People have expressed interest in how we use Clean Language in sales, so I thought it would be helpful to occasionally discuss specific scenarios, to give a feeling of what it is like in practice.
I’ve described one meeting of perhaps 20 we’ll have with this company over the next 2 years. In retrospect, it is possibly the one where the pure “Clean” is hardest to spot.
However, from a sales perspective this is the major meeting and hence most interesting – and I’m writing to attract practicing sales people to Clean rather than give a technical example of Clean in a business context.
Over time I’ll try to write up things like our cold call script and initial meetings, which are much more straightforward and easier to see Clean in action.
There’s a lot of contradictory stuff in the sales world, and I think that’s because people take techniques that work in one situation and unknowingly mis-apply them into another situation.
IMHO everything is right at some point, and the trick is to realise the differences in context that make a difference to the application of techniques.
In this case, we are:
- B2B, selling to a large company who have a purchasing department, many divisions, etc.
- Selling a software product which they’ll use for 10+ years, for a deal worth over £500k.
- Providing solutions that need a complex sale – there are lots of tradeoffs between different parts of the organisation.
- Often those different audiences will not have worked together before, at least in this context, and there are no clear lines of overall authority.
- We’re talking with audiences who generally have a postgraduate degree or PhD – they’re very used to, and expect, detailed technical discussions when needed. You can’t manipulate them.
The Story so far
One of this prospect’s related companies already uses our software, they’ve got an internal initiative to do something similar so they reached out to us a few months ago and had a demo over The Internet.
They then asked if we’d visit in person and do a longer more in depth presentation to a group of them. Normally we don’t do this, but it was a good training opportunity for one of my colleagues so we agreed.
We don’t know that much about the meeting beforehand, which I’m not too stressed about. We don’t know agenda, attendees, interests etc.
I don’t typically do a lot of preparation before a meeting like this because I want to be as “Clean” as possible. Most of the content will come from the discussion we have in the meeting.
I do have:
- Our product, ready to demo
- A brief (8 slide) sales presentation, which I won’t use except to show a slide of representative customers
- Experience 🙂
I am accompanied by one of our account managers, and strictly we should do a Clean Setup before the meeting. In this case we didn’t which was remiss of us, but we got away with it because my colleague didn’t really have an active role in the meeting. Their job is to keep me safe, mainly by taking note of important things.
Starting the Meeting
We start the meeting out as cleanly as possible. In this case I asked our host as he was walking us from reception what the participants were expecting.
Turns out this is a big meeting of lots of departmental managers from all around the company. They briefly showed an agenda and basically they’ve got 2 hours with us, then they’re into their annual planning session, presumably to plan budgets for next year.
So this is a powerful meeting, and they’re mostly German so there’s a touch more polite formality and the hierarchy is a bit more visible than you’d find in the US or UK.
Unfortunately just because the people are powerful doesn’t mean they are in touch with reality, so I need to make sure they understand their problem adequately.
The senior guy formally welcomes us and we do the “Go round the room and introduce yourself” thing. Traditional sales would have us paying careful attention to people’s roles at this point, but we tend not to worry too much. That’s partly because I have problems tracking that kind of detail, but also – I don’t care. You can get misled by titles, what really matters is what people say and how they react to others.
They hand the meeting over to me, and I ask something like “How would you like to spend the next couple of hours?” – I’ve been somewhat told already but I want everyone to understand what I’ve been asked to do. I also want the exact wording so I can use that as a closer – “When we started you said you wanted to do XX in our time together. Have we achieved that?”
What they want me to do is demo our system and “spice it up a bit” with more detail, examples from our experience etc.
So I do that, but I do it very interactively. Ideally I’m not moving too far without getting some calibration. So I’ll show a feature, look for questions and clarifications. I’ll describe a concept and see who is with me by paying attention to their body language.
All the way along I’m looking for them to talk – questions, comments etc. I’m using what I have (information) to trade for what I want (their words).
I’m making sure I use their words to describe concepts as much as I can. I’m taking every opportunity to bring to the surface their issues, get a common understanding of them, and then demonstrate how we deal with it. It is quite probable they’ve never discussed this problem in depth together before, so part of what I’m doing is facilitating a group understanding so they can form a buying team. If there’s no buying team, there’s not going to be a sale, regardless of how compelling our product is.
The bigger picture is I’m trying to help them form a consistent shared vision of their requirements – shades of Systemic Modelling here. If you’ve done the “5 Senses” exercise, you’d recognise some of the approaches.
I’ll often ask a clarifying question in response to a question, generally for one of the following reasons:
- I genuinely need to explore their question, get more detail, more words etc. before I can answer it
- I think it would be helpful for other people in the room to get more detail
- To keep them used to that kind of to-and-fro in the discussion
The questions I typically ask are:
- What kind of XX
- What happens just before/after XX
- Is there a relationship between XX and YY
- What would you see if XX
This is often a very fast-flowing engagement. I’ve got 15 people in the room and they are all asking me questions from their individual perspective as well as their perception of group needs, with attitudes which spread the spectrum from trying to trip me up, to making an internal political point, to asking me really supportive questions.
During all of this my colleague is busy writing up the words the meeting participants use to describe their world and how we might fit. He’ll use that in follow up with our contact over the next few weeks/months.
A metaphor for what I’m doing might be rock climbing. Every touch point with my audience is where I put a piton in the sheer rock face to get a safe anchor point. Then I say something, demo a feature or something, but I’m hanging off what they said and seeking to hammer in another pitons further towards my goal. And the web of pitons (things which are true in their world) and ropes (contextual meaning) that I create is the thing that keeps the engagement safe.
This is Germany, so the meeting ends exactly on time.
Generally, they were really nice – I often find that although that Germans are more formal than US/UK (everyone is “Herr xxx”) they are really lovely, genuine and kind.
What we got out of this meeting:
- They’ve described their problem, using their own words, to each other. This helps them form a buying committee.
- We know what those words are and can use them downstream in the sales process to make sure we’re respecting both their problem, and how they describe it.
- We’ve explained our solution in the context of their problem.
If we’ve done a good job, it’ll be natural for them to move to the next stage with us, and they’ll have the internal capability to do so because they’ve got a group of people able to participate in the project.
My account manager colleague followed up with the pricing they wanted and they replied:
Thank you very much for your timely follow-up to our meeting. Yes, it was a very lively and useful one indeed. It was refreshing to see professionals talking about something they really understand and are enthusiastic about.
Will they buy? Who knows – this could be a 12 or even 18 month sales cycle.
Due to our long sales cycle, our sales process is instrumented to focus on the amount of emotional engagement we’ve got with the prospect, and that’s good enough to move that opportunity along a stage in our sales pipe.
Where’s the Clean?
This isn’t a therapy or coaching session, or even Systemic Modelling; my contract with this group of people was somewhat assumed by tradition and could extend from “Show us your product” to “Help us understand our problem and how you can solve it” – the latter being where good sales people are these days.
They are expecting a “normal” sales call, and I’ve found over the years that you can’t ask lots of questions up front – they get upset – people have literally said “You’re meant to tell us what you do, stop asking us things”. This is a trading game. So I’m asking a couple of questions, giving some information within that context, getting some feedback, and moving forward bit by bit.
What I can’t do is ask more than a probably three questions up front. That breaks the assumed rules of how sales meetings are meant to go, no matter how you dress it up.
But I do believe I’m being Clean in that I’m:
- Clean in intent. I’m not there to sell, or manipulate them. I’m there to help them understand their problem and establish if they want to work with us any more.
- Using their words wherever possible.
- Putting as little of myself/product/company into the process as possible.
This is very, very different from a typical sales engagement!
- I’m not pretending or hoping to know anything about the prospect.
What Would Traditional Sales Do?
There’s a huge difference between this approach and what you might learn through sales training. If you are a sales professional you can probably skip this section but non-sales people might find it helpful to have some explored.
I don’t give a pre-canned presentation, which is something that’s very important in a lot of organisations. They’ll have been prepared by marketing and given to sales teams with great ceremony, often with various props and detailed instructions on when to reveal what.
Presentations have words, and if I bring my words to the meeting I don’t get theirs. I’m not sure you can have a pre-prepared presentation and be properly “Clean”.
Presentations also dictate timings; I don’t know when things will come up in conversation.
I do have a set of diagrams which I will typically draw at appropriate times, although I’ll annotate them with their words, not mine.
I don’t really prepare, and that’s very deliberate – the more I prepare, the less I am open to them.
To the extent that I prepare, I’ll try to clear my mind. Pick any mindfulness or meditation technique that works for you given the circumstances.
The one exception is that ideally I’d do a Clean Setup with any colleagues in the room with me.
So I haven’t researched the company or the individuals. They’ll tell me anything I need – in their words, which is how I need it.
A lot of sales people will want to make careful note of who is in the meeting, what the roles are, where the relative power is, etc.
I don’t tend to worry about that too much; partly because my brain doesn’t do that well with so much detail, but also I’ve found it doesn’t matter. I wonder if it isn’t a case of sales people recording this stuff because they can and it makes them feel in control.
We can’t control the interactions within the prospect; in addition even if they’d take our calls, keeping tabs on everyone would be very time consuming.
I figure our attention is better spent on helping them as a system form a common understanding of their problem and our solution.
In most sales organisations a sales meeting would be run by the “Sales Person” who would then have a “Technical Pre-Sales” person to assist with the demo, technical questions etc.
In our case, I’m probably the technical sales person, and I’m leading the meeting. This gives us a lot of credibility – it comes over as less of a sales meeting than a training session.
What Clean is doing is giving me, as a technical person, the tools to successfully engage with a group in a constructive manner. This is a bigger deal than you might think – a topic for another post!
Clean also condenses down what we get out of the meeting to a nicely compact set of words. That’s really helpful for my sales colleague who will do all the follow up (adequately capturing the essence of a sales meeting is a constant problem).
Generally – Letting Go
Most sales methodologies have a degree of manipulation, even the lightest come down to “Find out what they want, make them feel what we do best is the most important, and the stuff we don’t do that well isn’t important”.
I genuinely don’t care; my task is to help them understand their problem and how it intersects with our solution. I endeavour to do that as cleanly as possible, including pointing them to alternative solutions.
You might think this is commercially crazy, and it is if you take a short term view of business. But longer term, using a very Clean approach, we:
- Get to understand the market’s true requirements, rather than what we guess they are.
- Get a realistic view of how we fit those requirements, and what we need to do to adapt to a changing market.
- Develop sustainable long term client relationships.
My view is Clean is probably devastating if you look at sales from a quarter-on-quarter basis. But if you look at year-to-year, it is probably the key to building a sustainable, stable, profitable business.
What Would get me Fired?
I believe that if you’re going to do Clean in Sales it has to be from the top down – and that’s from the Board, down. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that I’d be fired if judged through a traditional sales lens.
To give you a feeling for why, here’s just some of the reasons I’d be fired in most organisations:
- No up-front preparation, research etc. “Irresponsible laziness!”
- No delivery of canned presentation/demo script. “Uncontrolled, risky!”
- No tracking of individuals, or indeed individual follow up. “How can we control the prospect’s decision making process?”
- No requirements reengineering/management. “What was the point of you going to see them?”
I don’t have an answer for this; I suspect the culture gap between this approach and traditional sales is as large as between other fields’ tradition and the Clean approach.
Is this sales?
As I’ve been writing this, I do wonder if what I’m doing is what some people would describe as “Sales”.
For our company, any discussion with someone who isn’t a client, and we think they might be – that’s “Sales”.
For a lot of companies sales is inherently aggressive, and manipulative. It is about meeting quota, no excuses.
That’s fine, but I am not sure that’s the best way to build a company. You don’t get to hear back from your target market, and you don’t build genuine relationships.
One of my colleagues has a previous live as an estate agent. I believe the US equivalent is “Realtor” although I suspect they aren’t viewed with the same derision!
In estate agency, despite the large ticket price, the transaction is one-time. Once the sale has completed, there’s no ongoing relationship. I suspect there’s a lot more scope for manipulative behaviour and indeed, taking a Clean approach would probably mean you’re out of business.
But for us – where we would want a mutually beneficial relationship for years if not decades, Clean works really, really well. Sales is the start of a longer relationship and we have to build a solid foundation.
This approach might mean we lose a few deals which a traditional approach would win; that’s fine for us. We want good customers, who renew year after year, stretch us with interesting problems, and recommend us to their friends.
So far this is working well. We have a happy stable company, with loyal, happy customers. I feel blessed that the foundation of this is treating people with genuine respect and curiously in the sales process 🙂
What Else Goes on?
This interaction is only part of a wider sales process. Hopefully I can cover that in other articles… but it is worth bearing in mind this is just a detailed look into one interaction of many.
Evaluating Clean in the Sales Process
- I can’t manipulate the sale. It is either real or it isn’t. There’s no place for “happy ears”.
- I learn a huge amount about the customer and their market.
- I don’t need a huge amount of domain expertise.
- The essence of the opportunity is neatly captured in a set of words.
- The customer gains the impression that I truly care about their circumstances and understands their situation.
- If the deal happens, it’ll be a good quality, solid customer – not one that will be a pain to serve and then abandon us in a few years.
- I don’t have to do very much in the sales process except remember their words.
- I no longer have an illusion of control. Sales people are never really in control of the buying process, but there does seem to be a kind of industry-wide conspiracy that demands we pretend to be.
- My managers no longer believe I have control. I think that’s probably the scariest thing!
- I can’t force-fit a bad product into the marketplace by sheer force of will.
- I have to be humble. I don’t win deals by skill, I enable deals with humility. That’s not good for a sales person’s ego!
- My opportunities can be vulnerable to a very skilled/manipulative sales person from a competitor. But deals always are vulnerable to a skilled competitor.
- It is very difficult to train an “experienced” sales person in Clean Sales. It isn’t a matter of skill – the problem is ego and attitude. This approach is 180° different from traditional sales.
More on starting the meeting
After I wrote this, there were some really good questions in the Clean Facebook groups about how I start the meetings off and why. So I’ve written a second post specifically addressing that.
Also published on Medium.