Blog post

Situational Awareness is Key to Tech Sales Success

By Hank Barnes | October 27, 2015 | 5 Comments

go-to-marketFuture of Sales

As Gartner continues to explore The Future of IT Sales, one thing became has become increasingly clear.   Continued focus on methodology du jours (Challenger Selling, Social Selling, Value Selling, Power Selling, etc.) is missing the point.   Continued focus on sales processes that seek to give management a better view of activity, progress and pipeline is also missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong, those are important and valuable activities–but they should not be the focus of sales improvement efforts.  A different perspective should drive your efforts.

Situational Awareness.   Of your customers.  Everything else should flow from that.

I provided one example of this in my #FridayFails series on LinkedIn last week.  A SaaS company had a well defined sales process.  They work to get prospects to engage via their Web site for a demonstration.  They use the demo to qualify and then proceed with the process.   There is nothing wrong with this at all.   In the right customer situation.

But different customers are different.   They engage at various points in their buying process.  They don’t care about your sales process.   In the storylinked  above, the prospect had done a lot of research.  They had read some reviews.   They did not want (or need) a demo.  They needed a ballpark price–to understand if they should even be considering this solution.   The SaaS company refused to provide it.  That request did not fit their process.    A tense exchange occurred and the prospect disengaged (Side note:  I heard from them that they signed an agreement with another vendor this week–one that adapted to their buying situation).

Your sales process does not define how customers buy.  They do.

Gartner has identified three broad categories of focus to develop more situational awareness in selling.  We call them the 3 R’s – Relationship, Rules, and Readiness.

Situational Awareness

  • Relationship – The, often complex, interconnections between the prospect, your company, and influencers.  Uncovering what they already know and what we know about them.   Some of this comes from internal systems, others come from research via social networks and other public vehicles.   More will come from more direct interactions—with others in your company, with the prospect, with partners.  Those insights have to be captured, understood, and shared.
  • Rules – The way the organization buys.   Procurement regulations.   Sign-offs.    This is a critical aspect of buying that most recognize, but may have lost some of its attention in the face of change.   Understanding where they stand on the formal process is critical.  You could have a customer convinced they need you today, but if they don’t know how to execute the formal process in their organization, you’ll never get a deal.  It sounds obvious, but what is less obvious is that many of the people on B2B buying teams don’t understand the details of how their organizations buy.   (For clients, this is the subject of my latest research).
  • Readiness – Where the buyer is in their buying process.  Are they ready to buy and they know what they want?  Or are they ready, but still looking at alternatives?  Or are they just looking around?  Finally, are they not even thinking about addressing the need that you satisfy?

Of these three, readiness is the most important category–and often can be uncovered by the work that goes into understanding the rules and relationship aspects.  The example above illustrates this.  If a prospect is ready to buy, make it as easy as possible–don’t force them into things that they don’t want to do.

This is not about complex selling—it is about the complexity of buying.   Technology buying teams spend 68% of their “buying time” working with people other the providers and partners.  They have to build consensus.   They may have done a lot of this before they contact you.   Don’t ignore that—even the most complex purchase could be “simple” if the first contact occurs with a customer that is ready to buy and knows what they want.

I spoke to one client who completed a large six figure purchase of a new technology in 4 days!    And they are happy with the decision and getting the value they expected.  Independent of the situation, this would be viewed as a “complex sale.”  But the customer had resolved the “complexity” on their own.  That, plus an executive mandate, drove the speed.  In other cases, I’ve seen relatively simpler purchases take much longer than expected–largely because the procurement rules were not fully understood (by both the provider and the buying team–who had the “authority” to buy, but did not understand fully how to buy).

Increase your focus on really working to understand your prospect’s situation.   Some of this may be done as part of your qualification effort.  But this goes beyond BANT (which is somewhat limited and flawed—-authority–for example, is seldom held by one person anymore, and may shift as the buying cycle progresses).   Situational awareness starts with first contact — whether initiated by you or the customer.  That is a key moment of truth.  Are your coaching and helping your sales teams succeed at that point or setting them up to fail by:

  • Having collected information about the buyer in other systems (e.g. marketing automation) but not sharing that with sales “in the moment,”
  • Failing to capture information on the buyers situation (either because you can’t or did not think it important),
  • Forcing them to treat all customers the same–and making them fit your process, or
  • Using the wrong metrics that steer behavior in the wrong direction.

Those failure points are all driven by focusing on your situation, not the customer.   A shift has to happen and the customer situation at first contact needs to be the focus.  But it does not stop there.  It continues for the life of the relationship.   The situation changes and evolves, the buying process is fluid.

You are part of the customer’s situation too.  If you are the “lead vendor”, that is a very different situation (for you and the customer)  than being in the “others being considered” or “not even being considered” camps.  Those positions impact how you, and the customer, interact.

And that is key.  We aren’t saying that you should just strive to understand the situation–do something about it.  Adapt your sales and marketing activities accordingly.   Skip some of your sales process steps if they don’t fit the situation.  Later, if the situation changes, you may need to “go back” and complete those steps.  Be flexible.  In some cases, you may find that the situation requires you to get the customer to do something they may not be thinking of.  That’s fine–guide them to it by showing them the value of that path.

Now, some of you may say you are already doing this.  You have nurturing campaigns for buyers that are not ready.  You pass leads forward when their score indicates they are qualified.   Sales can sometimes send leads back into nurturing.  All of that is part of this—but go even further.   Optimize for the most common situations you encounter.   Like great sports teams, find ways to create the situations that you are best suited to win.   Be more diligent about stepping away from those situations that are going to be dead ends.  Step up your segmentation and qualification game around sitations.

As I finish writing this, I’m struck by how much this feels like common sense.   And it is.  Great sellers understand this and apply it regularly.   But there are so many cases where the pressure for deals and the pressure for building pipeline and the pressure for showing activity cause us to lose sight of the focus on the customer and their situation.    That is when frustrations mount–for both buyers and sellers.

As a provider, ask yourself–are the pressures of your business causing you to lose focus on your customer’s situation?  If so, it’s time to change.  Situational Selling is a big part of the answer to reduce those frustrations and gaining the deeper understanding of the landscape your are selling into to continue to refine your overall sales structure and approach.  Expect to hear a lot more from Gartner on this topic.



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  • Great points Hank. To me it feels like mass marketing. Segment the customer into different groups and it’s easy for the salespeople and marketing, but it misses out on the unique situation of the customer you’re trying to help. I guess we’re trying to balance best practices with the customer’s unique situation. I get the balance wrong sometimes too which is why I enjoyed your article. I’ve been taking imrov lessons, and I find it has helped to improve my situational awareness.

  • Shashaank says:

    You comment about common sense – is the essence really. In the world of value add, I don’t understand how sales people can go and sell something on their terms. If you were selling a product, which needed a instant yes/no answer, then you make the pitch and move on to the next potential customer. But sales where businesses have to think (10 times) before making the decision, all you can do as a seller is to answer all the question about your product/pricing/service and make the customer feel at ease. That is the way to fast track sales.

    I am not into sales, but this is common sense even for me.

    • Hank Barnes says:

      Thank you for the comment. There is a lot of common sense, but in some situations, simply answering the questions is not enough. You may need to help the customer understand the value of considering different approaches to address the need or opportunity and guide them toward a different perspective. Answering the questions and making it easy to buy will fast track for buyers that know what they want and are ready to buy. But in other situations, it could get you, and the customer, nowhere.

  • Kieran Morgan says:

    As noted in the article, making the customer feel at ease can also require an empathetic and flexible approach that goes beyond evidencing compliance with functional requirements.

    I have been wowed by the relationship-building skills and customer-centric approach of salespeople selling solutions (not always tech) that could not fly (and vice versa).

    To successfully partner with prospects or clients in the context of their organisational constraints to educate them as to your fitness to help them meet their long-term goals is a great achievement.

    The client is king (or queen).