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Agile Selling Makes Volatility A Competitive Advantage

The defining characteristic of selling today is change. Customer needs are dynamic. Perceptions of value fluctuate. Movement is unpredictable.

These changes have led to a volatile environment. Responding to this volatility in sales is difficult because it puts stress on processes that have become rigid. The modern solution to this challenge is to embrace volatility with an end-to-end agile approach that addresses the scope of change in sales today. Sales professionals need a methodology consisting of the activities, skills, tools, and visibility to measure progress. To fully capture the breadth of customer needs these capabilities must unite under a single agile approach – we call it Sprint Selling.

This agile model focuses on customer collaboration and responsiveness to change. This fluidity perfectly matches the customer’s dynamic movement towards a buying decision. Agility in selling means using different skills when and where you need them. Finding this flexibility means developing a selling strategy that can move in short bursts, or sprints.

The agility within Sprint Selling works because it is responsive to change no matter how large, or frequent. The approach empowers the sales professional to gather strength from volatility and leverage it to their advantage.

This approach is powerful because the constant volatility in sales becomes the very propellant that advances the pursuit. New, unexpected information from the customer provides insight that equips the sales professional to deliver value earlier in the dialogue. Outcomes can be visualized and buy-in develops along the way.

By committing to a methodology, the sales organization benefits from a universal approach to selling. In this setting sales professionals work together more cohesively, coaching is aligned to a clear framework, and the progress of each pursuit becomes clear.

This framework and methodology is anchored in an agile selling approach that:

    • Uses a solution mindset and consultative approach to foster trust and collaboration.
    • Is anchored to a formula for success tied to buyer-validated outcomes
    • Shows the critical seller actions needed to drive consensus and win a deal
    • Shows the tools, techniques, and skills to execute the critical actions
    • Creates a differentiated buying experience by helping buyers navigate their journey

Here we lay out a new approach to selling focused on agility. We show how a chain of sprints, in which each burst is ignited by the one that came before, creates a propulsive sales cycle. The result is accelerated customer conversations that drive momentum towards a win.

Agile Selling Sales Formula

The Sprint Selling sales formula consists of the following five parts that enable the sales professional to determine how well the opportunity is positioned for a win, identify gaps preventing forward movement, and target critical customer information early. Critically, the formula also enables sales professionals to measure progress against a consistent set of goals by assigning a value to each part.

Pain

Uncovering and understanding the customer’s real pain matters because the emotional aspect of pain is typically what motivates action. Problems, issues, and opportunities that are not connected to a deeper emotional feeling of pain will likely go untreated due to competing priorities. A pain can be a missed opportunity, difficulty navigating an industry change, or an emerging competitive threat. While the list of possible challenges is limitless, they all connect to one of three base needs: to earn more money, to save money, or to manage risk. A pain is personal, measurable, and negatively stated.

Power

Power refers to the stakeholders who are authorized to make a purchasing decision. Sales professionals need to ensure that they are accessing this group and positioning the solution in a way that resonates with the decision-makers. Sales professionals must be clear on their understanding of who is in power, how they can be accessed, how they can be influenced, and if they will ultimately support the solution. The most skilled sales professionals are able to ask their primary contact for access to those with the power without alienating that contact. You can’t sell to someone who cannot buy.

Vision

The sales professional needs to direct the customer’s vision. Doing so allows the customer to see themselves using the capabilities of the solution. Sales professionals need to know if they have aligned to a buying vision that addresses the customer’s central needs and if the solution differentiators are part of that vision. In nearly all selling scenarios the sales professional will need to align the stakeholder’s vision to the capabilities of the solution. Aligning on vision means understanding the capabilities the customer needs, quantifying the value of the solution, and gaining clarity on the decision maker’s personal needs.

Value

Sales professionals need to place the value of the solution within the context of measurable business factors like expected revenue gain, gross margin, or long-term savings. The value of the solution must exceed that of the status quo and any competing solution the customer is considering. The sales professional must drill down to get specifics into how much value the capability could bring in addressing reasons for pain.

Consensus

The sales professional owns the responsibility of driving consensus among stakeholders because the customer will not do this internally. When a sales professional successfully builds consensus, they are moving the stakeholders towards a decision. Reaching a consensus means getting stakeholders to agree upon and have confidence in the conceptual aspects of the solution, the transitional aspects, and the financial aspects. If the stakeholders agree on these three parts, they believe that the solution will address the core challenges, can be implemented fast, and warrants an investment over other priorities.

The value of a method focused on these five areas is that it offers clarity. Selling is complex and full of unexpected turns. The sales formula underpinning Sprint Selling prevents the loss of momentum whenever the unexpected occurs because the sales professional always knows what they need to accomplish to move forward.

Sales professionals can repeatedly gauge their strength with these factors by assessing how well they have addressed each of the five at any given point in the pursuit. This assessment brings new visibility to the selling process. Sales professionals get a clearer image on what they have accomplished and what else they need to do. Forecasting becomes more accurate. Having an objective approach to assessing progress helps sales professionals understand the standards for real progress, avoid costly assumptions, and know where to focus efforts, or when to disqualify the opportunity.

This process avoids the sunk cost fallacy in which a sales professional – fearing that previous efforts will go wasted – continues to pursue an opportunity they cannot close. When the opportunity is in play this methodology also prevents the anchoring bias in which a person relies to heavily on the first piece of information learned.

Agile Selling Drivers

The sales formula identifies the elements necessary for a successful sales pursuit. The Four Drivers explicitly state the specific accomplishments required to satisfy each of the elements in the sales formula. These are the key actions that sales professionals need to execute across their customer interactions. They are:

Direct the Vision

Sales professionals need to co-create a future vision with the customer by diagnosing pain and shaping the vision of capabilities needed based on the solution differentiators. The most sophisticated sales professionals do more than track the customer’s current challenges — they also help the customer gain clarity on what those challenges are. In doing so, the sales professional has a valuable opportunity to shape the customer’s thinking. As businesses struggle to find their place in a changing economy, sales professionals have a chance to influence the customer’s strategy. This approach is not without challenges. Cognitive Dissonance shows that we are prone to discount, dismiss, or oppose information that is new or conflicts with our beliefs because it creates emotional discomfort. Both customers and sellers are prone to it. Customers object because of it. Sellers are naturally wired to react by defending their points of view in order to relieve their emotional discomfort. This only increases the level of cognitive dissonance for the customer and may trigger a threat response.

Get to the Power

Getting to the power means understanding the decision-making process and structure. Here it is important for sales professionals to gain access and stay connected and aligned to those with influence and authority. Sales professionals must seek new relationships with leaders who may not have been part of the original conversation. The sales professional may not be able to depend on their existing contact or an established advocate within the customer’s business. These relationships may be less influential to the sale but can also serve as a starting point for navigating the new decision hierarchy.

Drive Consensus & Resolve Risk

To drive consensus and resolve risk sales professionals need to co-create a collaboration plan that supports the mutual investment of time and resources. Sales professionals must ask themselves if the customer has a high-priority reason to continue. What may have been compelling at the start of the year may now be a low priority. The factors that compel a stakeholder to move forward have become elevated. That is, the solution must yield more results, offer more certainty with regard to outcomes, and deliver outcomes faster. Science shows that human beings are cooperative by nature. This explains why it is likely that the customer will be cooperative in co-creating a Collaboration Plan if you are effective in how you position the concept. When you position value to the customer and speak to your willingness to invest resources in helping the customer evaluate a solution, it’s likely that the customer will reciprocate by being cooperative.

Persuade with Value

To fully persuade stakeholders the sales professional must appeal to both the logic and emotion supporting a decision to buy. The case for change must be compelling. The value of the solution must exceed that of the status quo and any competing solution the customer is considering. Articulating value is difficult because it challenges the sales professional to convert some soft factors into numerical figures that place a stake in the ground. Over the long term, sales professionals must deliver on a commitment grounded in unambiguous measurement.

It is important to remember that different drivers are needed for different stakeholders. Therefore, sales professionals should enter each customer conversation with an idea of which driver they need to exercise with each stakeholder.

Agile Selling Skills Tools & Techniques

Using Agile Selling Sprints to Propel the Pursuit with a Prepare, Engage, Advance Flow

When adopting a sales formula, sales professionals need a framework to guide their actions throughout the sales pursuit. Like any system, it should not have an endpoint. It must be ever-present and overarching, but not abstract.

We call this approach Selling Sprints.

A selling sprint consists of three key actions. When executed in the right order these actions result in a burst of activity that accelerates the customer conversation resulting in a “mini close.” The three key phases are prepare – engage – advance.

Prepare

Preparation is the process of thinking critically about an upcoming sales conversation. This approach to planning leads to more productive customer meetings, increased credibility, and a shorter sales cycle.

Preparation consists of developing clarity in three areas:

Know Your Customer

Sales professionals need to research the customer’s organization, their goals, and their challenges. They need to know what trends and developments are unfolding within the customer’s industry. To truly know the customer the sales professional must also narrow their focus to the individual level and examine the stakeholders involved in the decision process. At its core, knowing the customer is about knowing their pain and how it flows throughout their organization.

Know Your Value

Once the sales professional has identified the potential reasons for pain, they can map relevant capabilities to those reasons for pain. This is where the Differentiation Grid is crucial. The Differentiation Grid clarifies which capabilities of the solution are truly unique from the competition. It also reveals where customers may need more education to fully grasp the value of differentiated capabilities.

Know Your Call Plan

Earning a call with the customer is resource-intensive. Therefore, sales professionals need to ensure they are completely prepared for the dialogue so that the conversation advances the sale. The Sprint Selling methodology includes the PlanMyCall Salesforce application which consists of a Call Planner, a Call Reflection, and a Manager’s Coaching Planner. This approach overlays a strategic framework onto the call so that key customer information is learned in every conversation.

Engage

Engaging with the customer is about executing a plan consisting of a consultative approach, agile capabilities that move with customer changes, and trust-building. Together, these three characteristics reveal the customer’s core needs that are often left unexplored in the rush to advocate for the solution.

Develop a Consultative Approach

A consultative approach is characterized by being genuinely customer-focused on thinking actions and words. This style fosters openness which provides access to information from the customer which is needed to be relevant and competitive. With a consultative approach, the sales professional becomes collaborative and can co-create a future state vision representing the best solution for the customer’s unique situation.

This exploratory aspect of a consultative approach is crucial because the path a business must travel to succeed is fundamentally different today. Previously, growth could be earned through the practice of producing goods and services with increasing efficiency. This is no longer the case. Today, businesses need something more aggressive to grow. They need a dynamic business model. With a consultative approach sales professionals are able to track this kind of change.

Build Agile Capabilities that Adjust to Change

Buying isn’t linear, so neither is selling. Sellers need to know and execute the critical actions that drive momentum and win deals. Yet they must apply these actions in an agile way to address the dynamic nature of buying today.

How they apply these actions matters. Buying is fraught with risk that incites emotion that can stall or kill the deal. To win, sellers must build trust and confidence in the decision to buy in a world where customers are highly skeptical and risk-averse.

Sprint Selling balances the need for prescription and agility by arming sellers with a formula for success and the ability to execute it.

Sprint Selling offers agility that enables the sales professional to overcome and even grow from misconceptions about the customer. As sales professionals go through the iterative process of the sales formula and selling sprints, they discover that misunderstandings about the customer are not setbacks. Instead, they are information, and the accumulation of information is what moves the sale forward. A model that is designed to benefit and grow from unexpected developments brings measurable advantages according to research from McKinsey which found that agile transformations yield, on average, a 20% to 30% increase in financial performance for businesses, and a 30% to 50% improvement in operational performance.

Crucially, the Sprint Selling methodology is designed to leverage agility throughout the sales process. This characteristic is important because it prevents the common risk of becoming less agile as the sales process nears its end due to sales professionals developing a false sense of certainty as they conduct more conversations with stakeholders.

Support the Customer’s Heightened Need for Trust

Customers have a heightened need for trust because they are experiencing greater risk than ever as they discover the sensitivity of their business to external factors. This latticework introduces greater vulnerability and uncertainty.

Amid this sensitivity to risk, it is not surprising that more business leaders are exploring ways to localize more of their organization or commit to “nearshoring” in which operations are brought closer to home. This drive towards simplicity is not only in response to the unforeseen events of 2020. Business leaders are beginning to recognize that risk is enveloping more of their world for other reasons.

These risks mean that buyers need to trust that the solution will provide value across a range of economic outcomes. This need is especially pressing in a globalized economy in which more parts of a business are dependent on other entities.  Complicating the picture is that the sense of risk among stakeholders is not equal in type or intensity. That is, some stakeholders are more risk-averse than others. At the same time, the type of risk they fear is also different. Some retreat from reputational risk. Others want to avoid financial risk. The sense of risk, and therefore pain within the business is not localized. It is dispersed, and uneven.

These circumstances mean that the buyer must build the trust that eases this pervasive, and heightened sense of risk.

Advance

The Advance segment provides a process for taking the right internal and external actions immediately following a customer interaction to maintain momentum. The value of this approach is that it keeps the focus on creating forward momentum throughout the sales cycle.  Advancing consists of three steps:

Reflect

First, sales professionals must take the time to reflect and review the results of the call and lessons learned. When reflecting on the call results it is important to determine if the call objectives were satisfied. Sales professionals must consider what they learned and how that information will inform the next steps. This exercise is not just informative for navigating the path forward. Reflection is also an opportunity to post-game the call and ask what worked, and what did not.

Follow Up

Second, follow-up is required in the form of a debriefing with the customer and an updated collaboration plan if appropriate. Sales professionals need to seek feedback and additional insights from stakeholders to create a more dimensional picture of needs. Follow-up is also a great opportunity to leverage other forms of media including digital and print assets. When another person sees our actions as consistent with what we say, we establish “knowledge-based trust.” Always send a written summary and delivering on your promises after each customer meeting demonstrates competence, consistency, and predictability — all essential to building knowledge-based trust.

Follow Through

Third, sales professionals must demonstrate follow-through by meeting customer commitments while completing all necessary internal actions. These internal actions include updating other team members on the latest understanding of the customer’s pain and how it flows and changes throughout the hierarchy of the customer’s organization.

The prepare, engage, advance framework underpinning the Sprint Selling methodology is ever-present and therefore prevents the trap of succumbing to late-stage losses. Sales professionals are always revisiting the facts and revising their understanding of the customer’s setting. The approach is nimble, responsive, and collaborative.

Simplify to Become Truly Agile

Cancel out the Noise

A simplified selling methodology means that the approach can quickly become universal throughout the organization. A universal sales methodology offers immediate benefits like scalability as changes can be made across teams allowing coaches to align everyone to a single, defined process.

However, the power of a universal approach goes even further because it addresses one of the most significant and unseen problems within the selling organization: noise.

Noise” as defined by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is the presence of variability in judgments that should be identical. Kahneman and his co-authors have studied the idea of noise extensively. They concede that some amount of variability among people making decisions within the same organization should be expected. After all, people have individual leanings. However, their research shows that this variability is in fact far greater than anyone realized. According to their work most people estimate a variation of about 10% among people judging the same scenario. “When you actually measure it, which is what we call a noise audit, you find that the answer is not 10%. The median difference is 55%,” remarks co-author Olivier Sibony.

Simply, noise is five times larger than we think.

One of the reasons this prevalent problem has gone unnoticed is because for a long time many people within business have been focused on the effects of bias in decision making. While bias is real and does present problems, it has left many blind to the noise that creates uneven results. As Daniel Kahneman remarks, “there are actually two sets of problems. We’ve been focused on one and not the other.” Noise leaves people unknowingly influenced. The authors suggest “decision hygiene” as a solution.

One example of decision hygiene is to break a challenge into many small units like the sales formula. This allows decisions to be made without distraction. The individual makes several distinct judgments on the way to making a decision. The sales formula discussed offers this segmented approach. At the core of decision hygiene is the idea that one should delay intuition when making a decision. This idea is reflected in the prepare, engage, advance structure that supports the Sprint Selling methodology because these three parts keep the sales professional focused on the objectives that matter.

Enable Positioning of Complex Solutions

For buyers, the solution is more than the service or product, it is also the people behind it, the implementation, the adaptability of its features, and the capabilities of those who leverage it. The variety of these factors suggests that when a customer buys a solution, they are also buying a complex strategy.

This characteristic of buying today is increasingly common as the fourth industrial revolution – or Industry 4.0 – demands interoperability from products and services as customers seek the “network effect” gained as solution adoption pervades their organization. Finding solutions that offer these outcomes has proved difficult for business leaders. Consider research from Kearney which determined that “difficulty in adopting new technologies” was the second most cited business operation challenge across 450 C-suite respondents.

Despite these complex, and interconnected needs, customers often seek solutions independent of sales professionals because they have access to research enabling them to self-diagnose. This approach often presents the challenge of distilling meaning from endless data. This flood of information adds curves to the buying journey. The result is a process in which needs change, options vary, solutions become complex, and decisions become fractious. For these reasons buying is as difficult for the buyer as selling is for the sales professional.

The buyer’s decision to explore solutions without buyers is due to more than just the availability of information today. The customer’s self-directed approach to solving a challenge stems from their inherent need for autonomy. This need is evident in a study published in The Society for Personality and Social Psychology which found “that people desire power not to be a master over others, but to be master of their own domain, to control their own fate.” Independence offers control, and control reduces uncertainty.

Given the depth of complexity business leaders face today it is likely that many decision-makers in the C-suite question the sales professional’s ability to fully grasp their challenge within the limited period they have to address a need. Executives may fear that a reliance on a sales professional, or sales team my invite even more complexity into the business.

The sum of these factors is an environment in which the customer’s needs – and therefore the solution – are more complex than ever. Therefore, sales professionals need an equally sophisticated set of skills to address the interconnected challenges experienced by stakeholders.

Leverage Behavioral Science to Compel Buyers

A fundamental, and unseen challenge has emerged in selling. The sophistication of the tools, data, and science empowering sales professionals has reached a pace exceeding the rate of skill growth necessary to leverage those advantages.

This setting is akin to a runner with a stride that has not caught up to the quality of the running shoes. The shoes are essential, but so is the training of the person wearing them.

This uneven development has emerged because tools accelerate faster than skills. Tools can be redesigned at any time because they consist of technology, and processes. This iterative pattern has been largely absent from selling skills because they are behavioral. They are not found on a schematic, or a flow chart. They are found within the thoughts, and actions of the sales professional. These characteristics of selling skills means that innovation lags because so many of the components are invisible.

To improve selling outcomes innovation must be refocused on the skills that leverage the tools. The result is a synchronized approach in which tools and skills are greater than the sum of their parts. When these parts work together, like the selling sprints, sales formula, and four drivers, the sales professional works as a mutual partner with the customer.

This dynamic is important because the sales professional does not have a solution to a problem until the customer decides they have a solution. The customer owns the problem, the customer owns the decision about what to do about the problem, and therefore the customer owns the solution, not the sales professional. The sales professional’s job is to empower the customer to make smart choices to improve how they work. This solution mindset means going further than addressing a pinpoint need at a particular time.

Agility is Adaptation. Adaptation is Progress. Progress is Improvement.

Volatility in the sales pursuit is no longer a characteristic to be feared. With the Sprint Selling methodology it becomes an advantage because it is the constant force that turns the wheels of the process.

While the Sprint Selling methodology consists of parts and processes, it is important to remember that what surrounds all of it is an agile mindset. When a sales professional truly becomes agile, they bring a differentiated buying experience to stakeholders because they create clarity to challenges and goals that begin as disparate, and sometimes vague customer notions.