Challenging a client’s thinking positions a sales professional far more favorably, credibly, and with greater access than leading with questions alone.
Reflecting on the research conducted by Sales Executive Council’s Nick Toman and Matt Dixon and their research methodology helps reconcile this point. Multivariate regression models highlight differentiators – the performance drivers that separate low from high performance. If nearly all sales professionals exhibited a specific behavior, that behavior will not show up as a driver of higher sales performance. Since nearly all sales professionals practice questioning techniques, they are unlikely to “pop” as a performance driver.
This doesn’t mean that the best sales professionals in the world don’t rely on questioning approaches – they do. But it does suggest that they are doing something different to engage in a far meaningful commercial conversation, quickly distancing them from their peers. The data clearly indicates that challenging the clients thinking with unique insights is what differentiates star performers from their average-performing peers. Interviews that Toman and Dixon had with the world’s very best sales performers underscore this finding. These sales professionals argue questioning is vital to a sale, particularly in later stages when it comes to customizing a solution, but they also realize clients no longer have the patience or grant access to the “interrogator.” They must first earn the right to ask questions.
Looking at the role of questioning from the clients perspective , the ultimate arbiter as to the effectiveness of the SEC challenger approach, a thorough examination of purchase and loyalty drivers conducted across more than 5,000 business-to-business clients showed the most impactful drivers are (in order of impact):
- offering unique perspectives
- navigating alternative approaches for their business
- helping to avoid mistakes
- educating on new issues and outcomes
These drivers clearly reflect the importance of sharing insight about the client’s business.
Among the least impactful drivers from that analysis (in fact, these attributes are over 40% less effective than those listed above) are the following:
- understanding their business
- diagnosing needs
It is assumed that clients know their business. They probably do not expect sales professionals to know their business as well they do. It can be concluded that clients aren’t interested in validation of their preconceived notions through questioning, but they’re interested in new ideas that can make them more effective.
Answering questions is a privilege, not a right, and it’s one that the clients grant to the sales professionals who has brought them new insights for improving their business—not sales professionals who are searching for a way to potentially support the client’s business.
This distinction is critical, according to Toman and Dixon
Can insights be shared through smart questioning? Most certainly – just ask anyone well versed in Socratic reasoning – when an answer generates further questions, for instance. However, today’s clients no longer needs to be tolerant of questioning. They can simply hire a consultant—and in some cases, go online–to assess their needs and evaluate vendors. Today’s clients demand new insights on running their business, mitigating risk, generating growth, or reducing cost. In this respect, the sales professional’s biggest competitor today isn’t actually the competition at all—it’s the client’s ability to learn on their own.
Sales professionals have to deliver insight to deliver the same success they enjoyed through mere probing for implicit and explicit needs. Irrespective of the tactic used to deliver insight, the opportunity presents itself.
In order to get the client to think differently about you as a solution provider, you must first get client to think differently about themselves.