In the classic Monty Python “Dead Parrot” sketch, John Cleese enters a pet shop to complain about his dead Norwegian Blue Parrot that he had just purchased the day before. Despite the fact that the bird is clearly deceased and that it had been nailed to its perch, the proprietor insists that it is just “pining for the fjords” or maybe “stunned”, or perhaps merely “resting”.
Hearing this, a totally exasperated Cleese explodes, and to demonstrate the deadness of the parrot he bangs the parrot on the counter declaring definitively that “Polly” has in fact “passed on”, “ceased to be”, is “bereft of life”, “rests in peace” and is an “Ex-parrot”. The sketch is hilarious because of the absurdity of it all. The parrot is clearly dead in spite of the pet shop owner’s denial.
Here’s what’s not funny. Many software companies are practicing sales approaches that are for all practical purposes DEAD, but behaving as if these approaches are just “resting” or maybe “pining for the fjords”.
I. SALES IS NOT DEAD, BUT YOUR SALES APPROACH MIGHT BE.
Over the years the gold standard of software sales approaches has been Solution Selling. In the right environment it is an excellent approach. But I would submit for your consideration that it is not the best match for today’s buying environment, especially from the light enterprise down.
But wait a minute you say. Solution selling has evolved over the years to adapt to a changing marketplace. Well, sure, but here’s the problem. There may be revisions or improvements, but all these “New” approaches are really just variations of the same approach, not fundamentally different approaches.
I don’t care whether you are Spin Selling, being more Customer Centric, adopting the NEW Solution selling, or more recently, the Challenger approach or the “Story Seekers” framework, they all depend on putting the sales person in control, quarterbacking the process and guiding the prospect to a decision. But things get thorny in today’s market when the prospect decides they don’t want to engage in your sales process, and that they will be the quarterback from now on, thank you very much.
Don’t get me wrong, Solution Selling has served sales organizations well in the past, but it’s designed for a marketplace that is quickly changing and fast disappearing (with the exception of the large enterprise market). If the world was made up of prospects that made decisions in a systematic, linear way, gave you access to real decision makers who were open to having their assumptions challenged, carefully considered your business case, gave you the opportunity to give a configured demo, and saw the strategic value of your proposed solution, then you’re all set. How’s that working for you? My point exactly. So in essence, even as solution selling has evolved and been revised over and over, in today’s market it is the equivalent of putting a different color of paint on a dead Parrot. It doesn’t help the Parrot fly.
II. THE NEW REALITY IN SALES APPROACHES
First of all, it’s not about being more customer centric, it’s about understanding that the buying process is now customer driven. There’s a new Sherriff in town. The customer will decide what the process will be, who will be involved and how they will engage. I’m not suggesting that the sales person has no control or no influence, but the nature of the engagement is different. Take control of the sale? Define the landscape? Reengineer the vision? Good luck. You have to have a willing partner to engage in that type of conversation.
Let’s consider a typical sales cycle in the new reality. That is, the buying process from the prospect’s perspective. Not that this is brand new, but what has evolved and exists currently. Typically an engagement with a prospect begins with a qualification/discovery call with lower level people in the company (part of an evaluation team) that are rarely aware of much beyond their immediate concerns. I say this in a descriptive not a demeaning manner.
Generally there is little or no understanding of the linkage of the prospect’s stated initiative or project to the company’s strategic goals except at the highest level. Additionally, they are most likely unaware of the details and criteria for their own evaluation process, the company’s decision-making process and even the ultimate decision maker. Even if they state that they know, most of the time you find out much later in the sales cycle that they are mistaken. After all, that’s not their primary task. They are principally tasked with filtering out a bazillion vendors to be able to ultimately focus on 3-5 recommended vendors for further “evaluation”.
These are not bad people. They are gatekeepers and there have always been gatekeepers. What’s changed is that this group is generally lower-level people who are much more focused on a one-sided conversation that facilitates gathering information (on their terms) and checking off product features on their evaluation scorecard. They are not tasked with helping you discover their “pains” or lost opportunity costs.
Ok, stuff happens, but when you are blocked by gatekeepers, why not just go around these people and try to “get to power”? Because you will most likely be eliminated from consideration or, at the very least, be chastised and poison relationships. But, you say, you need to work with these people to earn the right to speak to power. Build a business case, etc. On the surface that makes sense, and in some cases may work, but most of the time you will find yourself trying to dance with an unwilling partner.
Why aren’t prospects interested in exploring in more detail the problems they are seeking to solve with a business solution? Because they feel they already know what they need to know. Where would they ever get that idea? Where are they getting their information? Not from the sales person, that’s for sure. In the past, yes. Today? Not a chance.
Prospects now routinely go to web sites like Capterra, G2 Croud, TrustRadius, TechTarget and others. On these sites they can get a product category overview, product details, screen shots, competitive comparisons, overall ratings, user reviews, and in some cases, detailed pricing information. (Suggestion, go on these sites, if you haven’t, and see what prospects are learning about you). Then they talk to their friends and colleagues and get more details. Not fair you say! Who cares? That’s what they actually do.
But, you scream, it doesn’t tell the whole story! Of course not, but again, it doesn’t matter, the prospect think it does. If your online presence doesn’t present you favorably, or your website doesn’t guide people through your clear value proposition and answer the questions prospects care about, you are penalized for that…fairly or unfairly. And prospects are not going to hunt for this info. If they can’t find clear information about you, fast, they won’t pursue it. Why should they? We have all been “trained” by our daily web experience to be able to research virtually any item or service of note to gain the information we need to make wise choices. That’s just the way we buy now.
Why have companies adopted this approach? More likely than not they feel they have been “burned” in past software purchases (whether real or imagined), or they never realized the gains in productivity and/or ROI that was promised, or in general they don’t trust most of things sales people say. But be of good cheer, it’s not personal, it’s business.
And the business for companies purchasing software is about saving money. Oh sure they may say they want to unify, align and empower their organization, etc., but they really want to save money. And they believe that, with some exceptions, most software vendors (that they would consider anyway) are pretty much the same. They don’t buy your argument for differentiation. Perhaps at the end user level, but not at the check signing level.
Don’t believe it? A colleague of mine was in the ninth month of a software sales cycle when his main contact at the prospect company informed him that “basically we’ve concluded that all of you (vendors in that space being considered) are basically the same. So our decision will be based on price from here”. They held a “reverse auction” for the vendors…low price wins. This was a multi-million dollar sale! But you say, surely the sales executive just didn’t differentiate enough, didn’t sell value, had poor sales execution. And you would be wrong. That wasn’t the case. The Parrot is simply dead…he isn’t just resting. He has expired, he has become an ex-Parrot, a late Parrot.
Sooner or later in the sales cycle the 200 page RFP makes its appearance. It takes 2 years to complete, is as tortuous as waterboarding, and about as effective. It’s not designed to prompt discussion but to quench it. For the prospect it is a tool of control, to get the information they feel they need in the way they want to see it. For vendors it’s a psychological survival test. You have to participate or you’re out of consideration. No prospect actually reads the completed RFP but it is CRITICAL that all the boxes are checked. There is no opportunity to speak with anyone in the prospect’s organization, save for some minor clarification questions, until a “decision” is made. What decision? Whether or not you are chosen to go to the next step of evaluation. Good luck with “Challenging” their assumptions at this point.
Surely a demo of your product will provide you an opportunity to engage in a meaningful business conversation with your prospect. Maybe. But the demo is more likely to be scripted to see what the prospect wants to see, not what’s best for them (at least in your opinion). You wind up demoing to a script not to a mutually identified set of problems. But even if you get the opportunity to demo, will you have any idea of where you stand after that? Probably not. Typically you will follow up and follow up but receive no response save the comment, “We will be informing all vendors of our decision by such and such a date. At that point, we will select our final 3 vendors.” So whose process really determines how a sales cycle proceeds at this point? Yours or the prospect’s? If you selected “prospect” you would be correct.
Salesforce to the rescue…or not. In lieu of finding a sales process that consistently delivers results, much of the focus over the past couple years has shifted to doubling down on their existing sales approach, ensuring that there is tighter “sales execution”. Sales managers/execs have adopted the position that sales reps just haven’t been running a tight enough ship.
So sales managers/execs now demand real-time updating of Salesforce (or other CRMs) according to a sales process usually outlined in great detail with 6-10 stages and clear criteria for moving a deal from one stage to the next. Nothing wrong with that in principle, but has that magically improved close rates? No. Has forecasting become amazingly more accurate? No. Look, the Parrot is dead. Really. I mean look at his feet, they’re nailed to the perch. He is not resting. He has gone to meet his maker. He has joined the choir invisible.
So why doesn’t this work? Because most CRM sales process’ assume a linear sales process and that the sales person is in control, leading the prospect from one stage to the next. Again, how’s that working for you? What really happens is that reps under pressure “reinterpret” the sales stage requirements to indicate some progress because they simply can’t get sign off (or many times, even a response) from the prospect. When the deal collapses the explanation is often that the competition just “dropped their pants” on the price. That may well be true, but the reality is that the rep probably never knew exactly where he/she stood in the deal. Because of poor sales execution? Maybe. But it is more likely that the rep was trying to impose on the prospect a sales process that the prospect hasn’t agreed to and isn’t engaging in. We are automating the wrong process.
Enter the efficiency police. If you are lucky enough to reach the proposal, contracts and pricing stage you will be dealing with procurement. They control the process going forward, limit or exclude your interaction with anyone in the company and make their recommendation to the executive committee or decision maker/signer based on …? A clear understanding of your solution’s capabilities in solving the prospect’s problems? The strategic contribution it will make to the company? Please. Ask yourself how many substantive business discussions you have ever had with procurement? They view you and treat you as a commodity. The nature of your conversations will focus on how much of a concession you will make on price.
III. THIS SOUNDS PRETTY BLEAK. IS SALES DEAD?
Of course not. Companies still want to buy stuff and vendors want to sell stuff. The biggest disconnect here is that most buyers aren’t buying the same way they have in the past, but many tone deaf vendors are largely using the same sales approaches they have used in the past.
Have you ever wondered why prospects have built, in effect, a non-sales friendly, impenetrable buying fortress designed to keep sales people at bay? It’s because they feel as if they are being assaulted by sales. Why else would they build a fortress? Think about the implications of that for a moment. Does that sound like the start of a beautiful relationship or warfare?
IV. HOW TO CHANGE YOUR PROSPECT’S PERCEPTION OF YOU AND YOUR SALES APPROACH AND INCREASE YOUR SALES EFFECTIVENESS:
- Stop fighting with prospects and trying to conquer their process, and instead work with them. Stop defending the dead parrot sales approach that imposes your approach on an unwilling prospect.
- Really understand today’s buyer’s journey and buying process and match your sales and marketing efforts to this new reality. Here’s a great place to start: http://executiveanswers.net/solutions/
As a result of applying the above your prospects will open up and engage, you can retire your assault weapons (not your core sales skills), you will achieve better results and everyone will be much happier. Except for the ex-parrot, as he must be laid to rest.
For a more detailed description of the new reality in sales and what steps you can take to move in that direction see http://executiveanswers.net/solutions/
About Executive Answers
Executive Answers helps companies design, execute and optimize sales and marketing strategies that align with the modern Buyer Journey. Our team is comprised of SaaS veterans with experience working for Taleo, Responsys, SuccessFactors, Meltwater and Zuora. www.executiveanswers.net