizing that value makes the difference between winning and losing, or being forced to slash prices to get an order or not.
The third selling capability is deployment of military-like competitive selling strategies and tactics. Jim Holden originated this approach to competing more than 20 years ago, and it has made a world of difference for many companies. This skill is important because most salespeople left to their own devices plow headlong into every opportunity the same way, paying little attention to protecting their company and value proposition from competitive attack, or positioning their offering in the best possible light. Devising a specific competitive strategy based on each unique customer situation can enable small companies to win against industry giants, and companies with average products to beat those whose offerings have more sex and sizzle.
Every time I speak about these capabilities at conferences or in webinars, someone opines that building strong relationships with customers, and understanding and meeting their business requirements, is enough. That is quite precisely the bad news — Sales 101 isn’t enough anymore. The good news is that there are plenty of resources out there that can take your team to a new level of effectiveness and competitiveness.
Dave Stein is founder and CEO of ES Research Group, whose in-depth industry research and independent evaluations of sales training companies helps companies make the right decisions about sales training programs.