Developing Skills in Irrationality

What we have lost in our sales approach is the understanding of the importance of the non-logical, emotional, and non-rational components of decision-making.

By David Zahn, President, Zahn Consulting, LLC

The standard approach to employee development, management, and even selling is to break tasks down to observable components, provide the logical rationale behind completing the job according to that standard, and expect the factual evidence to be sufficiently overwhelming to convince people of the logic of the need to change. Unfortunately, that approach will be ineffective and lacking because it fails to meet a key need of the receiver of the message. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, training in an understanding of irrationality is needed.

The Situation

An executive was frustrated by the inability of her sales force to achieve quarterly targets even though the opportunities existed. In exasperation, she once again reviewed the following fact-based tools with the team:

  • Account Profile Forms: Interrogatively question prospects/accounts to identify and learn needs.
  • Product Knowledge: Making sure the salespeople know the differences between their offerings and those of the competition.
  • Internal Resources: Forecasting tools, marketing collateral uses, inventory tracking applications, and pricing aids to ensure they leverage the advantages of the newly implemented IT department’s work.
  • Reinforcement of the solution’s ROI, delivery options, and different solution alternatives.

Sensing her desperation at working so hard without results, I asked if I could share an insight developed over 25-plus years of training. Even in her impatience to progress, she relaxed a bit as she listened to my story:

The Story

I began in sales training believing it was incumbent upon salespeople to uncover needs, diagnose the issues, and then prescribe a solution that would link product or services to those needs. For years, I refined my skills in honing the ability to zero in on the proper questions to ask, the “bridge to a close,” and the sales process methods to gain agreement, etc.

I conduced two-day workshops where I introduced forms, profiles, processes, etc., all designed to reinforce “best-in-class” skills. All the while, I believed the answer to sales success lay in the application of the skills being trained. Skill in rapport was something that was “hired in” as it was not easily trained. Either someone “had it, or not.” Sure, we trained people on how to do the steps mechanically (shake hands, make eye contact, look for pictures or trophies in the buyer’s office to comment on, etc.), but it was less important than the critical success factors (CSFs).

Over that time, I got quite good at creating exercises, job aids, reference materials, case studies, etc., designed to enhance the competencies of the sales forces I trained to follow the path of “Fact-based selling/Consultative Approaches/Solution-based techniques/etc.”

Truth be told, the results of that effort rarely led to a change in performance across the majority of salespeople trained.

It was not until I applied research from experts outside business or sales (attorneys, therapists, and others) who exposed me to a different insight on what compels people to act, how to align with others, ways of building trust, develop relationships, etc., that I understood that what we have lost in our sales approach is the understanding of the importance of the non-logical, emotional, and non-rational components of decision-making.

Building Relationships Starts With Trust

While there is a need for the skills covered in the traditional way salespeople are taught to sell, there also needs to be awareness of how to appeal to the emotional decision-making requirements the buyer has to have met. For example, one of the key challenges for a seller is to build a relationship with his or her prospect. But to do that, one needs to develop trust. Trust does not happen solely by the sharing of data or facts. No one forms a relationship with a data sheet, spreadsheet, or even ROI calculations. Building trust requires the six Cs:

  1. Competency: Seen as capable and knowledgeable.
  2. Commitment: Demonstrate investment in the solution and not just see the prospect as a quota-attainment target.
  3. Communication/Clarity: Information-sharing, responses to questions, removing doubts, etc.
  4. Caring: Before assessing or caring what the seller knows, the customer wants to know the person cares.
  5. Collaboration: For sales efforts to succeed, there is a need to align with customers, share resources, mutually choose options, and exemplify a willingness to work together.
  6. Character: Behaving ethically, morally, and transparently.

When logic, data, quantitative input, and facts are offered, we tend to want to challenge, argue, and dispute them. However, when we are told a “story,” we relax, listen for how it mirrors our own reality, are willing to share experiences, and the conversation becomes a dialogue of equals—and not a salesperson trying to sell something to a resistant buyer.

Putting It Into Action

Rather than the standard factual/rational/logical sales presentations, the executive was told to include the following few things:

  1. Competency: Rather than go on and on about how great they are in their selling decks (all self-reported), I told her to share an example of how they had solved a problem for a client or customer. The example will convey the competency far better than beating of the chest and claiming one’s superiority.
  2. Commitment: Share a story of how the company went above and beyond the expected. It is far more accessible for the prospect than simply stating, “We are with you from sale to implementation.”
  3. Communication/Clarity: Share a time when, by virtue of your communicating clearly, you avoided a catastrophe that was bound to happen.
  4. Caring: Offer up that example of when you personally opened the office on the weekend of your daughter’s wedding because you knew the client needed access to files.
  5. Collaboration:Recount that time your firm worked side by side with the client to staple pages and punch holes in their sheets to be stuffed into binders.
  6. Character: Avoiding gossip or not taking potshots at competitors will be noted in your favor.

The irrational success the executive’s team experienced prompted her company to make a logical choice and promote her.

David Zahn, president of ZAHN Consulting, LLC, is an author, consultant, professor, and connoisseur of Buffalo Chicken Wings. He can be reached at http://www.zahnconsulting.com.

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