In our first Sales Expert Series, we ask them to share what they see when working with clients and offer tips based on what leads to the best results. Here is our first insight.
What suggestions would you offer to sales leaders to move their team members from vendor status to true strategic partner?
The first step is to ask these questions: What does a true strategic partner look and sound like? What does this really mean from the customer’s perspective? What do you do daily to achieve this status? As a sales leader, the way to move team members toward becoming strategic thinkers is not by telling them what to do but by asking them what they think.
With the answers to these questions, select just one aspect of being a true partner, then make it the focus of your weekly team meeting with the ground rule being that everyone has to contribute. The topics could be anything from how to get to know a customer’s business as well as they do to becoming more global in thought processes, or something as specific as adding more polish in verbal communication. After all, a primary tool in sales is our mouth, and what comes out of it can make or break our reputation in the eyes of customers.
In the sales milieu, “strategic advisor” has become another coveted phrase to attain like trusted advisor status, consultative seller, or being solution- or client-focused. We think that by embracing new terminology, we will automatically derive the intrinsic benefits of strategic client relationships. The reality is that becoming a strategic advisor takes time. It comes from the trust, behaviors, and communication style that you demonstrate in every client interaction.
Think about it as taking baby steps, starting with a mindset change. You truly have to be interested in your client. Begin by focusing on their agenda and their needs, not what can you do for them (or how you can sell them your “stuff”). What do you know about your clients, and what don’t you know? What do they look for in a partnership?
Look for new ways to add value in every interaction. What networking or referrals can you promote between existing clients that can enhance their business? What non-deal information can you provide to show them that you care? Be helpful if the client has relocated to a new area, has an upcoming vacation, would benefit from information about new industry strategies, market data, and the like.
Recognize that you can’t and don’t necessarily want to be a strategic partner to every single client. Prioritize to whom you give this coveted spot and privilege. Even in a 24/7 world, there is not enough time to be everything to every client.
Being a vendor is far better than not being one. It gives a sales professional an opportunity to be considered a strategic partner by a client, which is a rare thing. How many times have your salespeople earned a seat at the table to discuss strategic issues with decision makers at a client organization — being brought in well before actions have been defined and having been granted unusually strong access to stakeholders and information?
So, how can you as a leader help your sales professionals make that leap from vendor to strategic partner? Focus on four key points:
- Focus: Challenge your salespeople to identify those organizations and contacts within their book where their chances and payoff are the greatest. And, they should be prepared to defend their position.
- Plan: Account plans should be based on real information, specific actions and realistic goals, validated (or invalidated) by you, and fully committed to.
- Engage: Questioning the status of plan execution, meeting preparation, and the follow-up is powerful in both improving outcomes and conveying importance.
- Patience: It takes time, skill, and strategy to cultivate relationships that can be defined as strategic partnerships. Make sure your messaging and activity metrics are aligned with the behaviors that you seek.
When I introduce the Client Relationship Pyramid in sessions, we talk about moving up from Product Provider to Trusted Advisor. Specifically, I ask: What would you do differently to have this higher-level relationship? Most activities that enhance the relationship fall into two categories: changing the conversation and changing who you call on.
Changing the Conversation: What do vendors (product providers) typically talk about when they are lucky enough to get time with their customers? They might follow up on the last conversation, or ask about the customer’s business, but in short order, they usually begin talking about their own products and services. They believe that their value resides in what they’re selling, and they aren’t wrong; this is a significant part of the value that they bring. But, this is a limited view of one’s value proposition.
A true Trusted Advisor brings value throughout the sales process, not just when offering solutions. We often describe it as being “on the staff but not on the payroll.” A vendor uses products to bring solutions to problems that the customer has defined. A Trusted Advisor helps the customer identify problems that they didn’t even know they had by bringing them insights, industry knowledge and trends, and what might impact future business. This sets the stage for collaboration and creates a positive buying experience compared with “being sold to.”
Change who you call on: Calling on an existing contact within a customer account, or the obvious target prospect, is usually appropriate for selling products or pursuing a specific opportunity. But, that’s a tactical approach, not the basis for becoming a strategic resource. If their job is to execute a solution to a problem, then your job becomes one of selling something in response. This makes it hard to break out of the “order taking” mode.
One of the best questions that a Trusted Advisor can pose when asked to respond with a solution is this: “What are you trying to accomplish by going in this direction?” Only then can you become a resource to shape the issue or opportunity with your additional knowledge and experience.
Salespeople need to broaden their reach inside of an account, not just higher but wider. There are more stakeholders with differing perspectives and objectives involved in major purchases. A key role of a successful Trusted Advisor is to learn about these stakeholders and assist the whole organization in bringing these views together to pursue enterprise-wide approaches.
Changing the relationship from vendor to Trusted Advisor doesn’t just happen over time. You have to do something different; change who you call on, and change what you talk about.
I find that sales leaders who continue to see the best results teach, model, and reinforce the following three behaviors:
- Focus: Help salespeople define the best prospects in their book by something other than size, challenging them to define the common threads among customers with whom they have had the most success.
- Leverage: With today’s access to information and contacts visibly networked through social media, sales leaders should create an expectation that even initial calls — whether that’s with a decision maker, gatekeeper, or even voicemail — should convey value and credibility. And they make sure that there is rigor around networking activities so that even centers of influence are prioritized based on alignment and productivity.
- Practice: In what field would a performer be allowed to take the stage (the field, the court, etc.) for an important moment without practice? Sales leaders that create a culture where practice and feedback is encouraged allow salespeople to perform well in the high-pressure moment of a cold call or an initial sales meeting.