Certainly, the most critical skill for any sales professional is the ability to converse consultatively with potential customers. Unless a salesperson can communicate with a buyer effectively, their chances of closing a sale are practically nil.

How to start an effective sales conversation
After working with hundreds of sales organizations over three decades, we have seen the nature of sales conversations evolve and change dramatically. Increasingly, sellers tell us that buyers deflect or ignore their attempts to start a discussion about their needs. We described reasons for this trend in our book, The Collaborative Sale (Sullivan and Eades, John Wiley & Sons, 2014):
  • Buyers can access more information than ever before, and are not dependent on salespeople to help them research potential solutions to their problems.
  • Most buyers only want to speak with salespeople to validate or refine their emerging visions of potential solutions – therefore, they generally engage with sellers later in the buying process.
  • Buyers only want to speak with experts who can help them formulate an optimal solution – unfortunately, most buyers view sellers only as potential brokers of transactions, not as valuable consultants.

In this age of highly empowered buyers, how can salespeople initiate a sales conversation effectively? What can they do to stimulate buyers’ interest and curiosity, so they want to talk with a seller?

Recognizing the changes in buyer behavior, many organizations have parceled the responsibility for initiating conversations with potential buyers to dedicated business development representatives (BDRs), supported by targeted account-based marketing programs. This strategy can be effective, but our experience with our clients shows that focused marketing and dedicated BDRs usually do not produce enough leads and opportunities to meet all sales goals. Typically, these gaps must be filled by salespeople’s individual efforts to engage with buyers directly to find additional opportunities.

To do this well, sales professionals must first adapt to the present reality, and adjust their behavior to align with current buyer preferences and behavior. This begins by understanding where potential customers are looking for answers. Today, that means participating in relevant social media, in addition to traditional venues, where potential buyers have conversations about their challenges – and to talk with your current customers! Sellers can influence potential buyers in the earliest stages of evaluation by contributing meaningfully to these conversations, by offering expert advice and access to useful information resources.

Providing a provocative point of view

Successful prospecting today requires a focus on stimulating buyer interest and curiosity, not on getting an appointment. Buyers grant the latter only after the former is achieved. To that end, sellers must research their target prospects, develop a hypothesis of how they could create value, and then offer a provocative point of view, based on valid reference data.

Many sellers refer to this as “insight selling”, but that can be misleading. Often, sellers compose “insights” that are little more than generalized statements of possible value, which they hope will cause buyers to question the status quo, and thereby become open to further conversation. But if the statement isn’t relevant to a buyer’s situation, and if it does not cite a credible source, then it will fall flat, and buyers won’t appreciate it.

An effective “provocative point of view” (PPOV) can take many forms, but the most common are:

  • Describing a relevant finding of a recent research study or article, and asking the buyer how they plan to adapt to that issue.
  • Citing the results of a similar customer who addressed a similar business issue to the buyer, and extrapolating the potential value of the solution to the buyer’s situation.
  • Offering a quantitative value proposition based on preliminary understanding of the buyer’s situation, and suggesting validation of the assumptions used.

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