The Sales Blog Interview: Jill Konrath and SNAP Selling (Part One)

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jill Konrath of Selling to Big Companies about her excellent new book SNAP Selling. Before you dig into this interview, there are a few things you should know.

First, Jill is highly engaged and highly engaging as an interviewee; she doesn’t hold back any ideas. You are going to want to jot down some notes as to how you can take action on some of what she says.

Second, we talked for some time, so this is a super long interview. I’ll post half today, and I will post the other half tomorrow. I promise there is more than you can easily digest in a single sitting anyway.

ANTHONY: One sales principle that all of us strive for, and we talk about it all of the time, is understanding our customer’s business. Your book is the first book that I’ve read that addresses the actual personal stress and anxiety that our client’s feel as part of understanding their business and how we bring value to that. So, my first question is what brought you that idea? What captured your attention there? Where did you see that these people that we’re pursuing, that part of the business problem that we’re actually helping them with is the stress, the amount of difficulty in managing change, and how frazzled they are, what brought you to that?

JILL: Well I think there are a lot of things that brought me to it. I think from the first point I saw it in my own customers. I deal mostly with the VP of Sales and they were hard to get in touch with, and they never returned my calls. I would have to pursue them to get in touch with them about things that we’d already agreed to do, their attention span was really limited, they had a difficult time paying attention, and they were distracted easily. Something that was a priority today suddenly changed as an issue came up with their new product launch.

They were just shifting on me constantly, and it was hard to hold on to my customers and my prospects along that journey. Then I started opening up and realized I was feeling the same way. At that point I realized that this is an issue. This is the elephant in the room that nobody is dealing with. This isn’t just my customers; it’s not just me. It’s a fact that in our country right now people are under such pressure to get more done in less time with fewer resources. I think it’s been exacerbated by what’s been happening in the economy recently.  But I also think that this is the lean mentality that organizations have right now, and so it’s not going to change.

So, all that was happening and at the same time there were barriers to getting in. I mean in voice mail, in email, and people could delete you in a nanosecond. You could be in meetings with people they would be on their Blackberry going through their email at the same time. I could see this crazy busyness everywhere I turned, and suddenly I went: “This is a primary issue we’re dealing with.” Even if it would be a good idea for these people to make a change to help their business, they’re not making that change because they’re too busy to do it.

ANTHONY: I love the fact that we talk about empathy and emotional intelligence, and we talk about what skills we bring as sales people; that empathy really starts with walking a mile in their shoes and understanding their challenges. You really hit that nail on the head directly.

Early in the book you suggest that sales people need to deal with well-educated buyers as business improvement specialists. That’s an idea that’s near and dear to my heart. I write and I speak about business acumen all the time because I believe that  it’s one of the primary characteristics that lead to success now, and that it is sort of underrated and not discussed or talked about as much as it should be. It seems to be important to sales, and it’s a big part of your SNAP principles.  So can you share with me your thoughts on business acumen, how sales people develop that business acumen, and how important that is in succeeding in sales now?

JILL: Well, I just like to go the end point first. It’s absolutely critical for succeeding in sales because without business acumen you bring no value to the equation. The reality is that our decision makers, our prospects today, are well aware that there are a gazillion other alternatives out there right now and that we’re not the only game in town. So, if they’re looking at working with you or me, they’re literally saying “does the person I’m talking to bring value to the equation?” You’re the one that they’re having to deal with all the time and so they’re saying, “Would I pay $500 to meet with this person, or does she or he waste my time?” Unless you personally bring value with ideas and insights and information that can help them run their marketing department better or speed up things in their production line, unless you can bring things to them, they can do business with somebody who is cheaper and they know it.

So, it becomes an imperative for sellers today to focus on their own personal education. And while I’d love to think that companies would train people on this, I don’t see that companies are investing nearly enough in their sales force today to do this. Rather than complain “we don’t get trained on business acumen in our company,” I think that the seller really needs to look and say “it is my job to be smart about this business and to learn who my customers are, to find out what’s going on in their operation, to understand what their current status quo is and what are the ramifications with living with the status quo.”

There are numerous ways that a seller can self educate and realistically you can learn awful lot 90 days–if you set that as a goal. I mean you can go and start researching your buyers. You can find out what the VP’s of Marketing are interested in. You can talk with your customers. You can interview your customers and you can say: “You know I haven’t worked with VP’s of Marketing before, and I’d really like to learn more about your job.” You can self-educate there by asking them questions.

You can talk to your peers and find out what is really going on with these customers. What are the trends in the industry? You can go onto blogs online and look up what the issues are that these people are facing, where the market is shifting to, and what they are all trying to accomplish.

So a serious self-education program of about 90 days can give you conversational expertise that allows you to have a valuable conversation with your customers—one that isn’t just focused on your products or services. You can focus on how they are currently doing things, where they really would like to go, what are their goals and objectives, and what are the barriers to getting there? I don’t think enough salespeople understand that this their job; I think they still believe it is their job to sell their product or service. The truth of the matter is, they will sell their product or service much more easily if they become the expert that their customers need them to be.

ANTHONY: It’s interesting because what I hear you saying, and what I hear in your voice as you say this, is something that I have written about in the past and had people disagree with me on not only their own blog, but also in the comments on mine. I had written that it isn’t your company’s job to develop you or to professionally develop you; they hired you, and it’s your job to create value. That means you have to take that responsibility for yourself.

I agree with you that you can do a lot in 90 days. If it means you go to the community college to take course on spreadsheets or on understanding business finance. It’s your responsibility to do that if you really want to succeed in sales. I do believe that business acumen is the real differentiator that many salespeople are missing to succeed where they are failing now. I like your approach to that; it’s their personal responsibility. In 90 days they could develop some of that.

JILL: They could develop an awful lot of that in 90 days. If you’d set yourself on a crash course to really learn about the industry that you are in and what people are doing in the types of customers you are calling on, you can learn a lot. If you are willing to invest the time beyond the normal working hours that you’re allotted, and say “This is my career! I can either be good at it, or I can be average.” Twenty percent of the people out there are good. The bell curve is really skewed to the top twenty percent. Eighty percent of the people are out there on the edge; they’re not going to make it or they are going to barely make it.

The choice becomes, do you want to be the eighty percent who every month is saying “Am I going to make quota? God, I hope I make quota.” Or are you going to be that twenty percent that invests that extra time to develop the expertise that you need to consistently be able to meet your quota and excel in your position.

ANTHONY: If you break it down into days, an hour a day is 90 hours. If you study anything for 90 hours you will develop a conversational expertise that will translate to value for both your company and your customers. I think that’s a great recipe for success.

JILL: I think it’s an incredible recipe. Imagine the difference in just this simple question. If you ask: “What are the biggest problems you are facing?” That’s a sales question. It’s good to know and you should be asking that. However, look at the difference in this question: “In working with other companies like yours, one of the key problems they are facing is ‘this.’ How big an issue is that with you?” Suddenly, it’s a whole different question, and it positions you differently, because you’ve woven your expertise into the question. This lifts you up from the decision-makers perspective. They think: “This guy knows a lot,” or “This gal is really smart.”

Or you could take your reading and say: “I was just reading about the trends in the industry in article today by Anthony, and it mentioned that one of the key trends in sales today is that sellers need to be experts. What are you doing to help your own sales force become experts in this arena?” You can weave what you read into the question, and it positions you differently. But if you just go in and say: “How are you training your salespeople?” That’s just asking an overview question. It’s not meaty. A good question has content that precedes the question; the expertise sets up the question, and you are viewed fundamentally differently.

Stay tuned! Part two will posted tomorrow!

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