As a company’s products mature, finding ways to stand out from the competitive “herd” of me-too products becomes crucial for growth. To this end, sales leaders are often tasked with presenting a broader product/service portfolio to the marketplace. They want their reps to act like “trusted advisors” who move beyond pushing product to helping customers shape solutions and sort through complexity.
However, to earn this type of “trusted advisor” status, reps have to consistently bring valuable “insights” to the table…especially if this is the table where the necessary higher executive-level buyers sit. These insights may address the customer’s industry, business model, productivity, competitors or future. And, of course, the insights must be valuable to customers and link to the company’s offerings.
This Insight-Led Selling strategy seems to be resonating very well with many companies. However, based on our consulting work, The Alexander Group has identified two key challenges that many leaders face in executing insight-led selling:
1. Developing a Sustained Flow of Insights
2. Maximizing the Impact of Insights in the Sales Process
Let’s assume you have already developed a steady flow of “insights” – and if you are like most companies, it probably came at some significant expense. Now how do you get your reps to leverage these insights effectively and consistently?
At first blush, it may seem odd that reps would not rush to leverage insights which are valuable to customers. But the reality is that reps are often locked into a particular way of executing the sales process – a “comfort zone.” As a result, they can be reluctant to start new dialogs with new influencers, or invest time in insight-driven conversations that may not quickly lead to deals. In fact, our research shows that this challenge is widespread. Specifically, insights are often under-used, used incorrectly or even ignored by sales personnel.
To avoid this problem and ensure a strong return on your insight investment, we have learned (through some of our client’s painful experiences) that management needs to carefully work through the following checklist of best practices:
1. Reduce Optionalism – First, leaders need to be prepared to clearly communicate that insight-led selling is not optional. While driving a return on insight investments is important, the bigger issue is relevance and growth. Without repositioning your company as a provider of higher-value solutions, growth may likely flatten out. Insight selling may be crucial to your company’s future. But without firm direction, reps aren’t likely to look past the current period.
2. Map the Insight-Led Selling Process – Alexander Group research has shown that reps often have a very different understanding of where insights should be used (and with what level buyers) than leaders do, even after they have been through training! Many companies therefore create rep playbooks that outline the process, thus creating an ongoing reference and coaching tool.
3. Link Insights to Customer Data – A high percentage of the insights that you deploy should come from mining data about how customers use your product…i.e., usage patterns, key gaps and positive results. These insights are powerful because they are both quantitative and tied to the customer’s own experience. Such insights generalized across customers are good, but those specific to each customer are better.
4. Conduct Insight QC – If not vetted properly, some insights can be “bad” in that they lead customers to actions that have a negative impact. Or they may set up reps for a dialog they cannot handle. Either can damage your brand in that account. To avoid this, you should test your insights with customers and internal sales advisory boards, and also monitor the actual field impact.
5. Aim Your Insights – Insights will help your reps challenge the hidden assumptions buyers have about your product. But if the rep aims too low, perhaps at someone they are already comfortable with, it may not matter. Also, if insights are too tame they may not change any perceptions. Disruptive insights are a good thing! Finally, insights that are too strategic can be too far upstream from your product to make a difference.
6. Clarify Insights vs Value Props – Presenting a value prop to a customer as if it were a valuable insight can undermine your rep’s credibility. Insights have value in and of themselves, and thus earn the rep goodwill and increased access. However, value props are clearly focused on your product. And while they are well received at the right time in a “trusted advisor” relationship, your rep doesn’t want to come across as too “salesy” by portraying one as the other.
7. Target the Right Accounts – Insight-led selling creates opportunities to dialog with higher-level influencers at key accounts. It takes time and effort, so you don’t want to do it everywhere. Specifically, you want insight efforts focused on large, high-potential accounts where there is a realistic ROI. In fact, Marketing often needs to play a role in helping reps target.
8. Train and Practice – Even insights which are clearly high-value can be deployed ineffectively, i.e., at the wrong time or with too-low level an influencer. To be effective, reps need to practice through role-playing as well as workshop-type training around overcoming objections and building consensus across multiple stakeholders.
9. Manage Your “Openings” – Insights sometimes generate “leads” that are ready to be sold to. However, they more often generate “openings,” aka: an invitation to dialog, often with a higher level buyer. And because dialog takes time, sales leaders need to help reps manage the balance between nurturing a dialog too long vs over-qualifying it away too early.
10. Keep Your SWAT Team Ready – As your reps use insights to challenge a customer’s hidden assumptions and throw them off-base, be prepared because you may get what you want! When your buyer wants to hear more and move into brainstorming, your expert resources should be ready to exploit that opening. If not, the moment will pass and you may not get another chance.
Leading companies are learning that they have to systematize Insight Development and Deployment because their early one-off efforts typically lose steam after the initial excitement. As one sales executive said recently, “Reps aren’t using insights because they want to see other reps succeeding with them first.” Regarding Insight Development, another executive noted, “We are trying to do Insight-Led Selling without the insights, and it doesn’t work!”
Leaders are therefore moving away from allowing sporadic and poorly coordinated efforts by well-meaning people across different functions. Instead, they are assigning senior-level accountability for a mapped-out insight development and deployment process. Indeed, best practice companies are treating it as a regular business process with inputs, clear accountability by step, quality control, throughput objectives, and constant readjustment based on user feedback.
As a starting point, we recommend that your insight team systematically plan its moves around the top 10 Insight Deployment practices on the checklist above. This will certainly make the process more efficient; but more important, it will ensure your company makes the best use of its opportunity to reposition as a “trusted advisor” to its customers … and thus give you a good chance to build a stronger path to growth.
For more information on this topic, please visit the Alexander Group.