Sales Strategies

7 Assumptions Salespeople Should Never Make

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One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is: “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.” 

Buying behavior continues to change at warp speed. Business-to-business (B2B) vendor actions and reactions crawl at a glacial pace. It’s not clear to me how many vendors refuse to recognize changes or just don’t know how to respond -- or both. They seem sure their old selling approaches will still work.

I’ve identified at least seven bad assumptions that sellers continue to make.

Related: 5 Ways to Sell Smarter, Not Harder

1. Website leads equal top-line revenue.

For vendors selling complex big-ticket items, website leads remind me of the bingo cards from trade shows. Traditionally, vendors had visitors fill out bingo cards with contact information before getting whatever they had to offer -- mouse pads, Nerf balls, key chains, etc.

Fast forward two decades, and realize most website visitors now access your website rather than visiting trade show booths. Volumes of product information are available. Please don’t confuse activity with progress. In most cases website visitors are doing product evaluations, not starting buying cycles. Marketing owns the top of the funnel, and visitors are researchers, not buyers. Most are potential coaches to get vendors to higher levels when sellers get involved. Either marketing or salespeople will have to qualify these leads by attempting to gain access to higher levels.

Think of the selling time wasted and tepid win rates when starting too low within organizations. Suffice to say that electronic bingo card leads are not the path to higher revenue.

2. Buyers are a blank canvas.

Knowledgeable researchers have done their homework by visiting multiple vendor websites and leveraging their social network prior to reaching out or being willing to talk with a salesperson. Many have been happy to avoid early seller involvement. They have an inherent distrust of sellers and feel they may try to skew the requirements to gain a competitive advantage with no concern about how they are meeting buyer needs.

The problem is that despite the fact that vendors agree their sellers are getting involved in buying cycles later than ever before, most leave it up to each individual salesperson to determine how they are going to align with potential buyers that have already established their requirements. The most common mistakes they make are:

  • Failing to give buyers a chance to share with them what requirements they have already determined. This is unfortunate because they completely disrespect the time spent in acquiring knowledge about offerings and start from ground zero as though the buyer were a novice. Poor alignment equals poor buying experience.
  • Sellers who ask what requirements have been established make premature attempts to change the requirements list. This will infuriate buyers and sellers and will run the risk of not making the short list of vendors to be seriously considered.

Sellers fail to understand the buyers that have done research have a vision of the features or capabilities they feel are needed. In order to align with these buyers it is necessary to:

  • Learn what they think they want.
  • Take them back into phase two -- solution development.
  • By asking questions hopefully have buyers conclude there were some missing requirements.

Executing this successfully will provide better buying experiences, have buyers conclude sellers are competent and provide a better chance of being the vendor of choice.

3. 'I just compete with vendors.'

There is a tremendous advantage when a salesperson can gain access to a key player, take that person from latent to active need, and establish themselves as column A -- the vendor that most closely matches the buyer’s requirements. What’s especially rewarding is the fact that if a seller gets to a high enough level, un-budgeted initiatives can be funded. Have you ever given thought to how this happens?

Even when working for companies that are doing well, senior executives don’t have blank checks for un-budgeted funds. If a seller can present -- or the executive can see -- a strong payback, the executive can have a look at all the budgeted projects in a given year and rob Peter to pay Paul. That is to say they can decide not to move forward with budgeted initiatives that they feel don’t provide as much benefit. Upon hearing about this concept years ago in one of my workshops, a student approached me at a break and realized in trying to sell software to a heating oil distributor, he had lost a software sale to a delivery truck!

The best defense against being displaced by competitors is to take the offensive. By that I mean work with prospects and customers to build a strong cost versus benefit that will make it more difficult to postpone or cancel expenditures.

4. The senior executive is the decision maker.

When working with committees, many salespeople and their managers assume that the highest-level person is the decision maker. While I believe it is important to gain access to as many committee members as possible, focusing too much on the senior executive may not be the best approach.

I was working on an opportunity to sell sales training and process. While some regional managers were involved in the decision, the primary contacts were the director of training (Joe) and senior vice president of worldwide sales (Allan). While we had access to Allan, Joe was the person who needed an in-depth understanding of our offerings. Our primary competitor left a series of footprints on Allan’s forehead as they were constantly trying  to go over his head and have meetings with Allan.

Ultimately, we won the business, and I asked the director of training how the decision was made. He told me that he believed our offering was a better fit for the organization. When he shared this opinion, Joe left the decision up to him. In many instances, sellers don’t know if the most senior person involved will be a rubber stamp or if he / she will want to make the final decision.

The words always and never seldom apply to sales. My suggestion is not to make knee-jerk assumptions that the top person in the org chart will make the final decision.

Related: A Con Artist Taught Me Everything I Know About Persuasion

5. Proposals sell.

My definition of closing is asking for the business. Of all the closing techniques I’m aware of, the least effective is issuing proposals to non-decision makers who will then distribute it to members of the buying committee. This is a recipe for disaster for many reasons:

  • In their rush to move transactions along, many proposals are issued too soon.
  • Sellers lose a great deal of control once proposals are issued. Many prospects go dark after receiving proposals.
  • For fairly complex B2B offerings, few executive buyers will take the time to read proposals. Instead they’ll fast forward to the pricing and with no idea of potential value, are likely to conclude the price is too high.
  • Executives who try to read proposals will often give up if / when they don’t fully understand what they are reading.
  • Much of the potential value of making purchase decisions must be gotten from executive buyers.

While most sellers view proposals as a step that gets them closer to orders, my belief is that proposals do not sell. Rather, they should provide the information needed for buyers to make buying decisions. Therefore proposals should document and confirm:

  • Desired business outcomes
  • Reasons the outcomes cannot be achieved
  • The specific capabilities that address the reasons uncovered
  • Implementation activities
  • The potential value 
  • The total costs

Prior to issuing proposals, sellers should consider asking the highest level they’ve called on to review a draft of the proposal before it is issued. It is a way to ensure that it accurately reflects what they wanted to see and that there are no surprises in the proposal. If the meeting to review the content of the draft proposal goes well with a person that can make a decision, sellers may be able to close at that point in time.

6. Buyers will be honest with you about why you lost.

A college friend of mine used a technique when he wanted to end relationships with people he’d been dating for awhile. His objective was to end things and avoid discussing why it was over and whose fault it was. The phrase he used was: “I’m just not good enough for you.” In doing so, he took responsibility for ending relationships without saying there was someone new -- and there usually was. The underlying issue was that he wasn’t worthy.

My belief is that when pricing and offerings are fairly equal, the better salesperson wins the lion’s share. The elephant in the room is that the most common reason for losses is that sellers get outsold. 

In trying to get more usable information about losses, my suggestion is that losing vendors wait a few months and have someone other than the salesperson contact the person believed to be the decision maker. Explain that the company delayed making contact because it isn’t an attempt to change someone's mind. Rather, you’re trying to improve the company’s selling efforts and would appreciate it if the buyer could briefly explain:

  • The major reasons for choosing the winning vendor
  • Perceived deficiencies in the losing vendor’s offering or support
  • Aspects of the selling effort that could have been done more effectively

Going the distance and losing is the worst possible scenario for vendors and sellers. Having invested time and effort, actionable loss reports can salvage some benefit. I’d also suggest that after a significant win you may want to interview the key players to gain insights into the reasons for the win.

7. Executives are interested in offerings.

Companies that don’t provide messaging guidance on how to make calls on executives do a disservice with the significant amount of product training they provide. In today’s buyer environment, it seems sellers have limited opportunities to share that knowledge, because most mid-level and below staff prefer to get their product knowledge via the website. The primary reason for this is they are leery of sellers who they believe will try to influence their requirements -- in other words, to try to sell them.

While lower level staff’s interest is primarily in learning about products or offerings, executives have neither the time nor inclination to become knowledgeable about products. Early attempts to educate them will usually result in being delegated to lower levels or worse yet for a premature end to the meeting.

Executives are concerned and interested in improving business results. They want the Cliff Notes version about offerings. By that I mean they’d like a seller to uncover their business issues, help them realize why they can’t be achieved without the seller’s offering, and then at a high level have an understanding of what capabilities are needed to achieve the desired outcome.

Remember, executive calls are all about business outcomes, and having them learn how offerings can be used -- usually by lower levels in the organization -- to achieve them.

Related: Why You Should Think Less About Sales and More About the Customer Experience