After nine years of working with companies on sales messaging, I have found the number one inhibitor to salespeople articulating value is they don’t create enough contrast between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of owning their product. And when salespeople fail to make the contrast feel concrete, customers can’t see the value, so it just feels like magic.
Salespeople, for instance, fail to create contrast when they only offer superficial reasons to change such as the customer’s current system lacks timeliness or is prone to error. And, when you ask salespeople what they mean by the customer’s system lacks timeliness, they push back, because they don’t have an explanation. You discover they may have product knowledge, but only limited knowledge of their customers.
Without clearly articulating ‘the hell if the customer doesn’t buy their product,’ the salesperson hasn’t set up the need for ‘the heaven if the customer does buy their product.’ Without setting up a clear contrast, salespeople are just trying to rescue customers who are only ankle deep in problems. As a result, customers stick with the status quo or they buy at a discount, because they don’t see the value of change. With 42% of B2B sales opportunities ending in no decision, selling change is a big part of articulating value.
Customers are not ready to believe in the viability of the salesperson’s product until they realise they are out in the middle of the lake drowning in problems. This will only happen when the salesperson makes the contrast feel tangible by making it concrete. Otherwise, the contrast is abstract; it doesn’t feel real. The salesperson is just asking the customer to take his or her word that the product creates value. It’s like magic in a fairy tale.
To sell change, the salesperson must specifically show how the customer’s current system/platform/product isn’t working optimally today. Once the customer can see this, it’s easy for them to understand how they can improve their results with the salesperson’s product. What was once imaginary becomes reality, because the customer can picture it in their head.
Naturally, salespeople first try to make their message general because they believe it will then appeal to a wider audience. What they find is it appeals to no one, because it’s abstract. However, when the before word picture is specific and concrete, the customer may say their situation is slightly different, but at least they get it. It’s counterintuitive that the universality of the salesperson’s message is found in the specificity of the “before” picture.
For example, I was working with a salesperson who wanted to encourage a client to move their Learning Management System from their ERP system to the cloud. The salesperson first attempt at articulating the ‘hell if they don’t move to the cloud’ was: “innovation had made Ellen’s corporate Learning Management System out of step with how employees expected to consume information, because she only received quarterly updates three times a decade when the ERP system was updated.” But I couldn’t picture in in my head how the Learning Management System was out of step with how employees expect to consume information. So I asked the salesperson to be more concrete by providing a specific example, and she said: “To access a course, for example, employees had to click on a link that would then take them to the homepage for learning, only to then be forced to search through a maze of information for the required course. No wonder drop offs were so high.” Although this specific example may be different for the targeted customer, at least they can now visualize the problem, and retrieve their own example of how their current system hinders their results today.
So, if you want your salespeople to make the value of your product feel real, instead of like magic, ask them to share a customer story highlighting one of your unique capabilities. Because a customer story presents a clear before and after picture of owning your product, if it is out of focus, the knowledge gaps of your salespeople will be exposed. The picture, for example, will be vague: 1) when they gloss over the before picture, and then prematurely rush to rescue the customer with your product, or 2) when they fail to make the before picture real by specifically showing how the customer’s current system/platform/product isn’t working today. If you can’t picture it clearly in your head, it will feel like magic to the customer.
This narrative approach avoids flabby thinking. The CEO of Amazon adopted it “because the narrative structure… forces better thought and better understanding… Power point style presentations somehow give permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.”
If your salespeople are not providing context, then aren’t they just presenting your product and hoping that the customer can figure out how they will use it, or even worse, care?
Imagine if selling was so simple that all you had to do was create five to ten top stories, and then have your salespeople deliver them to engage customers better and drive more sales. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for the following three reasons: 1) every customer is slightly different, so the salesperson must adapt the stories to suit the customer’s unique situation; 2) salespeople are more likely to adopt new sales messaging if they are involved in creating it, and; 3) salespeople need to know what a bad story is before they can appreciate a good story.
To help your salespeople better articulate value, we suggest you split your salespeople up into five to eight groups to create and then deliver customer stories. The group can then hear a story that pops, one that flops, and a few in the middle. Once your salespeople learn how to brainstorm on how they can improve each other’s stories, the quality of the edited stories will improve by at least two times. But more important, when one flops, you will see the group physically recoil in disgust, because they have internalized what good feels like.
So imagine what would happen if you could double the ability of your salespeople to articulate value? Could you then increase sales? According to a survey by SiriusDecision, sales leaders for the past four years in a row have said that the number one barrier preventing salespeople from achieving quota is their inability to articulate value. And, according to a recent survey of executive buyers by Gartner, customers agree. Only 34% of executive buyers, for example, feel that salespeople can articulate value, because most of them talk too much about their product. The survey concludes that salespeople will better articulate value when they talk less about their product and instead share customer stories. Seventy percent of these executive buyers, for example, felt that “customer stories and case studies are the best way that providers can communicate differentiation that I trust.” These customer scenarios also help counteract customer biases (see article “The Status Quo- Why Customers Deviate From Rational Economic Behavior”).
With so much riding on your sales team’s ability to articulate value, ask yourself if your salespeople can make the value of your product feel real, or does it sound like magic to the customer?