I recently interviewed global sales expert Matt Dixon, co-author of “The Challenger Sale” and “The Challenger Customer,” and he shared his predictions on what’s next in sales. His thoughts? There’s an evolution happening on the front line of sales today, and it starts with insight selling.
The Three “Ghosts” of Sales
Let’s look at where sales has been and where it’s headed.
The Ghost of Sales Past: Alligator Selling
Before buyers were empowered with instant access to information on the internet, most sales reps could get away with simply pitching product features and benefits and having the prospect believe them. It was hard for buyers to compare alternatives or even know if what the rep was saying was right.
All salespeople had to do was “show up and throw up” their pitch to meet quota. This approach was also known as “alligator selling,” because the salesperson had a big mouth and little ears (i.e., all talking and no listening).
The Ghost of Sales Present: Solution Selling
It took a while for the broader market -- at least, in the world of complex B2B sales -- to adopt this framework, but solution-selling rose in popularity during the 1980’s and still enjoys widespread adoption today.
At its core lies the concept of asking big, open-ended questions to understand customer needs before crafting a potential solution.
For example, if you ask questions like, “What keeps you up at night?” “What are your top three priorities for the year?” or “What are the biggest challenges you’re facing right now, and how did those arise?” you’re a solution-seller.
This is how 60-70% of sales reps sell, today. It’s a solid sales method, but it’s becoming less effective due to oversaturation and information overload.
Oversaturation comes from too many reps using solution-based selling. And information overload is a side effect of the internet and the buyer’s access to much of what the seller traditionally pitched.
The bottom 10-20% of salespeople still take the show-up-and-throw-up approach to selling. You’ll find this in commodity-based industries or in situations requiring low-complexity sales (i.e., reps selling insurance or home-security systems).
But there’s a new group emerging: the top 10% of today’s salespeople taking a different approach -- insight selling.
The Ghost of Sales Future: Insight Selling
“Insight selling,” as Dixon refers to it, is rarely seen by today’s buyers. So, what does it mean, and why is it important? I’m glad you asked.
What is Insight Selling?
Insights are accurate understandings of a person or thing. In sales, they’re gathered through research, experience, and data and used to forge a deeper relationship with a prospective client. Insight selling is the act of using insights to move the deal forward by speaking directly to prospect needs in a way that traditional sales techniques cannot.
Insight selling begins with two ideas. First, that buyers don’t just want sales reps to ask them big, open-ended questions. And second, that content marketing has officially overwhelmed modern buyers.
If you believe these two points, or have experienced that reality yourself, here’s what you should understand. Today’s buyer needs you to add value beyond the research they can conduct on their own.
When to Switch to Insight Selling
If you’re reading this and nodding your head, here are a few ways to assess if it’s time for a change.
1. Your buyers are telling you they’re frustrated with your sales process.
This is an obvious one, but if your buyers are frustrated with open-ended questions, it’s time for a change. That doesn’t mean asking open-ended questions is never appropriate. They’re the backbone of well-run sales discovery process; But, open-ended questions without insight will lead you nowhere and, ultimately, frustrate prospective customers.
2. You run a reactive, solution-oriented sales process.
Again, I’m not suggesting asking open-ended questions is wrong. I’m simply stating they’re insufficient for the modern buyer and don’t create unique value.
So, instead of waiting to tie your solution to something your prospect says, lead with, “Most business leaders like you that I speak with are worried about -- [Thing 1, thing 2, thing 3]. And the best companies I speak with are doing [X, Y, and Z] about it. How are you approaching this challenge?”
3. Your company presentations sound like this ...
- Slide 1: “Here are all of the great stats about our company. We have X,000 customers, we generate $Y million revenue, this is our ticker symbol on [NASDAQ, NYSE, etc.], and here are our investors …”
- Slide 2: “Here’s our global reach. We have X,000 customers represented across Y # of countries, and have offices in Z # regions in the world.”
- Slide 3: “Here are all the flagship companies we work with. Isn’t it great we work with these giant businesses? Why aren’t you one of them?”
- Slide 4: “You might not have heard of our company, but you’ll recognize our products.”
- Slide 5: “We’re the leading global solutions provider of [Whatever you sell].”
While these statements might be important to your company, they're missing a big part of what makes insight selling effective: why your solution matters form the buyer's perspective.
Real empathy and real perception drive success in sales conversations, and they're two sides of the same coin when it comes to insight selling plays.
Types of Insight Selling
We live in the age of information and the empowered buyer. Everything your prospect wants to know about you, your company, and your products and services is available with just a few keystrokes. If you can’t bring information or insight to your buyer they can’t find on their own, they have no reason to speak with you.
To get the most out of insight selling, understand that it manifests in two ways:
- Interaction Insight - Insight selling can manifest in the interactions you have as you connect with prospects, have meaningful conversations about their pains and problems, and encourage a solution by inspiring change.
- Opportunity Insight - Insight selling also goes beyond conversations with prospects who have a demonstrated interest. In fact, some of your prospects may not even realize they have a need, so the opportunity arises to create that awareness.
Expert sales reps will be able to discern when a prospect is warm, needing an interaction insight approach, but also when a prospect is not a good fit vs. needing a deeper opportunity insight approach.
You might be thinking, “Obviously, I know that. We do that already.” But, ask yourself, “How?” The sales world talks about adding value, but no one explains exactly how to do it.
Insight Selling Resources and Tips
Here are a few ideas from my conversation with Dixon that will help you as you implement the insight selling methodology in your strategy.
1. Recognize that your insights make you a valuable salesperson.
First, recognize the most valuable thing you bring to the table is your unique position. For example, if you sell to 100 chief information officers (CIOs) every year, you sit in the center of the CIO ecosystem.
Through speaking with so many CIOs, you’ve likely developed a unique perspective and understanding of the challenges they face and how the very best CIOs are solving their problems today.
That’s the unique value you bring to the table for all your buyers. What you learn through speaking to so many CIOs is the very thing none of those CIOs has done.
2. Take action by communicating your insights clearly.
You have proprietary information that’s highly valuable to your buyers. And, you can explain not just what other CIOs are doing to solve their problems, but where they’re falling short and how they’re moving forward.
That’s the “insight” in insight selling. But, just realizing you have this insight isn’t enough. Reps must be able to communicate these insights clearly, through stories to their buyers. Here’s how I told “stories,” when I worked as a research analyst.
3. Use the Insight Selling Slide Framework.
I used a framework called “The Lift,” to communicate management challenges CEOs, heads of sales, heads of marketing, and more were facing. At the highest level, The Lift was a series of slides that flowed like this:
- Slide 1: “The current state of the world is [Mega-trend 1, 2, 3, etc. ...]”
- Slide 2: “[Mega-trend] makes life challenging for business leaders like you because … [Implication 1, 2, 3]”
- Slide 3: “... and this is only going to get harder in the future, because …”
- Slide 4: “Today, the way most companies try to solve [Challenge/mega-trend] is… [‘Hire more people,’ ‘Spend more money, etc. …’].”
- Slide 5: “... and here are the results most companies get [Mediocre results].”
- Slide 6: “... but, there’s a small group of [Companies/business leaders] doing things differently ...”
- Slide 7: “... and these are the results they’re getting [... should be far better than what the middle of the road company is getting in slide number five] ...”
- Slide 8: “Here’s how it works … [this is where discuss your company’s solution/service/product].”
Want to see the eight-slide framework in action? Here’s an example from Zuora.
4. Underscore their road blocks to success.
As you learned, insight selling doesn't stop at your interactions; you also have to cultivate opportunities. This requires a deep understanding of their goals and strategies... as well as the strategic initiatives they must take.
It also means you must encourage prospects to think in a way that's outcome-oriented. If you can demonstrate where they are vs. where they should be, you can then begin to build the bridge between those points with your solution.
They may be known road blocks or blind spots, but as soon as the prospect is on the same page as you, the conversation gets much easier.
Remember, the simple fact you sit at the center of hundreds of conversations with your buyers’ peers gives you unparalleled information and insight.
That’s your unique value. The only question is whether you’re listening to what buyers are saying and what you’re going to do with that information.
Editor's note: This post was originally published in March 2018 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.