Expert Interview Series: John Holland of CustomerCentric Selling

By John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling® – The Sales Training Company

John R. Holland is the co-founder of CustomerCentric Selling, which offers specialized, world-class sales training to organizations. John has more than 20 years of experience in sales, sales management and consulting. We recently checked in with him to get his take on how sales evolved over the past two decades and how brands can evolve their strategies to ensure growth. 

What is customer-centric selling?

CustomerCentric Selling® allows companies to identify, codify and share best selling practices. We recognize people would rather buy than be sold and we focus on empowering people to buy. Vendors provide capabilities that can empower buyers to achieve goals, solve problems or satisfy needs. We believe buying cycles begin if and when buyers share business outcomes they want to achieve.

How has sales evolved since you started your career?

The buyer-seller relationship has been strained– if not broken– for decades. There is a prevalent negative stereotype that sellers are guilty of sins of omissions, hype and in come cases outright lying. Most buyers and sellers define selling as convincing, persuading and overcoming objections. There is an underlying feeling that buyers can somehow be manipulated.

Used car salesman

I believe the negative stereotype is baggage from B2C (business to consumer) transactions early in our lives in buying cars, life insurance, etc. People don’t remember average, good or exceptional sellers they encountered. Rather they remember the worst experiences and how they felt they had been taken advantage of.

Those stereotypes are liberally applied to B2B (Business to Business) sellers, most of whom are interested in long-term (rather than transactional) relationships and genuinely want to be sure they are meeting buyer needs. Inbound website activity became a deluge and vendors responded by giving Marketing responsibility for nurturing them. They made a logical decision to grade activity (Number of visits, duration, pages accessed, sign up for a webinar, etc.).

Junior businessman

The problem was and is that for expensive B2B offerings visitors were mostly lower- to mid-level staff. Executives didn’t have the time and most websites didn’t have relevant content to keep them engaged. As a result, there are many “product evaluations” done without executive knowledge and therefore no budget. These nurtured leads are poor entry points because they are not decision makers and have no idea of value of payback.

Over the last 15 years or so buying changes are occurring at an incredible pace. In my opinion, selling is evolving at a glacial pace and the gap between how buyers want to buy and how they want to buy is widening every day.

Why is focusing on the customer so important to the success of a sales person today?

Buyers want to buy from sellers that understand their needs. The challenge has been that while vendors readily agree buyers get involved later in buying cycles than ever, few vendors had made enterprise-wide changes to their sales approaches. Most companies and sales methodologies assume buyers are blank canvases as relates to their needs. Nothing could be further from the truth for visitors that have made multiple visits to multiple vendors’ websites. I refer to these people as “researchers.” Most vendors mistakenly view them as “buyers.”

Competent sellers today recognize that most inbound prospects are “coaches” rather than decision makers. By that I mean sellers have to have product discussions but raise the conversation to business issues and values by seeing if they can gain access to Key Player (higher) levels. Many vendors are confusing activity (website visits by lower level staff) with progress (establishing value and building business cases). At CCS® we help companies identify the Key Player titles that will likely be involved in buying decisions and then create menus of business goals they would be responsible that can be achieved through the use of their offerings.

Many vendors are confusing activity (website visits by lower level staff) with progress (establishing value and building business cases).

At CCS® we help companies identify the Key Player titles that will likely be involved in buying decisions and then create menus of business goals they would be responsible that can be achieved through the use of their offerings.

What are the most effective strategies for speaking to customers today? What doesn’t seem to work as well?

Whether “researchers” or “buyers” people prefer that buyers ask rather than tell. In my mind asking facilitates buying while telling is selling.

sales research

Early in calls with researchers, it is important to ask what requirements they have already established, help them uncover organizational business goals and ask them what capabilities they’ve seen that could enable their organization to achieve them. At that point, a through diagnosis of their current situation should be uncovered by asking questions.

For buyers it is important they conclude a seller is sincere and competent. At that point, the seller must try to uncover business goals, help buyers understand why they can’t be achieved today, and offer only capabilities relevant to achieving the goal. This should be done by mostly asking questions.

Where do you find sales people most often fail when it comes to being customer centric? How can they improve their strategies?

Companies force feed extensive product/offering on sellers. For ‘B’ and ‘C’ Players, the danger is leading with and talking about offerings. At Key Player levels this will be deadly. It often leads to premature discussions of price of being delegated to lower levels. Vendors that can provide a way to get away from selling products and shift instead to selling business outcomes will likely have sellers that will perform at higher levels. ‘A’ Player sellers do this intuitively. To help ‘B’/’C’ players there are four pre-requisites:

  • Standard milestones
  • A standard skill set
  • Sales-ready messaging to position offerings consistently
  • Auditability to validate milestones achievement with buyer actions vs. seller opinions.

Where should companies start when creating an organizational sales process?

Companies should start by defining milestones for their most complex sales but it should be an integration of the way their buyers buy and steps in their selling process. One size does not usually fit all. The milestones / steps should be reduced as transactions reduce in size. Smaller transactions mean fewer steps.

What steps should sales leaders take to introduce and implement a new organizational process to their teams?

First level managers should lead by example. By that I mean be able to demonstrate that they can execute the process when making calls with their direct reports.

Sales process is not an “a la carte” affair where sellers choose which parts they use.

Senior management should ensure all steps are necessary and that they are followed.

What are the most common mistakes or oversights you see sales teams making when implementing a new sales process?

Especially first level sales managers must inspect what they expect. Many sellers resist change. When trying a new approach if something doesn’t work there is a tendency to fall back to old habits. It is important to be clear in requiring that standards for meeting each pipeline milestone are defined and that sellers have the skill/ability to achieve them.

How often should companies re-evaluate their sales processes?

Given the pace of change of buying behavior, I would recommend at least every 12 months to have a look. Many companies are leveraging analytics to evolve best practices on an ongoing basis and feel those that are successful may find the holy grail: a sustainable competitive advantage.

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