I eventually, after many years of work, determined that in order to sell successfully, I needed a framework within which to plan and execute my sales. There are two elements to this. The first is the buyer and what she does. The other is the seller and what he does. Misunderstanding either element will result in deals taking longer to close than they should, deals not closing at all or deals closing for a much lower value than they should be worth.
As you can probably infer, these represent two different angles on the deal. The first is how the buyer makes a purchasing decision. The second is what structure you need to put in place in order to sell effectively. Once you have figured out the buying framework, you need to mould that into your own selling framework. Let’s take a look at them both individually.
There is an incredible volume of material out there on buying habits. From groceries to books, newspapers to travel: our buying habits have been in a state of flux for much of the last 20 years starting with the onset of the internet and developing rapidly with the rise of the smartphone. One could write an entire book on the subject and it would be a long and useful one. But the basics of it, in today’s Internet age, are relatively straightforward. Before we get into it, let’s take a look at how you probably buy today.
Let’s say you want to make a purchase of something relatively significant. I’m not talking about milk or eggs here but I’m equally not talking about a house or car. Let’s say you want to buy a new mobile phone. How do you go about it? If you’re anything like me, you probably do a little bit of research online first. I take a look at five or so of the latest models to get a feel for what they are about. Nothing too in depth at this point, I just want to make sure they are all on the same page as I am – that they very roughly do what I think they do (i.e. they are phones, touchscreen, I can download apps, read and write email, send and receive messages – what I can consider to be the basic, non-negotiable stuff). Then once I have established that they do what I need them to do, I’ll probably (and usually at a later stage) do some more detailed research to determine their relative overall strengths and weaknesses. I might want to know things like:
- What is the battery life like?
- How big is the screen?
- What do other people think of them?
- What do my peers have?
- What operating system is used?
- Roughly how much do they sell for?
Very loosely, I move on from criteria I think I need to criteria I think I want.
After this part of the process I’ll probably have one or two in mind that I think could possibly be the ones for me. Then I’ll head down to my nearest electronics store and pick them up, have a real world play with them to see how they feel and possibly talk to a sales agent about pricing, contract length, any add-ons etc. I might perform a sanity check with some of my peers (either in person or just in my mind knowing their opinions). Then, if I’m satisfied, I’ll make a purchasing decision.
So very loosely, I recognise three phases of buying:
1. Contact: I make ‘contact’ with the product to see if it does the basics and it addresses a need I have (“is it a mobile device?”)
2. Discovery: I try to discover more about the product to see what its key features are and how it stacks up against other similar products (“what operating system does it use?”)
3. Selection: I take the product for a test drive and after a quick peer review I select the one I want the most
Notice what I did not do. I did not walk into a store and say ‘I’m here to buy a phone, tell me everything about all the phones and I’ll walk out of here with one’. I didn’t jump straight into phase three. I don’t know anyone who does that – in today’s world it just wouldn’t make sense.
Yet one of the biggest mistakes I see salespeople make (and I made it myself plenty of times) is to try to push a buyer into phase three immediately by providing all the detail about everything you know. The product, why they need it, its features and benefits, the company, its relative strengths, competitors, why you are an awesome person to work with and so on. All that happens if you do this is the buyer gets overloaded, stops listening and moves on. To rub salt in your wounds he or she is probably pretty annoyed as well that you took up more time than expected and tried to force your product on them.
So why do sellers still do this? If you don’t, congratulations, you are already well ahead of your competition. If, like I used to, you do it, have a think about why.
For me, it was largely to do with being afraid. Once I saw an opportunity with a particular buyer, I didn’t want to miss that opportunity. I thought ‘there are 50 reasons why she might want to buy my product. There are 25 features that might get her interested and 10 benefits that might make her want to buy. I have no way of knowing for sure which one so I better tell her everything. When she hears the piece relevant to her she’ll be pleased and things can progress’. It’s the business equivalent of throwing as much as you can at a wall to see what sticks. Unfortunately you end up with a very muddy wall and that’s rarely what you want.
As an aside, notice I said rarely. Sometimes it does work. But this doesn’t mean what you did was correct. It means you got lucky on this one. But even that is bad news as it will simply reinforce your bad behaviour and you’ll believe you did something right.
Case Study: Reinforcing negative behaviours
One of the biggest mistakes I have seen salespeople make is making a deadly assumption: that they managed to close a deal because of their good work. Sometimes, when you have an exceptionally motivated buyer, you can close the deal quickly and easily, often in spite of your activity.
This happened to me early on in my career. I was working on a deal with a public sector buyer. I now know that I did everything wrong. I was over-eager; I kept delivering whilst asking for nothing in return, our early conversations were just a monologue on how great my company was and what all the benefits of our product were. I delivered a list of facts repeatedly with no real story, no attempt to make them want what we had and really no control over the process: I was completely at their mercy. Yet I won the deal.
What this meant was that for a while I thought I had done everything right. Which meant that I used the same strategy with future buyers but to no avail. I kept thinking about this – how could a winning formula keep going wrong?
It wasn’t until around six months later I decided to speak to my public sector client and ask them outright why they signed with us. Their answer: we knew exactly what we wanted and hired a consultancy firm to produce research on companies in your sector. All we needed was someone to guide us through your on-boarding process as we had pretty much already made the decision to buy from you.
There it was. I hadn’t really done anything to influence the buyer. I had just facilitated. But I believed that everything I had done in the selling process was perfect and something that should be replicated. It definitely should not have been.
Sometimes you will get a win even if you pitch poorly. Don’t let those wins reinforce negative behaviours.
We have to appreciate that buyers have a framework and we need to be sensitive to that framework so that we don’t turn them off. Put yourselves in their shoes and try to understand what they need at every phase of the process. Buyers today will go away and do due diligence on you independently. They will take a look at your website, download some of your resources and sanity check what you have told them. You need to be prepared for this fact. But more importantly, you need to allow them the space and time to do it. What you need to provide them with is just enough information and just enough desire to get them to want to progress with you.
Once you have got into this frame of mind, it is time to fit this to your selling framework.
This is the other side of the coin. A good Selling Framework, that controls how you progress through the sales cycle, is important for several reasons and I’ll run through the major ones now.
Know where you are
You have to know where you are in the sales cycle to know how to pitch effectively. You can’t just deliver the same pitch at any point in the cycle. As we have just seen, buyers don’t work that way. Additionally, the further along in the cycle you are, the more people will likely be involved from the buying side. Each of them will have a different set of needs and expectations that you need to be aware of.
It controls your own vulnerability. One of the biggest killers of deals is when a buyer senses vulnerability in the seller. If it doesn’t kill the deal, it forces concessions such as a lower prices or shorter contract term. People talk about this in a number of ways. You’ll see or hear words like neediness or supplication thrown about and they are all correct. The more you display that you need something (as opposed to want or will allow something), the less likely somebody is to give it to you. It’s basic human nature and this isn’t just related to selling. If you have a process and you follow it well, you can limit your vulnerability by moving the deal ahead on your terms.
Case Study: Vulnerability
Let’s look at this from a personal perspective. Let’s say you have just moved countries, as you want to live in a new place for a year or more. Rather than buy a new house you decide you want to rent for the year before making any large acquisitions. So you book yourself into a hotel for two weeks whilst you find somewhere that you like. By the end of the first week you find a place you like and you get on with the landlord. You plan to wrap up the contract in the next few days and move in by the end of the week, so you ask your shipping company to deliver your belongings a few days later.
Your landlord, knowing that you have few options at this point, decides to insert a few clauses in to the contract that pushes certain liabilities on to you. At this point you have two options: Concede and accept the changes, or don’t. But if you don’t, you blow up the deal and end up having to look for a new place. Except that is going to be really tough – your shipping company will no doubt penalise you and booking back into your hotel at the last minute will be expensive. So you look at the deal in front of you and, from a vulnerable position, you sign.
This sort of thing happens every day. Humans can sense vulnerability and neediness and will always use it to secure a better deal for themselves. The same is always true when you are selling a product. If it is close to the end of the quarter and you are struggling to meet your sales targets, you will probably try to push the deal along out of sync with the buyer, he or she will notice this and try to extract a concession out of you – be it price, legal, operational – anything. You end up with a worse deal than you should have done because you ‘needed’ it.
You have to eliminate your own vulnerability and one key tactic to start doing this is to ensure you have a selling framework that takes some of those “held-at-gunpoint” decisions away from you and forces you to follow your own rules. If a buyer hasn’t given you the right signals and if you have not delivered fundamental pieces of your pitch yet (remember that you will likely have to give several pitches over time to secure a deal), then the buyer should not be allowed to progress. It doesn’t matter how badly you want them to, they just can’t. This forces you to eliminate an element of vulnerability as deals can only close when the process allows them to – when you allow them to.
Keep your eye on the big picture
A well-defined and controlled selling framework anchors you in reality by ensuring you keep track of the big picture. Sometimes when you are in the nitty-gritty of a deal it can be overwhelming. You start to wonder what you are doing and why you are doing it. When you are overwhelmed that can lead to mistakes. Having a solid process breaks things down for you and helps to remind you what you should be doing.
Case Study: Big picture
We talk about orienting your buyer to the deal at a few points throughout this book. In some cases that means providing them with enough information so they know what you want. In later cases it is about getting them in the right frame of mind to accept your pitch. However there are times, when you are deep in the guts of a sales process, where you need some orientation yourself. You need to be reminded what the big picture is just to retain some sanity and keep plugging on.
This happens to me all the time, particularly when I am working on a big sale with a major global enterprise. Inevitably you end up in a large sales cycle with multiple touch points. You end up working until one or two in the morning every day for a few weeks, starting again at 6am just so you get your response documents and pitch absolutely perfect. About halfway through that process you start to forget what the big picture is, whom you should be talking to and what your objectives are. You have been on autopilot for so long you sometimes end up believing that you are taking the wrong approach. Maybe they haven’t been in touch for a few days and you start to get nervous. This leads to you negotiating with yourself over something (price, terms, the overall offer), which starts to negatively impact your work.
If you have an overarching documented process that you work through and keep track of, this helps to limit the self-doubt that can arise. You can always refer back to it. So when you hear yourself ask ‘Where is the buyer in the process now?’ you can answer yourself very precisely: The buyer is here; that’s why I am working on this. We shouldn’t be any further along than we are right now because that’s what the cycle says.
This helps maintain your focus and prevents you from offering unnecessary concessions to combat your doubt.
Connect to your wider organisation
Having a process means you can tie the various stages of the deal into your wider business. It enables you to more easily pull resources in at the appropriate time because you can demonstrate precisely where the deal is and why those resources are required. This might mean colleagues from engineering, legal, finance, information security or anywhere else that might be relevant. This becomes critical in the later, closing phases of the deal as you place the buyer into your cycle and let your organisation take on some of the load.
There may be additional benefits in your organisation or with yourself that bringing structure to your process will bring about but these are the primary ones I found to be true across every deal I have worked on.
With that understood, let’s create a selling framework that matches with buying habits. Remember we defined three phases the buyer walks through when making a decision. The first is ‘contact’, where the initial contact with the product takes place. The second is ‘discovery’, where the buyer discovers more about the product. The third is ‘selection’, where the buyer selects the product. So let’s look at this from your perspective.
Phase 1: Contact
In this phase you are ultimately making an initial connection to the buyer and trying to orient him to the basics of what you have on offer. You establish basic terms and demonstrate that you can do what is needed.
This phase might include a call or email to an identified buyer, which might be completely cold or it might be warm based on an introduction or if you are lucky some prior activity on the buyer’s part, such as registering for some free content on your website.
Phase 2: Discovery
The buyer at this point probably knows that you can loosely do what it is they are looking for, or at least understands that you can probably help them overcome a recognised challenge. Now it is time for you to help him see as much value as possible in your product so that he wants what you have. This is also an opportunity for you to discover as much as possible about the buyer. What type of customer are they? Do they add value to the deal? Do they go about business in a fair and honest way? Remember this is a two-way street and you need to demonstrate that you expect this of them as well. We will get to how to do this later.
This phase might include a telephone conversation, sending some content over email, a pitch-deck or other marketing collateral or an in-person presentation. In many cases, particularly with enterprise sales, it will include all of the above.
Phase 3: Selection
In the final phase of the deal making process the buyer wants what you have. There is however a whole host of other considerations that must be addressed such as due diligence, testing, legal, final price negotiations and information security as well as overcoming internal barriers in both organisations. In this phase you need to work diligently to get the deal over the line.
In this phase you will be working with multiple stakeholders in both organisations to get to the point of signature or order. Your main buyer will also be undertaking the same tasks, as he already wants the deal to happen.
By splitting up your own selling framework into these overarching phases, you will be able to pitch much more effectively because you are in sync with how the buyer wants to make a purchase. By being in sync your buyer will be more open to what you have to say and this ultimately means your job of getting them to want what you have and then finally closing the deal is made much easier.
So now that we have our overall buyer- friendly framework, it is time to take a look at what needs to happen in order to transition between phases. What precisely needs to occur so that you can make progress? I like to look at it from a slightly different perspective:
“What do I need to see from a buyer in order to allow them to move to the next phase”
There are two key parts to this sentence:
1. ‘need to see’
2. ‘allow them to move’
Those words are chosen very carefully. The first part is about you deciding what signal you need from a buyer in order to determine that they are serious enough to progress with you. You need to be clear that you must receive these signals in order for transition to occur because they force the buyer to make commitments to you and to your organisation. Each phase will have a different signal that we will address shortly.
The second part, particularly the word ‘allow’ is in there for a reason. You allow the buyer to progress on your timescales when you decide. If you are not ready, they don’t move forward. You need to have this in place so that it is clear to the buyer that you are the one in control and it is you who should be valued, not the other way round. There are plenty of potential customers out there but only a limited number of companies can even vaguely do what you do, and only you can do exactly what you can do. It is you who is making decisions on whether or not they are allowed to be your customer, not the other way round.
So what indicates the right to move between phases? Ultimately this will depend entirely on your business. If you are an online download business, a signal that someone wants to move from phase one to phase two might be as simple as entering their email on your website to sign up for your daily update. Phase two to phase three might be registration for a webinar. Phase three to a closed deal is when they actually click ‘buy’.
If you are in enterprise technology sales, phase one to phase two might be a strong verbal acknowledgement and agreement for you to come in and pitch to a wider audience. Phase two to phase three might be that test accounts are configured, contracts exchanged and departmental peering points established. Phase three to a closed deal is when all the questions are completed, due diligence is done and the contract gets signed.
You need to decide what makes the most sense for you but the important point is you only progress the buyer forward when they have met your requirements. You create the established checkpoints built around buyer habits. You are in control of who gets to pass through the checkpoints and when.
Let’s see if we can see this in action built around an enterprise sales business. In the first instance you have a group of 100 potential buyers in your market.
1. 100 potential buyers on your prospect list
2. Each of them receives a personalised introductory email with a request for a call
3. 10 buyers reply and agree to a conversation
1. You have 10 phone conversations for approximately 15-20 minutes each.
2. You follow these up with a pitch-deck detailing what you can do for them alongside high-level product and company information and suggest that you run through your product in detail in person
3. 4 buyers agree to a more in-depth meeting with more stakeholder involvement
4. You present your product to all six teams and establish what next steps will be.
5. Four buyers want what you have and signal this by introducing peering points, making a verbal commitment and exchanging contracts
1. You now have 4 buyers in the closing phases
2. All 4 have stakeholders conversing with peers in your organisation (legal, accounting, engineering, information security) as they undertake due diligence
3. They also undertake a final round of negotiations but you are in a strong position as you aren’t desperate for the deal to close
4. Three buyers agree to the final deal, all questions have been asked and answered and it is time to sign the contract
The discipline you had throughout the process in terms of only allowing buyers through when you were ready, when they signalled appropriately and when you had other buyers at the table as well, is what protects you from appearing vulnerable in the latter phase of the deal and enables you to enter any potential final negotiations in a position of strength.
Now I understand that the above example might not fit precisely with how your selling framework operates – that is OK. The numbers are not the important part. What is important is recognising each distinct phase of the cycle and adapting your approach to ensure that your buyer is more receptive. In addition, having established transition points forces you to apply rigour to your selling framework and enables you to take and keep control.
So now let’s run through the selling framework as I use it today. One product I offer is a single-day sales workshop for enterprises (shameless plug: your wider team can no doubt benefit from the methods outlined in this book so head to www.mysalesadvantage.com and contact me for more information on this). This is an intensive crash course on implementing the methodologies and ideas outlined in this book. I only offer a limited number of these workshops every month – no more than two, usually one depending on my workload. As a result I have to be very careful about the engagements I take on as they are very time consuming. Sometimes I have to make choices about the customers I work with. Having a strict process that enables such level of control is a great way of doing this. In addition, alongside all my other commitments, it ensures I stay focussed on what the big picture is and enables me keep focussed on the actions that are required at specific times in the selling framework.
A typical selling framework for me will be as follows. I have left out a lot of the detail as we will cover it all later – just the highlights are included:
1. I send an initial outreach email to the potential buyer outlining a loose idea and asking for a quick call
2. Positive response received confirming they want to go ahead with the call
3. I set up the call at the agreed time and date. This means I allow them to move on to the discovery phase of my cycle.
1. We talk over a 20-minute phone conversation about why I am calling and what it is my sales workshop will do for them
2. They request that I send them some more information detailing the workshop
3. I send them a pitch-deck on what the sales workshop is and what it will do for them
4. They respond that they are interested in learning more and we agree that I will come in to see them
5. I come in and present to the wider team over the course of an hour
6. They verbally confirm that they want the workshop and we agree on next steps including introductions to the relevant teams. This means I allow them to move to the selection phase of my cycle
1. We have one or two more calls to figure out the structure and content of the workshop with senior sales stakeholders, along with the date, location and recipients
2. We cover off the legal terms of the contract with their legal department and work with their accounting department on payment timeframes and details
3. All outstanding questions are resolved. This means I allow the cycle to move on to contract signature and the deal is won
Simultaneously I am performing the same actions with similar cohorts of potential buyers. I move them all through the same steps and I don’t allow one to move unless I am ready. At times this may seem unnatural – one buyer might be really motivated to move straight to contract signature. But I still insist on moving through every phase, for all the reasons detailed earlier (knowing where I am, vulnerability control, big picture and connecting to the wider organisation at the right times). Your precise steps might differ but the overall cycle should follow the same structure to maximise success.
Now that you have a good idea on the background of why this is important, let’s move on to the specifics. How do you put this in to practice? Let’s take a look briefly at the seven-step process I detailed earlier:
1. Understand the buyers
2. Select the buyers
3. Reach the buyers
4. Entice the buyers
5. Convince the buyers
6. Deleverage the buyers
7. Commit the buyers
These fit neatly into our new selling framework as follows:
1. Understand the buyers
2. Select the buyers
3. Reach the buyers
1. Entice the buyers
2. Convince the buyers
1. Deleverage the buyers
2. Commit the buyer
Check out our Selling Framework Advantage Plan for a quick reference guide on this, then take a look at what to do next when trying to understand your buyers before you approach them. Alternatively, contact us and we'll figure it out with you.