Demystifying the Agile Selling Approach
What Does It Mean to Be “Agile”?
With an agile approach, companies prioritize individuals
and interactions over processes and tools. An agile model
focuses on customer collaboration and responsiveness to
change rather than adhering to a single, unchanging plan.
This fluidity perfectly matches the customer’s dynamic
buying journey in which movement starts and stops and
sometimes even reverses. Put simply, agility in selling
means using different skills when and where they are
At one time, companies could sell a product and build revenues behind protective barriers. These barriers insulated the company from threats. The high cost of technology, long innovation periods, and developmental lead time all meant that competitors had many walls to scale if they wanted to grab market share. Those walls have fallen. What remains is a new reality that Columbia Business School professor Rita McGrath calls “transient advantage.”
In this new setting, “companies can’t afford to spend months at a time crafting a single long-term strategy. To stay ahead, they need to constantly start new strategic initiatives,” according to McGrath’s research.
As a result, companies are discovering that their people, their skills, and how they engage customers will
differentiate them in a noisy marketplace. Developing
skills that can track the customer’s needs in a constantly
changing environment means becoming agile.
Where Did the Agility Model Originate?
Software engineers Martin Fowler and Bob Martin invited a handful of industry experts to a wintery retreat at the Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah in 2001. They wanted to solve an existential crisis threatening the software industry: development times were long, and the resulting programs were ultimately unsatisfactory.
They all agreed that they needed to find a better way to develop software. At the time, designers built new programs by exhaustively documenting every feature the client wanted the software to include. Then, they would begin coding. The project would move from one team to another like a baton passed in a race. A long race.
This linear approach presented a problem: by the time the program was complete, the scope of needs was different. Software designers needed a new process that accounted for this constant change. They needed an agile approach.
By the end of the Utah retreat, the group drafted The Agile Manifesto. The document outlined a new approach in which designers would seek continual feedback from customers to keep pace with their changing needs.
The manifesto included four core values:
- Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
- Working software over comprehensive documentation
- Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
- Responding to change over following a plan
Nearing the end of their retreat, the engineers in Utah
expanded their work. They drafted 12 principles outlining
the finer points of their agile approach.
Perhaps the most important of the 12 principles is the idea that “we welcome changing requirements, even late in the process. Agile processes harness change for the company’s competitive advantage.”
This single statement fully captures the mindset underpinning Richardson Sales Performance’s Momentum Methodology. Changing requirements are not something to be feared. Instead, they are accepted as an inherent part of the process.
The Three Skills for Selling with Agility
Agility in selling requires a modern set of skills. These skills transcend familiar capabilities like product knowledge. Instead, sales professionals need to understand how the customer’s business works, why they are seeking a solution, the structure of the decision process, and areas for growth. Specifically, they need three key capabilities:
1. Understanding the Buying Factors
The customer’s journey revolves around a set of buying factors, which are the set of facts, influences, and circumstances that all contribute to the result of a decision to buy or not buy. These factors - the case for change, stakeholder dynamics, and the decision process - are dynamic and interrelated and exert pressure on the customer throughout all stages of the customer’s buying journey. By understanding and identifying these factors, a sales professional can organize a messy buying journey.
Here we explore these buying factors in greater detail.
The Case for Change
Before a customer can confidently buy, they need to ensure that they have a strong business case to support that decision. The customer’s case for change is not complete until they have evaluated all their options and assessed value vs. risk.
Any big investment must help the customer achieve their strategic goals and objectives. The case for change revolves around a targeted issue — a problem or opportunity that is severe enough to warrant a change. The sales professional must help the customer compare their options, identify the best solution, and evaluate value vs. risk.
A common trap is to assume that the customer has already sold themselves internally on the case for change. Fear of change is ever-present. In fact, the closer the customer gets to the purchase, the more their fear rises.
The Stakeholder Dynamics
Managing stakeholder dynamics means influencing and engaging the group of people who make the decision to buy.
Sales professionals need to build relationships, facilitate alignment, and drive consensus. This cycle takes time. Building alignment is rarely a process of accumulating supporters one by one because early supporters will often change their minds at different points in the process.
Sales professionals often need to repeat the process of building alignment and check for changes in each stakeholder’s perspective. They must solidify allies and remember that a show of support today promises nothing for tomorrow.
The key to this process is acknowledging that critics will always be present. In fact, critics are a good sign that the buyers are thoughtfully exploring the solution and evaluating its effectiveness. This is a far better scenario than facing customers who have gone silent and dismissed the solution. Progress comes from surfacing criticisms and seizing the opportunity to address them.
Download this complimentary stakeholder analysis worksheet to help your team organize their strategy for driving stakeholder alignment.
The Decision Process
The sales professional must help the customer move the decision forward. However, increased complexity makes the decision process difficult to navigate.
Momentum can stall as new stakeholders emerge, requirements change, and projects get reprioritized. The sales professional’s best tool to overcome this challenge is information. The more they know about how the decision process works, the better prepared they are to be alert to discrepancies and cues revealing who the influencers are in the process.
With this information, the sales professional is equipped to redirect the process when necessary. Rather than push forward amid resistance, they can encourage those with differing perspectives to come together and discuss where they disagree.
Conversations help align on the best approach. Everyone involved must be willing to speak the truth and be upfront about concerns. Knowing a stakeholder’s doubts early can prevent last-minute failures that arise because a decision-maker was holding back on their contrary position.
2. Building Consensus
Once a sales professional understands the buying factors behind each of the above categories, they can begin to build consensus by building alignment. Doing so is an increasingly important skill as buying decisions become more diffused in organizations. The challenge, however, is that alignment is not natural. Each stakeholder has individual leanings and likely wants something different from the solution.
Therefore, building consensus requires applying the skills discussed below:
Clear Communication Skills
The sales professional must assert their perspective.
This assertiveness, however, doesn’t mean using
exaggerative language or avoiding objectivity in the
dialogue. Instead, sales professionals should make
their perspective known by expressing it in clear terms
free of jargon.
Jargon and technical language often appear as an attempt to distract or overwhelm the listener. Clear, direct communication in accessible language is effective because it is honest and free of pretention. Finding this communication means being specific in observations. Doing so shows the customer that the sales professional is attentive to details.
Learn to Normalize Risk
Customers are uncomfortable with the risk of implementing a solution. To overcome this hurdle, sales professionals must normalize discussions of risk. That is, they must help the customer understand that all decisions, even no decision, present risk.
What’s important is that the risks are calculated, rightsized, and outweighed by beneficial outcomes. The sales professional should reduce the customer’s fear and anxiety by adopting a tone that allows concerns to be discussed openly. As the discussion unfolds, the customer will become more comfortable with the change involved in adopting the solution.
This characteristic of selling is the priming effect at work. The priming effect is the practice of using a stimulus now to prompt an idea later. Sales professionals normalize risk through the priming effect by citing the risks associated with a purchasing decision or the status quo early in the dialogue. Bring concerns of risk out and into the open where they can be addressed.
Ask Reflection Questions
Reflection questions encourage the customer to think more deeply about the topic and fully consider the sales professional’s viewpoint. These questions serve both parties. The sales professional learns more about what matters to the customer. At the same time, the customer is engaging in an exercise designed to help them crystalize their understanding of the challenges and goals they’re facing.
Reflection questions fall into five main categories:
Reactions: What are your thoughts on this approach?
Relevance: How does this solution affect your business?
Viability: How does this solution fit into your business?
Value vs. Risk: What would be the value of this to your business?
Reservations: What hesitations do you have to this solution?
Reflection questions are a targeted way to check with the customer that the solution capabilities are resonating with their needs. Moreover, these questions go further than simply asking “How does that sound?” because they are specific and lead to details that the sales professional can seize on.
3. Exploring the Customer's White Space
Agility in selling requires a spectrum of skills and the ability to seamlessly shift between them. This endeavor is demanding. Therefore, sales professionals need to capitalize on their efforts by expanding into the existing customer’s white space. This approach is crucial, given that it is six to seven times more expensive to acquire a new customer than it is to retain an existing one, according to Bain. In fact, increasing customer retention by just five percent increases profits by 25 to 95 percent.
When a sales professional identifies the white space in an existing account, they are creating opportunities by positioning solutions that align with the customer’s goals, challenges, and initiatives. An agile approach fits this strategy because sales professionals benefit from the momentum they’ve already created. With an existing understanding of the buying factors and the stages for alignment, it is easier to find the areas in the customer’s business in which the solution will add value.
the white space, sales professionals must:
Select the Right Customers
The key to strategic account planning is choosing the right customers. This approach works because it means investing already limited time on customers that are most likely to yield revenue. Sales professionals must consider “hard” factors, like generated revenue and product mix. They must also examine “soft” factors, like their level of access, relationships, and buying behavior.
Analyze, Then Act
Analyzing the situation and then developing realistic goals and strategy enables sales professionals to position the right solutions for the right customers. After a complete assessment of a customer’s account, the sales professional will have enough information to form a prioritized list of goals and objectives.
It’s essential that each of the listed goals coalesce to one picture of value for the customer.
Create Alignment, Create Value
Taking the time to find alignment with the customer offers two key benefits. First, the sales professional illustrates why they are unique relative to the competition.
Differentiation is crucial as more solutions become commoditized and more competitors enter the picture. Second, understanding and aligning with the customer’s strategy creates value over the long term and opportunities in the short term.
Collaborate with the Customer
Sales professionals must stay up to date on the customer’s changing needs. Doing so requires consistent engagement. Without this level of communication, the sales professional risks presenting solutions and insights that don’t resonate.
Regular dialogue not only clarifies evolving needs, but it also boosts profitability because fully engaged customers are more profitable than average customers, according to findings from Gallup.
Execute and Update
The customer’s business is not static. Account planning must move in lockstep with these changes. Additionally, new competitors regularly enter the playing field. Updating the strategy protects the relationship against these other players.
Sales professionals need to use their access to gain feedback from the customer and adjust their approach.
Becoming Agile with Internal and External Practices
Agility is about developing situational fluency in which the sales professional discusses each buyer’s specific business issues, what is causing them, and which capabilities are needed to address those challenges for the customer. Truly adopting an agile approach requires a new set of internal and external practices.
Developing internal practices to achieve agility is difficult for two reasons. First, marketing faces the challenge of creating content that speaks to the specifics of the customer’s challenge. Second, Sales Enablement teams must move in lockstep with the customer’s changing needs.
Sales professionals stand at the intersection of these two challenges and must coalesce marketing and sales enablement efforts into a single, clear value proposition.
The solution to these challenges means adopting four capabilities:
Understand the Persona to Understand the Sale
Marketing teams must accurately identify key buyer personas. In doing so, they can become more granular in their research, which allows them to develop an understanding of the customer’s specific challenges. Next, they can start to rank these factors based on their priority to the customer. This layered approach allows the sales professional to more effectively customize messaging that positions the value of a solution in a buyer-centric way.
Understand the Persona to Understand the Sale Marketing teams must accurately identify key buyer personas. In doing so, they can become more granular in their research, which allows them to develop an understanding of the customer’s specific challenges. Next, they can start to rank these factors based on their priority to the customer. This layered approach allows the sales professional to more effectively customize messaging that positions the value of a solution in a buyer-centric way.
Coalesce Around Shared Goals and Skills
Sales teams and marketing teams need to coalesce. Sales training represents an opportunity to foster that connection. In these engagements, the two teams can come together and explore the concepts and techniques that can be applied to selling opportunities. With this kind of collaboration, both groups can build the skills needed to overcome the selling challenges that both sides recognize from their work within the organization. As a result, the skills are relevant, and the commitment to them is universal.
Articulate the Relevancy Behind Capabilities
All the content must answer the customer’s question, “So what?” Answering this question means first capturing the buyer’s critical business issues by role and their causes. This detail allows sales and marketing professionals to become fluent in the customer’s language. As a result, the customers appreciate the sales professional’s preparation and their understanding of issues that are “revenue relevant.”
Adopting these above skills can be an intensive learning process. Gamification helps ease this challenge by making the experience enjoyable and interactive. Moreover, gamification builds the learner’s reflexes, which are critical during in-the-moment challenges that often arise during critical customer conversations. This approach can incorporate specific business issues, their causes, and how solution capabilities address them.
These four internal steps can be applied successfully to any outward-facing sales methodology to ensure that the organization’s brand promise and key messages are consistent across the sales channels.
Externally, sales professionals need a clear methodology for bringing agile principles to their customer conversations. This approach equips sales professionals to move in multiple directions and employ the most effective approach based on feedback from the customer.
This methodology must be continuous and operate in a loop because planning does not happen just once. It is ongoing because both the customer and the sales professional are working to arrive at an understanding of the need and how to satisfy it. Put simply, sales professionals need a buyer-centric approach to opportunity pursuit that includes a set of practices and tools to make the right decisions and take the right actions at the right time.
Putting this idea into practice means committing to four key steps:
First, the sales professional must assess the strength of the opportunity. Here, strengths, vulnerabilities, and gaps must be assessed to understand if the solution adds value. Sales professionals must also assess their competitive positions and the stakeholder dynamics that reveal who is involved in the decision process and where influence resides.
Next, sales professionals must understand if there is a clear and compelling connection to the customer’s strategy. This information is important because the messaging must clearly and concisely link the solution to the customer’s strategy.
When preparing, a sales professional should rely on their customer coach. This person has a high degree of credibility and influence on some or all of the stakeholders involved in buying decisions. A customer coach is also someone who sees value in the solution and is willing to help the sales professional gain access to stakeholders. A contact like this is valuable and necessary because such a person allows the sales professional to get insight into the stakeholder’s expectations, share materials in advance for feedback, and review the agenda.
Finally, sales professionals must engage the customer in a way that speaks to their specific challenges or needs. In this phase of the Momentum Methodology, the sales professionals must often work as a team. They must coalesce their skills into one presentation that provides a unified front, making it easy for the customer to see the connection between solution capabilities and their goals.
Train Your Team to Sell with Agility
Richardson Sales Performance is proud to offer the most innovative, forward-thinking sales methodology in the market today. This approach balances the need for prescription and agility by arming sellers with a formula for success and the ability to execute it.
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