AGILE SELLING: Jill Konrath and Shawn Naggiar Discuss New Book on Rapid Learning and Sales
An Act-On Conversation
Editor’s Note: Jill Konrath is one of America’s top experts and speakers on sales. She has an innate affinity for challenging projects that require an intense learning curve and a fresh perspective. Her clients range from organizations like IBM, Wells Fargo, and Microsoft to SMBs. She is the bestselling author of Selling to Big Companies (one of Fortune’s “Must Reads” for sellers), and SNAP Selling, which jumped to number one on Amazon within a few hours of release.
In this Conversation, Jill and Shawn Naggiar, Act-On’s Chief Revenue Officer, discuss her new book, AGILE SELLING, which details how to leverage rapid-learning strategies in the most results-oriented profession of all – sales.
This is an edited transcript of the Act-On Conversation they held, which you can listen to on the audio player below.
SHAWN: SNAP Selling is one of my favorite books on sales methodology; a lot of people in our sales organization ascribe their success to it. I think your new book nails a lot of the hot issues around helping salespeople succeed today. So Jill, tell us a little bit about AGILE SELLING and how this book came about.
JILL: Sure. AGILE SELLING is really about the need to be quick and nimble on your feet. Let me share how I got the concept for writing the book:
My previous book, SNAP Selling, is about selling to crazy-busy business buyers, people who are much too busy to talk with you. Once you do capture their attention, it’s really hard to keep it because they keep disappearing into their own priorities and their own busy work schedule.
After I wrote that book, salespeople kept coming up to me and saying “Jill, this book was really helpful and it gave me really good ideas for how to sell to crazy-busy people. But I’m crazy-busy too, what can you do to help me?”
When I first heard that I thought, Well, I can’t do anything to help these people; I am not a time management expert. I thought that’s what they were asking for – time management issues.
But when I stepped back I realized that they were looking for something else. I realized that this is a learning issue. How do we learn fast? And if salespeople could learn stuff faster, or get up to speed faster in their new jobs, then they would be successful faster.
SHAWN: Why don’t you expand a little bit on what you mean by learning agility?
JILL: To me, learning agility is a metaskill. That means it’s a skill that’s beyond and bigger than any other skill. As an example, prospecting is a skill. But if you become a chief financial officer, prospecting won’t help you one little bit. [LAUGHTER] But a metaskill, like agile learning, is something that you could use whether you become a CFO or start your own company. It’s a skill that overrides everything. If you know how to do it, you can do it in all sorts of situations.
The process of learning is itself a skill
JILL: What most people have never realized is that the process of learning is itself a skill. And there are ways to learn more rapidly.
It’s funny; when I realized that it was an information management problem that people were really struggling with, suddenly it hit me that one of my own personal core competencies was rapid and agile learning.
Here’s the story: For many years as a consultant I worked between marketing and sales organizations to help launch new products. In some years I worked on as many as 8 to 10 new product launches. I helped my clients sell new products and services to totally different markets, totally different buyers, totally different value propositions, sometimes totally different sales methodologies.
I had to quickly assimilate all that information in order to create prospecting methodologies, playbooks, everything that they needed, then hand it off to the sales force and train the sales force within two to three months. I had multiple projects going concurrently. So I was always in the learning mode and became a master at how to shorten learning.
SHAWN: The one thing that we don’t have as salespeople and as sales leaders is the luxury of time. We’re expected to produce sales results right away. I think any good salesperson or sales executive or sales manager will tell you, starting a new job, launching a new product, whatever the initiative, I think the pressures from the organization are always to generate revenue quickly. So tell me what your advice would be for a salesperson or a sales leader on tips and tricks on how they can get up to speed quickly in the shortest amount of time.
JILL: Let’s start from the salesperson’s perspective, and then move to the sales leader’s perspective. They’re very different and I want to separate what an individual can do and what an organization can do.
Getting up to speed quickly – the sales rep’s perspective
JILL: Let’s look at that individual. They come into the new sales job. And what happens when they get on the job? Sometimes nothing. [LAUGHTER] They’re told, Here’s our stuff, go get ’em. Maybe they’re given a pile of information. Or they’re told, why don’t you go talk to Tom and Sally and Jeff and Andre and Philippe, and talk to all those people —
SHAWN: Your traditional mentoring program, right?
JILL: Yes, right. Sit on the phone and listen to Bob. He’s good. That’s the traditional way of doing it. So what you have is a salesperson whose head is spinning. They’re thinking I don’t get this, and then I’m talking to this person, and he tells me something different, and she’s going into all the details about how the product works, and I have no idea if this all makes sense. So they’re not getting anything that’s rapidly digestible and that makes sense.
This applies to both new salespeople and salespeople who change jobs. They have to learn new stuff every place they go. What if there were a process that allowed you to go into that new job and say, Okay I’m here to get learning; here’s what I need to learn first. I need to have a general overview of the products and services that I’m selling. A general overview. I do not need detailed stuff to start with. Because you know when you give people detailed stuff to start with –
SHAWN: They regurgitate detailed stuff.
JILL: Now that’s what you want them to tell your customers, right?
SHAWN: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. Absolutely.
JILL: Let me give you a demonstration of everything our product can do, right?
SHAWN: Everything I learned in training. Absolutely, 100 percent.
JILL: Even though it’s not important to you and you’ll never use it again and it won’t impact your decision, I want to share it with you because I learned it.
So that’s one thing that can happen. But it’s not the right thing that can happen. So what you as a new salesperson need to do is go get a general overview. You need to find out what the most important aspects of the product or service are. Figure out what matters most in getting people to change from the status quo. That’s the first thing. Because every salesperson is up against the status quo.
That salesperson needs to find out what they need to know about their product right now that will help a customer who is considering (or could consider) changing from the status quo.
The next thing – and this is where a lot of companies really screw up – the salesperson needs to immerse themselves in the customer. They need to find out what the customer is doing today, what is the status quo they’re up against. Because they’re not competing against whoever might be labeled as their big competitors. They’re competing against the way that’s in place right now
SHAWN: That’s a great segue into talking about what sales leadership can do, and how they can go out and identify those things that are critically important to learn in that kind of agile learning environment. How do you determine what the most important things are to teach your sales team?
Getting sales reps up to speed quickly – the sales leader’s perspective
JILL: As a sales leader, you should be asking, What are the top three status quos that our sales reps are going see on a regular and daily basis? Then you should know what’s wrong with those status quos. What can’t the buyer do with their status quo that they might like to do? Who are these decision makers and what are their primary objectives? What do they expect to achieve and what are the metrics?
It’s not an immersion just in the status quo, but also in the buyer. It’s really important to be able to understand the buyer at a deep level. Until the salesperson has both parts of that context, the status quo and the buyer, the reason to buy the product or service doesn’t make sense. It’s just a bunch of talking points.
SHAWN: There’s an expression about getting caught “flat footed.” I think it’s a common practice to put a new salesperson in a sales engagement, perhaps put on the phone to read from a script or to offer a product demo. When they’re in that conversation with that prospective buyer, if they get to a status quo conversation, they just have nothing. They’re flat footed, with nowhere to go from there.
JILL: They don’t know that.
SHAWN: It’s a misstep with that lead. You won’t get that opportunity again.
JILL: Right. The salesperson needs to truly understand what it is that they’re likely to run into, and the business case for making a change. What is the reason, the business rationale that will cause a customer to want to make a switch to the product or service that they’re being offered? Until the salesperson understands that, everything else is irrelevant. They have insufficient context to be highly effective.
As a sales leader, you have to ask, What sales information do they need? And of course the answer is, It depends. You have to prioritize, because people can’t learn everything at once. You have to ask, What kind of situation are they walking into? You need to consider their role also. Are they doing account management? Are they doing opportunity creation where they are given a lot of leads? Or do they have to create the leads themselves?
The answers to those questions define the skills that need to be learned first. Once you have those, you focus on the skills that are essential for jump-starting their expertise on the status quo and the kind of clients that they’re working with. But you don’t give them everything at once. Once they’ve really got the initial context, you can expand from there.
How the agile salesperson works with marketing
SHAWN: You grazed something that’s near and dear to my heart when you talked about leads. What do you think – how does the agile salesperson work with the marketing team? Is there an “agile marketer” that needs to be there complementing and leveraging technology and/or processes to help the agile seller?
JILL: Well you’ll probably laugh when I tell you this. But I often hear people say, We’re trying to grow our sales, I think I need to add a salesperson. My answer to them is to stop before they do that. I suggest they take a look at what they’re doing, from a marketing perspective, to attract the right people to their websites and to nurture people once they get them there.
Very often companies’ websites are lacking [LAUGHTER] severely. They often have no content on their website that would get anybody to sign up or raise their hand and give them their name and say I’m an interested person.
To me, that is a huge, huge mistake that makes selling all that much harder. Companies need to make an investment in marketing and in getting an abundance of good highly relevant content – I don’t mean sales crap, I mean highly relevant content from a buyer’s perspective. Something that might inspire the buyer to say, This is really interesting, we should investigate this further. Or This really helps us figure out what the next steps would be in making this decision. Or This helps us decide what we should be looking for in the options that we select.
Educational content is very good; you can put a whole series of content pieces in motion. Once people sign up for one thing, they are continually fed more information. I’ve been using that kind of strategy myself for my business for 10 or 15 years, really ever since I’ve been in business.
SHAWN: I think with today’s buyer, marketing has so much more responsibility over the funnel than they have historically had. Think about the ways people used to buy: I used to need to talk to a salesperson in order to get any type of information about a product or service and educate myself. Now there are so many ways for buyers to educate themselves before ever talking to a salesperson.
JILL: And that’s exactly what they’re doing, yes.
SHAWN: So marketers need to be agile in the way that they address prospects even before they talking to salespeople, in order to properly qualify them and make the job of the salesperson that much easier.
JILL: Let me throw in another word about sales leadership. The more information a salesperson has about a prospect, the better. Today, it’s not just call, call, call. It’s a function of having good knowledge before you call so that you can have a message or a conversation that matters to the prospect. With today’s marketing systems, you have the ability to see what people have downloaded, if they’ve gotten a particular white paper, or been to a webinar. You have an idea about what they’re thinking, and what they were concerned about, or what they were looking at. That kind of context can really help a salesperson hone in on what’s more important and ensure relevance in all their conversations.
The research behind AGILE SELLING
SHAWN: Why don’t you give us a little overview about the research behind your book?
JILL: The research behind my book is not typical sales research. Here’s a statistic from Sales Benchmark Index that drives me nuts: 60 percent of forecasted deals are never closed. I’m not just talking about any deals; I’m talking about forecasted deals.
Which tells me, as somebody who is an observer and a thinker of sales, that what we have is a status quo issue. This is why you just heard me talking about people not understanding the status quo. The people who don’t change after they’ve been forecasted don’t see enough value in switching from the status quo.
Another statistic in the book: Forrester Research says only 13 percent of executives think that the salespeople who call them are prepared for the call. Only 7 percent of them will have follow up calls. So again we have an issue that the salespeople are not addressing what’s important. Why are they not addressing what’s important? Because they don’t have the insights and information they need to be able to have an interesting conversation with the decision makers.
I’ve also been studying in the neuroscience field lately to look at how we learn. There’s so much information about how we learn and what the brain can and can’t handle. One of the strategies I talk about is the need to “chunk” information, and create mental filing folders for what you’re learning. You don’t want to have more than four things that you’re trying to do at one time because your brain literally doesn’t remember [LAUGHTER] more than four things concurrently.
We can apply this: You can say, I need to know about the product and service I’m selling, I need to know about the prospects that I’m calling, I need to know about the sales process, and I need to know about the internal workings of the company. So those are the four major chunks, and then you have chunks within each of those. Research shows you can’t remember it without this type of structure.
SHAWN: Jill, one last question for you. You’ve written several books, all meant to help a salesperson become more successful. What’s the most fun part of writing a book for salespeople?
JILL: The best part is actually what happens after the book is out, when people start writing to me: I didn’t believe that this stuff would work, but … That’s the kind of thing I hear all the time. What I’m doing is taking people who are struggling and showing them how they can be successful. To me there’s nothing more exciting than that.