Sirius Decisions Interview – From Pitching Products to Selling Value

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I discovered this article from a discussion thread on LinkedIn, hosted by Tom Pisello: the roi guy and chairman and founder of Alinean ( and was so impressed with the quality and relevance of this content that I wanted to re-blog it. So my readers, I hope that you get as much out of this as I did.


Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Ninivaggi, the Practice Director for Sales Enablement with leading sales and marketing research firm SiriusDecisions.

The Q&A discussions focused on the latest SiriusDecisions sales enablement research and why it is so important to review and adjust current sales enablement strategies and investments in order to be effective in 2015.

We hear a lot about Sales being under more pressure in the coming year. 

What does SiriusDecision’s research indicate as the top business issue for sales in 2015?

SiriusDecisions conducts research each year on what is top of mind for sales leaders: what practices are most important and the biggest challenges.

For the past four years sales executives have consistently indicated that the top issue remains “The inability for our sellers to articulate value to buyers”, this from a whopping 71% of the respondents.

For a top issue to stay as such for four years in a row is somewhat surprising, and we are not sure why the issue of value articulation is not getting better – would expect that with the awareness that it’s a top issue that the issue would be getting addressed more effectively, but it’s not.

Perhaps the lack of improvement relates to the number two highest issue, that sales is spending too much time on non-selling activities – like finding and recreating content – not spending enough time on high value activities like taking the time to understand buyers needs and connecting that understanding to the business value that the proposed solutions can deliver.

The research clearly indicates that the issues are not around sales having enough leads, more sales training, improved social selling ability or increased product knowledge.

Sales is struggling to make quota and achieve growth goals because of business value articulation or a lack thereof – finding enough time to research and spend with customers, and then when that time is spent, making it centered not on a product pitch, but on business value from a customer’s perspective.

What is the Value Gap?

The value articulation issue revolves around improving sales productivity.  But it’s not about just about making more customer calls or spending more time giving customers presentations.  You have to improve the conversation to get more effective. Understanding buyers better and correlating the financial benefits that can be delivered with proposed solutions is key.

Our research confirms what you have been talking about, that there is a Value Gap – between the approach buyers expect from sales reps, to be more focused on their challenges and value which can be delivered, and the decided product focused approach most sales reps use.

This may now be a top issue for the last four years, but for those of us who have been around a while I can tell you, this is not a new problem.

When I was with Xerox learning systems in the early 90s we used to discuss how sales reps were too much about products and not enough about business value. And our entire training system was designed to help companies overcome these issues, providing the right discovery questions and dialogues to better align with buyer challenges and communicate the value of proposed solutions.

The issue isn’t new, and various training programs and tools have been around a while to help sellers change … so why no improvement?

Part of the blame is with marketers and sales training – which want sales reps to have more value centric conversations, but instead, provide endless amounts of product-focused training – how our products work and how they are better than the competition.  We need to move beyond product knowledge and superiority and focus on what’s most important to the buyer.

Unfortunately, we leave it up to the prospect to uncover their own challenges and determine what value they can derive from proposed solutions versus guiding them as to what issues they might consider addressing and the value they can derive from your solutions.

The research you provide clearly indicates the magnitude of the issue, with less than 9 out of 10 sales reps perceived as product pitchers vs. value centric. As a result, 58% of buyers disengaging with sales reps due to lack of value articulation. Buyers have less patience than ever for empty product pitches.

Sales enablement and marketing can do better, providing sales with unique content to fuel a more effective, value-focused engagement.

However, there is still too much focus on product differentiation at a time when products are not too different from one another. Of course no one is selling a product just like everyone else, but admitting that our solution is good, but the competitors solutions are good too, could perhaps help. The differentiator is no longer the solution features and price, but instead revolves around the sales experience – the interaction between the customer and the sales rep – being able to help the customer connect the dots and help the prospects’ business via overcoming key business challenges and improving competitive advantage.

To do this, you can’t put a generic value proposition in place and say “done”.

Value articulation has to be specific to the individual organization and prospect you are selling into. The sales rep has to understand, or be guided to understand, the business, their challenges and how the proposed solutions can help save money, reduce risks, improve productivity and increase revenue opportunities.

The key, you have to go beyond generic to very specific issues and value.

I understand that “resistance to change” is an issue as well?

The changes that we are asking Sales to make can be significant, and there is constant quarterly quota pressure, which doesn’t create an environment with the necessary time or patience to effectively implement change.

From senior management, there has to be a clear belief and communication to the team that what “got us here” will not “get us there”. To achieve intelligent growth beyond just the next quarter, the initiative needs executive support, needs first line managers and coaches to embrace the change, and with the buyer engagement, needs tools and coaching to guide the most important element – the customer conversation – so it is value focused.

What about the latest methodologies, they don’t seem to be making a difference?

It appears that the methodologies are a good idea, but indeed not making a huge difference. The bottom-line, a methodology is not a silver bullet.

Just like diets, a lot of them can be good, but you have to go beyond reading a book or attending a workshop to make it work. You have to change your “lifestyle” substantially to make it work.

For the methodology, the key it to support the methodology during the “act of selling”, but this vital element seems to be missing in most programs.

I am a golfer, but not a good one. To get better, I went to a golf-pro to help me understand what I was doing well and what needed improvement, and to learn the mechanics of a good golf swing.

But the methodology from the golf pro, although a good start, alone wasn’t enough to truly change my game. What I learned in the lesson was good, but I was lacking support when I was out on the course …. Having the right tools (clubs) and the right coaching (like a caddie or coach) are crucial out there to really improve your gold game – yet this was missing for me, and missing in many Sales initiatives as well.

Sales cannot just implement a new methodology like Challenger on their own – just giving them the book, or having them attend a workshop. You need the right value messaging, provocative insights, and financial justification – the clubs. And you need the coaching to reinforce the best conversation practices and get better.

You can’t just send the golfer out without the right clubs or interactive coaching – yet that is what we are doing and expecting miraculous transformations and improvements.

So how do we improve?

It’s all about the sales conversation – enabling the sales person to help the customer connect the dots – with what challenges the buyer should be addressing, what they care about most, and what value means to them uniquely.

To reshape the customer conversation, you have to work on all of the key elements to impart real improvements – going beyond just the methodology to include value messaging, customer-facing value sales and marketing tools and value training / coaching – all in concert.

What are the best practices in Value Messaging?

Value is in the eye of the beholder, and each buyer has a unique “point of value”.

First, it is critical to guide the sales reps so that they can effectively understand and teach the buyer about important challenges. We need to help sales reps with the right discovery questions to ask, and content so they can discuss the challenges and the value that the organization and prospect can derive from overcoming these challenges.

Second, we have to fuel the conversation, providing unique “sound bytes” and dialogues for each challenge – what is the research around the challenge? What is the cost to me of doing nothing / sticking with the status quo and value of change if I implement the proposed solution? What is the evidence that business value is real from customers just like me?

Unfortunately, most of the content is provided in one-size-fits-all endless PowerPoint decks that are very company / product centric – all about the company history, customers, growth and product feature / functions and little about the buyer challenges, insights and value.

You have to get the messaging to be “challenge” not product centric, starting with specific buyer challenges around high costs, lost productivity, process inefficiencies, business risks and revenue growth constraints. From here, you can then talk about potential solutions and benefits, but you have to start your messaging around the challenges first.

One approach is one you have developed: From the Challenges, you can then advance the conversation to quantify the potential Loss, Opportunity for improvement, Solution and Evidence, leveraging the Alinean CLOSE storytelling method to more effectively articulate in a systematic and buyer-centric way how each challenge can be overcome to deliver real business value.

This all needs to be dynamic – with sales being agile – changing and adopting the discovery questioning, teaching and value messaging to connect with what the buyer cares about most. It is most frustrating to prospects to spend time with a sales rep answering questions, only to be given a canned one-size-fits-all presentation in the end.

Your sales reps have to be able to connect the dots to value, and you can’t do this with PowerPoint.

The challenge becomes fuel – you need to have a messaging framework, commercial insights, financial justification and evidence at the ready to support and “fuel” the conversations.

What are the best practices in Value Selling Tools?

When it comes to Value Selling Tools, PowerPoint is clearly ineffective.  More than 1/3rd would rather go to a Dentist than sit through another Death by PowerPoint presentation.

With PowerPoint, your brain turns off and tunes out. Nothing has done more damage to sales engagements and conversations than PowerPoint decks.

Although PowerPoint might be comfortable, you have to help your sales reps move beyond these one-size-fits-all decks to be effective with a more empowered buyer.

The difficulty: More buyers are involved in every decision, and sales cycles are 24% longer (even with sales being invited later). As a sales rep in order to be effective with each different buyer in the decision making process and reduce sales cycles, you have to:

  1. Tune the message based on the stage the buyer is in the decision making process. Early in the decision making process its all about helping the buyer understand the challenges they should focus on – Quantify the Pain. In the middle of the decision making process, its proving that low-risk solutions are available that can help with a good ROI and quick payback– Justify the Gain, and in later phases, proving that your solution is the best choice – Prove your not the same.
  2. Communicate to each role the unique you can deliver to them personally, in terms they care about – the relevant challenges and business value from their perspective. An operations person may be focused on inventory turns, a financial executive about revenue growth and a technical resource about TCO.

The best value selling tools will provide the flexibility and agility to help in each one of these situations, intelligently tuning the value messaging and quantification to match the stage in the decision making process and the unique value perspective of each role.

As well, the best value selling tools leverage the latest neuroscience of decision making, helping to deliver value messaging and quantification that appeals to:

  1. Emotion – making every engagement more memorable, especially using value visuals and before / after contrast as well as effective storytelling.
  2. Logic – going beyond just messaging, to specifically quantify the cost of do nothing and value of change in terms specific to each stakeholder.
  3. Credibility – providing the evidence that others just like the prospect have achieved similar savings with high return, fast payback and low risk.

Making the wrong purchase decision can mean the prospect losing their job. Addressing each of these three key decision criteria can mitigate the personal and organizational risk around the decision, and provide the trust and motivation to move forward.

And these elements, the value messaging, insights and justification, need to be provided in each and every conversation – in email, in on-line meetings and in three-foot conversations.

Finally, customer intelligence is important. If you are able to leverage the sales tools to perform discovery – surveying and collecting information about each prospect from each engagement, you now have a wealth of insights to share dynamically in subsequent engagements, and leverage back-office driving sales strategy, marketing content and product improvements.

The bottom-line: the right sales tool can be the differentiator in improving customer experience, so important in the decision making process.

What about Value Training and Coaching?

The biggest fear for any sales person is that they don’t want to look stupid in front of any prospect.

If you are given a new way of engaging a buyer – a new methodology or new tool – if you are not confident and competent you may not use it with a buyer our of fear of failure.

So how do you overcome this fear?, Sales reps need to practice and get feedback in a safe environment.

And provide support, so that they have real time access to the latest practices, tips, content and advice on how to be successful.

Good value sales training and an active coaching community and practice can help them gain the competence, confidence and credibility, while the value selling tools can help guide them to the content, conversation and quantification needed to succeed.

Is the transition from Product to Value Selling difficult?

Nothing that has big rewards comes easy.

The reality is you have to make the value selling transition in order to succeed, but you have to allocate some time, effort and patience. Our estimates are that it can take 6 – 12 months to succeed fully in this transition. For some, depending on their starting point, this can be even a little longer.

The elements of transition success includes:

  1. Leadership and vision at the top with clear executive sponsorship and involvement
  2. Need to establish short term goals and promote quick wins
  3. Be sure to communicate what’s in it for each sales rep
  4. Be persistent and diligent, as the change will take time.

Although the work may be hard, the rewards are even greater.  Likely the largest opportunity your organization has.  Alinean estimates indicate an average company with $100M in sales revenue can have an additional $150M in additional Value Gap revenue opportunities at stake.

The good news? Those who have bridged the Value Gap successfully– the sales enablement team members, sales reps and product marketers know they are better than their competitors.

Anything to add in conclusion Jim?

In a world where it is more difficult to distinguish yourself on the basis of your company, product, service or price, the vendors who excel are those who sell better than the rest and deliver a better customer experience.

However, most sellers are missing the mark by pitching products versus selling value – not meeting minimum expectation levels of today’s prospect much less delivering a superior experience.

Delivering a better experience? This begins and ends with the customer conversation –the precious time sales reps spend with prospects. The key question your have to ask yourself – Are your sales reps effectively articulating and delivering value in each conversation?

If you cant answer yes definitively, its up to you to take action.

You need to arm your sales reps with the right value content, conversations and quantifications.

As well, you have to go beyond handing them a new sales methodology book or attending a hot three day workshop., providing the value sales training and coaching so that they have the capability, competence and credibility to effectively engage.

The key, a combination of value messaging, tools and training / coaching in order to empower sales reps to better articulate value and provide a superior customer experience.

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