People buy from People that . . . . A Paradox.

Sales Consultants recognize that people buy product and services from people. That is quite obvious. Simply put people buy from people that do quite specific things. People that consistently exhibit certain, definite behaviors. However, this is more so as the complexity of the business environment and circumstances in which the sale takes place, but is generally prevalent in the business-to-business sales context.

During the opportunity qualification process, after the basis for mutual value has been established, a primary factor determining why we should pursue an opportunity lies with the maturity of our relationship with the client decision network. Often success is determined by who has the more mature relationship, either our competition or us. This success is determined by access to the decision network that, in turn, is a function of the maturity of the relationship. Often a better value proposition is more readily accepted by who conveys the message and to whom, rather than how well. Great at product knowledge, the quality of presentation, demonstrations or closing skills are more often than not, do not substitute a mature client relationship.

An apt way of perceiving a sales consultant is a catalyst for change. When a client experiences a problem or is presented with an opportunity that involves consulting outside of their organization, they are beginning a process of change. The successful sales consultant is invariably the one that is better at presenting their organization’s value proposition, assisting the customer to make that change. An integral part of allowing the client to buy a value proposition lies with the maturity of the trusted relationship we have with the client decision network as people and instilling the assurance that we can deliver on our promises that we are absolutely sure we can deliver upon (that is, if we do want to have a sustainable client relationship). This has more to do with how we relate and relay our message rather than what we say. Certainly, more EQ and XQ than IQ is required.

But, let’s ponder on the statement “mature relationship“ in terms of its mythical understanding and realization in practice. I wonder how many successful sales consultants can honestly say that their most significant deals were closed as a result of serious entertaining (other than an occasional lunch), knowing the client’s wife/husband or if they had any children, knowing client’s hobbies or sporting activities and actually partaking in them or having a client know anything personal about them of any significance. This knowledge and these activities have little or no significance when considering six or more figure deals with senior executives and a board of directors when presenting a value proposition that is bound to change their business. In addition, building rapport at a social level may not always be possible given that client and consultants may have different values and beliefs away from the professional context. Business rapport carries more weight than social rapport.

Building rapport with the client’s decision network is of incredible value but not at the expense of more pertinent knowledge. Rapport from a basis on alignment of business outcomes is more likely to yield longer-term success. I suggest knowing more about the client’s business than perhaps they do; especially where your solution touched their business is key. In context, knowing and demonstrating problem or results evidence and quantifiable impact, is likely to gain a client’s attention. This means every relevant business detail, every distinction, each possible angle where your solution might have an impact and being able to extract the evidence thereof.  The ability to stand up in front of decision makers and discuss, in the context of their problem or expected result and your solution, intricate areas of their business with absolute authority far outweighs relative golf handicaps or knowledge of the client’s favorite restaurant.

In a discussion with a CEO recently, he admitted that business is lot more difficult that it used to be. He stated that the days are gone when he could do business on the golf course.  Most of the people involved in the decision process don’t even play golf and he has less and less time for this kind of business interaction. The deals that they do as a technology services company have become more complex, involving a more complete decision network. Their clients demand more demonstrable business value, upfront. This is thrashed out in a meeting room, over a webex, at a reference site, rather than the 19th hole.

Investing in more pertinent client knowledge has distinctive benefits. Clients do value your understanding of their business. This understanding allows you to come across as credible and trustworthy – valued traits for any decision maker. The decision network has more confidence investing in your solution primarily because you are able to uncover more value for them. This knowledge, if maintained, allows you to build sustainable client relationships.

The primary point is not to stop striving to develop relationships or getting to know the prospective client, their decision ratifiers , their technical advocates makers, in a more personal way. But understand, they will not buy from you just because they interact with you on a social basis. They may take calls, respond to emails, accept meeting requests and invitations to social events, etc., but the buying part means committing their company’s financial and other resources as well as their professional reputation in exchange for realizable business value. This comes down to a belief that the benefits you are conveying about your solution will actually come to fruition. This requires credibility and trust, not just likeability.

I suggest that an investment in credibility and trust from opportunity qualification right through to sustainably delivering on those problem solving expectations created will certainly show better returns than likeability.  I have recently witnessed a very experienced executive taking on an “executive” sales consultant role, having to go back to a client to moderate the expectations he himself had created.

I have also had a first hand, less fortunate, experience of witnessing a client, the CEO of the private banking division of an international investment bank, being placed under personal reputation risk based on a financial management solution that failed to work despite weighty promises made. He said to the senior executive of my organization, “Rob, I enjoy playing golf with you, and I will carry on doing so, but you have embarrassed me in my own organization. I believed in you. I trusted you when you said you could and would deliver this solution no matter what. But, you couldn’t, could you? We will still be golf partners, but as far a business partners. Never again!”   A bit emotional, perhaps? Indeed, to the tune of $4 million investment for no return? I think not!

My point is to build trust and credibility first since that is what drives buying decisions in a repeatable fashion. I am not saying that building trust and credibility negates developing a personal relationship. However, I have seen far too many sales people who believe that building the personal relationship is what it is all about, so they spend their time trying to get the prospective buyer to like them rather than investing in the more difficult task of building trust and credibility. As a consultant, I have the blessing of working with a great number of striving businesses run by seasoned leaders. The best leaders are all personable people, but they put their business first, and make decisions that will increase the value of the business. In the first instance, a social relationship with the person who is selling the solution is always a secondary.

When it matters, People buy from People that:

1. Understand their client’s business, their market, and particularly their strategic challenges;

2. Can align their company’s value proposition and solutions with their client’s strategic challenges in an exact fashion; that appreciate that solutions add no inherent value unless they solve problems that the client cares about or produce results the client actually values;

3. Are ever present, aware and available despite the business circumstances, but have an acute sense of timing. They know when it is appropriate to probe for answers, respond in a timely manner that aligns with the client’s priorities but also when to back-off; appreciate that success to more often obtained when concentrating on the success of other rather than their own; that see the bigger long-term sustainable client relationship picture despite the quota pressures imposed by their organization;

4. Are able to gain an acute understanding of, in the context of the client’s business, the problem or result impact and evidence, without guessing, so that their solution is an exact and appropriate answer the client is willing and bale to invest in;

5. That act as a consultant or trusted advisor first and foremost; that understands that value means that they both (the consultant and client) share the identical, mutual self-interest. Both want a solution that satisfies the client’s needs; that this may involve doing nothing or something of incredible value;

6. Deliver on the expectations they have created. They live the hackneyed, but seemingly underestimated   “under promise, over delivery” sales consultant credo. This was a brave thing to do. Rather the personal embarrassment now than the mess when it comes to service delivery; that have the IQ (intelligence) to match the EQ (rapport) to match the XQ (execution ability).

Comments on this article are absolutely welcome.

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