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Sell Like A Change Agent

Your value proposition is meaningless. It’s time to change your message.

Whether you call it value-based selling, feature and benefit selling, or value proposition selling, this sales methodology has severe limitations. This classic form of selling that has served companies so well in the past no longer works. Companies that have successfully relied for years on using this methodology to differentiate themselves from their competition, to translate their value, maintain their margins and prevent commoditization are now finding that it is backfiring. The irony is, what they work so hard to prevent (commoditization), they actually are creating.

A Self-Defeating Methodology
Imagine that you are meeting a prospect for the first time. He asks you, after you’ve done your proverbial chit-chat, to describe what you do, what you sell, what makes you different and why he should buy from you. Specifically, what would be five things that you’d want to tell him about your company that would leave him with a favorable impression about your capabilities? More than likely, you would include some variation of the following:

  1. Quality
  2. Service
  3. Reliability
  4. Expertise
  5. Value/Performance.

To take the example one step further, imagine that you no longer work for that company. You’ve landed a plum job with your biggest and strongest competitor. You have a better compensation package, you’re on a fast track for management, and you now get three weeks of vacation instead of two. Life is good. You’re excited to prove yourself, and to add icing to the cake, you have your former territory. You now go back to your former contact from the first part of this example. Your former client is glad to see you and congratulates you on your new position and for having landed so quickly on your feet. He begins to query you about your new company and your capabilities. When prompted again with the same scenario of “what can you do to help him, what makes you different, why should he buy from you,” what are five things that you would now want to tell this prospect that will leave him with a favorable impression of your new company? He may prompt you by asking, “You know one of the things we really appreciated and valued about XYZ Co. was their fine quality. Do you have good quality?”

You respond, “You bet. It’s one of the reasons I moved over to ABC Co.”

“What about service?” he asks.

You respond again about the company-wide commitment to service and pull out the mission statement to drive your point home. “And how about reliability, expertise and value?” he asks. Since you are a professional, you pull out all the latest industry reports that rate your company #1 in its field for reliability, expertise and value.

In all your excitement to create this truly unique value proposition, what you really have created is a definitive and complete denigration of your value-add. You rehearse chapter and verse the exact value proposition your competitors tout. Because you’ve jumped the gun, you have left the prospect with one differentiator, but unfortunately it is the same differentiator that he will now measure all the competitors on. You guessed it: price.

Becoming a Commodity
The feature and benefit methodology that so many companies over the years have used to great success to differentiate themselves actually makes them look and sound like everyone else and completely marginalizes their value proposition. The reason is, all their competitors are selling the same way. They all sing from the same hymn book and they all unwittingly reduce themselves to a common denominator.

What they don’t realize is customers work very hard to set them up to sell this way. I once presented to a company on this same subject. One of their buyers pulled me aside at the meeting and proceeded to lay out this exact strategy and how it benefited him to get all his suppliers to believe they weren’t different. As soon as they believed that, they all would reduce their prices. His suppliers created a “hall of mirrors” that invalidated and compromised their sales position.

Not only have salespeople commoditized their companies’ value proposition, they also have commoditized themselves. They look and sound like everyone else, and that is why it is so difficult for them to get new accounts, get high-level meetings and have customers respect their time. And why should they, since they don’t bring any true value to the table?

Because we are in the information economy, customers no longer value the traditional information they used to because this information is instantaneously available to them on the Internet, and they are savvier and better-informed themselves.

To counteract this scenario, companies feverishly bring out new products, add new bells and whistles, get ISO-certified, or become Six Sigma only to find out it is eclipsed and copied within a few months, a few weeks, a few days, a few hours.

From where the buyer sits, all salespeople and products look frighteningly similar. As long as we rely on our hallowed dog-and-pony shows, we will be set up to be shot down like ducks in a row. As with certain diseases, the stronger the medicine we use to fight it, the more resistant the disease becomes. Prospects now are resistant to your value pitch.

Retool Your Message
What is the answer? Nothing less than a total retooling of your message and the way you approach the marketplace.

First of all, companies must cease and desist believing that they have a trademark or a corner on the market on quality, reliability, expertise and value. These characteristics only get you invited to the dance. Why spend time touting a value proposition that ends up being the “great equalizer” or a point of parity?

Sales are won and lost in the salesperson’s understanding of the “value gap” that your customer is experiencing. Your job is to get information, not give it. The salesperson who can define the problem most effectively by asking questions that get the customer talking about the value gap will consistently outperform the salesperson with the best solutions. Therefore, you are paid and rewarded for your questions, not your answers.

Your job is to give prospects the freedom to self-discover their problems, consequences, priorities and willingness to act upon them. At the same time, you must assess the likelihood of change and balance it with your own investment cost of acquisition. Your job is to be a change agent: someone who takes a non-selling posture in helping your customer to understand the cost of change. It becomes more important for your prospect to sell himself, and at a more advanced level, to sell you on their motive to buy from you. This is where sales become fun. All the traditional pressure is off you and is transferred to the client. The burden of proof lies with the client.

However, if they are resistant in sharing information about their value gap, here are some questions to get them to open up:

  • You’ve been using XYZ for two years and are happy with your service. Help me understand why you would want to consider changing.
  • Since price is your only motivator to change, and we are never the lowest, do you still want us to quote you (which, by the way, if you are smart, you won’t)?
  • I’m not sure if we can help you specifically or if we are a good fit for your company. Is it okay if we ask each other some questions and determine if it makes sense for us to proceed any further at the end of our meeting? If it doesn’t, would you be comfortable telling me, so that I don’t waste your time any further?

Your job is no longer about selling, presenting, answering objections and closing. Getting “yes” is no longer your mandate. You need to make customers comfortable in making decisions and making “no” a viable and acceptable answer. It takes the pressure off the salesperson to prove his or her case and transfers it to the customer.

You know you have taken selling to an entirely new level when you spend just as much time trying to sell your customer on not changing, staying with the incumbent, and warning them of the pros and cons than just presenting a single-sided, biased case. When they ask you, “Can you help us in this area?” you’ll find yourself saying, “I’m not sure,” and you’ll follow up with additional qualifying questions:

  • How long has it been a problem?
  • What have you done to fix it?
  • In comparison to other important initiatives, how does this stack up?
  • What is at stake for the company?
  • With or without us, how committed are you to making a change?

In order to make this change agent sales methodology work for you, you must transition from a feature and benefit seller to a strategic seller. The objective of your sales call will now be to ask probing questions to understand your customer’s value gap, get the customer to open up and disclose why they might consider changing, and, through skillful questioning, have the customer convince you that they have a problem that they need you to solve. The focus of you as a change agent is to transition from telling and selling to helping customers identify their problems and better understand their consequences.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association

Richard P. Farrell Meet the Author
Richard P. Farrell is vice president of Selling Dynamics LLC, located in Chicago, Illinois, and on the Web at www.sellingdynamics.com.

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