Perhaps the most respected voice of all time in sales is SPIN Selling author Neil Rackham. John and I were honored to have him write the foreword for Insight Selling. It's a great commentary on the state of and changes occurring in the world of modern sales. We hope you find it as insightful as we did. Without further ado...
A mixed blessing of my job is that I get to review a lot of sales books. Roughly once a week I receive a manuscript from a hopeful author or publisher, asking me for comments and feedback. Of course, what they are really asking for is a rave review that will help the book sell.
Reading all these expectant winners, looking for good things to say, can be a challenging task. I'm often tempted to reply with the comment often, but wrongly, attributed to Samuel Johnson: "Your work is both good and original. Unfortunately the parts that are good are not original, and the parts that are original are not good."
On the plus side, it does mean that I see a lot of ideas before they become public and I get a good sense of current trends in sales thinking. On the downside, for every book that I can honestly endorse, I kiss a whole pondfull of literary frogs.
I ask you to forgive me a moment's bitching if I pick out a particularly unhelpful trend in many of these about-to-become-best-selling business books, especially those in sales, that use what I call the Armageddon selling formula.
The approach goes something like this: "Everything you've ever learned about sales is wrong and, unless you stop doing it instantly, your sales efforts will shortly die in agony. There is, however, one simple cure that I have discovered. It is . . ." and here the author puts in a pitch for the appropriate magic bullet, such as "my prospecting method," "my selection system," "our funnel management process," or "our trademarked social media analytics"—take your pick.
The reason why I mention the Armageddon formula for writing a best seller is that Mike Schultz and John Doerr's new book is mercifully free of it.
They go out of their way to show that many, if not most, of the skills, knowledge, and selling methods we have learned over the years will continue to matter in the future. Admittedly our present ways of doing things will need to be refocused and retuned to align them with the rapidly changing sales world, but existing methods are not outdated and are certainly not useless. Our present processes and procedures are a robust base on which we can build better selling for the future.
That's an unusual message in a world where most sales books and sales gurus tell you to start by throwing out everything.
The Armageddon approach to sales doesn't help anyone. When, for example, a serious journal like the Harvard Business Review publishes an article titled "The End of Solution Sales," it damages the credibility of all involved. The sales field has been growing up nicely in recent years: It can live without this kind of overstatement. As Schultz and Doerr point out, solution selling (or consultative selling, as I prefer to call it) isn't dead or finished; it just needs to adapt to the new sales world. They set out a convincing road map for how to achieve this.
The majority of experienced salespeople would agree that a lot of our existing wisdom is good while readily admitting that some things have become outdated and must change. That should not be, in itself, a controversial issue. The hard part, as Insight Selling explains, is deciding what to keep, what to change, and what to discard.
Take relationships, for example.
The traditional wisdom has long taught that relationship building is the foundation of all business-to-business selling and much of consumer selling, too. However, particularly since the publication of The Challenger Sale in 2011, the Armageddon enthusiasts have been widely putting it about that relationships have become unimportant and that relationship selling is in its death throes. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.
What has changed is the way customers form relationships. In the past, the sequence was for salespeople to build the relationship first and then to sell. Today few customers have the time or the inclination to build relationships before the sale. Instead, the relationship is the reward that customers give to salespeople who have created value for them.
So, the sale comes first and the relationship building starts from there. That’s very different from the Armageddon selling position that relationships are unimportant, just because they are no longer built in the same way before the first sale.
Schultz and Doerr lay out a convincing case for which parts of current practice must change and which need gentle retuning to work better in the new selling world. They base their recommendations on research and, better still for me, on the kind of research design I like.
Too much sales research rests on the black-versus-white methodology of comparing extremes. So, top performers are compared with poor, good practice with bad, successful companies with unsuccessful. In my experience this method reveals much more about failure than about success.
Give me research any day that compares winners with those who almost won. That’s how you learn about those all-important little extras that separate those who make it to the top.
In testing the models and recommendations in Insight Selling, the authors have used a research design that separates the winners from those who came in a close second. I like that, and I like that they based their research on customers rather than on salespeople. Too many sales models, even today, are about how we want to sell rather than how our customers want to buy.
The model that they propose is fairly simple—again, music to my ears. Most of the books I review rest on deplorably complicated models. I asked one author why she needed a 14-step process in her book. "Because it's nearer to reality," she responded. "Anything less than that would be a simplification."
For her, the best test of a useful model was how close it came to the real world—and most people who haven't given the issue much thought would probably say the same. I believe otherwise. If the real world was that great, we wouldn't need models; we'd just use reality directly. The sad fact is that the real world is noisier, messier, and far more complicated than we can handle. That’s why we need models. The perfect model simplifies reality but retains validity.
The authors of Insight Selling explain their research on what sets the winners apart through a three-step model.
Level 1 of the model is connect. It explains how winners have a different way to link customers, products, and solutions.
Level 2 of the model is convince. It shows how the winners do a better job of differentiating, showing return, and—for my mind, an undervalued set of sales skills—handling the customer’s perceived risks.
Level 3 of the model is collaborate. It covers how the winners educate with new ideas and perspectives, set shared goals, invest in customer success, and create a customer perception of working as partners.
Within this mercifully simple framework, you'll read detailed reasons for why some salespeople win while others come in a close second.
Also, you’ll probably find, as I did, that you’ll sometimes kick yourself, remembering sales where you came so close and how, if you'd just done that one thing differently, you could have walked off with the prize. And you’ll find yourself thinking, "Ah, yes! That explains it!" Equally valuable, this book will give you insights into those times when you came in first but didn’t quite know why.
Either way, you stand to learn something useful from Insight Selling.
Executive Professor of Professional Selling
University of Cincinnati
Excerpted with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Insight Selling: Surprising Research on What Sales Winners Do Differently by Mike Schultz and John E. Doerr © 2014 by RAIN Group.