Though a new market presents vast potential, it also presents challenges. Selling disruptive innovation demands higher-level selling skills because positioning these solutions means creating a buying vision. When sales professionals create a buying vision, they are uniting the stakeholder’s goals, challenges and perceptions of risk into a single picture that the solution will address.
The ability to assemble this mosaic offers a distinct competitive advantage because it lifts the sales professional to the status of a trusted adviser who helps the customer anticipate future risks and take advantage of opportunities to lead their market. This approach illustrates why agility — a major characteristic of disruptive innovation — is so important.
At Richardson Sales Performance, we believe that, in addition to the above, there are three key reasons why it is crucial to develop the skills to position disruptive innovation:
- Disruptive innovation represents a winner-takes-all environment in which the most successful companies capture outsized market share.
- The global pandemic is accelerating customer adoption of disruptive innovations; therefore, capitalising on this growth means forming a plan now.
- Disruptive solutions often connect to many aspects of the customer’s business, thereby creating a breadth of opportunity for growth into white space.
Here, we examine the three core skills needed to capitalise on these outcomes.
Develop an Incisive Questioning Strategy
Positioning disruptive innovation requires sales professionals to develop an incisive questioning strategy that highlights unknown needs. Doing so enables the sales professional to capitalise on opportunities that competitors have left unexplored. Often, the competitor’s decision — conscious or not — to leave an opportunity unexplored is the result of burdensome costs associated with the pursuit of a customer or a customer segment.
For sales organisations, this cost is often the front-loaded work associated with surfacing the customer’s underlying need. This process can be long, exhausting, and, at times, futile. As a result, some selling organisations fail to serve the customer’s needs for one of two reasons: either they never grasp the customer’s unknown needs, or they are premature in thinking they have. Both scenarios are a problem because the result is either stalled progress or a positioning strategy that does not resonate.
However, even sales professionals who recognise the importance of this step struggle because exploring needs today is more involved. There are more stakeholders. Needs are nuanced and more complex. This rise in complexity might explain why only 11% of large businesses become sustained value creators, according to research from Bain. Moreover, the same research concluded that 85% of CEOs who are no longer value creators believe that internal factors like complexity are the reason.
It is not enough to acknowledge that understanding customer needs is an important and complex step; sales professionals must also be incisive in their approach because a disruptive innovation succeeds by targeting overlooked customer segments.
The sooner the sales professional can address the customer’s central needs, the sooner the customer will develop confidence in the solution. Business consultant Clayton M. Christensen, who first articulated the concept of disruptive innovation in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma, explained that “if you defer investing your time and energy until you see that you need to, chances are it will already be too late.”
Therefore, it is critical for selling organisations to focus on gaining clarity on the customer’s goals and challenges with a more incisive questioning strategy.
How to Do It
- Address all the questions that can be answered with research while saving detailed questions for the client conversation
- Draft questions that aim to understand not just the customer’s current needs, but also their potential future needs
- Use questions to explore more than needs — explore the stakeholder dynamics and the internal decision process
- Bring agility into the questioning strategy by encouraging customers to expand on tangentially related needs that might broaden the scope of the sale
- Ask questions that surface more than just goals — ask questions that surface fears so that they can be addressed early and often
Assert a Point of View and Address Risks
Disruptive innovation often succeeds by accessing a group of buyers who were never considered to be traditional customers. Compelling this group to buy is a challenge because it requires the sales professional to encourage the customer to consider a new point of view. However, presenting a new point of view creates a challenge because inertia often leaves the customer anchored to their original perspective.
Sales professionals can help the customer gain new perspective through the technique of contrasting. For example, sales professionals can contrast symptoms and root causes. Here, the customer is invited to consider that they might be treating a symptom rather than the root cause of the problem. Additionally, sales professionals can contrast the status quo with opportunity costs by illustrating that opting for no change can, in fact, carry as many, if not more, costs than adopting the solution in question.
Perhaps most fitting for a disruptive solution is past/future contrast in which the sales professional helps the customer see that the challenges and opportunities of the future will not resemble those of the past.
Sales professionals positioning disruptive solutions also need to raise risks to preempt delays. The purpose of doing so is to prevent late-stage concerns from derailing the sale. The key is to remember that risk is a two-sided coin that can deter action or drive momentum. Effective sales professionals can use risk to create value by ensuring that every time they identify a risk, they have an action plan to counter the threat.
This approach of being upfront about risks fosters authenticity in the relationship, which allows the sales professional to become a trusted adviser. This title carries enormous value because a trusted adviser often has a chance to participate in conversations that would otherwise be limited to just the stakeholder group. A trusted adviser is seen as a consultant and a voice of reason within a complicated setting. Moreover, a trusted adviser can use this access to defuse concerns about risk early.
How to Do It
- Normalise the inherent risks associated with buying by discussing them openly and ensuring they are seen in proportion to larger benefits to be gained from the solution
- Explore the customer challenges that are overlooked by the competition and consider how the unique aspects of the solution connect to those needs
- Position the value of the solution within the context of downstream challenges
- Articulate that the unseen challenges are opportunities for the customer to take action now, which will position them to outpace competitors who do not possess the same foresight
- Consider expanding prospecting efforts by seeking customers who are poised to grow into a set of needs that the solution will address
Co-create a Compelling Future State
The customer must be able to imagine a future state in which they have a new set of capabilities. Effective sales professionals create this setting by properly diagnosing the customer’s pain and aligning on a vision. Doing so means moving in a linear fashion in which the sales professional explores the customer’s context, pain and organisational impact in an effort to eventually explore the future state.
Context: When exploring the context, the sales professional needs to understand the customer’s long-term goals, all of which fall under the categories of make money, save money or manage risk. Here, the sales professional must also gain clarity on customer objectives, which are quantitative and often achieved in less than one year. Finally, the sales professional must learn the customer’s initiatives and challenges.
Pain: Exploring the customer’s pain means understanding what the customer is doing currently and uncovering the root cause of the pain they are experiencing. Sales professionals need to assess the cost associated with that pain and what personal motivators, beyond the financial, are weighing on the customer.
Organisational Impact: When reviewing the organisational impact, the sales professional must answer the question, “Who else in the customer’s business is impacted by this, and how?” The answer to this question reveals the scope of the pain, which is important when building consensus among stakeholders later in the sales cycle.
Future State: With this information, the sales professional can co-create the vision for a future state in which the customer begins to visualise how the disruptive solution can lead to meaningful change. Developing this vision means identifying the customer’s ideal outcome, how they would measure success, other solutions they are considering, and the most important factor for success. Helping articulate the future state means being customer-centric, descriptive, specific and using plain speak in all communication.
How to Do It
- Devote plenty of time to exploring the customer’s challenge and diagnosing needs rather than falling into the common trap of highlighting solution attributes
- Foster a dialogue in which the customer does most of the talking by encouraging them to expand on areas they would otherwise breeze through
- Fully capture the complete details of the current state before aiming to build a vision for the future state
- Gain a broad understanding of customer challenges by accounting for more than just the quantitative factors that contribute to customer pain; explore qualitative factors as well
- Aim to achieve situational fluency by ensuring that the selling process addresses each member of the stakeholder group and their individual leanings
One of the most powerful benefits of positioning disruptive solutions is that it allows the selling organisation to tap into customers and markets that have been ignored or underserved. Accessing this base means developing an incisive questioning strategy to understanding customer needs, asserting a point of view while being upfront and proactive about risks, and using a four-point plan for co-creating a compelling future state with customers.