While preparing for this series I was looking through a set of posts that John Darrin did a while ago so there would be no overlap. When it came to selling skills, this is what John had to say:
“These three skills are used with varying emphasis from the start of the sales cycle (Probe – Probe – Probe and maybe a little Prove) to the end (Close – Prove – Close again). In fact, the sales cycle itself can be broken into stages defined by the application of the appropriate skill. The first stage is predominantly Probing with a little Proving. As you progress and learn and plan, you Prove much more and still Probe. Finally, there comes a time when you Close, still Proving as you encounter obstacles and Probing a little to be sure your knowledge is accurate and nothing has changed.
Go ahead – name a sales skill that doesn’t fit. “
Always ready for a challenge, I thought, “OK, let’s try to do that,” bearing in mind that John is referring to the three fundamental selling skills that are defined in the ASPEC methodology.
I definitely think that “listening” is an important selling skill. But, note the subtle but real difference between a “selling skill” and “a skill a salesperson should have.” Listening is an interpersonal skill that is used in every phase of life, not just selling, and it does not have the same hierarchical significance as Probe, Prove or Close – these are at the top of the chain.
What about negotiating? Again, a skill a salesperson should have, but fundamentally not a specific selling skill. Diplomacy? Definitely a necessary skill, but it is used to augment the fundamental selling skills. The skill of organization—same, not specific to selling.
So, John is right (Ed. – John will be pleased to have that in writing.), Probe, Prove, and Close are very specific to the selling process. They describe collections of traditional selling skills that are used together to selectively address each of the three phases of the sales cycle.
This is important enough that I decided to do a series of articles on how we developed and used the idea of the fundamental selling skills when we developed our first CRM software. I’ll take a look at how the skills came about, what they are, and how they contribute to the overall challenge of modeling the selling process. First, their origin, and the three phase sales cycle.
It’s safe to say we were fixated with the sales component of CRM; after all, selling was our business. This was the time when personal computers were becoming prolific in sales organizations. We saw that computer power could take over much of the repetitive organization and planning behind the scenes of the sales transaction itself. But, we were pushing these ideas to the limit. The challenge was to find a way for the computer be a viable partner to the salesperson when the sales cycle was underway and the sales opportunity theirs to win or to lose. We used to remind ourselves, “This means we have to make the computer understand the sales process.”
Everyone who has sold for a living knows that there are activities, strategies, and behaviour that vary through the sales cycle. Sales cycles mostly develop over time in the same way except for abnormal blips in a particular sales situation. One of the computer’s great strengths is its ability to manage time. If there is a parameter that changes regularly from the time the sale starts to the point it ends, the computer can figure out what should be going on at that moment of time.
A salesperson who once worked for me said his grandmother knew just two things about physics, “e=mc2, and you can’t push on a rope.” Pushing on a rope is about Newton’s Third Law – every action has a reaction. My proposition is that the selling process is a reaction to the buying process.
The buying process has been examined in detail and it distills down to three sequential activities over a period of time: Recognition, Evaluation, and Negotiation.
Recognition: the buyer has a need and has to qualify that. They must look at possible solutions to fill the need.
Evaluation: the buyer looks at the alternatives and tests them with the aim of locking in a solution and a price (value proposition).
Negotiation: the field of possible solution providers has been narrowed down to one or a few. Now it’s time to firm up the deal.
How does the salesperson react in these three distinct parts of the buying process? This is where the fundamental selling skills come into play.
First, Recognition. The buyer is looking for information that the salesperson probably can provide. But what information? Even the customer may not know yet. The salesperson asks questions, listens, and tries to build an accurate idea with the customer of the exact nature of the needs and requirements. To do this effectively the salesperson uses a whole host of skills, but we say that they all come under the general heading of Probing.
Next is Evaluation: The possible answers have been drawn out in the Recognition (Probe) phase. Now the salesperson must demonstrate capability, hopefully with solutions better than the competitors. The collection of skills used here fall under the general category of Proving.
The final stage is Negotiation: The buyer wants the best solution at the best price and maybe there has to be give and take on both sides to do that. Diplomacy and quick wits are the order of the day. In the selling process this is the fundamental skill of Closing.
As the sale evolves through the time (the sales cycle), the buyer and seller work their way through these three different but associated phases. In each, the salesperson is predominantly using one of the three fundamental skills. So “fundamental skill” is our ASPEC language and means a whole lot more than a singular instance of a technique that the salesperson must be good at, like listening, etc. It’s much more than that, but it is very convenient to bundle the business dialog and tactics under a simple heading like this, and it pays off as we devise a model for the sales process.
Next article, I want to look at the “leakage” or “spillover” of the fundamental skills as we move from one phase of the sales cycle to another. Then we can see how the computer can help us by determining which phase we are in over an entire portfolio of varied sales cycles. This becomes powerful stuff to feed the engine we call sales automation.