Sales & Marketing

Provocation-Based Selling: Loosening the Status Quo for Sales Success

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In a recent Harvard Business Review article, one of the most respected names in technology marketing and strategies, Geoffrey Moore, discussed how diagnostic and benchmarking sales techniques can be used, particularly during a downturn, to help engage executives, open up new opportunities, and unfreeze previously stuck sales processes.

Moore describes the bad news facing B2B solution providers:

  • Forced to do more with less, most organizations lack formal budgets for new projects,leaving less than 15% in discretionary funds to fund a backlog of projects, likely your proposal.
  • With less money to go around, proposals are subjected to higher levels of review in buying organizations, and the managers you’ve traditionally dealt with are no longer the decision makers.

Geoffrey Moore confirms simply that what we have termed Frugalnomics is in full effect.

The good news is that savvy marketers and sales-enablement groups have found a way to succeed in this tough environment, using a best practice approach coined Provocation-Based Selling – using diagnostic assessments and benchmarks to reach their customers’ resource owners and motivate them to allocate the necessary funds, persuading customers that the solutions they bring to the table are not just nice, but essential.

Frugalnomics changes everything. As many of us have already realized, two economic firestorms in the past decade have fundamentally changed B2B buyers – making them more empowered, skeptical, and frugal than ever before. And this is not just a temporary change. As we saw in the technology bubble-burst, even when the economy recovered, technology sales and marketing was never the same. There is a cold hard fact: the old selling approaches don’t work well in today’s environment:

Product selling. Approach today’s buyer with a product-selling approach, presenting features, functionality, and benefits, and the buyer’s eyes will glaze over. Product Selling relies on the buyer to connect the dots – understand the application and outcome of the solution that they can receive. Buyers just don’t have the time, patience, and resources for this “you figure it out approach.” However, we find that over 30% of vendors and sales professionals still rely on this antique sales approach.

Solution selling. The most common sales approach today with over 60% of sellers, Solution Selling, is where the vendor’s sales team “seeks out current concerns in a question-and-answer dialogue with customer managers.” According to Mr. Moore, Solution Selling is not dead, as it is “still the right approach when the customer understands the challenge to be faced and has the budget in place but believes that point products or services are insufficient to solve the problem.”

However, this approach does not work well higher up in organizations, as executives want insight and advice, not question-and-answer-sessions. Moreover, most buyers are so overloaded that they often are not even aware of “pain” you are trying to solve. These overloaded customers want consultative advice and a focus on value/outcomes, not just a salesperson listening for keywords and presenting canned advice.

According to Mr. Moore, “Whereas solution-selling listens for “pain points” that the customer can clearly articulate, provocation works best when it outlines a problem that the customer is experiencing but has not yet put a name to.”

Fight frugalnomics with provocation-based selling Provocation-Based Selling works best in the earliest stages of the buying cycle, where it is currently easier for the buyer to avoid spending precious budget dollars and new project risk. Provocation-Based Selling helps to loosen the status quo by making the buyer aware that there is a cost of doing nothing, helping to proactively and holistically:

  • Illuminate issues of which they might not have been aware
  • Confirm the symptoms they were aware of but could not easily put a name on
  • Prioritize which issues require the most ardent pursuit and quantify the competitive or other value which may be achieved by resolving the issue (creating urgency)
  • Consultatively, based on priorities, recommend a solution roadmap to stepwise remedy the issues

How to develop your own provocation-based selling program

So this approach makes a lot of sense. How do you get started in implementing this methodology? We have found that provocation-based selling programs should be applied for a particular solution set / grouping, and it’s best to start with one product line in mind. Moore offered several key steps to help develop a Provocation-Based Selling Program:

1. Identify a critical problem. Find the critical issues the buyers / decision making executives may be facing in their industry, company-specific challenges, or group / day-to-day challenges that are aligned with what your solutions can help resolve.

2. Formulate your provocation. The provocation can be formulated into a diagnostic/assessment methodology and tool. We recommend implementing a tool with the following components to help automate the provocation process:

  • Survey. In order to diagnose key issues, you often have to ask a few questions. These questions often probe the customer on their current sentiment, goals / plans, management practices and spending.
  • Benchmark comparison. From these survey data points, the current (as-is) situation of the customer is compared against a set of known data points representing what others are doing – a benchmark. Comparing the customer’s survey responses to those of peers, and especially leaders, confirms where the organization is doing well, and more importantly illuminates where the organization is falling behind / lagging the competition and/or best practices.
  • Assessment. Comparing the survey versus the benchmark, the tool and sales team can assess where the customer needs to improve the most – where they are lower performing compared to peers and leaders – highlighting specific issues and priorities.
  • Roadmap advice. For each priority, a solution is recommended, forming a stepwise recommendation of potential remedies over the next couple of years.
  • Outcome/value. As organizations are risk averse, there often has to be more than competitive pressure justification to approve a plan. From the customer’s current improvement opportunities and the recommended proposed solutions, an estimate is made as to the value of the improvements – how they can help the customer do more with less, cut current costs, avoid future capital spending, reduce operating costs, generate more revenue/business, reduce business risks, and become more flexible/agile. Quantifying the benefits is a requirement for today’s economic-focused buyers.
  • Next steps. With buyers more overloaded than ever, the first steps towards health are so important. A succinct action plan is essential, covering how to get started on the way to the cure, over the next 30 / 60 / 90 days.

3. Lodge your provocation. The delivery of the program and presentation of results is an important aspect of the provocative-selling method.

For marketers, the diagnostics can be used as the centerpiece of engagement campaigns, offering a free assessment to respondents, and a part of the offer may go like this: “We’ve worked with companies in your peer group and have seen how the leading players are experiencing this painful problem. We think it’s possible that your company is at risk in this area as well.”

For sales professionals, the provocation engagement and presentation are vitally important. The engagement needs to be a facilitative discovery process and not a confrontation or a sales pitch, helping the customer to uncover the issues that might be preventing them from reaching their goals and helping them realize that change would “do them good.”

According to Mr. Moore, “The goal is to disturb the executive’s equilibrium—and make the status quo untenable—without putting him or her on the defensive. Presenting specific, well-supported concerns and remedies in a forthright manner keeps the focus on business performance for an executive who is accountable for it.”

The bottom line

With buyers more empowered, skeptical and frugal than ever, it is increasingly difficult for B2B sales professionals and marketers to connect, engage and sell using traditional methods. Even as the economy recovers, buyers have fundamentally changed and require a new approach in order to gain sales success.

Provocation-based selling, the use of diagnostic assessment tools, is one method that can be used to help buyers recognize a heretofore unknown need for your solutions, increase the priority of your proposals, and gain a piece of the scarce discretionary funding pie.

Example after example has proven that this approach, implemented by early-adopter sales-enablement groups and marketers, has led to more strategic/executive engagements, opened up significant new sales opportunities, and driven incremental sales.

Click here for Geoffrey Moore’s Harvard Business Review article, “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers.” Another leading sales and marketing luminary, Seth Godin, holds similar points of view, outlined in this blog commentary at “Don’t Just ‘Sell the Problem,’ Quantify It.”

Click here for more examples of successful assessment tool programs.

Tom Pisello is chairman and founder of Alinean.

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