Sunday, 12 April 2009

Provocation-based Selling (and Provocative Writing)

Who doesn't love a controversy?  Want to get noticed?  Provoke!  Capture attention!

The trick is to follow up with something that hits the spot lest you alienate your suddenly alert audience.

One way to provoke attention is to insult a big-name.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review -- In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers -- the authors (including Geoffrey "Crossing the Chasm" Moore) slam the generic notions of consultative selling and especially solution selling (as opposed to the more specific Consultative Selling and Solution Selling®) either through ignorance or in a straightforward grab for attention.

The only problem -- as Keith Eades, CEO of SPI correctly points out --  is that they have done so to a large extent by over-simplifying Solution Selling,  and  then  comparing their "new" approach to a whittled down husk: 
Whereas solution-selling salespeople listen for “pain points” that the customer can clearly articulate, provocation works best when it outlines a problem that the customer is experiencing but has not yet put a name to. -- from the article
But Solutions Selling has a powerful way to think about where your customer is at, before getting into "pain points":  Levels of Need*
  1. Latent need: Unaware of a need that could be satisfied by purchase (perhaps they are unaware that there's a problem, or in denial, or resigned to coping with the status quo)
  2. In pain: Aware of the need ("in pain"), but unaware of how your offering can help
  3. Vision creation: The prospect has a vision or a "Solution", ideally including your offering. 
A key part of Solutions Selling is to move the customer upward through these Levels of Need.  The article mis-characterizes Solution Selling as simply asking the prospect about their pain (i.e. jumping in at level 2 - In pain), while correctly pointing out that during a downturn many more people will tend to be at level 1 because they are doing their best to make-do with much-reduced budgets and discretionary funds.

A key part of "provocation-based selling" seems to be to provoke a response by forcefully articulating a problem that the customer has, get them to acknowledge it, and then make a bee-line to the person who has the authority to do something about it (and who can release funds to purchase).

This is all good Solution Selling, just in slightly different terms.  In classic Solution Selling one would first try to stimulate the interest of a contact with a Reference Story, typically describing a person in a similar situation to their current one and how you were able to help that person.  Hopefully the contact will respond by either confirming that (s)he has similar issues, or -- equally good -- say something like, "No, we don't have those problems.  This is what's really bugging me ...".  Either way, you are engaging and on your way to level 2.  While exploring the prospect's pain, you should also be finding out who else is affected (i.e. who else you need to speak to get a fuller organizational picture of the pains, and also who can authorize a sale), etc.   [I have a fuller summary of Solution Selling here.]

The authors of the HBR article have a good point to make: That during a downturn a forceful -- or provocative -- approach may be a good way to jolt prospects into thinking about what can be done to improve their business, including alerting them to problems that they may be reluctant to address.  They suggest a mixture of fear -- "if you don't do something you're doomed" -- and hope -- "but we can help you get through this".  This seems like a good approach, provided you have accurate information, and can pull it off without alienating your prospect by coming across as arrogant: "I know your problems better than you"!

So "props" to the authors of In a Downturn, ... for being provocative, and thereby garnering some attention for the important issue of jolting people out of latency during a downturn.

My guess is that the authors feigned ignorance of Solution Selling etc. to whip up controversy, and that's probably a good thing!

* Austhink's add-on to SalesForce crm -- bSelling Opportunity Management -- augments SalesForce's contact information (which is a bit more Miller-Heiman-esque out-of-the-box) with a Level of Need field.  Naturally, we also do pain points!

1 comment:

Tim Sullivan said...

Perfect description of essential Solution Selling principles, David -- thanks! While we at SPI agree with the intent of the article that was published in HBR, the authors did themselves a disservice by characterizing "solution selling" so wrongly. For a more specific, point by point analysis of the errors in the HBR article, see this post: