Nowadays I watch very little TV but I used to be an almost religious watcher of the Simpsons. If you've ever watched the Simpsons you'll know that there were many consistent recurring characters. One of those characters was Mr Burns or Charles Montgomery Burns for the fans out there.
I always saw Mr Burns as this over characterised Scrooge that you would never really meet in real life. Surely you wouldn't meet someone like him as a client.
It was in my third year in sales that I came across of Director of operations in the UK (lets just call her Mrs Burns). She was one of my first accounts in this company and it looked like this account had passed through a few different account managers.
She was a paying customer but if you could imagine a graph with Y axis $ and X axis Time that Y axis had not moved an inch. It was almost a perfect horizontal straight line at $10,000 exactly for almost 5 years. She would not budge and no one seemed to be able to have a meaningful connection with her. She was even operating on an older version of the product and wasn't yielding the full benefit for herself, her team and her company.
I naturally took on the challenge and boy did I have roller coaster ride of year managing this account. I'll share the surprising outcome at the end.
Think about the most challenging clients you've had. Those clients you've come across that have made working in sales even more challenging than usual. Clients who constantly battle you on price and seem to take pleasure in giving false opportunities that appear real (FOAR).
Because of the statistics we see daily. We can be fooled into thinking existing customers will buy more all the time and that they'll always be easier to sell too. Anyone who's been in sales for more than a month will quickly realise that is not entirely true.
Not every customer you have today is your ideal customer, not every contact you have will want to do more business with you. That could be for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes it's just them.
I don't blame any sales professional for spending less time with low tier non buying customers. You should be spending time on those customers who are willing, able and ready to buy from you.
It wasn't until years later and bumping into Mrs Burns :) that I recalled all the lessons learnt from observing the failures and successes while working with her. It's only now I'm really starting to think about them more proactively.
Here are 5 things I've observed that you can quickly learn from when dealing with challenging and non buying clients.
You learn about non buying behaviour
How often do we as account management professionals blind ourselves to the truth of where our client truly is in their buying commitment. This happens more often than you think and you can ask any sales manager on the planet. Non-buying behaviour isn't difficult to spot but it requires conscious understanding of our customers buying journey. Our job is to reduce risk and elevate trust so we can get to the truth faster.
When you notice that behaviour instead of going into trying to convince, ask yourself a question many sales professionals don't ask. Is the behaviour I'm seeing from this client consistent or contextual?. Meaning on most conversations do they bring up the same blocks, excuses and barriers or are these specific conversations where this is more prevalent. Knowing this can tell you a lot about your customer, whether it's you or something else that is impacting their behaviour. You can adapt your selling approach very quickly to help you and them through the buying cycle.
You learn how to better qualify customer commitment
This is one of the most important lessons I learned. Sales for me is not a convincing process but a disqualification process. You want to be able to ask effective questions to help you understand the motive, drivers and blocks to your clients making commitments. You can learn this quickly with non buyers. One of the most powerful steps I take with my customers is to empower them with choice.
Step one - creating the environment for honesty (you leave yourself vulnerable for criticism so you can address this with empathy later) - "Is it ok if I share an observation? I've felt that we haven't been as aligned to you and the business this might be the cause of some of the hesitation I'm seeing. What has been your experience of the process of working together today?"
Step two - Give them the stage (After step one they now feel like they're being listened to and more empowered for this next question) - "Based on our conversations. What do you honestly believe would be the best decision for you and your business today?"
Step three - make the next decision collaborative (here is where you continue to build trust and value)- "Where can we add the most value to you in the process of that decision regardless of the outcome?"
You can deal with No's better
I can't even count the number of No's I've heard in my sales career. I bet some of you would've heard more. That's something to be celebrated. It means all the yes's you've had after have been all the more satisfying. With non buyers you hear the implicit 'no' often. You know the phrases i'm talking about. It's helpful for you to recognise that No's typically come in three different psychological categories. "I'm not ready", "It's not for me" and "I don't believe you". You need to know which one it is before you move on.
You learn how to adapt your message
I've always been impressed by the numerous ways great sales professionals can explain, paint a picture and share ideas helpful for their customers. You aren't born with that. It's learnt, practised and nurtured. With non-buying customers they're likely to be disengaged and that's on you. I used those conversations to work my communication muscle. I'd listen to the way they described their experience, I'd note down the way they described their concerns and analogies they used that I could refer back to later. That simple process of listening and observing in those interactions rather than trying to get something because of a quota helped me later to turn around a number of non-buying clients.
You learn when it's time to walk away
This brings me to Mrs Burns. So what happened? I learnt to walk away. When I say walk away I want you to think of it as a mutual decision and not one you decide alone. Mrs Burns and I got to a stalemate. The conversation wasn't bitter or harsh. I remember clearly in that conversation I said...
"Mrs Burns, I want you to get as much value as possible from us as a business. On your current product you will not be able to optimise your results without upgrading. We don't want to waste your time. I've spoken with my manager and he has agreed if you wish you can keep the machine but moving forward we may not be the right company to serve you long term".
She was silent over the phone...said thank you and that was it. That was a hard decision but taught me that it's my obligation to ensure I'm serving my clients at the highest level possible. If we don't share the same values or approach to mutually building value. It's wrong for me to keep taking their money.
Forward almost 8 years... she is now working for a client of mine and she remembered our last conversation. Trust is higher and I can see she'll be a real pleasure to work with.
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