Controlling the Nonlinear Sales Conversation

As much as we have come to describe the sales conversation (or buying process) as linear, it is nonlinear. Our slide decks that show pictures of boxes that start on the left side with target, finishing on the right with the sale complete. Deals do not often proceed as such, many times going forward only to later retrace ground you have already covered.

Because this is true, managing the process is critical, and that outcome allows for an agile, dynamic process for an equally dynamic conversation.

Go Backwards to Go Forward

A new entrant to the conversation shows up after you have done good discovery work with the contracts with whom you have been working. This new stakeholder has missed out on the entire discovery process, and even though you asked who else might need to be part of this process, no one mentioned this person’s name. But now they are involved.

Depriving this person of the chance to participate in discovery opens up the genuine possibility that you will leave out of your solution the very thing they need to agree to move forward. To go forward, you are going to go backward first. Even though you believe this is going to take more time, the investment of time here is better than a faster path to a loss.

Serve Stakeholders Where They Are without Giving Up Commitments

Some salespeople refuse to even discuss pricing without first doing the deep discovery work they believe allows them to create enough value to justify the investment they require. Others refuse to talk about solutions, resisting answering questions until they gain context. But one size fits all approaches to sales aren’t as useful as being able to focus on winning the right commitments while being flexible in your approach.

You will find prospects further ahead in the process than you wish they were. They may buy what you sell frequently enough to have definite ideas of what they need, what they want, and what they need from a potential partner. You may have been taught to qualify prospects without ever being informed that they are sometimes qualifying you.

You take clients where you find them, which is to say, you may have to answer questions before you earn the right to go back and pick up some of the commitments you still need your prospect to make and keep, like collaborating, building consensus, and reviewing potential solutions.

Proposing Next Steps That Advance the Initiative

Managing the process will almost invariably require you to propose what next steps are necessary for you and your prospect to do your best work together. There are some who would tell you that you must follow your prospective client’s lead, fearing that doing anything other being compliant puts the opportunity you are pursuing at risk—even though your obligation to your client is to do what’s right, even if it means you have to deal with some small conflict, and even if it makes you and your client uncomfortable.

If you want to be consultative, you have to do what is right, not what is easy. You need to do your best to control the process, at least as it pertains to doing all the things necessary to succeed in helping your client—and in doing so, winning their business. Even if it isn’t a straight line, you need key moving forward, even if not in the optimal order.

The process may be nonlinear, but that doesn’t mean you should give up doing what’s right. It means you need to more flexible in your approach, more aware of what you still need to do for and with your clients and to propose next steps that move you both forward together.

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