Recently I went to an art gallery with my wife. There was a painting there that caught my eye by a local artist named Zachary Proctor. The painting was incredible, but it wasn’t really the painting that left an impression on me, it was the title of the painting. The painting looked like a black and white photograph of an older train engineer cleaning the head light of an old fashion train. The painting was entitled, “Anticipating Darkness.” That title made the painting that much more meaningful to me.
At night, engineers need that headlight to see because stuff gets on the tracks all the time. During the day, the headlight is so other people can see the train coming. Keeping that headlight clean can save lives. I am sure it is inadvisable to clean the headlight while the train is moving, and you will get behind schedule if you have to stop to clean it. Once you are moving, it’s too late to clean the light. The engineer demonstrates a key concept to avoid darkness—preparation.
Being Prepared is Key to Success
Preparation is critical to success in sales. I recently completed an interview with a client’s customer where he complained that my client’s presentation felt too mechanical, stale, and rehearsed because they were sticking to a script. The script was based on an approach that they had found to be very effective with other clients. They had multiple presentations and they were fine with that approach the first time. However, when they saw it in follow-up presentations, it came across as disingenuous. The competitor who stole the business was more casual and their attitude better aligned with their company culture.
I explained during the discovery session with this sales team that their presentation wasn’t necessarily the issue. There are some prospects that prefer the script approach to ensure everything is covered, and there are others who prefer a more problem-solving type of session. The root cause was to really dig in before the presentation to see which approach would be most effective for this audience. The competitor spent the time understanding their needs prior to the presentation and talking directly to those needs during the presentation. There was a connection made when this company demonstrated it understood their issues and demonstrated how it would solve them. In talking with the sales rep after the deal was lost, he admitted this was a concern and they tried to adapt but it was too late.
Don’t Assume You’ll Win Just ‘Cause You’re the Incumbent
Preparation is just as important when you are the incumbent. Assumptions are a dangerous thing. Every week, I will talk with buyers who said that a sales team assumed to know their needs and concerns. The perception is they don’t care about their business. This is especially a problem when my client is the incumbent. I can’t tell you how many people I have spoken with where the sales team just didn’t prepare and complacency had set in. They thought the upgrade or renewal was in the bag. Meanwhile their competitors are cleaning their headlights and coming at them full steam. You should treat all opportunities—whether they be an existing customer or not—as a new deal.
As a sales rep, you should always remember the following conversation:
“On which side of the platform is my train?” asked a stranger in a Jersey City depot the other day.
“Well, my friend,” replied a gentleman passing, “if you take the left you’ll be right; if you take the right you’ll be left.”
You would think that all experienced sales reps would know the importance of understanding their buyers’ needs, but it continues to be one of the top issues when companies lose. Most companies want a partner, not a vendor. That partnership starts at the discovery phase. In other words you need to, ahem, “get on-board” with what they are trying to do first.