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Slow More, Close More

You’re on the road.  Your phone is dead and car navigation is out of range.  Because you’re running late, you miss an important turn.  The clock is ticking as you drive miles past your destination.  Eventually you pull over, realize your mistake, backtrack and finally arrive (even later) at your destination.

Have you been there?

As a sales professional, you may be feeling “late” relative to any number of things.  These could include: your sales quota, your peers, your competitors, an opportunity or client.  During a sales meeting, those feelings can cause you to rush and overshoot important pivot points, like on a road trip. Those details and cues, and the adjustments you make in response, can be the difference between winning and losing the business.

So, how do you slow down when your gut is telling you to move faster, catch up?  Try these five adjustments to pump the brakes for a more effective sales meeting:

                   LESS                           MORE
Cramming in filler appointments Preparing better for meetings that matter
Time spent on rapport Time on agenda development
Talking/tutoring Listening/learning
About you About them
Assumptions Checking for alignment

It’s counterintuitive to feather the brakes when your instincts are telling you to lean on the accelerator.  Yet isn’t that exactly the adjustment you make when you are at your best, most dialed-in, selling self?

What are the ways you find your patience in effective sales meetings, enabling you to advance and close more business?

Winning Teams Need a Rallying Cry

Last summer, it was easy to get drawn into the incredible drama of the 2016 Olympics in Rio.  And with all this winning and losing, it was impossible for me as a sales coach to resist the chance to draw parallels to effective selling. My focus here is on the importance of a shared mission among winning teams.

The attached article from the New York Times, published August 14, 2016, recounts the story of the USA women’s eight-person rowing team, which was struggling in their final race with a medal on the line.

“This is the U.S. Women’s Eight” cried the coxswain halfway through the grueling race.  Those words triggered the athletes’ strong sense of the history and purpose of USA women’s rowing.  They recovered in the second half of the race and won the gold medal.

The late Dr. J. Richard Hackman, who had been a leading researcher on high performing teams and professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University, would probably have said that the coxswain’s cry formed a “compelling direction” for the USA team.  When a leader’s direction is clear and engaging, and offers an invitation, it energizes and unifies a team behind a shared purpose.  In the case of the 2016 USA Women’s eight boat, the compelling direction was to focus on their contributions to a winning legacy rather their burning lungs and muscles.

What’s the parallel to selling?

In high-stakes B2B sales meetings, salespeople often have to band together with others — senior managers, subject matter experts, technology specialists, external partners — to win the sale.  For the salesperson, meeting sales goals and earning financial incentives are “clear” and “engaging.”  But can the same be said for his or her co-selling partners?  Without a compelling direction, the selling posse can look like one eager player surrounded by several indifferent ones.  And in a competitive pursuit, that could be enough to lose the deal.

So what would Dr. Hackman’s “compelling direction” look like in a sales meeting?  Think about a larger purpose that would serve as a rallying cry to your colleagues.  Consider the following three questions:

  1. What would winning this business mean to your organization?
  2. What would winning mean for your organization’s efforts to build a brand in a new geographical market, vertical or discipline?
  3. What would losing mean to your organization’s efforts?

A high-stakes meeting should feel like the stakes are, well, high.  And not just to you, but to everyone on your team, and to the client.  Setting and repeating a compelling direction can be the basis for turning your group into a team, and may just be the rallying cry your team needs to elevate and win.  “This is the…

From Competitive to Collaborative Negotiations

Two fighters enter a steel cage. Both hungry, strong and determined. The door is locked. Lights dim. Hearts race. The stakes are high – life or death.

As a salesperson, do your contract negotiations ever feel like this? You strap on the body armor, smear war stripes across your face and crush bricks into powder?

Some of these feelings are due to the physical reaction that comes in any high-pressure moment. Your body produces cortisol, and your brain sends a message to prepare for battle.

Leave the arena, however, and consider the following question: what makes a negotiation successful? Your mind probably goes to the phrase “win-win.” According to the Harvard Negotiation Project, a win-win negotiation is one where each party gains an outcome that is better than what the parties would do without an agreement. Both parties win, and the process feels collaborative, mutual, relationship-building. Hmmm…that doesn’t sound like a cage match.

How do you get from cage match to collaboration?

The first step is acknowledging that many negotiations are win-lose. And in my experience, at least, salespeople are typically on the losing side of these transactions. Win-lose outcomes are unsustainable in business relationships because at some point the salesperson (or his manager) realizes he is better off doing no deals, rather than unprofitable ones, with this counterparty. To recoup his losses before walking away, the salesperson might resort to reducing service levels and flexibility, excluding the client from special events or taking a more combative approach at the next negotiation.

Achieving win-win, or mutual gains, outcomes requires a different mindset – one that is centered around collaboration versus competition. Here are my top tips to prepare for success:

1.      Set clear relationship goals: visualize the relationship — after the negotiation.

2.      Know your value: being clear on what a client gains from working with you, versus others, improves confidence and poise.

3.      Bring alternatives: feeling that you must win a deal at any cost ensures that winning will indeed cost you. Realize the benefits of walking away, including more respect and less resentment; and more time to advance more profitable opportunities in your pipeline.

4.      Explore interests: engaging your questioning and listening skills enables you to separate each party’s interests from their positions, and creates opportunities to find other ways to gain a win for both parties.

5.      Seek trades: if you must give on any deal point, be sure to link that give to a get for you.

6.      Find your patience: simple behaviors such as committing to a good night’s sleep, reducing caffeine intake, increasing hydration, and breathing can enable you to hang in there when clients test your will, according to Sandy Dalis, CRAVE Nutrition.

Leaders, you can support your salespeople in the following ways: 1) test them to be sure they don’t open with their best offer, 2) role play with them so they feel prepared and practiced, 3) show compassion and support sourced from when you faced the same pressure, 4) check in to convey the importance of closing business on profitable and mutual gains terms, and 5) challenge them to see how much they can keep above their walkaway price.

Negotiation can often feel like a cage match – given your counterparty’s approach or your own mindset. Leverage the tips above to arrive at the negotiating table – neither to compete nor to cave – but rather to collaboratively find mutual gains outcomes.

Selling Low Makes Selling Hard

In a recent post on, Anthony Iannarino (@iannarino) highlights a price trap that many salespeople fall into.  The temptation to go low on price may be connected to your belief that a lower price equals an easier win.

The fact is that price, while important, rarely makes it into the top criteria that drive purchasing decisions.

Anthony is right…think about what is conveyed about the value of your offer vs. others’ when you go low.  Consider what a low price says about you as a sales professional when you represent a quality organization with a quality product or service.

So, how do you avoid falling into this price trap?

  1. Recognize that price conveys the impression of value.  Don’t be so quick to give up that impression.
  2.  Sell yourself on the value you bring to your customer.  Believing you are worth more than others to a client puts you in a position of confidence and power when it’s time to talk price.
  3. Realize that highlighting price invites negotiation — maybe not a full-on discussion of terms, but a moment that requires skill and preparation.
  4. Optimize your client touch points by doing less talking and more learning about what matters to them.
  5. Convey value in words and ways that are meaningful to your client.  While your company’s offer may include unique features, leverage your customer knowledge by connecting those features to customer priorities and outcomes.  This reinforces value.

One of my early sales mentors was fond of saying that the factor that wins you a deal is the same one that will lose it.  When you lead with a low price, you attract price shoppers.  And trying to build a business with these customers will fail for one of two reasons:  1-they will eventually leave you for an even lower price, or 2-at some point you will be forced to raise prices (refer back to reason #1) or terminate the contract because it’s unprofitable.

Selling value is not easy.  Value is what you choose in the company you work for, and what customers want in the partners they choose.  I’ll gladly accept the challenge of selling high over gaining a reputation as the cheap alternative!



Team Selling Today

Because B2B purchasing decisions are increasingly made by committee, B2B selling organizations respond by deploying groups for high-stakes meetings.  These groups can include leaders, salespeople, subject matter experts and co-selling partners.  This many-to-many dynamic adds pressure and complexity to the sales interaction.  This post provides a baseline to help sales and client-facing professionals better understand and adapt to these changes.

How to Use a Subject Matter Expert in a Sales Meeting


Imagine you are an 18 year-old college basketball player and, despite limited playing time during the regular season, you are pulled off the bench and put into the national championship game, with 13 minutes left on the clock and your team down by nine points.

If you’re Duke University’s Grayson Allen during the final game of the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, you steal the ball from your opponent (who happens to be the national player of the year), sink a three point shot, and get fouled, hitting both of your free throws. All in the space of 70 seconds. And in the process, you change the game’s momentum and turn a sure loss into a national championship.

In B2B selling, subject matter experts (SMEs) come off the bench to play an increasingly important role in high-stakes sales meetings. Because, however, selling is probably not SMEs’ strong suit, the salesperson faces a similar question Duke’s coach confronted as he eyed Grayson Allen: Will my SME be ready when I need him?

Let’s address how to leverage a subject matter expert (SME) for maximum impact in an effective sales meeting.

SMEs span a wide range of roles in various sectors. Examples include: in technology, a systems engineer, solutions architect, or applications specialist; in professional services, a practice leader or specialist; in wealth management, a tax, estates, or fiduciary specialist; in investment management, a quantitative portfolio manager, operations, or compliance officer. Just as Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s call was calculated and informed, so should yours in calling on even the most receptive and articulate SME. Their presence and contributions — no different from any other member of your selling team — could prove to be an asset or liability.

Here are common mistakes salespeople make when including an SME in a sales pitch or client meeting:

  • Believing that the SME’s mere presence can magically transform a poorly qualified opportunity or an unprepared team
  • Treating the SME as untouchable, beyond coaching or preparation
  • Banking on the fact that they know “what to do”
  • Assuming that your deal carries the same importance to them as it does to you
  • Not preparing them properly for pivotal meetings
  • Not bringing your own A-game

Without guidance, experts are likely to do what they do — demonstrate their subject matter expertise. They may take control of the discussion, go deep on an issue that takes you away from an otherwise winning game plan, and hurt your credibility with the client.

An SME playing a minor role can be equally hurtful. What does that convey about your SME? Your organization? The profit margin in your proposal? You?

Subject matter experts, coached skillfully, can be a game-changer in your efforts to create a winning sales meeting. Here are five tips for leveraging an SME in an effective sales call, pitch, or client meeting.

1) Choose carefully.

Technical expertise is a given. How will your SME’s delivery style mesh with those of your client stakeholders? What will they be like as a collaborator in your preparation and presentation? Prepare for the ask so that it results in an enthusiastic “yes” from the person most likely to help you win. Decide and convey to the SME why participating in this effort aligns with her goals, how it will help the client, and what is the expected impact on the sales effort.

2) Define and communicate your expectations.

This should include:

  • Her role in the meeting
  • Who is the team’s leader
  • Your expectations for her participation in preparing for and de-briefing the meeting with you

3) Prepare together.

Include your SME in prep sessions, being sure to:

  • Transfer essential knowledge (client organization, stakeholder roles, current situation, opportunity, status, etc.) given her role in the sales meeting
  • Run through the opening, including her introduction
  • Preview whatever additional topics she will be expected to address in the meeting
  • Clearly define team roles, from open to close

Preparing together reduces the chance of a negative surprise.

4) Set intra-meeting ground rules.

Make sure your SME takes a seat that appropriately conveys her role in your organization, and aligns with her likely counterpart representing the client organization. Once the meeting gets started, she should take her cues from you, keeping improvisation to a minimum. It can be tough for a SME (especially those with no direct sales experience) to pivot from internal meetings where she is the expert and center of attention to external meetings where the authority, pace, and scope is set by others.

5) De-brief together.

She can also play an important role in reviewing the team’s high and low points during the meeting. Receiving feedback from you can strengthen future meetings and pitches. Be sure to acknowledge her time in preparing for and taking the meeting, her contributions, and ask how she would like to stay apprised of future developments.

Including an subject matter expert in a sales meeting can be at the same time an exciting and intimidating move in your broader sales or client retention strategy. Their presence alone is rarely the “magic bullet” expected and needed. Given the right opportunity, setting, and timing, however, they can play a significant role in winning a new client or retaining an existing one.

Keep the five tips above in mind for your upcoming sales meetings. Your SME, properly positioned, can be a game-changer in your sales efforts, and can jump off the bench to give you the extra boost needed to convert your opportunity into a win.

5 Tips on How to Use a C-Level Executive in a Sales Meeting

CEO - Leading

Turbocharger. Hear the word and you probably think “robust power source.” Competitive drivers and car manufacturers have used turbochargers for decades to boost engine power and race performance. In the hands of a skilled driver, this extra power can offer a competitive advantage. Putting that power, however, in the hands of someone less skilled or at the wrong time, can be fatal.

In the competitive world of selling, it is natural to seek a turbocharger equivalent to boost your performance in a sales meeting. At times this means asking a C-level executive — i.e., CEO, CFO, CIO, etc. — to join a sales meeting or presentation. And why not? A C-level executive may be able to help advance a sale or retain a relationship, and in the process build your credibility with a client and even your colleagues.

However, it would be a mistake to take this step lightly or impulsively, even with the most receptive and charismatic C-level executive. Their presence and contributions — no different from any other member of your selling team — may prove to be an asset or liability. Here are some of the more common mistakes I have made or seen during my time at Richardson Sales Training and Effectiveness Solutions as it relates to including a senior-level executive in a sales pitch or client meeting:

  • Believing that a C-level executive’s title, presence, and personality can magically transform a poorly qualified opportunity or a poorly prepared team.
  • Treating him or her as untouchable, beyond coaching or preparation.
  • Banking on the fact that they know “what to do.”
  • Assuming that your deal carries the same importance to them as it does to you.
  • Not bringing your own A-game.

Without guidance, a leader is likely to do what they do: lead. They may grab control of the meeting, taking you away from an otherwise winning game plan and hurting your credibility with the client. A senior leader playing a minor role can be equally hurtful. What does that convey about your C-level executive? Your organization? The profit margin in your proposal? You?

C-level executives, when coached skillfully, can be a great asset and turbocharge a sales meeting. Here are five tips for leveraging a C-level executive in an effective sales call, pitch, or client meeting.

1) Ask them.

Obvious, yes? Less obvious is what it takes to prepare for that ask so that it results in an enthusiastic “yes.” Convey to the executive why participating in this effort aligns with her goals, how it will help the client, and what is the expected impact on the sales effort.

2) Define and communicate your expectations.

This should include:

  • His role in the meeting
  • Who is the team leader
  • Your expectations for his participation in preparing for and de-briefing the meeting with you
  • Letting him define how, when, and where he would like to give and get feedback

3) Prepare together.

Invite your C-level executive to your prep sessions, understanding the realities of her schedule. When she is able to be there, be sure to:

  • Transfer essential knowledge given her role in the sales meeting
  • Run through the opening, including her welcome message and introduction
  • Preview whatever additional topics, such as a company overview, she will address in the meeting
  • Be clear on your role as team leader, including who will close and how that will be done

Have you ever heard a senior-level executive introduce themselves and refer to their role as “overhead?” What can be funny in an internal meeting can be disastrous in a sales meeting. Preparing together reduces the chance of a negative surprise.

4) Set ground rules.

Make sure your C-level executive takes a seat that appropriately conveys her role in your organization, and aligns with the senior-most decision maker(s) representing the client organization. Once the meeting gets started, she should take her cues from you, keeping improvisation to a minimum. Pivoting from internal meetings where she is in charge, to external meetings where the authority, pace, and scope is being set by others can be tough for a C-level executive, especially those with no direct sales experience.

5) De-brief together.

Consider drafting for your C-level executive’s signature a thank you note on the team’s behalf. He can also play an important role in reviewing the team’s high and low points during the meeting. Individual feedback should be handled carefully. His feedback to you and team members take on extra gravity. Receiving feedback from you, done well, can strengthen future meetings and pitches. C-level executives tend to get very little objective feedback, which is a shame since they play such an important role in high-stakes meetings. Consider collecting and distilling the team’s feedback — both pluses and minuses — and deliver the key points in a one-on-one. Also, be sure to acknowledge his time in preparing for and taking the meeting, his contributions, and ask how he would like to stay apprised of future developments.

Including a C-level executive in a sales meeting can be at the same time an exciting and intimidating move in your broader sales or client retention strategy. Their presence alone is rarely the “magic bullet” expected and needed. In the right opportunity, setting, and timing, however, they can play a significant role in winning a new client or retaining an existing one.

Keep the five tips above in mind for your upcoming sales meetings. Your C-level executive, properly positioned, can turbocharge your sales efforts and give you the extra boost needed to push you into the winner’s circle.

The 8 Attributes of a Highly Effective Salesperson

How to be a Successful Salesperson (or Recognize One on Your Team)

You may recall that oh-so-70’s TV series called The Six Million Dollar Man, in which a secret government agency rebuilds former astronaut Steve Austin after an accident into a spy with bionic speed, strength, and vision that make him unstoppable.

Leaders and sales managers, when faced with a steep goal or taking on a new business, will naturally look at their sales team and think, “How am I going to hit this new goal with the same team?”  First, you come to terms with the goal and that, reluctantly, surgery and bionic implants are out — budget, OSHA, HR issues, etc.  So, you turn your attention to less extreme methods, such as strategy, recruiting, sales training, and coaching.  And then, you begin to focus on the question what are the “8 attributes of a highly successful salesperson?”

Consider the following sets of personality qualities:

Social Insightful
Vocal Soft-spoken
Aggressive Patient
Gregarious Empathetic
Quick on their feet Thoughtful
Funny Serious

Question #1:  From which column of qualities would you choose if you were: Throwing a party? Hiring people most like you? Seeking people to do a lot of outbound calling, meetings, and presentations?

Question #2:  What if we turn around the question to instead ask:  If you were a buyer, responsible for making a significant and complex purchase for your organization, under great pressure and visibility, which column of qualities would you choose for your sales contact or account manager?

Successful Salespeople can be Extroverts OR Introverts

In 2012, Susan Cain authored a best-selling non-fiction book titled, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  She described qualities like those listed in Column A as the “the extrovert ideal” — those we tend to see as representing success.  And yet, while these qualities are common among many salespeople, are they the ones embodied by your most effective, client-facing professionals?

Many sales leaders graduate into their position after gaining success as a salesperson.  So, it is tempting for them to assume that people similar to them will perform as they did.  This was illustrated well by Vivek Gupta, CEO of Zensar Technologies, in a New York Times interview on March 8, 2015.  He shared:  “There was a young girl, straight out of college, who walked into my office and said, ‘…I want to be in sales.’  I was quite nervous that she couldn’t handle the job.  I had spent a rough five years doing sales, traveling all over the country.  How would she be able to do that? … I gave the job to her, and she turned out to be the best salesperson in the company.”  Consider those gems on your team who, though quite different from you, share your ability to consistently retain important clients or generate new business.

While society values Susan Cain’s “extrovert ideal,” consider how Column B qualities — those traditionally attached to an introvert — might be differentiators and highly valued by buyers.  The truth is that the continuum between extrovert and introvert is a wide one, and effective salespeople are found between the extremes.

8 Qualities of a Successful Salesperson

In my 30 years working among and coaching salespeople, here are the 8 traits of successful salespeople that I see consistently.  They are:

  1. Client-loyal: They are driven to understand what success means for their clients and to actively contribute to that success.
  2. Win-driven: They have a self-derived motivation to win (or not lose) that transcends compensation plans, campaigns, and coaching efforts.
  3. Team builders: They cultivate and leverage people and resources — inside and outside of their organizations — that allow them to help clients reach their goals and to win.
  4. Efficient: They are master qualifiers, willing to walk from opportunities that they feel they can’t or don’t want to win. And, they are willing to invest outsized amounts of time and energy in developing what they consider to be the really great opportunities — and, in building teams that prepare and practice to win.
  5. Impatiently patient: Though professionally driven, they exude patience when they are with a client, prospect, partner, or referral source.
  6. Passionately sincere: This goes beyond basic honesty. They are sincere in finding the solution that will best accomplish the client’s goal, even if that runs counter to their organizations’ latest campaign. They display high conviction in making their case to a client about why their solution is the right one.
  7. Attentive listeners: They talk far less than they listen, bringing a high degree of humility and curiosity to their client interactions.
  8. Dedicated: They see sales as their craft and, as such, seek knowledge, coaching, and resources that will allow them to do it more efficiently and effectively, seeking and incorporating feedback to continuously sharpen their approach.

Recruiting and Training the Best Salespeople

To stay focused on these attributes, managers — as you recruit, restructure, and coach — you will be well served by the following reminders:

  • Avoid looking for you in them. He will always be him, not you. Seek the attributes that made you effective, even if the personality couldn’t be more different from yours.
  • Don’t try to turn them into you. Be willing to coach them to become the best version of themselves.
  • Seek the attributes above as must-haves, while the packages in which they come may vary.

Highly successful salespeople come in all shapes and sizes and may not always be the life of the party.  If, however, they are long on the 8 attributes above — Six Million Dollar Salespeople — they will outrun the competition in retaining and growing clients and finding new ones.  Still, budgeting next year for bionic implants is an interesting thought…

Closing: Winning Sales Tips for Closing Effectively

 Closing: Winning Sales Tips for Closing EffectivelyWinning-Sales-Tips-for-Closing

As the year rapidly comes to a close, this is a great transition point to reflect on past, present, and future. Among the things that deserve some focus is closing. Whether the close is a client call, meeting, contract renewal or extension, or a new partnership or business agreement, each is an important transition point from the end of something to the start of something else. Done well, closing positions you for success, reinforces client confidence, and sets you up to execute on client expectations.

In my coaching and classroom work this year, I continued to see confusion and struggles around the topic of closing. To help you or your team close sales meetings more effectively in next year, let’s look at:

  1. A readiness to close checklist
  2. Winning practices
  3. A process for closing any meeting effectively


Closing a meeting or deal often gets fumbled due to several common missteps. See how many of the following questions you can check off with a “Yes.”

Have you:

– Defined the close or the commitment(s) you will be seeking at this meeting?

– Shared and validated the close with your team?

– Decided who will close?

– Overcome self-limiting obstacles, such as:

  • Concerns about coming across as pushy, confrontational, or icky (sure, that’s a word)?
  • Believing that clients close themselves?
  • Using a presumptive close?
  • Rushing to close based more on self-confidence than on client-based facts and feedback?

– A full appreciation for the importance of closing well — for you, your organization, and (often forgotten) for the client?


If we can agree that business relationships are advanced when every client or prospect interaction is ended professionally and completely, here are some reminders on best practices that lay the groundwork for an effective close that you, your team, and your client can feel good about:


  • Define the team’s goal for this meeting — i.e., ask for the business, a referral, or a next meeting, etc. Be specific, put timing around it, and don’t keep it to yourself. Winning teams arrive at key sales meetings fully informed and aligned on the mission.
  • Assign lead responsibility for this part of the meeting or pitch. Once accepted, be willing as a team to role play this a few times and share feedback. Even if the person making the ask is your CEO? Especially in the case of a senior, many of whom don’t receive the honest feedback they need to accomplish the team’s mission.


  • Clients not only expect you to close the meeting you requested, they need it so that your execution meets their expectations.
  • Avoid the presumed close. Example: “We are ready to get started. Can we send you an agreement?”
  • Client agreed that you could do some (free) work in producing documents that they may or may not choose to sign.
  • This skips the close with no commitment conveyed.


  • Seeking client feedback throughout the process and conversation ensures that you stay aligned. It also ensures that the client is as confident in your team as you are in asking for an important commitment.


When prompted to close, many of us immediately remember a young Alec Baldwin in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” coaxing a group of weathered salesmen to “A=Always, B=Be, C=Closing.” A good close is not heroic or chest-thumping — it is a natural step in a conversation, is polished, and gains clarity on commitments and next steps. The new A-B-C of closing that is fully in line with today’s market dynamics is: A=Ask, B=Be Clear, C=Chronicle:

1) A=Ask about remaining issues, concerns, or needs.

  • Asking an open-ended question, such as, “What issues are still on your mind?” can surface both new opportunities and doubts, both of which are best addressed in person.

2) B=Be clear on what commitments are being made.

  • Ask a closed-ended question. Modifying one from above: “We are ready to get started. Are you ready to begin working with us?” This enables the team to leave that meeting with a better sense of clarity on what, if any, commitments were made.
  • If this feels too direct, consider prefacing the ask. Example: “So that we can properly plan next steps, are you ready to hire us for this work?”

3) C=Chronicle next steps.

  • Inventory the follow-up plan, including who is going to do what by when.
  • A crisp and complete recap reinforces the client’s commitment to you.
  • Open-ended questions here can convey client empowerment. For example, “How would you like the kickoff meeting to be structured with your team?”

In summary, approach your close methodically — with preparation, a positive mindset, and client feedback. And, follow the new A-B-C to close that next dialogue confidently and completely — and with clarity!

“Challenger” Selling: Courageous Questions Differ from Grenades

challenger-sellingChallenger® Selling: “Courageous Questions” Differ from “Grenades”

Many sales leaders are urging their salespeople to adopt CEB’s Challenger Sellingmodel to ask “challenging” questions to have effective sales meetings with prospects and clients. The intent is to be more provocative, create differentiation in a crowded market, provide insight, and hopefully add more value to the conversation. This post is designed to share some mistakes I have been seeing with this approach and to offer suggestions for properly asking “courageous questions” in an effective sales meeting.

First, what is a courageous question? Many questions can take courage, including ones that are:

  • Direct
  • Delicate
  • Challenging to current thinking
  • Seeking commitment
  • Insightful
  • Thought-provoking

Courageous questions — relevant to the client and well asked — can take a relationship in a new and positive direction as part of an effective sales meeting. Yet, why are some received as “grenades?” The movie equivalent is Bruce Willis walking away from the villains’ hideout, pulling the pin on the grenade, tossing it over his shoulder … BOOM … causing a huge explosion in his wake. Throwing a grenade question on the table is not courageous, it’s a selling mistake.

On this topic, I have been seeing different problems from two categories of sales professionals. The first group of salespeople — long on confidence, armed with industry marketing intelligence, and feeling empowered by their leaders — are more than willing to ask challenging questions in prospect and client meetings. Of course, challenging current thinking is likely to cause resistance. Instead of getting either mild resistance or the “wow” factor that they are expecting, they are met with significant blowback or stunned looks. Rather than marking an inflection point from which the relationship advances in a new and positive way, it now marks the fall-away point.

The second group of sales professionals, not as long on confidence and without a process to challenge thought, avoid asking the courageous questions. And, while competitors start to make inroads in the relationship, these salespeople wonder why the client relationship has stalled.

So, how do you ensure that your courageous question is received well and not as a grenade? Here are eight best practices for integrating courageous questions into an effective sales meeting:

  1. Know where you stand: If you are at all unsure that the foundation upon which your client relationship is built is solid, seek feedback, and know where you stand. No assumptions, as courageous questions are best delivered from a position of strength.
  2. Establish trust: Look for signs in your interactions that trust has been established. These can include kudos for positive past dealings, an open exchange of information, responsiveness to calls and meeting requests, and client-initiated calls.
  3. Establish credibility: This does not require you to be all-knowing on all subjects. It does mean that, because of your background, your work, and the organization behind you, the client sees value in engaging with you on this new topic.
  4. Prepare and practice: Preparing and then practicing with a colleague tends to ground the over-confident and build conviction in the should-be-more-confident. Both language and delivery matter, so prepare to receive feedback on both prior to the client meeting.
  5. Choose an appropriate setting: Challenging a client’s thinking can feel awkward to you and threatening to the client, especially in front of others. Choose a meeting location and time that puts folks at ease rather than on edge. And, think carefully about how your question impacts not just the intended recipient but also others who may be present.
  6. Set the context: Courageous questions are relevant to the recipient. A relevant question reflects your knowledge about the client, as well as his/her organization and the industry/market in which it operates.
  7. Structure the question skillfully: Combine a good preface, which expressly states why you are asking the question and/or why the customer should reply. Use an open-ended structure to invite discussion.
  8. Allow silence, and listen: It is not tough to tell when someone is genuinely interested in your thoughts. What is tough for many salespeople is taking a breath, engaging silence and listening, being attentive to language and cues, and being curious enough to continue the dialogue by asking deeper questions based on the client’s reaction. The same guidelines go for colleagues who may join you at this meeting. Inform them about this part of the meeting, and, if they have a tendency to “ease the tension” and fill the silence, practice with them both the delivery and the silence that follows.

Remember the movie “Top Gun,” starring Tom Cruise (“Maverick”), the classic 1980s film that glamorized navy pilots? In a practice drill, Maverick locks onto an enemy fighter, and his flight instructor coaxes him to “take the shot.” Grenade questions ignore the best practices above, and taking the shot may result in a crash-and-burn, eroding trust and credibility. In cases where you’ve earned it, leverage the best practices above in an effective sales meeting, take the shot confidently, and enjoy the new dialogue stream — and opportunities — created by your courageous question.