Sources of Power in Sales

The Gist:

  • Gary Klein offers a useful lens to think about your power in a sales conversation.
  • Certain insights are only available to those who have the expertise to acquire them.
  • Use Klein’s model to help you recognize the areas where you can find value-creating insights.

The categories in this post come from Gary Klein’s book, Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. The book is about how people make decisions under pressure, but it also helps clarify what is necessary to an insight-based, modern sales approach. Your brain recognizes patterns, including patterns you may not consciously notice. In fact, because your brain’s primary function is to keep you alive, some pattern recognition must occur in your subconscious mind. Klein discovered what he called “recognition-primed decisions,” in which people act on subconscious pattern recognition, with some even believing they have ESP (extrasensory perception).

We are going to look at these sources of power to explore their value to us as salespeople, as well as the value each source creates for our clients and prospects. These sources, like the insights they generate, only accrue to those who have experience.

Patterns That Novices Don’t Notice

Patterns That Novices Don’t Notice

When you have sold for some time, you start to recognize patterns that you would have missed earlier in your career, when you lacked the experience necessary to see them.

For example, one reason you find yourself far in front of your client when it comes to discovery is because you quickly see a pattern to your client’s actions and needs, one that gives you the information you need to identify how best to help your client improve their results. The trick here is to allow your client to go through the process of discovering what you already know, by slowing down when you realize you are too far in front of them.

Anomalies, Events that Didn’t Happen, or Events that Violate Expectations

Klein tells a lot of stories about firefighters, since they often make decisions under pressure. In one story, a Fire Chief removed his team from a house fire minutes before the floor they were standing on collapsed. Had they not left the house, they would have fallen into the fire in the basement. The Fire Chief had an experience that violated his expectations: the living room was too hot and there was no sound. Fires are loud.

The ability to detect anomalies is a source of power. Recognizing when something deviates from the norm should draw your attention, clashing with your experience and the general pattern you expect. I have a friend who asked me to help him understand why his team was losing deals after being invited to present to their prospective clients. They were losing every deal, even after the clients said nice things about them. At worst, you would expect, say, a twelve percent win rate from an RFP process. One question revealed that it wasn’t what happened in the presentation that lost them every deal—it was what didn’t happen. The salespeople had never called on the client before being invited, so no one sitting across the table had ever met them before they presented.

The Big Picture

Being able to grasp the big picture means that you understand what’s most important and how it will impact other things. In part, you can think of this as recognizing “second-order effects,” or the future consequences for making—or not making—a certain decision.

There are well-recognized examples here, like the client who mistakes the price for the cost and chooses a partner with a low-price delivery model, only to end up with a higher cost structure. The client’s focus on the price alone, a single detail, prevents them from recognizing the bigger picture. Your power in sales lies in helping the client see the big picture, something that requires that you teach your client how to make the best decision for their business and their future results.

I once had a client who was underinvesting in the result they needed. They discounted a large number of factors, preferring to keep their false assumptions. My contact rejected any fact or data that would require him to make a larger investment in the results he needed. I informed him in no uncertain terms that he would be shutting down his business in September, an idea that he found preposterous. In September, he shut down his lines.

The Way Things Work

The Way Things Work

When you have worked in an industry or a profession for a long time, your experience provides you with information and insights about “how things work.” Your recognition includes information about why one decision results in better results while another seemingly logical decision doesn’t produce that same result.

When you know how things work you can create tremendous value for your clients, as they work to make decisions for their business. While your client is almost certain to know more than you about how things work in their industry, you have better pattern recognition about how things work in your industry. In sales, you help your clients by filling in those gaps in their knowledge, especially in the areas where your businesses meet.

Opportunities and Improvisations

Recognizing patterns provides you the ability to see opportunities that others might miss. You will also find that certain patterns allow you to improvise. We tend to think of opportunities as “deals,” but a large part of pursuing a deal is helping your clients recognize opportunities that your experience informs you are available to them. Your ability to see these opportunities provides you with a distinct advantage over those to whom the opportunity is invisible.

In a complex, dynamic, nonlinear conversation about change, the ability to improvise is critical. Both selling and creating better results is like solving a set of challenges, including novel scenarios where no direction is available to you.

Events that Already Happened (the Past) or Will Happen (the Future).

Events that Already Happened (the Past) or Will Happen (the Future).

Much of the time, your clients stay head-down, doing their work. They don’t recognize that certain events have already occurred that will cause them problems in the future. It is a source of your power to recognize what those events are and informing your clients about what they should do in response.

One of things that makes you a trusted advisor is your ability to see around corners, accurately predicting the future. When you know what will happen, your prescience allows you to help your clients and your prospective clients avoid problems, as well as take advantage of any opportunities that the event makes possible.

Differences Too Small for Novices to Detect

When you master your craft, you can detect differences that are too small for an inexperienced salesperson to detect. It might be something in your contact’s tone of voice when they talk about a problem, or an element of office politics that creates obstacles to consensus. Of all the sources of power listed here, this one may rely the most on intuition and experience. What is imperceptible to someone without expertise is apparent to the expert.

Do Good Work:

  • Lead your clients in a conversation that provides them with insights as a way to create value.
  • Use the sources of power as a guide for developing your insights.
  • Become an expert in the results you help your clients improve by improving your knowledge and experience.

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