Published in November 2005

Agents For Change
By David McNutt

Developing a competitive advantage in your sales force.

     Competition can be thought of in many ways. Usually it’s thinking about other companies that make or sell products like ours that are direct replacements, such as the choice between two LCD projectors with similar features. Sometimes it’s thinking about products that are alternatives to our products. Instead of an LCD projector, a customer might choose a plasma screen instead; same utility, different product. A third way of thinking about competition is the alternative to do nothing. In other words, a customer may decide not to buy at all. For a salesperson, this is the ultimate frustration. He has not lost a sale to a competitor salesperson or product; he has lost to the customer.
     As a result of many competitive pressures, the sales environment has changed and has become an area of increased competition. Competing with a customer about a solution you are proposing is now much more common. Customers are better educated, more sophisticated and more value conscious. They are not only harder to please, but they want more for their money. They want quality products and lightning-fast service. They don’t want to buy something they don’t need. They expect follow-up service. If something goes wrong they want to know there’s a person and a company that will support them long into the future.
     To become more successful in this environment, salespeople must adapt to the change. They must become more knowledgeable about their products and services and more creative in devising solutions. They must become more skilled in helping their customers recognize value and derive satisfaction. Old style salespeople who were product peddlers are being replaced by technology, internet and other means of direct sales to the customer. The salespeople who are left increasingly are called upon to sell complex solutions to sophisticated buyers. For these salespeople, success depends much less on what they are selling, and more on their skills as a salesperson.
     No longer is it enough to have the right product, even a great design, although these help. No longer is it enough to make plenty of sales calls and rely on statistics. Success in today’s selling environment requires a different approach. Professional salespeople today have to learn how to become agents for change.

     Change is a critical hidden factor in every sale. The business and markets we serve revolve around incompletely understood, infrequently purchased, highly engineered solutions. When they are purchased, the solution creates the opportunity to change the customers’ businesses; making work easier, making communication more effective. The change may take place in their operations, their organizational structure, their marketing or their financial model. The change will mean either doing or using something different from what they have in the past. As these solutions move up the value scale where the buying decision has greater effects on the company or institution and are accompanied with greater uncertainty, the decision to purchase will represent an even greater opportunity for change. Helping a customer understand change, from a salesperson’s point of view, is a much more difficult challenge than selling a product. The failure to assist a customer in understanding how to approach change has caused many a knowledgeable customer to choose not to buy a perfectly sound solution.
     Change agent offerings require a different type of selling approach than routinely purchased products and services. They require an approach that enables prospects to change the way that they think, to revise their perspective. Although presenting a set of facts and benefits might be useful in communicating a perspective, usually it is a poor way to change a perspective. To change customer perspectives the salesperson must first uncover them and then unsettle them in order to change them. In other words, asking unsettling questions that go to the core of a customer’s perspective typically is more effective at changing perspectives than lecturing the customer on the better perspective.
     Asking carefully designed questions to discover and change a perspective is the essence of what is called a Socratic approach to selling. A Socratic approach involves asking questions that lead to an obvious conclusion to purchase. A Socratic approach performs better as the dollar value of the offering increases. A good resource for learning sales methods based on a Socratic philosophy is Strategic Selling, by Robert B. Miller and Stephen E. Heiman. There might even be a new improved edition available. New copy or old, it’s a great book for professional salespeople selling high-value, complex solutions to sophisticated or upper-level customers. [Editor’s Note: The New Strategic Selling: The Unique Sales System Proven Successful by the World’s Best Companies (Revised and Updated) by Tad Tuleja, Stephen E. Heiman and Robert B. Miller is available in paperback from Warner Books.]
     There is an old story that has a point here: A family had an old horse that died in the middle of their living room a while back. No one had the heart to bury it, much less the strength to move it, so the horse just stayed there. The horse had been there so long that the family no longer thought it strange to have a dead horse in the living room; they just simply worked and moved around it. One day, a friend came by and said, “Why do you have that smelly, dead horse in the middle of your living room?” The family is immediately aware of the dead horse and asks the friend to help them remove it.
     The objective of a professional salesperson in our industry is to learn to identify those “dead horses” and offer to help remove them. Companies who recognize this new competitive sales environment and help their salespeople become so skilled will add yet another competitive advantage.

Chicago-based David McNutt, a member of Sound & Communications’ Technical Council, has been involved in many business sectors of the systems integration industry. Send comments to him at


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