Collaborative Selling – 35 ideas for a modern approach to sales success
I was recently asked to speak to a group about the future of sales and what is needed for success now and in the future. Here is a summary of what I shared (35 ideas in 25 minutes):
My name is Fred Copestake. I am founder of Brindis a sales training consultancy. Over the past 22 years. I’ve travelled around the world 14 times, visited 36 countries and worked with over 10,000 salespeople. More recently though, I’ve written the book Selling Through Partnering Skills, which captures all of the latest thinking that will allow a salesperson to have a more modern, collaborative approach. And that’s what I use now in the sales training that I deliver, mainly for B2B sales in a more complex selling environment.
Quite often, I’ll ask on a webinar would you invite your customers to sales training?’ And if I’m working virtually, which as you can imagine, we’re doing now, I’ll give them a poll. The options are yes, no, maybe and what the hell are you talking about? It’s really interesting to see what they come back with but, whatever the answer I’m going down the same route, which is to say, if you’re answering, no, why is that?
The reason someone would say no is maybe because they don’t have any training but it could also be that they’re saying no it’s because they think that sales training is going to be manipulative or it’s old fashioned or it’s something that just isn’t customer centric.
It’s my job to change it that and to change it quickly. And one of the ways that I will tend to do that is to get people to think about how sales has evolved. Maybe they’re stuck thinking about things which are old fashioned and don’t necessarily work as well as they can now.
What I’ll do is just go through quick history of sales, the evolution of sales if you like, and pull out some of the elements that we can take from that because they are going to be useful as we move towards a more modern approach.
(1) Let’s go back to the Fifties and think about what was happening then. Thinking about the Fifties as an era, it was all about process. Standardising production was quite a big issue. And that was the sort of thing that was reflected in the way that people were selling. It was all very much about process. It was using tried and tested methods. It was using systems that we could make sure we’re doing the correct thing time and time again. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s not a bad thing at all.
It’s one of the tips or the ideas that I would share, which is that we want to make sure we have systems in place. We want to make sure we have a sales process. Now I will talk a bit later about the sales process and buying process and how they have to very carefully aligned, but certainly an idea that I’d give to people is having a structure to a conversation that you’re going to have.
As a salesperson whether you’re in a B2B world, or working in B2C, having a way that you can open up the conversation by grabbing attention, then asking questions, which will show interest in the customer and starting to explore what pain points and what needs they might have is important. We the need to think about how we can take our solution to be able to create desire and to think how we finish off any conversation by having some kind of action, some kind of advancement, something that moves forward. So for me, that’s when the idea is we can take from the Fifties and make sure that we’re using that in the modern environment.
(2) Let’s move on to the Sixties and have a think about that era. For me, the Sixties was all about the brain and how it works. It was about deep thinking, psychedelia and flower power and all that kind of stuff. And what we see is that this was reflected in sales training. A lot of the stuff was around personality selling and the psychology of sales.
It was understanding how would your customer think so you knew how to adapt your approach to do something that’s right for them. And so absolutely for me, that would make sense in the current selling environment. Can we adapt and flex? Are we doing so was comfortable for them? Can we think about what’s going to be important to them and can we make sure that that’s what our solution that’s what we’re going to sell is going to align to it? So yes, that’s one of the ideas that we can take and we can use today to be relevant.
(3) So what else have we got? Let’s think about the Seventies. The Seventies was all about benefits. Or more accurately features, advantages, benefits. All products and services have features, which in turn will deliver some kind of advantage and ultimately a benefit.
What is the feature there for? What is the customer taking away from that? And that’s where we’ve got to concentrate on. Any kind of selling message, any kind of marketing message, anything that we’re saying to customers, potential clients, why should they care? And then one of the tests for this is to just ask yourself, ‘So what?’What are they going to care about? Is there some kind of value for them? Is there some kind of benefit in there?
(4) That’s what we can take that away from the Seventies as we move into the Eighties, which for me, was a funny time for professional selling. I think of these of Gordon Gekko and the greed is good type of mindset. It’s was the close, close, close, objection handling type era. We can certainly think about objection handling today, though I would say that there is a different psychology in how we think about it and even how we label it. I believe its better to focus on treating concerns with concern use language structures in a more elegant way than to simply try to get to close as soon as possible and batter away any hurdles.
(5) I’m not so comfortable with that as an approach. Particularly when you look at what happened in Nineties when Consultative Selling was ‘invented’. If we look at what happened, that that was when Neil Rackham and his team sat in on lots and lots of sales meetings and saw the very best salespeople were probably not really doing what they were trained to.
They were asking questions. They weren’t diving into is close but they were concentrating on need. They were thinking about where’s the customer now and where do they want to be. Something they could really help the customer understand by asking questions.
That’s what a good consultant does. The help people understand. The bigger the perceived difference between those position. The more, someone’s going to want to need to do something about. When we’re in sales mode, we can ask questions in a way which helps people think. And that’s when we start to add value.
It’s not manipulative. It’s not something that we shouldn’t do. It’s something we very much should do because it’s going to help people to address their issues. And that’s really where we’re starting to go with modern selling. It’s helping people to think and bring value that way. When we look at the Noughties, it’s an extension of that.
(6) If the Nineties was needs focused, the Noughties were about value focus. It begins with the consultative approach, but it also looks as at wider impacts, things for the broader business. It’s an opportunity to really do our homework properly and by sitting with them and helping them to understand what’s going to deliver a lot of value to them. This may be solving issues, treating pain. But it can also be by identifying where there is other potential for gain.
(7) So Noughties and Nineties selling is a very solid foundation for the stuff we need to do today, but it’s still 20 years old. So what other things have happened? When we look at the Tens, what I was saying to salespeople is that this is the decade where you really had to concentrate on your ‘sales stature’. Or personal brand. That would be what we would call it today.
It was about making sure that customers understood that you were the go-to person, your company, and your offer might be right for them, but why should they want to talk to you? I would encourage anyone in sales to make sure that their profile and positioning and how customers and potential customers view the is right.
(8) The takes us to Twenties then. So, where are we now? If we talked about consultative selling in Nineties and we talked about being focused on adding value in the Noughties, and then thinking about our own stature in the Tens, the Twenties is about becoming more collaborative. This is working more closely with customers, working together with them to really co-create value by doing things together. Two plus two equalling five by using different thinking, using different processes and applying different ways of working to help that.
I can’t really talk more about the twenties without kind of talking about the elephant in the room, which is, COVID and, virtual selling.
Now one of them is going to happen anyway, then that was the virtual selling. What’s happened is that COVID has sped this up. In the Twenties, salespeople need to be very comfortable in working lots of different kinds of media. That is working virtually whether that is working on a screen, whether it’s using emails, whether it’s using texts, WhatsApp, whatever way they can get the message across. And ultimately face to face meetings where they come back.
(9) What we’ll see in the Twenties is a kind of hybrid salesperson. There will be a number of tools and techniques which people will have to understand to be able to really deliver well.
(10) So at this stage in training, I like to get people to reflect on how they sell
– are you more of a benefit sales person
– are working from that people buy from people type approach
– are using a close, close, close type mindset.
– are you positioning more as a trusted advisor
– are you trying to recognize and communicate value
– are you really into this more modern way of working where it’s all about stop, listen, collaborate.
Apologies to Vanilla Ice, I’ve got that the wrong way around, but for me it is stopping, slowing down and thinking it’s being able to work together to collaborate more. That’s what I want to explore a little bit. Before that though I’ll just tell a little story about how sales was my very first job.
So my first job was in sales, I was aged eight years old. It was in the family business, a builder’s merchant which also sold kitchens bathrooms. On Boxing day, that was when we had the Annual sale. When I was eight, I was allowed to go along to help. They kitted me out in this big orange polo shirt and this massive brown warehouse coat thing.
They took me along and put me in the tile store. I was goong help sell tiles. Now, the premises was this big old Victorian watermill made of stone. And so in December it was stone cold, literally. There I was in my big baggy clothes. And it was freezing… but I was having such a laugh. It was brilliant.
It was talking to people. I was sorting out what they needed. I was helping them. I was finding stuff. I was putting stuff in boxes. I wrote down on a little chit what the were buying to make sure I got my commission. I just had a really good laugh and I guess that’s where the sales bug took over. Since then my background has always been commercial. I went to university to study Commerce and Spanish, worked in both sales and marketing for a large industrial company, and I moved into full-time training 22 some years ago. For a time I ran the training academy for Corona Extra, the Mexican beer, the good Corona, if you like. That was six years of really good fun travelling around a lot.
Travelling is something I’ve always done and as I mentioned, I’ve worked in 36 countries with all sorts of high profile clients breweries, truck manufacturers, banks, IT resellers. I just absolutely love that variety. I like helping people and I like helping people stand out and be different. I practice what I preach I like to ‘keep the saw sharp’ (11)
I started really thinking about where are we going with sales? What’s what can we do to make salespeople excellent? And this is where I came across the concept of Partnering Skills, PQ. It’s a bit like the lesser known cousin of IQ and EQ. I looked at this stuff, which had been researched back in the late Eighties, early Nineties by a guy called Steve Dent. He was working with organizations that were partnering at a high level.
(12) One of the things he said is that ‘organizations don’t partner, people do’, and there are certain skills which are involved in that. Moreover people can learn these and develop them to get better at partnering. At the time I was doing quite a lot of work in channel anyway with channel managers and partner managers so I thought I would look at these.
(13) As I looked and understood it became clear to me that these would work for any salesperson. Whether you’re in channel, whether you’re at the top of an organization, whether you’re involved in smaller, less sophisticated sales, these elements of PQ, if you weave them into what you do will make you better at selling.
Let’s have a look at these elements and think what can we do to bring them into our way of selling. PQ it’s made up of six elements.
(14) The first element is trust. It’s a foundation for relationships. It’s a really important part of what we do. And so what I encourage salespeople to do is think about how can you build trust with people?
What are the things that you can deliberately do to try to build that? Because we can do some things deliberately, and this is when I came across the trust equation. (15) David Meister, a professor at Harvard talks about this equation where there’s elements of:
– Credibility, knowing your stuff.
– Reliability, doing what you say you do
– Intimacy. where people feel close to you because you will be sensitive to information they share that they’ll feel safe in working with you
But all of these elements are in the equation that divided by Self-orientation which indicates that we can do all of these things, which are absolutely encouraged, but if you’re only doing them for your own benefit, well, that pulls the effect of the other element of trust-building down.
As a salesperson can be deliberate, with the elements of credibility, reliability, and intimacy. But am I doing it with the other party’s best interest at heart as well? And for me, it ties neatly into the second element of PQ, which is having a win-win orientation.
(16) It’s not uncommon for people to talk about win-win or mutual benefit. Though it that can be interpreted in many different ways. So first it’s actually working out what does the other party, well, what is that? What’s their value. What is going to be good for them? But funnily enough, with salespeople, another idea, another thing that I’ve included with this is that be, be aware of your own commerciality. (17) Don’t just give stuff away because otherwise the balance gets lopsided. Think about what both parties are taking from the deal or relationship. (18) It makes a lot of sense for me to use this to think about how we discuss things to resolve problems, to resolve conflicts, to negotiate. Keep thinking how do both parties come out of this.
(19) Another idea that I wanted to put into the mix is the third element of PQ. This is about interdependence. It’s about having your success to some degree depending on somebody. It is about being able to give up control and letting other people get involved in what you’re doing.
(20) So that’s not just the customer. It’s also talking about when you’ve got a team involved. When we have a bigger, more sophisticated sales lots of folk get involved. We’ve got to make sure that we are comfortable with and can deal with it.
Before we can move on to number four I will point out that I’m just talking these sequentially, but for me, they all knit together or are much part and parcel of each other.
(21) Next we have self-disclosure and feedback. This is being clear and having a constant exchange of information. It’s giving customers information about yourself, is telling them about you, let them know what your expectations are. (22) It is also feeding back to them when they’re not helping you to help them. Too often, salespeople with a strong relationship focus, get worried about what they say that to the customer might upset them. It’s not a good thing to avoid that discussion, it’s actually it’s a better thing to do. It’s a stronger thing to do and ultimately people would respect that. The ability to be able to say to a customer, ‘Hey, look, you’re not helping me here’, ‘That’s not the right thing for you to do’, or even ‘I think you might make a mistake with that, it isn’t the best way to go’. Is something that will help us in a more modern, collaborative style of selling.
(23) Getting feedback about ourselves is of course also key to continually developing and improving
(24) The fifth element of PQ is comfort with change. Salespeople are change agents. We are selling change. Aren’t we all about challenging the status quo for people? Pretty much. So, it’s about doing different things, doing them differently. If we’re going to be wanting to get people to do that, we’ve got to be comfortable with ourselves. (25) Understanding the change curve is useful for doing that.
(26) The last element is future orientation. This is about looking forward. It’s about knowing what our common goals working with a customer are It is about thinking how can we make sure that we’re deciding on things based about where we’re going not necessarily on where we have been. We know that decisions can often be made looking backwards and we can get those ‘I didn’t work before’, or ‘Oh yeah we tried that’. But with so much change, with so much happening now, being able to look forward and think about things in the future tense makes a lot of sense
For the next ideas I’m going to briefly introduce the VALUE framework. This is in my book and give a way of applying the PQ and using modern selling best practice.
(27) The V stands for Validate. The maxim of this is it takes two to tango. Yeah. We’ve got to make sure that we are working with right customer. This is all about qualification. It’s using templates and thinking about the various criteria that would need to be ticked and, and making sure that that opportunities makes sense.
A big thing in salespeople often don’t do well is qualifying out. That is understanding that an potential opportunity isn’t really a good one. We might say, look, it’s not even worth it. (28)That is a skills in itself
(28) We don’t have to get straight into the sales conversation to work out whether we’ve got a potential, but we can move on to the, A of VALUE for Align. Alignment is about doing your homework. It’s about understanding the customer and understanding what’s important to them thinking about where we can potentially add value with what we can do. Also how are they going to make that decision? And how can we work with them for help that? What we’re seeing in modern selling is that recognising people’s buying process is really, really important.
(29) Sales is not something we do to somebody we’ve got to fit in in the way in which they operate. We might be able to take more of a control of this, so that we can guide them through it. We can help by leading them, which again is very much a modern sales approach
(30) A salesperson can be far more effective if they know how customers make a decisions and who’s involved. Gartner statistics are saying that every year, the number of people involved in decision-making is increasing. Four years ago, they were talking about 5.6 people. It went up to * a eight and the numbers last year were 11 people.
(31) Today, with the current climate whether those people who’ve got something to say about our sales are going to go up or down is really interesting. I think in some cases there might be more people involved as we get more legal or financial wanting to understand what is happening. I’ve also read about people being given more decision making responsibility and spend. It’s like organisations are saying ‘We need to do something. We need to do things fast. Get on with it’. Whichever way it is, we need to do our homework
(32) Let’s move on to the L of Leverage. This is about going and having those good conversations. Earlier I outlined AIDA structure (attention interest, desire, action) we could use to understand and to help customers understand how we can work together.
(33) When there is potential to add value, that here’s good benefit for them, then move into the U for Underpin element. Underpinning is about supporting. This involves a number of skills and preparing salespeople to write proposals and deliver those in presentations. Nowadays this includes as with other parts of the framework working well virtually (34)
(35) E is for Evolve, which is how we can grow the relationship. How we can keep things moving forward. We want to deliver an excellent customer experience which is why customer success management for me is also a very interesting developing area where we can also extract learning and best practice from
In summary to be successful in selling today we can take good solid sales best practice that already exist. We can take the elements of PQ, Partnering Skills. And we can bringing them together. That is what the VALUE framework works really well to do.
If you want to discuss further how you can equip yourself or you team with a modern approach to selling, please get in touch.
Fred Copestake is founder of Brindis, a sales training consultancy.
Over the last 22 years he has travelled round the world 14 times visiting 36 countries to work with over 10,000 salespeople.
His book ‘Selling Through Partnering Skills’ looks at the evolving world of sales and sets out what salespeople need to do to refine their approach. It explores how to take things to the next level through understanding partnering intelligence and using the innovative VALUE Framework.