Ray, a retired account executive, had spent his career selling concrete equipment. When he talked to us about the sales rep who had trained him, we could tell that Ray was still in awe of him decades later. "This guy was amazing. He had an uncanny ability to figure out what people needed," Ray said. "He would go out to the site and just look around, asking the guys all kinds of questions about how their day was going, if the new [product] was working out, if so-and-so's wife had had the baby. Then he'd find the boss and ask more questions. By the time he was done, he had a list ready of what the crew needed now, what they'd need in a couple of weeks, and what they would need if bids A, B, and C came through."
The first step to finding solutions is knowing your customers individually.
Long after Ray was selling on his own, he would go out on calls with his former trainer just to watch him work. "It was always an education," Ray said. "I still don't know how he did it, but I know this: He taught me the difference between selling and taking orders."
We don't know what Ray's trainer's talent themes were, but what matters is that he was using his talents to find solutions for problems that customers didn't know they had. And he wasn't making simple logical matches between his products and what the customers thought they needed. In a logical match, the salesperson assumes that the customer needs what he's got to sell, and that's that. It doesn't require much research, insight, or knowledge to make a logical match. It's a simple pairing: their need, his product.
Solutions, however, are different. To find a solution, you don't need to know all the answers, but you do need to ask the right questions. Geoff Nyheim, vice president at Microsoft Online Services, had some good questions that salespeople should ask: What are the CEO's business priorities? What press releases has the business issued, and what interviews have the senior executives been doing? How do those activities reflect the business' priorities? How does all this information translate into an offering you can give customers to achieve one of their stated priorities or to solve a pressing problem? What value levers are at play? What things can you measure, such as revenue, customer engagement, and inventory turns? Can you arrive at a mutual definition of the opportunity? And do you think about the solution in a similar way?
"It's very important to make sure you have the same value levers," said Geoff, who has Strategic, Input, and Maximizer in his top five Clifton StrengthsFinder talent themes. "Cost avoidance and top-line revenue generation are two different things." The goal is to find a solution that works for your clients -- even if finding that solution means sending them to a competitor. It hurts when that happens, but when customers see this selfless behavior, they realize that you really do have their best interests in mind.
"I can't tell you the number of times that I get calls from customers who say, 'Ron, I know you don't sell this, and I'm sorry to bother you, but I know you'll know where I should go for it,'" said Ron Barczak, a sales rep from Stryker. "And I say, 'Listen, you call me every single time, because if I don't know how to answer it, I will know who can. I have no problem with you calling me for everything, even when I don't benefit.'" Ron conceded, "That's a double-edged sword, but I would rather have them calling me than calling my competitors and asking them the same question."
Knowledge is power
The first step to finding solutions is differentiating your customers and knowing them individually. Picture the "operating space" between you and the customer. The operating space is a way of thinking about your relationship or connection with that client. This space needs to be full of quality "stuff." One mistake that reps make is thinking they should fill that space by throwing their own answers into it. This results in every customer's space looking exactly the same no matter who the customer is.
Instead, the operating space should clearly belong to each customer and should be built on a foundation of information and insights that come from the customer. You begin to fill that space by asking the right questions and listening closely to the answers. Then, you layer on ideas, discoveries, and solutions that bond you to the customer. At first, you may think that the only value you bring to that space is through your answers. Instead, recognize that good questions can give your customers new ways to view their world -- which in turn can give you new opportunities to deepen your relationships and increase sales.
"The real magic lies in how you stay in touch and what else you can do to [get] that relationship closer to producing revenue for you," said a hospitality industry rep. "Once you get that in your blood and you realize that you're pretty good at this, you see that every opportunity is 'hero time' for salespeople." This rep's Significance theme is at work here. It compels him to have a big impact on the client. And he's smart to realize that he should develop a close relationship with his customer. That way, he knows what "stuff" to put in the operating space.
Every day is a school day. I always want to become an expert in whatever I'm doing.
To stay one step ahead of the customer's needs, you need to think and behave proactively. And for that, you need information. Rita Robison, senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, an international commercial real estate company, believes that when salespeople lose business, about half the time it's because they didn't keep asking questions of a customer or prospect. "I [lead with] Learner. I'm always willing to admit that I don't know everything, and I don't have a fear of asking. I don't feel like I'm going to look stupid," she said. "So I don't mind asking questions. I'd rather know more than guess."
The right people to question aren't always decision makers, though. One mistake that many sales reps make is dismissing the importance of people who could influence the decision maker. This could be an individual who has the ear of a key decision maker or an administrative person who is at the center of an important communication chain. Salespeople need to listen carefully to all of their contacts in the company.
The solutions you suggest can be more than products; you can offer advice and insights too. You can provide perspective and knowledge the customer doesn't have but needs. Sometimes this is information they know they need and request from you. But other times, it can be information they don't know they need -- facts or insights you offer in response to what you've heard in your conversations with your customers and company contacts.
Sometimes reps have access to information that's also readily available to customers, but they haven't discovered it yet. When was the last time you did a Web search on your most important customer or looked at that customer's website? A quick review of information that's available online could give you insights into the organization's most urgent problems or concerns. An e-mail with a nugget of helpful information shows clients that you're thinking about them, even when it doesn't result in an immediate sale.
As for gaining insights, start before you meet with your customers. You can't have useful insights if you don't know much about their business. Look at the customer's industry, competition, and demographics. Pull together everything you can get your hands on, and put yourself in your customer's shoes. "Every day is a school day, and I always want to learn and become an expert in whatever I'm doing," said Ron Barczak from Stryker. "When I was a college intern at a neon sign company, I asked the engineer to show me how the product worked, how it was built, how they made it, all that. I want to be the expert for the customer."
Mike Astrauskas, a sales representative from Cargill, sounding exactly like someone making the most of his Strategic theme, said, "It's been tough lately, so [our customers are running] lean and mean, and they don't have a lot of time and people to devote to understanding a solution. So when you go in there, you'd better understand their business, know the context as it applies to your product, and know where the value is for them. Each time we meet with a customer, we apply our innovation and technology to their business specifically. It's not saying, 'Here's what it is,' but, 'Here's the value of this to you.' We put into context not just money but the psychological benefits: 'Hey, you're doing the right thing. You guys want to be the most innovative. This is going to help you be the most innovative and keep you out in front of your competition.' They understand it, and they feel good about doing business with us. And now I think they truly value us as strategic [partners] to their business."
Mike nailed it. The best solutions are strategic, and the sales rep who can be part of the strategy becomes a valued partner. Your talents can help you become such a partner, as opposed to a mere vendor. For example, are you an asker or a teller? If you lead with Command or Self-Assurance, you might find that you tell more than you ask. If that's the case, use one of your people-oriented themes to connect with someone who invites you to ask questions. Lean on your Futuristic theme to ask your clients where they want to be in 10 years. Customers need more than products. They need solutions, strategies, emotional connections, and insider information. Providing that mix will take all your talents. "Don't go in unarmed," said Rita Robison from Jones Lang LaSalle. "The client's looking to you as the expert."