Over the years I have sold a lot of technology to a lot of technologists. Complex technological solution selling has always been something I’ve excelled at. I’ve sold scientific apparatus to university researchers. I’ve sold medical systems to hospital specialists. I’ve sold analytical instruments to contract testing companies and big pharma, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I took pride in understanding the products I sold and how they’d help customers get more done. I remember a particular customer giving me a great complement. She said that when I visited her lab it felt like a collaborator was visiting and not a salesperson. Her lab spent a lot with us and both sides were happy with the relationship.
But (and there’s always a but) - it can be this same sense of collaboration that we strive to have with our customers that also kills sales relationships. Yes, collaboration as part of a technical and consultative sales strategy can be enormously useful. However, this same collaboration can get in the way of successful selling and sometimes poison the relationships we want to nurture. How though can this be?
Firstly, it can happen when we try too hard and end up consuming all our time and energy with a few complex accounts. In these cases our well-meaning efforts to help our customers can consume all our time and leave us unable to sell enough to other prospects to justify our existence on the payroll! In other words, through poorly executed collaboration, we can commit professional suicide through kindness.
Secondly, over-collaboration can increase the opportunity for objections. How can helping customers cause objections you might reasonably ask. Well, let me show you. It’s simple and occurs when a prospect becomes too reliant on our ability to provide a solution to meet their internal needs and starts to assume that every hurdle they come up against is our responsibility. At this point we, as salespeople, will eventually fall down.
It may never be possible to understand the exact specifics of the implementation of our product in our customer’s area of technical expertise. When the point comes where we no longer have answers to all the questions, then a prospect who has become over dependent on us may begin to feel disappointment. This disappointment can easily convert into objections.
So exactly where is the magical line where collaboration risks crossing from making sales more likely to less likely? Luckily, there is a very clear definition:
“Bad collaboration is when we cross from showing our customers how to use our fantastic tools to showing them (or purporting to show them) how to do their work.”
When our desire to help causes us to stray into advising people on how to do their work, then we most definitely cross a line and with that crossing will come two unhappy consequences.
A customer who becomes overly-dependant on us will expect that we can solve every obstacle that even remotely touches on the use, implementation or interaction with our product. Eventually, we will either fail and cause disappointment or continue to provide this extensive service long after the sale and reasonable expectations of service have been met, leading to the second unhappy consequence which is:
2. Lost time
Yes, if we allow over-dependency to develop with customers then we will soon run out of hours in the day to pursue future sales. All our time will be occupied supporting our small but very close base of existing customers. In other words, we can’t grow.
So - if you sell tools to scientists you can and should teach them how to make the best possible use of these tools. BUT (and this is a very big BUT) don’t cross over into teaching them how to do their scientific research. It is all about managing reasonable expectations. In technical selling, we can and should teach people how our solutions can help them in their work. We should not try to teach them what their work should be.
Put simply, if you were selling trucks to shipping companies, then explaining truck maintenance and even teaching people how to drive would be within the reasonable extents of healthy collaborative selling. However, telling the trucking companies where to drive to would be crossing over the line.
February 20th, 2021
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