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5 Secrets To Better Sales Engagement: An Interview With Dave Stein


Dave Stein, CEO of ES Research Group, Inc., and Stefan Gass, CMO of Tellwise, recently discussed how to help sales reps adapt to today’s new reality of “highly informed” buyers in complex sales. Formerly a leading sales consultant and sales trainer, Stein has years of experience teaching sales reps how to drive sales engagement and gain leverage with buyers during the sales process.

Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Stefan Gass: What are the top challenges that you see sales reps face today?

Dave Stein: Well, depending on the sales rep, the company they work for, the industry that they sell into, the customers they sell to, and the competitors they sell against, those challenges differ. One thing that we see at ES Research is the tremendous need for differentiation.

I think it probably started with Wal-Mart, when their business strategy was to be the lowest cost retailer. To do that, they significantly reduced the number of suppliers that they had.

When the economic crisis hit in 2008 and many boards of directors were trying to figure out how they’re going to make it through, they realized that they weren’t going to be able to have much of an impact on topline revenues. They decided that they had to do everything they could to hold back on costs and expenses. Some smart folks said, “Hey, why don’t we think about doing what Wal-Mart did?”

What we started to see is the tremendous move toward commoditization. Buyers will try to eliminate from consideration any unique value that you have.

Sales reps feel it when buyers tell them that they could buy what that salesperson is selling from any one of 10 other people, so give me your lowest price. This is something that they face nearly every day. That is certainly what’s most important on their mind. 

The challenge then becomes “How do I break out of that commoditization? How do I differentiate myself?” In many cases, it’s impossible. Sales experts work with companies on specific opportunities. We scratch our heads and the smoke comes out of our ears from thinking so much. Sometimes there’s just no way to overcome that.

We do know that the value sale enables salespeople to break through that idea of commoditization. Talk to the customer about how that salesperson’s solution, their software, can help the customer accomplish their business goals.

The customer has a set of goals they have to hit. They’ve got to sell X, Y, Z, millions or billions of products or services. The customers also have a bunch of challenges. The salesperson has to go in there and very specifically show the customer how their product or services are going to help that customer make their goals. That is the proven path to offset commoditization.

The second, third and fourth points are leads, leads, leads.

I recently spoke at a sales and marketing conference in Boston. We had a room full of nearly 200 chief marketing officers. The subject was thought leadership; how companies can become thought leaders. Because they’re marketing folks, most of the discussion was around marketing.

I was invited to be the sole speaker on the sales side, but I sat through two-thirds of the day hearing some very knowledgeable folks talk about leads and how those leads are created. There’s no question in anybody’s mind that these days it is leads that salespeople need.

We’re not expecting salespeople to make their own outbound calls. There has to be some serious, strategic function within a company that’s going to leverage all of the different tools, whether it’s social selling, inbound marketing or event marketing. The top challenge of sales reps is that they just don’t have enough leads.

Stefan Gass: Companies are doing a lot of their research before they even talk to a sales rep. It used to be they would be 20 percent through the process and they’d reach out to a sales rep. Now, they’re maybe 50 percent of the way to a decision before they ever talk to a sales rep. The time that a sales rep has to develop a relationship and work with a prospect is considerably compressed. Are you seeing that change sales?

Dave Stein: It’s not so much that they’re 50 percent of the way to a decision; it’s just that they’re starting much earlier to do their own research. They’re using social communities. They’re talking with peers. They are speaking with salespeople from vendor organizations, but what they really want is access to those salespeople’s subject matter experts. It’s all about the thought leaders within those vendor companies. They can guide the buyers as to what they should be thinking about and what they should be considering in order to go forward with the buying process.

I don’t want to suggest in any way that things are the same as they used to be. The fact is that all of this information is available on the Internet. I think we were all under the misimpression that companies were actually waiting until 50 or 60 or 70 percent of all their work was done before they picked up the phone.

That seems to be not the case at all. It may be 30 or 40 percent, but it’s not 70 percent. In fact, good salespeople with a good marketing organization who have a good presence on the Internet and who can be found easily and readily and are able to provide credible and valuable information to potential buyers at the various stages of the buying process can be invited in ahead of their competitors. That’s really where we want to be.

If we were competing in the same market with the same general products, and I had a significant thought leadership presence on the Internet and you were just doing a few minor marketing things, the likelihood is that I would be called in so I could bring my subject matter expert with me.

Again, they really don’t want me, the sales rep; they want access to my subject matter expert. That’s what’s going on out there. I now feel very secure in saying that sales reps can still get in earlier than we thought, but yet not as early as they did two to four years ago.

Stefan Gass: We’re hearing a lot about how important it is to have the right sales assets. Are you blogging? Do you have white papers? Do you have videos? Are you using content or sales assets to educate? Is that something that you see creating a competitive edge?

Dave Stein: I recently spoke with the person in charge of branding at a major global consulting organization. They spent a fortune enabling their salespeople to track the links that prospects click on their website, so they could build a profile for that person as to what their interests are and, literally, serve up articles, blog posts, white papers and other downloadable thought leadership tools, depending on the path that those people took through the website.

There’s a very, very engineered approach that these advanced marketing organizations have now, to nurture buyers in whatever stage of the buying process they’re in. They’re looking much deeper into a website than ever before and it’s becoming more of a science than an art.

The kind of marketing automation solutions that are out there today are becoming more and more refined and more and more valuable, so that when marketing passes a marketing qualified lead over to sales, the salesperson not only gets the name and the email address, potentially the phone number; the sales rep now gets an understanding of where that person has been. Their digital path, the number of times that this person has hit this site, how much time they spent on each page, so that salesperson never has to ask the question, “How can I help you?” Or “What is it that you’re looking for?” But rather begin the conversation with, “It’s my understanding that you’re most interested in the kinds of services we have for data centers for bank transactions.”

These tools help a salesperson to build credibility. It allows them to differentiate themselves with the competition because of their greater knowledge of that customer and the kinds of information that the customer was looking for. The selling organization is much more tooled to deliver the right answers to that person once they talk to them. That really will give them a competitive advantage, potentially shortens the sales cycle and helps offset issues like commoditization.

I think we’re only at the very early stages of how marketing can really begin to help salespeople sell much more effectively and much more efficiently.

Stefan Gass: You touched on technology solutions and how they’re improving and supporting sales engagement. Are you seeing more use of technology in sales?

Dave Stein: Absolutely. There’s a whole other set of tools — sales enablement tools — that salespeople can and should be using to help them optimize the selling process. There are products that enable a salesperson to understand what the buyer’s decision criteria are; where that sales rep may have an advantage or disadvantage; how long they have been at a certain stage of a typical sales cycle; whether they’re moving quickly with higher velocity or whether that opportunity may be slowing down.

There’s no question that smart selling organizations are using technology to provide salespeople with more information about the people and industry that they’re selling to, best practices, who are the leaders, who are the laggards, what industry analysts are saying, etc.

Stefan Gass: I wanted to move a little bit away from technology now and look at other tips that you’d offer on ways to improve sales engagement.

Dave Stein: There are three things that are very important. These three points have not changed in, literally, a dozen or two dozen years. One of the reasons why they haven’t changed is just that very few companies have taken the big steps and made the big investments to give their sales teams, the training, the tools, the process, the reinforcement, the support, the coaching, and the analytics and measurements, in order to have that behavioral change and sustain it.

First, it’s about getting up to speed and demonstrating financial acumen. If I’m selling something and I can look the CFO in the eye and say to him or her, “This is the impact that this solution, if implemented properly, as we have been doing with companies for a dozen years, will have on your P&L, balance sheet, cash flow statement, earnings per share,” in real financial terms. That will differentiate that salesperson and that sales team from whoever they are selling against because not enough companies are doing it.

What we’re telling salespeople is that when they’re selling complex solutions where there’s an evaluation committee or a group of people — it might be two, it might be 20 — they need to have that financial acumen.

Second, it’s about politics. This is something that not enough companies have figured out. Not enough companies have taken the time to learn and provide that learning and support to their salespeople. We want salespeople to learn how politics affects customer evaluation, committee dynamics and decision-making.

I’ve gotten quite a bit of applause when I’ve talked about the personal animosity that sometimes exists among members of an evaluation team and a sales rep or a sales team. A sales team has to understand those dynamics, how politics work and who is privy to what information. Who has influence beyond the title on their business card?

The third one is a little more subtle. Salespeople feel like they’re lower in business status than the people that they’re selling to. They feel like if a customer says, “Click your heels, jump up three times and salute,” that they have to do that or else they’ll be excluded from consideration. What we know is that salespeople have a lot of information. Buyers will seek salespeople out because they want to get access to their subject matter experts.

If somebody came to me and said, “Dave, I was on your website and put in a query. We want a subject matter expert to come out to Pittsburgh and talk to us about what they’re seeing. We happened to see your colleague Fred Jones’ blog. We heard Fred Jones is one of your subject matter experts and we heard him speak at an interesting conference. We want to get Fred Jones out here.” If I say, “Absolutely, no question. What’s better, next Tuesday or Wednesday?” I have squandered a terrific opportunity, not only to build a mutually respectful and mutually value-oriented relationship, but I’ve squandered an opportunity as a salesperson to either get access to people that I may want to get access to or to gather information.

We believe that bartering — trading resources for information or access — is another underutilized capability that salespeople can use to improve sales engagement.

Instead, I should call you and say, “Thanks for the inbound. Your name came up. What can we do for you?” You say, “Look, I know that Fred Jones is your subject matter expert. Heard him speak, want to get him out here.” My answer to you should be something like, “That is certainly something that could be considered; however, before we can get to that point, the following things have to happen.” What are those things? I’m going to want to know about your project, your budget, your time frame, your requirements, who’s calling the shots, what department it is. I’m willing to leverage Fred and have him come out there, but I’m not going to do that unless I’ve gotten from you enough for me to be able to not only qualify this opportunity, but potentially get the upper hand against my competition.

Stefan Gass: Are there other ways you see sales reps maximizing their time with prospects?

Dave Stein: Yes, I think most people have heard it before, but the days of meeting a customer and saying, “Tell me about your business,” or the old one, “What keeps you up at night?” are so over. The way to maximize time with a customer is to be able to walk in and say, “Look, I’m just going to take one minute here. I just want to make sure that I have an understanding, at least from my perspective, of where you are. My understanding is the following is true.” Then you list their business challenges and goals. “Do I have that about right?”

One, it proves that you’ve done your research. Two, it shows you’re reasonably intelligent, and three, you don’t want to waste the customer’s time. The response I want from that is, “Wow, you’ve really done your homework,” or “That third point that you made isn’t exactly right, but the rest of it is great. What question can I answer for you?”

That’s really what you want. You want to eliminate talking about the main, basic information. You should really move into that second or third level of information, where you’re asking the customer important questions relating to their needs.

Every department has a plan. They’ve got to drive X number of new customers, X amount of revenue, get X number of widgets out the door or reduce customer attrition by Y; whatever that business plan says for that department. The sooner that salesperson starts to talk about that and how that can be achieved, and how that salesperson’s other customers have already achieved that, that’s when a valuable conversation takes place. That’s when that salesperson begins to differentiate themselves from the competition and begins to eliminate that commodity focus that I talked about earlier.

Stefan Gass: So you move from being a salesperson into being a trusted advisor to the business.

Dave Stein: Yes, absolutely. That phrase is valid. Listen, you think about trust, the word “trust.” Trust has two components; it has competence and it has integrity. I could be someone who’s extremely competent, but has no integrity. I could be really good at what I do, but lie to you; therefore, I could never be trusted.

I could also be somebody who is extremely honest, the highest integrity, but I have no competence. I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything about your business. I don’t know anything about my solution. I don’t know anything about how problems are solved. I’m worthless, you see?

It’s the combination of having competence, which is knowledge and thought leadership and experience and skill and the ability to be looked at as somebody who’s credible. When you as a salesperson can be looked at somebody with integrity and competence, that’s when you can start going out and selling based on being a trusted advisor.

Want to learn more about how to thrive in today’s complex sales environment? Register for Tellwise’s webinar, “5 Secrets To Better Prospect Engagement,” featuring Dave Stein, CEO of ES Research Group, Inc., and Stefan Gass, CMO of Tellwise,  at 1 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 11.

Register Now!

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