Customers need someone who can help them surface their underlying challenges, build confidence in the relationship, and understand implementation. These are the required skills of a sales professional who can understand the customer’s perspective in what has become an increasingly taxing and emotional process.
It is not difficult to see why committing to a major purchase surfaces more anxiety than ever before. The number of firms citing the pandemic as their “single largest source of uncertainty” surged from 25% in early March to 90% in early April, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. In this setting, a mistake on the part of the buyer can stall or even end a career. Therefore, it is the sales professional’s job to coach the buyer through the uncertainty that quietly threatens the sale at every stage.
This challenge within selling is new to many. While the buyer’s uncertainty has always been a factor, it now commands an outsized influence on the sale. Working in this environment means doing more than merely refocusing the stakeholders on the value of the product or service. Instead, sales professionals need to help the customer anticipate the questions that matter in the decision process. It even means helping them identify potential risks. This approach seems counterintuitive. Citing risks seems like it could undercut the value of the solution. In truth, openly discussing potential problems builds the sales professional’s credibility.
Here we look at the three ways sales professionals can more fully adopt the role of a coach during the sales process. Those who make these skills part of their approach will be positioned to excel where so many other sales professionals falter. They will be equipped to address the wide range of underlying concerns that impede the sale.
Address the Full Scope of the Challenge
To get comfortable with the game, buyers need to understand the playing field. Here, the sales professional can adopt the role of a coach by helping the buyer understand the scale of the buying process. Doing so means developing the customer’s comfort with each stage of the sale.
Throughout these stages the customer will need to gain resource commitment within their organization, maintain focus, and continually clarify their core needs. Simultaneously, the sales professional will also need to demonstrate command of their organization’s resources. They will need to reassure the customer by articulating their previous experience in delivering the solution to others. This approach, however, should not be confused with merely promoting previous successes. Instead, the sales professional must encourage the buyer to picture the result that features the customer as the champion of meaningful change. The sales professional is simply the coach who helps them reach that end.
For many buyers, the most daunting aspect of the process is its length and the obscurity of the path ahead. Sales professionals can ease this burden by building in check points throughout the process so that the customer does not feel locked to a full commitment all at once. This approach also helps customers gain comfort early with the aspects of the process that will occur in the later stages of the sale. The key to making this approach work is to co-create a collaboration plan that requires incremental commitment.
This gradual style is especially critical in today’s COVID-19 setting because uncertainty and, more importantly, pessimism is running high. A PwC survey of 1,581 CEOs across 83 territories revealed “a record level of pessimism regarding the global economic outlook in 2020.” As pessimism rises during the sales process, sales professionals should also consider including a member from the executive team, or a subject matter expert, when and where they are needed to provide reassurance.
Right Size Expectations
Effective coaching means helping others reach their maximum potential. Doing so, however, is a more nuanced challenge than most realize. The reason: everyone has different potential and different strengths. This idea is also true in selling. Sales professionals need to understand what is within the realm of possibility when exploring a solution for a customer. They must remember that outcomes must be discussed within the context of the customer’s capabilities. Simply put, the sales professional needs to know what they can do for the customer and what they cannot.
The solution to this challenge is to right-size the customer’s expectations and help them develop a focus on the long term. This approach, while effective, presents significant challenges. An analysis from The University of Western Ontario shows that “roughly 80 percent of managers admit that they would willingly sacrifice long-term performance to smooth earnings or meet a short- term earnings target.” That is, financial goals often prioritize for the short term, forcing leaders to defer consequences. Despite this pervasive problem, many leaders are in fact aware that a long-term approach is smarter. Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that 86% of surveyed board members and C-suite executives believe that “using a longer time horizon to make business decisions would positively affect corporate performance in a number of ways, including strengthening financial returns and increasing innovation.”
Coaching is a long-term endeavor. It occurs over many interactions, striving to develop skills incrementally. The same is true of sales professionals helping customers adopt a solution. The stakeholders must understand that realizing the full benefits of a solution will often take time. Illustrating this point to the customer is important not only because it manages expectations, but it also draws attention to the importance of orchestrating the necessary resources on the customer’s side. If the customer is to realize the long-term value of the product or service, they must be prepared to allocate the right resources to the implementation of the solution. These resources extend beyond financial means. The customer must also ensure that they are prepared to commit the time and people to implementation. The key is for sales professionals to remain transparent without over-promising.
Make Open Communication a Priority
Coaching requires honesty. The coach must have the ability to communicate with clarity and openness. Occasionally, this directness is in opposition to the tenor of a sales conversation because the sales professional, understandably, does not want to say anything that would risk the sale. Here, it is important to remember that if an honest dialogue is a real threat to the sale, then the sale was likely never a possibility in the first place.
Open communication is necessary because positioning a solution requires understanding the customer’s pain points, and revealing such details is humbling. The sales professional must help the customer develop comfort with discussing problems. They must help the customer open up by building trust and demonstrating that they can offer help. The sales professional must remember the concept of psychological safety, which is the ability to fluidly exchange ideas without fear of embarrassment. The value of this idea is evident in a body of research from Google titled Project Aristotle, an initiative to study hundreds of teams within the company. Google wanted to know why some fail while others succeed. After three years of research, they learned that certain norms predict success. One such norm was psychological safety. When a customer feels this kind of safety, they are more likely to volunteer important information and be upfront in their discussion of challenges.
Too often, selling is seen as adversarial; one is trying to compel another to buy. This approach is short-sighted. Instead, sales professionals should make collaboration the priority. Rather than emphasize the value of the solution, they should cultivate a setting in which the customer feels they can divulge fears and frustrations that will ultimately allow the sales professional to position the solution more effectively. The best coaches are often modest, unassuming people who rarely cite their own success.
Not all sales follow a straight line. In fact, today most are characterized by a constantly shifting direction. Seeing the process through to the end requires resilience, agility, and adaptability. A coach is the person who helps guide the customer through those turns to reach a mutually beneficial outcome.
The most effective sales professional focuses less on the solution and more on the customer. They acknowledge the stress and uncertainty the customer faces. They help the customer gain comfort with the scale of the challenges inherent to the buying process. As a coach, the sales professional focuses on outcomes that account for the customer’s unique capabilities while discussing long-term goals with candor. Simply put, coaching is about helping another succeed.