How To Collaborate With The Buyer To Lock Out The Competition

Tim Sullivan is the Corporate Vice President of Business Development at SPI.

In this episode of The Salesman Podcast, Tim shares tips on how we can collaborate with the buyer, differentiate ourselves from the competition, and win more business in an increasingly buyer-driven world.

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Featured on this episode:

Host - Will Barron
Founder of Salesman.org
Guest - Tim Sullivan
Corporate Vice President of Business Development at SPI

Resources:

Transcript

Will Barron:

Coming up on today’s episode of The Salesman Podcast.

 

Tim Sullivan:

I think too many sellers today still see their role as a walking, talking brochure, that, “Well, I’ll understand, I’ll be the expert on our capabilities, on our products and services and how they operate, features and functionality. My role in working with the customers is to make sure they have the right information so they can make a good decision.” Candidly, if that’s all you think of yourself as a salesperson or a sales professional, we don’t really need you. You’re not creating a lot of value there. We can put up a website and do that in two seconds.

 

Will Barron:

Hello Sales Nation. I’m Will Barron, host of The Salesman Podcast, the world’s most listened to B2B sales show. If you haven’t already, make sure to click Subscribe. And with that, let’s meet today’s guest.

 

Tim Sullivan:

Hi, I’m Tim Sullivan from Sales Performance International, where I’m a corporate vice president of business development, which means that I work with our customers to configure sales performance improvement solutions to their specific requirements. And occasionally, I write things about that, including my latest book, The Collaborative Sale.

 

Will Barron:

On this episode with Tim, we’re diving into how you can not just survive, but how you really thrive in a buyer-driven world, where seemingly they have a lot of power in the sales conversation, how you can essentially pull some of that power back, how you can separate yourself from the competition, how you can collaborate with the buyer so that you’re the only possible choice that they could ever want to work with, and a whole lot more. There’s a tonne of value in this episode. And so we’re going to jump into it right now.

 

Have Sellers Gone Soft or Has Sales Shifted to More of a Buyer-Driven Space? · [01:42] 

 

Will Barron:

Preemptively, I think I know what we’ll go with this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway just to set the tone of the conversation, and that is, is it that sellers have gotten soft? That sellers aren’t assertive? That sellers just don’t know how to control the sale? Or, has sales shifted? Has the space shifted into perhaps more of a buyer-driven kind of a space?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Yeah. Let me answer that with a slightly different take on that, Will. First of all, buyers are more empowered than ever before because we have this thing called the internet now and they have access to more information. In fact, in many cases they have information overload. They also want to be in control of their own buying process. And candidly, that’s a challenge for sales people today. When I first started selling back in the early ’80s, I sold computer software and related services, and I was the sole conduit through which all information had to flow. So they had to come to me. It was relatively easy to get an appointment and control the sale.

 

“Buyers today want to work with sellers as equals, they want to collaborate with sellers that can help them build solutions that are optimised for their situations. And so to that end, what we find as the biggest success factor for sellers today is not reasserting control or trying to reassert dominance over buyers today, but rather how to work effectively with them in a way that there’s really an equal exchange of value.” – Tim Sullivan · [03:14] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

That’s not true today. Today, of course, we have a lot of different methodologies and thinking about how sellers can reassert control, things like The Challenger Sale, for example, which we like a great deal. I think there’s a lot of good wisdom in that kind of approach. But I also think that it goes too far in that we’re trying to help salespeople to control buyers today, and I don’t think that’s really possible. Today, what we have learned in our research and working with our customers and looking at all the third party research as well as some of our own research, is that buyers today, they want to work with sellers as equals, They want to collaborate with sellers that can help them to build solutions that are optimised for their situations.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And so to that end, what we find as the biggest success factor for sellers today is not reasserting control or trying to reassert dominance over buyers today, but rather how to work effectively with them in a way that really, there’s an equal exchange of value. And that’s a very difficult thing for a lot of sellers, and certainly antithetical to a lot of what they have been taught. So that’s the biggest challenge I see today.

 

The Age of Sellers Controlling the Buying Process By Having Access to all Bits of Information is Long Gone · [03:50]

 

Will Barron:

And for context, I’ve been doing this show now for three and a half years. I was in medical devices, say, four years ago. The last company that I worked for wouldn’t allow us to give product catalogues to customers. They were very, very wary of pricing going out on anything that wasn’t an official quote. I just didn’t understand it at the time, now I can kind of understand it knowing the history of sales and the ownership of that information, it makes a little bit more sense. Even at the time we had I guess, catalogues for… It’s medical device sales, Tim, we had catalogues for procedures that use the products and all this extra value-adding books that we could give out.

 

Will Barron:

But we could only give those to certain people who’d fill out certain forms in case it got into the hands of the competition. All that’s just disappeared now. That’s a time of a song of yesteryear, right?

 

“Too many sellers today still see their role as a walking, talking brochure, that, “Well, I’ll understand and be the expert on our capabilities, on our products and services, and how they operate, features and functionality. My role is to work with the customers to make sure they have the right information so they can make a good decision.” Candidly, if that’s all you think of yourself as a salesperson or a sales professional, we don’t really need you. You’re not creating a lot of value there. We can put up a website and do that in two seconds.” – Tim Sullivan · [04:40] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

Yeah. I think too many sellers today still see their role as a walking, talking brochure, that, “Well, I’ll understand, I’ll be the expert on our capabilities, on our products and services, and how they operate, features and functionality. My role in working with the customers to make sure they have the right information so they can make a good decision.” Candidly, if that’s all you think of yourself as a salesperson or a sales professional, we don’t really need you. You’re not creating a lot of value there. We can put up a website and do that in two seconds. So that’s really a very limited point of view. A lot of people in the sales profession also see themselves as trying to challenge the buyer to think in new ways. And I think that’s a good thing, but it has to be done in the context of their situation and relative to your capabilities.

 

“A lot of people in the sales profession also see themselves as trying to challenge the buyer to think in new ways. And I think that’s a good thing, but it has to be done in the context of their situation and relative to your capabilities. So there needs to be a balance there. Not all customers want to be challenged, some of them have visions of solutions that align with what it is that you have to sell, so challenging them doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or frankly, they just might react very negatively to that, depending on where they are in their purchase process.”  – Tim Sullivan · [05:23] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

So there needs to be a balance there. Not all customers want to be challenged, some of them have visions of solutions that align with what it is that you have to sell, so challenging them doesn’t make a lot of sense. Or frankly, they just might react very negatively to that, depending on where they are in their purchase process. So selling has become a lot more nuanced now, I think, than it used to be, and that requires more sophisticated level of skills. And I think it also means that sellers need to be more adept and more agile in how they work with different kinds of buying situations.

 

Are Buyers of Today More Informed than Buyers From 20 Years Ago? · [06:08] 

 

Will Barron:

I don’t know if there’s data on this, I don’t know if there’s anecdotal evidence on this, I don’t know how well this has been, I guess, studied or thoughts or books. If from one hand buyers are empowered, they’ve got access to information, they don’t need us. We use the term all the time of, when you get in further down the sales process, buyers are more educated. But on the other hand, I’ve used the phrase, they’ve suffered from perhaps information overload. If it’s a new manager, they may not know the internal buying process, they might not know the external buying process.

 

Will Barron:

If you look at the average buyer, the average B2B sale of today versus 10, 20 years ago, are they more educated? Are they better educated? Or did they just have more information?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Well, that’s a good question. First of all, more information, you would think that would lead to better education. Actually, if they’ve just been inundated more propaganda, thanks to content marketing today, they’re constantly being bombarded with different points of view, and they select which points of view that align with the kinds of things they’re trying to accomplish. I think the important thing is that for sellers, we need to go in, when we’re working with buyers, that we need to assume that they’ve been exposed to a lot of different content and some misinformation as well as valuable information.

 

Tim Sullivan:

But regardless, that customer or the buyer is going to have formulate some kind of vision in their mind about what they think they need usually before they engage with us. And so it’s our job then to validate or participate first in that vision, frankly, congratulate their thinking and what they’ve done so far, as opposed to confronting them or challenging them in some way, and then see how we can help to refine or improve that vision. Would you be interested in perhaps some other alternative ways of doing this or expanding and what it is that you’ve already considered? And then we can bring in our capabilities in a way to help support that vision for the customer.

 

“Yes, buyers definitely do have a lot of information. We have to assume that that’s the case when we engage with them. But they may not have the right information. And the worst thing that you can do is say, “Hey, you’re all wrong about this. You really don’t understand what it is that you’re buying. Let me set you straight and put you in the right direction.” I think it’s important to participate in their vision first and then guide them to some better ways of doing things that perhaps they hadn’t thought of, or in a way that refines or improves on the vision that they’ve developed themselves.” – Tim Sullivan · [08:32] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

And frankly, our research shows that that’s what buyers want. They want to work with salespeople who can come to the table and understand their situation, understanding their capabilities as well, but only bringing those that are really relevant to what it is they’re trying to accomplish or do, or if they can introduce new capabilities, enable them to do more value-added things that are relevant to their situation they hadn’t had before. And so yes, buyers definitely do have a lot of information. We have to assume that that’s the case when we engage with them, but they may not have the right information.

 

Tim Sullivan:

But the worst thing that you can do is say, “Hey, you’re all wrong about this. You really don’t understand what it is that you’re buying. Let me set you straight and put you in the right direction.” I think it’s important to participate in their vision first and then guide them to some better ways of doing things that perhaps they hadn’t thought of, or in a way that refines or improves on the vision that they’ve developed themselves.

 

Buyer-Centric Selling · [09:05] 

 

Will Barron:

This makes a lot of sense if we get an inbound inquiry to one that’s doing the research, perhaps the decision makers, task someone else in their team to gather data, quotes, vendor information, all this kind of stuff. Does this also work, I guess, the principles here of being buyer centrical, buyer aligned with outbound prospecting when perhaps we haven’t spoke to the person yet, but we think that we might be a good fit for them?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Yeah. You make a very good point. In fact, there’s this school of thought now that if buyers are educating themselves and have access to this information, then probably the best thing for sellers to do is wait aggressively by the telephone and wait for the customer to call.

 

Will Barron:

If that is all we have to do, that’d be nice, won’t it?

 

Tim Sullivan:

And then wait for them to call us and then we can help to improve. And that’s obviously totally wrong, you’ll never make your number or whatever your goal or quota is if that’s the case, unless you have something that’s just so in demand all you’re doing is fulfilling orders, in which case, what do we need you as a salesperson in the first place? But that is a wrong-headed thinking. It is possible to engage with early stage buyers and influence their thinking and shape the direction that they’re heading with whatever evaluation that they’re undertaking.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And I find that many buyers today don’t know how to do that in today’s world, with modern buyers. The question you need to ask yourself is, where are your buyers going to gather information about the kinds of capabilities that you provide? Are they going online to forums and communicating with their peers, maybe in similar industries? Are they going to more traditional routes, industry and association meetings and so forth? That still happens today. And the question is, can we as salespeople participate in those conversations so that we can shape their thinking? That’s the best way to engage with early stage buyers.

 

Tim Sullivan:

But that totally changes my definition as a salesperson. What I need to do is create a brand for myself. What am I an expert in? How do I create value? How do I take the capabilities I have and then shake that in such a way that it’s meaningful to certain customers, and now when I go in and converse with them or engage in those conversations, I’m actually contributing to that conversation, I’m just not making a pitch, I’m trying to influence their thinking? Those buyers that are in an early stage where they’re beginning to formulate a vision, if we can connect with them by going where they are and having a conversation with them…

 

“Markets are conversations and we as salespeople need to recognise that that’s what’s happening. In fact, I can guarantee that most of your buyers today, whether you know it or not, are conversing with your current customers, it doesn’t take very long for them to connect with them.” – Tim Sullivan · [11:45] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

There was a great book that was written many years ago called the Cluetrain Manifesto that says today, markets are conversations and we as salespeople need to recognise that that’s what’s happening. In fact, I can guarantee that most of your buyers today, whether you know it or not are conversing with your current customers, it doesn’t take very long for them to connect with them. So you can’t control the conversation like you used to. So what I find exciting is those sellers who understand that dynamic and create a brand for themselves and can contribute to those conversations are able to engage much earlier and help shape their thinking and thereby, candidly put them in a better position to win.

 

Will Barron:

I’m hesitant as I ask this question, but I’m going to ask it anyway, Tim.

 

Tim Sullivan:

Okay.

 

How a Young and Relatively Inexperienced Salesperson Can Gain That Competitive Edge Over the More Experienced Competition · [12:35] 

 

Will Barron:

It’s nothing to be too worried about, but if someone is 50 years old as a round number, they have the medical device sales, they’ve been in the industry for a long time, perhaps they’ve spent a lot of time with different surgeons. It’s not unreasonable for them to, if they’re doing any extracurricular activities whatsoever, to proclaim relatively confidently, “I’m an expert in perhaps this one procedure or this medical device, I sell endoscopy equipment.” I was an expert in camera systems, I knew them inside outs, I could pull them apart, I could pull them up together.

 

Will Barron:

I worked for the two biggest companies in the space, so I knew my products, the competitors’ products, again, inside and out. I’m not 50, but hopefully I don’t look 50, I have been in my 30s, but I could go into most hospitals and have a high-level discussion with someone and perhaps go to some of these industry events or whatever it is. And again, if someone is 50, they’ve been in the role for 20, 30 years, whatever it is, they can build a brand on that confidently and congruently. What does this look like for a 23-year-old who has perhaps two years’ experience in selling a specific product?

 

Will Barron:

We’ll keep it to high-deal size technical products for this conversation in the B2B space, but perhaps they don’t have the experience of the competition, they can’t compete on that. How do they brand themselves to still get a competitive edge or where do they find their competitive edge?

 

Tim Sullivan:

You’re touching on two issues that I think are important to talk about. First of all, we work with lots of young salespeople, we’re in the sales training and development business and onboarding new people and bringing them up to a level of proficiency very quickly, is one of the things that we do. And one of the things that young sales people make the mistake of is that they think, “Well, I really can’t create a brand for myself and position myself as an expert until I’ve had 20, 30 years of experience.” Certainly, what I find is that a lot of salespeople may have 20 or 30 years of time in that particular career, but they might have one or two years of experience 20 times, but they never really get up, they never learn to develop the level of expertise that’s required to really be considered an expert.

 

“Here’s the question I would ask a new seller, “how often do people buy what you have to offer?” Your buyers might be buying, in many cases, one or two times in their career. How many times are you going to be selling? In a relatively short period of time, you’re going to have dozens of experiences in a much more compressed period of time. So you have more experience and more expertise at how buyers use these things and how they can create new value than they have much faster, because you’re specialised in that capability or that set of capabilities. So don’t underestimate your potential value to a buyer even if you’re relatively new to the game, you still have access to information that they don’t have. “ – Tim Sullivan · [14:49] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

So it doesn’t take that long to up enough expertise where you can create your own brand build a lot of value for a buyer. Here’s the question I would ask a new seller, how often do people buy what you have to offer? Your buyers might be buying, in many cases, medical devices. They might do that one or two times in their career. How many times are you going to be selling? In a relatively short period of time, you’re going to have dozens of experience in a much more compressed period of time. So you have more experience and more expertise at how buyers use these things and how they can create new value than they have much faster, because you’re specialised in that capability or that set of capabilities.

 

Tim Sullivan:

So don’t underestimate your potential value to a buyer even if you’re relatively new to the game, you still have access to information that they don’t have. You still have, for example, in the medical device, one of our clients is in that, actually we have a couple of clients in the medical device field, and they do clinical studies and they do analysis. They have access to the information. It’s my job as a new seller to understand that, and then be able to convey that clinical data in a way that’s meaningful to someone who’s making a medical purchase. That’s something they can’t do. So that is something you can build a brand around relatively quickly.

 

“There’s this general perception that sellers, regardless of experience, when they enter into a dialogue with a buyer, they tend to see the buyer as having all the power and they don’t have any, or they have very little. And so they enter into it with this subservient, “Please Sir, may I have some more,” kind of mentality. And we found that when we interview buyers, they find that very repugnant, they do not want to work with subservient sellers. They want to work with people who are going to come to the table with a certain point of view, they don’t even necessarily have to agree with that point of view, but something that’s going to create value for them in the solution.” – Tim Sullivan · [16:16] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

The second thing I want to bring is that there’s this general perception, and it drives me nuts, but I see it way too often, far more often than I should, is that sellers, regardless of experience, when they enter into a dialogue with a buyer, they tend to see the buyers having all the power and they don’t have any, or they have very little. And so they enter into it with this subservient, “Please Sir, may I have some more,” kind of mentality. And first of all, we found that when we interview buyers, they find that very repugnant, they do not want to work with subservient sellers.

 

Tim Sullivan:

They want to work with people who are going to come to the table with a certain point of view, they don’t even necessarily have to agree with that point of view, but something that’s going to create value for them in the solution. So one of the issue is that I have with new sellers is that they always start with that mentality, and what we need to do is even it out. They need to understand that they do have something meaningful to say, they do have access to information, they do have a body of experience and expertise, even in a short period of time, which relative to that buyer might be equal or even superior to what they have depending on the solution that they’re selling.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And once they understand that, then it makes it much easier for them to enter in this with the idea that, “Well, I’m going to collaborate with you as an equal, as a specialist in this field so that you can make a good buying decision.” I don’t buy that just because I’m relatively new to the sales game, that I don’t have something meaningful to say. If that’s the case, then we would only hire people with 20 years of experience, but it’s got to come from somewhere.

 

What is Collaborative Selling? · [18:06] 

 

Will Barron:

That was incredibly empowering, Tim, for anyone who’s listening who is new to sales. So I appreciate that. I was trying to bait an answer out of you like that. And I totally agree with everything that you said there, and that’s really useful for the audience and empowering anyone who is new to sales. With all said, that’s awesome. If, or is the two levels to, this is the collaborating with the buyer on the things that they expect. And we can cover that so we touch all the bases. And then is there perhaps a other layer to this of what we can do above and beyond everyone else to separate ourselves? Is that a potential way of thinking about this?

 

“First of all, buyers are expecting sellers to have expertise around the capabilities that they offer, the products and services and the things that they can do for customers, and that’s obvious. And most sellers are well-trained in that, but more importantly, they also expect sellers to understand their situation. In other words, what are the challenges of their job? What are the challenges of their industry? Who are they selling to? You need to have some understanding of what it’s like to be them. And then to use that as a filter against your capabilities to only then bring the capabilities that are relevant to solving that particular problem. Most sellers have a difficult time with that, they want to show the whole portfolio and they can’t wait for the buyer to shut up so they can do their PowerPoint presentation, and that’s not the right way to do it. That’s not what buyers are looking for in sellers. The third thing that they’re looking for in sellers is, amazingly, good selling skills. They like to work with salespeople that are passionate about their capabilities, and that have the ability to be persuasive about it. Everybody likes to buy things from people that are passionate about what they have to offer. The fourth thing, obviously, is good interpersonal skills. And today, that means good writing skills as well as good verbal or face-to-face skills.” – Tim Sullivan · [18:46] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

Yeah, absolutely. Let me put it this way, when we look at what buyers expect from sellers today, they’re looking for five things, and we wrote about this in the book, The Collaborative Sale. We call this the various principles of situational fluency. First of all, buyers are expecting sellers to have expertise around the capabilities that you offer, the products and services and the things that they can do for customers, and that’s obvious. And most sellers are well-trained in that, but more importantly, they also expect sellers to understand their situation. In other words, what are the challenges of their job? What are the challenges of their industry? Who are they selling to?

 

Tim Sullivan:

You need to have some understanding of what it’s like to be them. And then to use that as a filter against your capabilities to only then bring the capabilities that are relevant to solving that particular problem. Most sellers have a difficult time with them, they want to show the whole portfolio and, “Stop me when you see something that looks interesting.” They can’t wait for the buyer to shut up so they can do their PowerPoint presentation, and that’s not the right way to do it. That’s not what buyers are looking for in sellers. The third thing that they’re looking for in sellers is, amazingly, good selling skills.

 

Tim Sullivan:

They like to work with salespeople that are passionate about their capabilities, and that have the ability to be persuasive about it. Everybody likes to buy things from people that are passionate about what they have to offer. They don’t want to work with somebody who doesn’t have good selling skills. Related to that, or the fourth thing, obviously, good interpersonal skills. And today, that means good writing skills as well as good verbal or face-to-face kinds of skills today, especially when you’re trying to sell on these things, in less than 144 characters. We work with a lot of European folks who have sold at the C-level almost entirely through texting, which is bizarre, but it does happen.

 

Will Barron:

To drop an anecdote on that, I talk about this seemingly a bunch on the show, but I would text the surgeons that I was speaking to all the time, because if they’ve got the hands inside a patient, they’re elbow deep, well, they’ll get a member of the nursing staff to read text messages that come in and transcribe them into the phone so they can reply. But they couldn’t have a phone like held into the sterile field to the side of the head or on speakerphone, I guess you’re less in control of what’s coming in and out so everyone can hear you. So yeah, we’d use texts all the time to not necessarily win a deal, but to confirm meetings and book meetings or things like that.

 

Tim Sullivan:

Absolutely. Communication skills, and more importantly, modern communication skills. The ability to use the technologies that people use to communicate today is very important. And then the fifth thing that’s required for excellent situational fluency, and this is relatively new, is that ability to collaborate. That is, “I have enough expertise to come to the table with a point of view,” and we can then test that against your vision of what a potential solution is regardless of how well formed it is early, middle, or light. And then we’ll either add value to what you have or we’ll move to a different kind of a solution depending on what it is you’re trying to accomplish.

 

Tim Sullivan:

The other part of that that’s really important, and this is where I think a lot of salespeople fail, is that they also need to be perceived by the buyer that they’re always acting in the buyer’s best interest. For example, I have an insurance agent that I had been doing work with for 30 years, and there’s only one reason why that is, because he’s actually told me, “Don’t buy that, or this is something you don’t need to buy. It doesn’t work in your situation.” And he very well could have made a huge commission on it, and I came to the table saying, “Hey, I heard great things about this particular product, can you sell me some of that?” And he advised me otherwise.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And as a result, I’ve bought more from him than I probably ever should have. But the point is, we want to work with people that we trust and we want to work with people that, “Oh, I never think of him as a salesperson, I think of him as an advisor.” When we talk with buyers who work with salespeople that they like to work with, they have all five elements of situational fluency. Now, they understand their products, they understand their situation, they have good selling skills, they have good interpersonal skills, and they are able to collaborate effectively by coming to the table with a point of view, and they’re always acting in the customer’s best interest.

 

Tim Sullivan:

If you have all of those things, regardless of your level of experience, then you are going to be aligning with buyers and meeting them where they are and be much more successful. If you’re not having that kind of a relationship, and the good test for that is, are customers or buyers asking you for advice or are they just taking the information that you have and doing whatever they want with it without any real feedback? If you’re finding that you’re moving up to a more trusted advisor level, and they’re soliciting your advice, even in areas that might not be exactly in your area of expertise, then that’s an indicator that you are demonstrating situational fluency. If you’re not hearing that, some aspect of that is missing.

 

Why Collaborative Selling is a Step Beyond Consulting · [23:46] 

 

Will Barron:

I don’t know how it works in my brain, but you’ve connected a couple of neurons here for me, Tim. Over the past, say 12 months, I understand the market forces of this. So I sell the ad space on the podcast, I’m still proactively selling. I test everything that we talk about on the show. Over the last 12 months, it’s been more difficult to sell the ad space. I assumed it was because not that I was getting worse at selling, which could may have been the case, but I assumed it was the audience is getting much bigger, so it’s not two grand a month to sponsor the show, we’re talking five figures and up to work with us at all in a meaningful way.

 

Will Barron:

There’s also a lot more podcasts out there than it ever has been before, and so if you wanted to test the waters with a podcast, a branding or advertising campaign, there’s probably other places to start and see if you get any traction, and then you come over to the… Even though we’re at a large business podcast, but we’re a small podcast versus like the entertainment podcasts. So perhaps you’d step up to ours and then you could go elsewhere as well depending on whether you wanted to be in front sales professionals or not. I assumed it was that, but I’m still closing deals.

 

Will Barron:

Every deal that we close. So there’s a Soapbox mug on the table here. They’ve sponsored the show for the next 12 months, the wonderful people over at Soapbox and Wistia. Every deal I’ve done with the guys from Soapbox, it’s been a collaborative deal. It’s been, “Well, we don’t want to just want to the show, we want to integrate our brand with yours, we want you to create content for us. We want you to do this and this and this.” And of course humbly, and I’m sure they won’t mind me saying, as soon as you start doing that, the pricing investment goes up. So it’s a win for me, it’s revenue. It’s no capital. It keeps the lights on here in the studio and keeps this content coming out for Sales Nation.

 

Will Barron:

And of course they get more out of it because it’s a more bespoke service that I’m providing them. It’s not just saying, “I’ll give you shout-out midway through the audio episode of the show,” they’re integrated into the video side of things, the audio side of things. We’ve collaborated in a whole bunch of content so far, and it makes a lot more sense. But I’ve never really thought about it as a collaboration before. I’ve thought about it as, “What do I need to do to work with these individuals?” So maybe I was putting the customer on a bit of a pedestal as you described earlier on. But as we talk about collaboration, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing inadvertently, isn’t it?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Absolutely. And most people that are doing it, and we call them Eagle performers, and frankly, they’re very frustrating to interview because they’re intuitively doing the right thing. But if you ask them, “Well, what are you doing that makes you great?” They can’t really tell you. It’s like asking a Michael Jordan, “Why are you a great basketball player? I don’t know. I practise a lot. This is what I do.” But if we can be aware of that and do it consciously, then we can align with buyers much faster and we can do more. So it’s a good thing that you’re doing it intuitively.

 

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate yourself by what you sell; globalisation, we have wider markets than ever before, it’s easier to reach people than ever before, there’s more competition. The way we really differentiate ourselves now is by how we interact with the customer.” – Tim Sullivan · [26:38] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

By the way, you touched on something else that I think is really important, is that, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate yourself by what you sell. Globalisation, we have wider markets than ever before, it’s easier to reach people than ever before, there’s more competition. I’ll often ask audiences that I speak to, “How many of you think that selling is harder now than it was even a few years ago?” And everybody’s hand goes up? And I say, “You’re not crazy. You’re absolutely right. It is more difficult today. You do have more competition. And you can’t lead with your product anymore, you have to have something else to come to the table.”

 

“Too many sellers define themselves by how much they sell; that’s their metric for success. The real metric for success is, how much value did your customers get out of what it is that you sold them? And by the way, if you don’t know the answer to that question, then something is amiss. You need to go back and ask them, “Hey, you bought X, Y, and Z from me, how did that work out for you?” – Tim Sullivan · [27:41] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

The way we really differentiate ourselves now is by how we interact with the customer. And how can we be creative in creating new capabilities that are based on what we normally do, but maybe taking it to another level that enable that buyer to accomplish what it is. You really have to have a passion or interest, and what can we do to create value in this situation? Too many sellers define themselves by how much I sell, that’s their metric for success. The real metric for success is, how much value did your customers get out of what it is that you sold them? And by the way, if you don’t know the answer to that question, then something is amiss.

 

Tim Sullivan:

You need to go back and ask them, “Hey, you bought X, Y, and Z for me. How did that work out for you?” I’m sure you have that kind of conversation with your customers all the time, “Hey, we put together this special package to help you realise your marketing brand and reach the audiences you need to reach. How did that work for you?” What kind of results did you get? Well, great. Then maybe we can tweak that a little bit and make it a little bit better. You’re always collaborating. It’s a never-ending process. Most sellers tend to think of sales as an event, “I’ve sold you something, you bought it from me. Thanks. Good luck with that. I’ll see you next time you want to buy something.”

 

Tim Sullivan:

That’s not what the definition of a good seller is. And in fact, the buyers that we talk to today, they talk about sellers in a disparaging way, or sales professionals, because they’re interested in transactions. What they want to deal with are advisors, business advisors who can work with them to help create new value. And you might have the exact same advertising and marketing capabilities as the next podcast, but your ability to work with your customers to do things that are going to be tailored to their specific situation, and maybe even press your limits a little bit, stretch your capabilities a little bit, is the way that you differentiate yourself today.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And I don’t think enough sellers tend to think of themselves in that particular role.

 

How to Start Collaborating with the Buyer and Add More Value to the Conversation · [29:40] 

 

Will Barron:

Tim, it’s one thing for me to say… and use the example, but really I’m also… Well, not really also, I am probably even first at this point, I’m an entrepreneur, I run a business, we’ve got a small team. I’m capable of saying, “For this customer, we’re not doing this, we’re doing this. We’re changing the whole platform, we’re going to add this feature, we’re going to take that away.” So it’s one thing for me to say that, and perhaps I’m supposed to talk about this on a high level, but how does an individual contributor, perhaps me five years ago selling medical devices, endoscopy camera systems and endoscopes, how do I collaborate with a buyer when I can’t just throw in a new product or change this?

 

Will Barron:

I couldn’t even really affect the pricing, not like we want to give discounts, even that flexibility wasn’t really on the table for me. How can that individual, and Will from five years ago, how can he collaborate on a level that we’re discussing here?

 

Tim Sullivan:

I started in the software and professional service business, and I always thought the best salespeople came from that industry because obviously I came from that. But the other thing is-

 

Will Barron:

Half the audience are waving their arms around in the air now in anger at you.

 

“What I’ve discovered is that the best salespeople are in companies that sell the most commoditized products.” – Tim Sullivan · [30:56] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

But the reason I felt that way is because we were selling an intangible, you can’t see it, taste it, feel, other than visually seeing doing the demo. Which was a very conceptual kind of sale, and that required a high level of sophistication, but I’ve been humbled in my career in working with dozens of different clients. First, we work with lots of different organisations at Sales Performance International. And what I’ve discovered is that the best salespeople are in companies that sell the most commoditized products. We have a client, for example, and I wrote about this in the book, in The Collaborative Sales, there’s a case in here of a company that we worked with and their number one sales person who literally sold four times more than any other salesperson year after year, after year, and I had an opportunity to follow that person around.

 

Tim Sullivan:

This gets at the issue that you’re talking about. They sold industrial gases. Basically, they sold oxygen in tanks. Well, there is no big research and development arm of this company, there is no new, improved O2. It’s an element, it is what it is. But this guy did not define himself as, “I’m someone who sells oxygen.” He defined himself as someone, “I mitigate risk for healthcare institutions.” And the way he did that is he would go to the healthcare institution, he would find out how many beds they had, he would go to the emergency care, he would ask about what kind of cases they have. He would then go with the back of the hospital and see where they had stored all the oxygen because that’s where our hospitals do that, measure how much they had.

 

“We need to redefine what it is that we sell. What does it do for the customer beyond the initial application? There’s all kinds of values that we don’t think about as salespeople. And if we redefine ourselves, even the most commoditized people, then we have a real opportunity to differentiate ourselves. We as sales people are so fixated on trying to make our number that we forget that our real mission in life is to maximise the amount of value that we create for our customers.” – Tim Sullivan · [32:42] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

Then he did an analysis of all the businesses in the area and said, “If we had an industrial accident at this factory that’s five miles away, you would not have enough oxygen to be able to keep those people alive.” And the average value of a lawsuit when somebody dies in a hospital was something like $42 million on average. And so therefore, you have exposed yourself to how many hundreds of millions of dollars of risk?” And then he would call the CFO or an equivalent in that institution and say, “Hey, I’ve discovered that you are currently exposed to three, $400 million of potential risk. How would you like to make that go away?” Now, this guy sold oxygen in tanks. But my point is, we need to redefine what it is that we sell. What does it do for the customer beyond the initial application?

 

Tim Sullivan:

For example, your clients that you’re working with in the advertising, they might evaluate that as leads, but how does that translate into real business for them? What’s the real value for them down the road? What is the value of increasing their brand awareness in the marketplace? There’s all kinds of values that we don’t think about as salespeople. And if we redefine ourselves, even the most commoditized people, then we have real opportunity to differentiate ourselves. We as sales people are so fixated on trying to make our number that we forget that our real mission in life is to maximise the amount of value that we create for our customers.

 

Situational Fluency: The Definitive Structure to Uncovering Extra Value to Clients Especially in a Highly Saturated Market · [33:35] 

 

Will Barron:

It seems like if we do a little bit of work upfront, the number, I don’t want to say this because I don’t necessarily believe this myself, but if you do a little bit of work upfront, the number happens on the backend, if we get everything right and there’s a process and there’s some principles. But with that said, there’s a level of intelligence, even entrepreneurship, to go from selling oxygen to doing all this work and sourcing out… That gentleman or lady probably had to go through a few up and downs before they realised, “Oh, this is the pathway to get in front of CFOs, they can sign it off, and then it all makes sense that they want to talk about these ups and downs and risks, versus I’m talking to Joe Blogs in biomedical engineering who doesn’t really care where the oxygen comes from.”

 

Will Barron:

For someone who’s listening to this going, “I’m sold, I want to collaborate. I’m in on this, but my product is the same as everyone else’s,” is there a process or a structure to uncovering the extra value? How would we go about discovering that?

 

Tim Sullivan:

First of all, this is where situational fluency comes in, and the biggest challenge that we have seen for salespeople, they’re going to be hard for selling skills, they’re going to be hard if they have a nominal amount of interpersonal skills, and they can learn the more modern ways of communicating. That part’s relatively easy. They’re going to get product and service training, so will have capability, knowledge, or they’ll have access to that information. The two areas of situational fluency that salespeople struggle with is their understanding of customer situations, and also their ability to collaborate with them.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And the collaboration is dependent on that situational knowledge. And so this is something where you got to go beyond your capabilities and start to think about who am I selling to, and how are they consuming, or how are they using or applying this to create value in their organisation or to do something transformational with whatever it is that I’m offering? Because after all, that’s why people buy things, they want to transform the way that they’re doing something into real value that provides a return to the company. And often that means thinking beyond the person that we’re actually selling to.

 

Tim Sullivan:

I worked with a lot of the folks who work almost exclusively with procurement or purchasing people, but of course, the folks who were really using their products are the people on the shop floor who were actually applying that to make things or to improve the safety of their environments, and I’m naming a couple of different examples. So what we need to do is we need to understand how we can impact those things. Just having that situational knowledge to be able to go beyond the transaction and to penetrate those people who are focused on, beyond those people that they’re focused on, the transaction itself, is differentiating.

 

“The folks that have higher win rates are the ones who say, “I’m going to sell you this, and here’s some ways that you can apply or use this to create value that maybe you haven’t thought of.” – Tim Sullivan · [36:55] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

Most salespeople are not fully equipped to do that because candidly, if I can make my number by just pushing, doing a lot of transactions to me, then it’s a numbers game. How many people do I call? And then how many pitches do I make? And that puts all of the burden on trying to figure out the value that’s going to be created on the shoulders of the buyer. And frankly, some of them do a bad job of it, which is why the win rates of some people who sell that way are so generally pretty low. The folks that have higher win rates are the ones who say, “I’m going to sell you this, and here’s some ways that you can apply or use this to create value that maybe you haven’t thought of.”

 

Tim Sullivan:

Or, “Other organisations are using it in this way, let me give you some cases where you can help to change the way that you’re applying this in a way that could do some real good and create some real value.” Those sellers that do that, they’re acting as business consultants, they’re not acting as brokers in a transaction. So I think that is one way that sellers just need to think that they need to be committed to understanding customer situations. And if they sell in multiple industries, it’s more of a challenge because you have got more types of personas and different industries they need to master. But if they’re committed to that and they’re doing as much studying about how people apply or use what they have to sell, as opposed to what it is that they’re selling, then that will help to differentiate them.

 

The First Steps Towards Collaborative Selling · [37:51] 

 

Will Barron:

Love it. I’ve got one final question for you, and then the final question I ask everyone that comes on the show, Tim. You’ve already answered this, but I want to ask you bluntly so that it’s clear for myself and everyone who’s listening. When does the collaboration starts? Does this start in our outbound prospecting email? Does it start when we’re engaged and we can ask questions and do discovery and see how we can actually help the individual? When does the collaboration starts in this or when should it start in the sales process?

 

Tim Sullivan:

It starts to at the point of first contact or engagement with a customer. SPI is best known for sales performance international, is best known for solution selling. We are the owners of that methodology, there’s a million and a half people that use it. And one of the reasons that we wrote the book, and I did all the research on it and composed all of the findings, but one of the reasons, we did is we wanted to ask the question, is a solution focused or solution-oriented approach to selling still relevant today given that customers are so much more empowered than they ever have been?

 

Tim Sullivan:

And what we discovered was not only is it more relevant, the way that you do it is slightly different because we have more advanced communication capabilities, and buyers are much more empowered and have access to more information than ever before, but it’s still very, very relevant. And the only thing that’s really different, and the good news is that solution selling was always based on the idea of understanding where your buyer is in their process and aligning your behaviour to that.

 

Tim Sullivan:

So if you engage with an early-stage buyer who maybe aren’t currently looking to buy, or haven’t even thought about it, I have a set of behaviours that I can align with them there that will help guide them through the process, or if I’m in a late stage, the late stage customer where they think they already know what they want to buy and they’re just calling me for a quote to make sure that they’re getting a good deal, if I know how to re-engineer their vision or expand on it in a way that might favour me and have a chance to win the business, then I’ve got a set of behaviours to that.

 

“Seller agility is the key to success in sales. The ability to first of all understand where the buyer is in their process and then change your behaviour so that it aligns with where they are.” – Tim Sullivan · [39:54] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

Seller agility is the key now to success in sales, the ability to first of all understand where the buyer is in their process and then change my behaviour so that it aligns with where they are. And that is the nature of true collaboration. Also it helps to have certain methods and techniques for doing it well. We’ve tested a variety of different kinds of communications that demonstrate to the buyer that you are in fact collaborating with them as opposed to trying to force them down a path.

 

Do Sellers Need to Explain to Buyers That They’re Here to Collaborate with Them? · [40:34] 

 

Will Barron:

Sorry to interrupt Tim, but on that point, I was hesitant to jump in there, because this is a genius, but do we need to overtly let them know that I’m here to collaborate with you? Do we need to show them this? Because I guess a lot buyers might have misconceptions or preconceptions about sellers and stereotypes of sellers abound that we’re just there to steal their time and take the cash out of their wallet. So do we need to overtly explain that we’re here to collaborate in all of this?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Absolutely. In fact, one of the things that we find when we interview buyers who’ve made purchases of whatever, wide variety of different products and services, when they work with sellers that are collaborative, one of the things they tell us is, “I liked working with that salesperson because they were transparent. They told me what process that I might want to think about using in order to mitigate my risk and make an optimal decision. And they were able to advise me not only around the capabilities of the offer, but also the way that I might want to think about this so that when I make a purchase decision, I can then realise that value rapidly.”

 

“Gardner did some research recently where one of the things they found is that in B2B sales, especially, the number of people that are involved in purchase processes has increased by about 30% over the last two years. Buyers are bringing more people in purchase decisions, not only throughout the entire evaluation and purchase process, but in each step of the purchase process. And so it’s becoming increasingly important for sellers today, in order to be successful, to not only be experts and have all the aspects of situational fluency that I described, but they also need to be therapists. They need to be able to work with buying organisations and help them achieve consensus at each step of the purchase process. And there’s only one way to do that, and that’s with an explicit, transparent, openly, and calmly understood collaboration structure.” – Tim Sullivan · [41:36] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

Gardner did some research recently which was very interesting, and one of the things they found is that in B2B sales, especially, the number of people that are involved in purchase processes has increased about 30% over the last two years. Now buyers are bringing more people in in purchase decisions, not only throughout the entire evaluation and purchase process, but in each step of the purchase process. And so it’s becoming increasingly important for sellers today in order to be successful, to not only be experts and have all the aspects of situational fluency that I described, but they also need to be therapists.

 

Tim Sullivan:

They need to be able to work with buying organisations and help them to achieve consensus at each step of the purchase process. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s with an explicit, transparent, openly, and calmly understood collaboration structure and over communicating. A very simple thing that many of your people are listening to this that they can do to demonstrate that is, when they have a meeting, always summarise what happened in that meeting, what were the things that we learned, and what are the next steps, and then provide recommendations. And then store that online in some secure collaboration site, and then share that with the customer.

 

“The more overt I am and the more obvious it is that I’m working with them in a collaborative way, then the more likely it is that the customer will buy from me.” – Tim Sullivan · [43:11] 

 

Tim Sullivan:

And so now they can draw from that, share that internally with their peers to help them achieve consensus, and then also you have visibility as to who’s having access to that. So that’s useful as well, but again, it’s all based on transparency. So the answer to your question is, yes, the more overt I am and the more obvious it is that I’m working with them in a collaborative way, then the more likely it is the customer will buy from me.

 

Formats and Tools for Implementing the Collaborative Sale · [43:22] 

 

Will Barron:

Off the top of your head, Tim, are there any tools that you’d recommend for this collaborative approach and documentation?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Yeah. First of all, I encourage everyone to buy The Collaborative Sale because in the back of the book, we describe a number of different templates of what does a good communication with an initial sponsor, someone who might initiate a project with yours, evaluating different alternatives, what does that look like? And also then, what are the different ways that you can provide recommendations for how they consider evaluating and collaborating with you to mitigate their risk and make a purchase decision? So there are formats there that you can use, but also I recommend using online facilities, and there are a wide variety of ones to create that kind of collaboration site.

 

Tim Sullivan:

We use Showpad, is one for example, which is an excellent platform, I highly recommended, but you can use something like Box.com, for example, or some kind of way that you can create a password access in a secure place to provide that level of collaboration. It’s all about capturing what people have said, and then putting that in a format that they can then use to help achieve consensus inside the organisation. So having the right templates and the right means to share that internally in the buying organisation are the two key aspects of collaboration that we don’t see a lot of salespeople doing, at least not consistently, if they do it at all.

 

Tim’s Advise to His Younger Self on How to Become Better at Selling · [45:10]

 

Will Barron:

Good tip. I appreciate you said Showpad because they are a partner of the show, we’ve worked with them in the past. And so I can recommend them from my side as well. With that said, I’ve got one final question, mate. And I hesitantly trying to wrap up the show here because I could dive into this in a whole lot more detail. I feel there’s a whole bunch of principles and methodology that we could discuss in further detail. But alas, time-wise, I’ve got one final question for you and that is, if you could go back in time… Do you know what, Tim, I’ve said this question over 600 times now, and that was probably the first or maybe the second time I’ve ever stumbled in saying it.

 

Will Barron:

So I’ll start again, hopefully the audience got a laugh off with that. If you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, what would be the one piece of advice you’d give him to help him become better at selling?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Let me answer that question this way, Will, I think there are three things that sellers need to think about that we find to be the main barriers to success, and they basically boils down to math. The first is, and we’ve talked about it here, what is my brand how can I use that to stimulate new business? How can I differentiate myself and my expertise, how do I define that? And that’s all about creating new opportunities to put in the pipeline, because if I can’t create a brand around how I can create value, then it’s very difficult for me, and you might be doing it intuitively without realising, but if I can do it consciously, I can generate more opportunities.

 

Tim Sullivan:

The second thing that I think that the sellers need to think about today is, where’s the customer in their buying cycle when I engage with them? How do I align with them in such a way? And the purpose of that is, if I know where they are in their purchase process and I can align to them and help them with that, I can mitigate their risks and I can greatly reduce losses, which frankly, the number one competitor for almost all salespeople today is customer decides to do nothing, they stick with the status quo. And the reason for that is because usually the buyer and seller were out of alignment and the seller couldn’t help them to guide them to a purchase decision in a way that they feel comfortable with it. So understanding where the buyer is in the process is the next thing.

 

Tim Sullivan:

And then the last bit of advice I would have is, how can I create the most value for this customer? We need to step back away from the opportunity and think less about, how can I sell something here or how can I win this business? That’s an important question, but the means to that is, how do I create the most value for this customer? And what that will do is that will help you to create a definition of an expanded solution and your average contract, or average transaction size will increase. So if you want to have more leads, you want to have a higher win rate or at least reduce the number of losses to no decision, you want to have higher average transaction size, those are the three things that I think every seller needs to consider.

 

Tim Sullivan:

Unfortunately, we often get ground up in just trying to pursue the numbers that we tend to forget those things, but if we can look at that, then I think that will guide our behaviour and make us more successful.

 

Parting Thoughts · [48:18]

 

Will Barron:

Well, Tim, you are a complete pro, leaving the audience with a couple of takeaways from this episode, and those three, it’s almost something that we could spend an afternoon or weekend, whatever it is, and just sit down and think about it, and have moments away from having our sales manager breathing over our neck telling us to cold call more or spam more emails, there’s perhaps alternative routes to hitting target. So I appreciate that. With that Tim, tell us where we can find the book, and then tell us a little bit more about the SPI and where we can find out more about you as well?

 

Tim Sullivan:

Absolutely. The book here, again, is The Collaborative Sale. It’s about aligning with buyers, solution selling in a buyer-driven world. And you can get this online at any Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s. Frankly, that’s the best place to get it. And SPI is in the business of helping people to improve their sales results either through a variety of different methodologies and skill development programmes or through various consulting services. And we also have technology that enables you to have visibility over how your sales organisation is improving and delivering on results.

 

Tim Sullivan:

So if you need help with generally improving your sales performance, it’s in the name of our company. We’re also an international company, that’s in our name for a reason as well. We work in over 54 countries and provide solutions in 17 languages. So if you’re a global institution, then we’re probably the right firm for you. So feel free to give us a call. You can reach us on our website, which is www.spisales, that’s spi-S-A-L-E-S.com.

 

Will Barron:

Good stuff. I’ll link to all of that in the show notes of this episode over at salesman.org. With that Tim, I really enjoyed this conversation, and I really want to thank you for your time and for joining us on The Salesman Podcast.

 

Tim Sullivan:

Will, I really enjoyed it and want to wish everybody good luck and good selling.

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