Selling your story
We are stuck in a mode where customer experience is the driving force in much of CRM, especially sales. Do everything you can to ensure a good customer experience and sales will happen, or so we believe. But we don’t define what an experience is and very often we confuse an individual’s experience with a company or product with the concept of elevating a product or service to an encounter that is so substantial that it becomes an experience.
The concept of an experience was predicated on the second definition posed more than ten years ago by Joseph Pine and Jim Gilmore but it was somehow morphed into the first definition.
The problem with the second definition is that most products and services do not lend themselves to becoming experiences. The problem with the first idea is that any vendor can cajole you into believing you had a good encounter, but if everyone is doing this where is the critical differentiation you need to stand out? Together, these definitions sum up the challenge.
I would not say that customer experience or the experiential side of the customer relationship is not important. But I would aver that it isn’t enough. Furthermore, I think we cling to it as though we are drowning and our laser focus on customer experience is crowding out the attention that we should be giving to other aspects, like operations. In the current economy, blind adherence to customer experience is like pushing on a string. For those reasons, I think it’s time to drive a stake through its heart.
Now, let’s wait a moment until the shouting subsides. Just a moment. Maybe two. Ok, let’s proceed. What did I mean?
Whether we are talking about customer experience or its mirror image, operational excellence, we are talking about the same thing, namely, innovation. The question to be answered is how do we innovate in sales situations now, today, in this economy? For reasons related to pushing on that string, I think we need to innovate around operations rather than experience.
The present economy is notable for the demand destruction that has taken place due to the credit crisis. Without credit people and companies have less latitude in purchase decisions. They don’t make purchases unless there are hard, objective reasons for doing so.
In sales and marketing, the focus on customer experience needs to shift to the operational needs of enabling sales people to sell. That might sound obvious, even tautological, but it is not and it can require a significant shift in our thinking. Two recent books illustrate my point.
The first, “Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins” by Annette Simmons explores the importance of story in business. Simmons’ point is that we all have a plethora of hard data about our products and services but that data has a diminishing effect on selling. She quotes George Lakoff, the famous linguist, who said that how we frame an issue has a dramatic effect on perceptions. Framing is part of story telling and stories are subjective — and dramatically different from the hard, data-driven messaging we routinely deliver in a sales process. Ironically, all that data is what we dispense while we are attempting to provide a great customer experience.
The other book, an eBook by Jeff Ernst of Kadient, discusses how the best sales people intuitively know how to deliver the right information at the right time in a sales process to achieve outstanding results. Ernst’s point is that everyone in sales needs to be able to deliver the right information, to tell the right stories.
Ernst boils an ocean of information down into a short book with a handful of new rules for selling, which I think anyone would benefit from. Rather than a rote exercise in sales methodology, Ernst counsels listening to customers and responding with the information that resonates with particular buyers. His differentiation is in how he determines what stories resonate.
The high achieving sales people are telling the right stories instinctively. These are stories with a purpose and the approach, which is embodied in sales playbooks, can be quantified by collecting data about which stories worked best in a very limited universe of situations faced by a sales team. As Simmons writes, “Story is how humans interpret things as good or bad, important or irrelevant, safe or dangerous, and who is ‘one of us’ or ‘one of them.’”
A sales process is all about a sales person becoming “one of us,” long before the customer makes a purchase. And I would suggest that unless a sales representative passes that test the actual deal will always remain out of reach.
Ernst prescribes a sales process in which companies enable their best sales people to share their stories about how they conduct the most successful sales campaigns. The information, as well as advice about when to use it, is captured in sales playbooks and made available in chunks that are easily absorbed by the representatives. Ernst says sales people are just-in-time learners so why burden them with three ring binders and long training sessions they won’t remember in a month?
This approach falls under the heading of sales enablement, a term that has received increasing notice recently. At its heart is a pragmatic approach to doing what works by understanding that people, buyers, make logical decisions for emotional reasons, as the great sales trainers frequently say, rather than relying on a mountain of “facts.”
In her book Simmons quotes Barry Schwartz, author of “The paradox of Choice: Why More is Less,” in which he writes, “There’s a point where all of this choice starts to be not only unproductive, but counter productive — a source of pain, regret, worry about missed opportunities and unrealistically high expectations.”
You could say the same about customer experience. We can’t layer experiences onto confusing processes without risking customer overload. Like anyone, a customer doesn’t know what he or she doesn’t know and customers look to trusted advisers — sales people who have become “one of us” — for answers. The best customer experience is one in which the customer is lead on an exploratory mission through the chaos of a buying process. Providing that experience requires a good deal of operational organization on the other side. It is why sales enablement is so important today.