In a previous post, I wrote about the rise of the sales person as entrepreneur. In that post I related some observations of those tenacious and creative sales professionals who raised their game to adjust to these changing and challenging times. Of late, I’ve noticed another trend. It is one that is being driven by fearful and distressed customers looking for guidance as they plot their way through the mire that is the current economy. Manifest in nervousness and anxiety, customers are slow to act. In many cases they’re not sure what they should do, and they’re looking for a vision they can believe in and someone to trust. That next step, which in a different climate might have been viewed as a small step, is now being considered a giant leap. In short, they are looking for their sales person to be more than just a supplier of products or services – they want leadership.
This can be a perilous position for a sales person to take with his (or her) customer. But what may once have been viewed as the rough-edged intervention of an arrogant and domineering sales person, must now become de rigeur for anyone who wants to be tagged as a true partner and sales professional (with added emphasis on the word ‘professional’). The essence of safe navigation through these treacherous waters is to understand the basic tenets of leadership, and why what you have to bring to the table must fit snugly with whatever is already on the customer’s desk.
Successful leaders don’t unilaterally declare their vision. They are rarely the first person to answer a question in a meeting, instead providing space for others to shine, to express opinions, and add value. They are not just self-directed emissaries, employing self-granted plenipotentiary powers, but they are rather custodians of the future, lending their insight, – and yes, their vision – to guide the direction, understand the perspective, and strengthen the resolve of their followers.
Every successful leader is a great sales person. Today, great sales people need to take on the mantle of a leader for their customer. More than ever, it’s now time to help your customer by leading; by focusing on the creation of a shared vision. To do that you’ve got to understand their perspective, the situation as they see it, their business drivers, their business initiatives, and what they view as critical success factors. You must acknowledge the constraints associated with this economy, and through that acknowledgment, determine how value can be delivered. Risk is to the forefront, and your approach must be founded in a vision that is cognizant of that. Frustration borne from slow decision making (by the customer) must disappear.
Sales success has always had a relationship with activity, but today sales people need to resolve to carve out time from the urgent items, and the operational aspects of selling to a customer, to spend time developing a shared vision with their customer. Just because you know what your product has done for another similar customer, doesn’t mean that you know how it will help the next one. Effective sales people as leaders recognize that they are not prescient, and that the vision they must create for their customer must reflect the aspirations of the customer. Customers want to understand now, more than ever, how you can help make their dreams come through. Your job is to communicate an image of the future that’s based on their present.
You should be an expert in your field of activity, and through numerous interactions with many customers, you will develop a level of expertise that’s different to that which the customer develops singularly in his own business. However, rather than just presenting the direction to take (even if it’s absolutely the best path that could be followed) the customer will benefit if you help him, in concert with your development of the shared vision, to understand how the vision had been formulated, and how this particular direction was determined. That way, you walk the walk with your customer, and together arrive at the vision.
Though it may appear counter-intuitive, the best way to get the customer to see the future, and take the first steps towards that destination, is to firmly place the reasoning in the context of his present world, connecting deeply with his fears and aspirations. To succeed in sales today you need to lead, and to lead successfully you need to create a shared vision with your customer, and that only happens when you listen carefully, appreciate his hopes, and together find solutions.