Black swan events. They are unprecedented, unpredictable, devastating, and typically global in their impact. For example, the dot-com crash of the late 1990s. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The collapse of the housing market in the late 2000s. The COVID-19 pandemic. Events like these have a long-lasting impact on the business environment and the economy. Just consider what the most recent pandemic did to the global supply chain. Here’s the question to ask yourself. Do you have the right salespeople in place on your team who can use more than one sales strategy to deftly navigate the environment left behind by these events? Are they employing a read offense mindset and situational selling to overcome these challenges and reach their goals?
What is a Read Offense Mindset?
In football, there is a play called the read option or read offense where the offensive line moves in one direction and blocks while the quarterback follows behind holding onto the ball, makes a read of the current situation, and then makes a split-second decision to either pass the ball to their running back or run the ball back themselves. They choose the option that is most likely to succeed given the situation at that moment.
This process of rapid decision making after reading the environment is not confined to football. There are always situations in every sport, from basketball to hockey, from boxing to track and field, where the athlete makes a decision about a play based on the read of the situation and the conditions they are currently facing.
You can also find this read offense mindset outside of the sports world. Consider the medical profession. Think about a routine surgery, such as a hernia repair. These types of surgeries are so common they are routine. And yet, every patient is different. Every surgery is a new situation. Every moment in the surgery room is a possibility where something can veer off the planned course and must be corrected. Surgeons go into work expecting the routine but prepared for anything. And they must always read the situation so they can address any changes quickly.
So what does this look like for the sales professional?
Identifying the Conditions for the Read Offense Mindset
During the beginning of the pandemic, we had the opportunity to speak with several leaders in different industries. And in those conversations, the predominant word that kept coming up for them was uncertainty. These sales leaders were also commenting that the landscape had changed, probably permanently. Some leaders were wondering if they had the right people to sell through the crisis. Others were hearing their clients were planning for the unknown.
One thing we knew for sure, the business landscape had changed, and we were going to have to sell in a different fashion from before.
The Future Sales Landscape and its Impact on Your Sales Strategy
Here’s what we observed after the most recent black swan event. We think these will be major marketplace obstacles going forward:
- clients will want to re-negotiate agreements
- They’ll be faced with additional or new budget constraints
- Your buyers will be faced with staffing issues. Now more than ever they will be trying to get more accomplished with fewer people. And so will you.
- They will be faced with talent issues. They will have to face the fact (as will you) that they may not have the right people on the team to see their way through the latest crisis or the aftermath it has brought on.
- Priorities shift. Prior to the pandemic, your buyers were probably looking at ways to expand their presence. During the height of the pandemic, they were simply looking for ways to survive. Now, they are probably looking for ways to navigate the supply chain issues and rising inflation left behind by the pandemic.
- Unsolvable objections. We talked about objections that aren’t solvable in a previous blog post.
In our current environment, this new business reality, the changing landscape is going to involve organizations undergoing several contractions and it’s all going to be driven by a survival mindset. If we recognize that people sell to people, and we think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety and survival is where most of your buyers operate at the onset of these black swan events. And let’s be honest, a lot of them never make it out of this mentality. Also, recognize that people behave differently when they don’t feel safe, or they are trying to survive. In these instances, your sales team must be careful when pushing their buyers because you don’t want them to come across as tone deaf and damage their credibility.
The Foundation for Today’s High Performing Sales Team – Situational Selling
Here’s what we’re suggesting not just for the onset of black swan events, but also in the aftermath and recovery phases. Over the last decade, we have seen several sales strategies that have influenced how we sell. For example, there’s relationship-based selling, conceptual selling, and the Challenger Sales model, to name a few. All of these are viable sales strategies in this new business environment. But they will all undergo some changes.
At the start, I mentioned the read offense mindset and how we see some of that mindset in the medical profession. Let’s revisit that example. Let’s say you were going in to have routine elective surgery, for example, hernia repair or gall bladder removal. We’re talking about a simple procedure that people have done all the time. It’s so common that doctors have the procedure down to a process. Now, the doctor performing the surgery will usually have a strategy for executing the surgery and that strategy governs their process.
Your salespeople will need that read offense mindset… to make a snap decision on the sales strategy used based on the selling situation encountered.
Now, let’s say that while you are undergoing this simple procedure, your blood pressure suddenly starts to drop. In this situation, the doctor can’t go forward using the same strategy. She must come up with a new strategy that deals with the new situation. That change in strategy is going to impact the course of the surgery. But the doctor makes these adjustments and changes to ensure the patient, you, have the best chance for a successful operation. She must be flexible and nimble to change how she’s executing the surgery on the fly.
This will be the case in sales as well. More of your salespeople’s encounters will be subject to the situation and involve situational selling. Your salespeople will need that read offense mindset, to be flexible, nimble, and use the information they have at hand to make a snap decision on the sales strategy used based on the selling situation encountered.
What the Research Shows About Situational Selling
Here’s what we discovered in our research. Florida State University did a study in 2012 of high-performing salespeople. The study was performed in part to contest the Challenger Sales methodology, commissioned in response to the influx of questions to the FSU Sales Institute by hundreds of sales executives all wanting to know the same thing: Which sales methodology is best for their company?
Researchers surveyed 783 salespeople from eight different industries to self-identify their individual sales strategy. At first, the results pretty much validated the body of research done earlier: High performing salespeople identified themselves as challenger or consultative sellers while low performers identified as product or relational sellers.
However, there was one outlier that made the researchers take notice. One of the participants in the research study said that he couldn’t complete their survey because the sales strategy he used depended on the selling situation he was in.
His response got the researchers thinking about the limitations of their initial study. A single sales strategy couldn’t work for every sales scenario. They decided to investigate other high performers to see if the same was true for them. Did other high performing salespeople employ different sales strategies based on the situation they were in?
The top 10%-15% of high performing sellers had three to four different selling strategies.
This new study targeted 1,500 salespeople from three different industries to explain the various selling situations they faced and how they sold in each of those situations. What they found was that “it depends” was a common theme among all 1,500 high performers. The top 10%-15% of sellers had three to four different selling strategies and they altered their approach depending on the selling situation. In short, they employed a read offense mentality when executing their sales process. Lower performers generally used just one or two strategies.
The research also discovered something else. Companies that forced their salespeople to adopt and use a single sales strategy ended up churning out average and below-average sales metrics.
Elements of Situational Selling for the Successful Sales Team
So, we must ask the question: Are our salespeople prepared to use situational selling, or have they been trained with a one-size-fits-all mentality? In these new encounters, salespeople will need to be flexible enough to think on their feet more. And there are a lot of sales reps who just aren’t equipped to do that.
In reviewing the situational selling condition, there are four pieces that we need to address. There’s the mind-set of the buyer as well as the seller. The mindset of the buyer has changed considerably since the start of the pandemic, and we need to be cognizant of that. Next, we must think about the sales strategy needed to move the deal forward. And it probably won’t be a single strategy but will involve multiple sales strategies whose deployment depends on the situation.
Then we must consider what tactics to use. And not all tactics are useful in today’s environment. For example, using certain scarcity tactics to create a sense of urgency probably won’t get your salespeople much traction in the marketplace at the start of a pandemic. Remember, most of your sales tactics aren’t universal. The sales rep needs to use them with discretion and thoughtfulness.
As a leader, you might have some sales reps who can’t employ a read offense mindset because they have only one gear. They aren’t built for a situational selling environment. They know only one way to execute a sale and they don’t have the tactical sales savvy required in this new business reality. So you must think about how you are going to train and coach them going forward. More importantly, you must consider the profile of someone who is successful in this environment. Those are the people you want when building a successful sales team.
Identifying the High Performing Salespeople on Your Team
Here’s what we know from our experience in performing sales performance assessments. From the evidence we’ve seen:
- The high performing salespeople use a dominant selling methodology based on the selling situation they’re addressing.
- We saw clear and significant patterns in the win/loss rates when accounting for the combination of the situation and the strategy or methodology a salesperson used.
- High performing sales professionals were more likely to use the sales strategy with the best odds of success in any given selling situation when compared to the rest of the sales organization. They employed a read offense approach to selling.
- The only accurate label you could use to classify your high performing salespeople is that they are situational sellers.
Sales leaders will definitely need to get the right people with the right competencies to create a successful sales team in this business environment. To accomplish that will involve a true assessment of the members on your sales team as well as potential new talent. Once you have the right people with the right competencies in play, your team will be better positioned to navigate our new business reality.
References and Resources
To find out more about the competencies needed for today’s business environment and how to instill them in your sales team, watch our video on Driving Sales in the Face of Business Uncertainty here.
- Video: Driving Sales in the Face of Business Uncertainty
- Video: The Human Sales Factor
- Assess: Sales Team Science Assessment