Practice + Authenticity = Modern Sales Excellence

The Greek orator Demosthenes was said to have treated his speech impediment by talking with pebbles in his mouth and shouting above the roar of the ocean waves.
 
In high school, Larry Bird would shoot 500 free throws every morning before his first class.
 
When I started my professional sales career in 2004, I wrote out every opening, iteration, objection handle, and closing approach. I then recorded myself speaking them until I was comfortable. I iterated on each talk track 20+ times until it was authentic and the language flowed naturally. Then I ditched the scripts and went to work.

What can you do outside of your day to day operations to be exceptional at your craft?

SalesLoft CEO Kyle Porter (LinkedIn Post)

SalesLoft CEO Kyle Porter is a strong advocate for authenticity. Simply knowing your pitch is insufficient. Sales reps have to master their craft and infuse it with authenticity. This means developing a deep understanding of how to sell your product and service but then combining what is unique about your story (both personal and corporate) with passion for the product or service you sell.

It also means that you cannot be giving a robotic pitch or a one-size-fits-all spiel. Great salespeople adjust their message and approach to the prospect. This adjustment is across many dimensions:

  • Job Function – What is their department and role within the department?
  • Job Level – How high in the organization are they?
  • Industry – What is your value proposition with respect to the purchaser’s industry? How do they benefit?
  • Buyer Role – As part of a purchasing committee, are they the economic buyer, technical buyer, influencer, etc.?
  • Prospect Knowledge about Your Offering – You need to understand how knowledgeable they are about your offering and those of your competitors and then speak to that level.
  • Concerns – The larger the value or strategic importance of a B2B purchase, the greater the FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). FUD is also higher if the total cost of ownership or switching costs are high. If you are inauthentic, you can raise the level of FUD. If you can connect authentically with the buyer, you build trust and drive down the level of FUD.
  • Individual – What are the individual concerns of the buyer? What is the buyer’s communication style?

Scripts work well for novice reps and those learning a new product category or vertical, but they should be viewed as building blocks towards a polished, authentic sales voice.

One should also avoid focusing on features. A feature-focused monologue says to buyers, “you figure out whether my product / service will help you because I don’t understand that myself.” The focus should always be on benefits and value with features only used to justify your value proposition or to address concerns of technical buyers.

And the conversation needs to be interactive. Meeting intelligence analytics display who is talking during a call. A sales rep can visually review whether he / she controlled the conversation or it was a true conversation.

Sales trainers have begun emphasizing the value of storytelling as a way to connect with the emotional buyer. Marketers long approached consumer sales as an emotional pitch and B2B as a rationale pitch, but are now arguing that rational B2B pitches ignore the inherent FUD involved when making strategic purchases.

As sales reps begin to be coached by sales engagement analytics (directly and via feedback from managers and trainers), they should shift away from controlling conversations and become more interactive, present, and empathetic.

LinkedIn Adjusts its Feed Algorithm

The LinkedIn feed algorithm has been adjusted to emphasize conversations of interest over viral content.

LinkedIn recently adjusted its feed algorithm to identify more salient topics instead of viral content.  The goal is to encourage conversations and promote niche conversations over broad topics.  The modifications place a higher premium on member interest signals.

“Our mission is to help people be more productive and successful, and it is what drives us daily,” said Senior Director of Product Management Pete Davies.  “We strongly believe that people need their professional communities to help them along the way, whether that’s current or former colleagues, peers in the same industry, or those that share similar interests or career ambitions.”

LinkedIn prioritizes posts from connections and follows along with their likes, comments, and posts.  Other factors include group posts, followed hashtags, and events “all with the goal of showing you the content and conversations that you care about.”  Prioritization is given to direct interactions; stated interests and experiences; and “explicit signals” such as with whom you’ve worked.

Davies provided the following tips to encourage conversation:

  • Post things that encourage a response. For example, if you’re posting a link, express an opinion with it.
  • Think about using the best type of post for the topic. Despite the rumors, the algorithm doesn’t favor any particular format. We have video, images, multi-images, text and long-form articles. More are on the way.
  • Use @mentions to pull other people you know into a conversation when you think they’ll have something valuable to add. Be thoughtful: only mention people that you think are likely to respond, max five is a good rule of thumb.
  • Engage in the conversation, respond to commenters and encourage back and forth.

Davies also recommended the use of hashtags, but no more than three.  Hashtags should be specific vs. general (#performancemanagement vs. #management).

Finally, Davies emphasized authenticity.  This is a theme that Kyle Porter, CEO of SalesLoft, keeps going back to.

“Authenticity is key: all the tips above work out better when members talk about things they truly care about, in a way that’s natural for them. Genuine conversation around real experiences spark better and deeper conversation. Better conversation, in turn, leads to stronger community and connection,” blogged Davies.

SalesLoft Rainmaker 2019 Keynote

SalesLoft CEO Kyle Porter Gave the Opening Keynote at the SalesLoft Rainmaker 2019 Sales Conference.
SalesLoft CEO Kyle Porter Gave the Opening Keynote at the SalesLoft Rainmaker 2019 Sales Conference.

At their Rainmaker 2019 conference, SalesLoft announced a doubling of their ecosystem, mobile functionality, a rebuilt analytics engine, and a hot leads feature.  The show attracted 1,300 attendees to hear 164 speakers.

“We’re in the middle of an evolution in the relationship between sellers and buyers,” said SalesLoft’s CEO, Kyle Porter.  “Sales teams need to tear up their playbooks and start fresh with a blend of human, relevant sales tactics and the modern technology needed to create an authentic sales experience that is repeatable and scalable.”

SalesLoft’s purpose is to “to activate the authentic seller in all of us” and elevate the sales profession by offering “world-class experiences.”  The firm operates under a quintet of values that inform its hiring and operations:


SalesLoft Operating Principles.

These principles led to SalesLoft being named the top-midsized employer in Atlanta for the second year in a row.  “We embrace the transformative power of technology innovation for our customers, but we believe in people first,” said Porter.  “Our founding purpose is to create an environment where others can come to learn more, do more, and become more.  Team members are encouraged to take their talents and skills and apply them to serve others and find fulfillment.  We show love to our people so they can share that sentiment with our customers.”

SalesLoft’s sales engagement platform is designed to support evolving buying behavior.  B2B buyers are swamped by messaging and “super busy,” yet need to solve complex problems.  Buyers are looking for an “engaging, authentic experience” that understands buyer needs and solves their problems.  However, sellers are inefficient and operate with broken processes.  SalesLoft is looking to address process failures by centralizing sales workflows and encouraging best practices.  Objectives include elevating the sales profession through community, encouraging diversity amongst its staff and event speakers (54% of whom were women or minorities at Rainmaker), and transparency in its policies and outcomes.

Porter described his future vision of sales where “every single seller has a digital assistant by their side” along with a “sales coaching network” which is a “giant distributed network of sales activity.”  Sales reps are supported by a digital assistant which delivers broad data and context-specific insights based on seller, stage, and customer to help reps “connect authentically with the buyer.”

Porter contends that “you can’t take the human out of the equation” but you can make it “easier to distribute a world-class experience to your customer.”

“[It’s time to] elevate the profession of sales to focus on delivering customers world-class experiences.  With that, you can maximize revenue.  A sales experience must be authentic, engaging, relevant, human, one-to-one and, most importantly, it understands buyers’ needs and solves their problems.”


SalesLoft CEO Kyle Porter

Sales reps have long suffered from a bad reputation, being forced to take ethical shortcuts to meet managerial demands.  SalesLoft is looking to lead by example.  According to Porter, when “we do right,” SalesLoft customers are able to hire, innovate, and invent new things.

SalesLoft’s other goal is to improve the efficiency and efficacy of sales teams.  A SalesLoft study found a 22% increase in opportunities created when comparing the 90-day windows before and after implementing their platform.  To back up their research, they commissioned a Forrester study of their customers which found a

  • 2.5X improvement in response rates
  • 20% lift in conversion and productivity
  • Doubling of the funnel
  • 13% increase in renewals
  • 329% ROI

“Many people say we’re in a state of digital transformation,” said SalesLoft CMO Sydney Sloan.  “For sales, we’re entering a revolution of how we engage customers.”

Buyers are looking for partners that work with them to identify and resolve issues.  “Today’s successful seller has to be a problem solver and you do that by asking great questions and collectively solving the problem with and for your customer,” said Sloan.  “It doesn’t matter if the product goes 10 miles an hour or 50 miles an hour, it’s the people I want to work with in partnership and, at the end of the day, it’s the people I want to work with.  I’ll pick a company because of the relationship.  The product still has to solve my problems but if two things are equal, I’ll go with the partnership.”

Buyers are looking for partners that work with them to identify and resolve issues.  “Today’s successful seller has to be a problem solver and you do that by asking great questions and collectively solving the problem with and for your customer,” said Sloan.  “It doesn’t matter if the product goes 10 miles an hour or 50 miles an hour, it’s the people I want to work with in partnership and, at the end of the day, it’s the people I want to work with.  I’ll pick a company because of the relationship.  The product still has to solve my problems but if two things are equal, I’ll go with the partnership.”


Part II: SalesLoft Rainmaker Product Announcements

Vertical IQ Launches Mobile App

Vertical IQ Summary (Mobile App)
Vertical IQ Summary (Mobile App)

Industry research firm Vertical IQ launched a mobile app which delivers condensed profiles of 300 industries which can be quickly viewed before meetings or while commuting.  The app is available on iPhone and Android devices at no additional charge for current customers.

“Vertical IQ users are busy professionals, and the reality is that they often don’t have the time to research and read an entire industry-related paper to prepare for a client or prospect meeting,” blogged the firm.  “In order to best help our busy customers, we have to design the most efficient, practical way possible to prepare for meetings—writing and organizing industry-specific information that is digestible, quick, and to-the-point.”

Industries are listed alphabetically and searchable by Vertical IQ industry, NAICS / SIC, and Favorites.  Searching is by keyword, so “Pest” returns Pest Control, Agricultural Chemical Manufacturers, Landscape Services, and Pest Control Services.  The results list may be viewed alphabetically or by sector.  The app has a short “Time to Pie,” a term coined by Intuit which means how quickly do users get to useful information.

Content is broken into eleven chapters which are navigated by a three-bar icon across fromthe chapter title:

  • Summary
  • Big Picture Video –  an industry overview which helps reps “quickly visualize the business, gain insight, and be ready to talk about points of [my client’s] industry.”
  • Fast Facts – Average company size, geographic distribution, top firms, business structure, etc.
  • Call Prep Questions – Capital Financing, How Firms Operate, Industry Trends, Risks to Watch Out for, Working Capital
  • Working Capital – Sell and Invoice, Collect, Manage Cash, Pay, Report, Cash Management Challenges
  • Trends
  • Risks – Industry Risks, Company Risks
  • Numbers – BizMiner industry ratios
  • News
  • Quarterly Insights
  • Bank Product Usage – Industry adoption of standard bank products from Barlow Research

Vertical IQ was co-founded by Bobby Martin, who also started First Research.  Both services provide an extensive set of industry snapshots for relationship managers looking to quickly learn about key industries.

“Vertical IQ helps you save time, increase the likelihood and effectiveness of pre-call planning, deepen relationships with clients, improve banker confidence during calls, and bridge the gap between a banker’s financial knowledge and business knowledge.”

Vertical IQ

Vertical IQ supports nearly 35,000 bankers, accountants and advisors who serve small to medium-sized businesses and professionals.  Along with subscription services, users may purchase individual reports for $99.

Don’t Disparage Your Competitors

I much prefer looking at competition as a set of parries and thrusts. Competitors are to be respected. Disparaging competitors only serves to undermine your case and is indicative of fear.
I much prefer looking at competition as a set of parries and thrusts. Competitors are to be respected. Disparaging competitors only serves to undermine your case and is indicative of fear.

I wanted to call attention to an excellent article written by Dave Kahle in Industrial Supply which aligns fully with my philosophy on B2B competitive strategy and sales training.  For nearly two decades I have emphasized the value of staying above the fray with a focus on a company’s unique value proposition and strengths.  While the easiest route is to disparage a competitor, it generally conveys fear and a lack of confidence in your own offering.  This tends to undermine trust in your company and its people.

“Disparaging the competition – speaking badly about the company or the individual salespeople, using little innuendos and side comments – all of this says more about us to our customers than it does about the competitors to whom we are referring. It reveals us as small-minded, petty, smug and far more interested in ourselves than we are in our customers.”

  • Dave Kahle, Author and Sales Trainer

Instead I have advocated only discussing competitors when directly questioned about them.  In that case, I have recommended a fast pivot where the rep recognizes a strength and then quickly segues back to their offering.  The strength should be real and non-trivial, but not applicable to your customer.  For example, if selling to an SMB, saying that the competitor offers highly customizable solutions for enterprises, but your offering is designed for small businesses with a straightforward user experience.  Such an approach is honest, differentiates yourself from the competitor, and avoids mudslinging.

Kahle offers several alternative, but equally valuable strategies for staying above the fray.  Instead of speaking directly about a specific company, generalize the competition.  Generalization “provides you a means of pointing out your distinctiveness without being negative about your specific competitors.”

Kahle also suggests posing statements in question form to help frame the prospect’s thinking;

Don’t say, “Y Company is a small local company that doesn’t have the systems or technology to support you in the long run.” Instead, say, “One of the questions you should ask of every vendor is this, ‘What technology and systems do you have in place to assure that you will be able to support us for the long run?’”

Another strategy is a feature list between companies, but I am not particularly fond of this approach for tech firms as the table needs to be assiduously maintained and it shifts the focus from value to features.   Furthermore, such lists aren’t tailored to the needs of individual prospects and prospects are likely to view such collateral as biased.  When I used to put together such tools, I avoided simple checklists and instead focused on workflow stages and framed the discussion as features and benefits in the context of each stage.  Each comparison was dated and I told sales reps that I would perform a just-in-time review of the tool if it was more than several months old.

“While we can’t change the competition, we certainly are responsible for our attitudes and behaviors toward the competition,” wrote Kahle.  “What we say and how we act about the competition can have a daily bearing on our bottom lines. An appropriate attitude and set of practices for dealing with the competition should be an essential part of every salesperson’s repertoire.”

It is easy to disdain the competition and crow about your product or service, but competitors should be respected.  They also have well qualified sales reps and some feature advantages.  “From the 10,000-foot-high perspective, if your competitors were as flawed as you think they are, they wouldn’t be in business, and your customers wouldn’t be buying from them,”  said Kahle.  “So, bury those attitudes of superiority, and cast off that disdain for the competition. If your customers didn’t think they presented a viable option, they wouldn’t be buying from them.”

Kahle suggests that if a company is truly focused on its customers’ needs, then competitive offers are irrelevant.  “Your mindset, from the beginning, is not a bit focused on the competition, but rather is 100 percent targeted to completely understanding the customer’s requirements. The conversation is not about how you compare to the competition, but rather how you meet the customer’s needs.”


DoD photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars, U.S. Air Force.  Public Domain.

Are We Really Selling Quarter-Inch Holes?

Black & Decker Cordless Drill (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Black & Decker Cordless Drill (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Sales and marketing often forget to focus on the unique value proposition they offer their customers.  They focus on product features instead of customer benefits.  There is an oft-repeated saying in marketing which captures this logic perfectly:

“People don’t buy quarter inch drills, they buy quarter inch holes.”

The electric drill was first developed by Black and Decker and patented in 1917 as a tool for their own production facility.  Interestingly, the firm only recognized the value of the tool for consumers when employees began taking it home.  Ironically, the tool often used to discuss the value of thinking broadly about use cases and customer needs was originally designed for a limited purpose, the Black and Decker plant, became an indispensable DIY consumer and industrial product.

A product/technology focus emphasizes the features of the drill and not the benefits of quickly making holes of specific sizes as needed, where needed.  Marketers need to translate many product features to a distinct set of customer benefits and roll them into a unique value proposition that differentiates their product in the mind of potential customers.

Understanding the needs of the customers is also important for the product and engineering teams.  Otherwise, they will view both the competition and the market too narrowly.  If you are selling quarter inch drills, you view your competitors as quarter inch drill manufacturers.  If you view your product as on demand tools for boring holes and attaching objects, you recognize a broader set of competitive and complementary products including bores, glues, solder, welding supplies, nails, screws, bolts, etc.  You would also recognize that electromechanical torque can be applied to screws, bolts, and nuts, expanding your product line into adjacent markets.

Focusing on product features is also a bad practice for sales reps.  As with marketing, emphasizing features prevents them from communicating the unique value proposition of your products and services.  If your sales reps are too often complaining about losing on price or the need to constantly discount off list price, then either your prices are too high or your sales reps are engaged in too much feature-speak and failing to communicate customer benefits and value.  Of course, these reasons are not mutually exclusive.  You could have two root causes to your pricing difficulties – your prices may be too high and your sales reps may be failing to communicate value.

Another problem with focusing on features is it treats your product as little more than a commodity.  A differentiated service is less subject to price erosion and heavy discounting.  This is one reason I tell my clients in the sales intelligence space not to compete on database size.  While there are benefits to larger databases, users aren’t usually purchasing big databases [feature], they are purchasing sales insights [value proposition] that make them more effective at building prospecting lists [benefit 1], qualifying leads [benefit 2], managing accounts [benefit 3], reducing CRM data entry [benefit 4], improving analytics [5], and selling deeper into organizations [benefit 6].  Thus, it isn’t the size of the company and executive files, but the breadth of data insights that help reps more efficiently and effectively sell.

So as you hold your 2018 sales kickoffs, make sure to communicate your new product’s value proposition to your salesforce.  Likewise, evangelize your company’s vision during new hire training, product road mapping sessions, and all hands meetings.  In the end, customers are interested in your value and how you benefit them, not RPM or database size.