Selling too soon. Possibly the most common and sometimes devastating mistake in professional channel sales. Instead of seeking to understand partner business goals, issues and constraints channel sales people launch into a prepared story. Often they are urged onwards by channel sales and marketing managers who want everyone to be good at ‘explaining their company’s value proposition’. While it’s important to be able to clearly articulate your value proposition to partners, and also the partnerships combined value to end user customers, a confident value proposition presentation does not replace professional selling. Many sales people seem more comfortable talking than listening.
The language of levels. Partner business owners and executives focus on a whole different set of issues and constraints that influence their investment and decision making, than do middle level managers or partner sales people. Perhaps the second most common mistake in professional channel selling is using the ‘language’ of the wrong level. A common example is when channel sales people explain their product differentiators to a senior partner executive. While such advantages might be of interest to a partner’s sales force, the partner executive wants to talk about profit, cash flow and growth.
Offering to serve or give away resources. Some sales people offer the world to their partners when this is not necessary or warranted. Watch out for channel sales people who make significant commitments of resources (theirs or someone else’s) in situations where the potential is not sufficiently well qualified, or where no corresponding commitment is being made by the partner. Closely associated with this, channel sales people will often invite the partner to create a shopping list of vendor commitments by asking questions like “What do you need from us – or what would you like us to do”.
Not seeking any commitment. Some kind of momentum should be created in every meeting or phone call. However the commitments that are sought must be appropriate to the stage of the partnering influence process. Are channel sales people trying to ‘close’ too soon? Or are they missing an opportunity to secure a commitment from a partner that is ready to advance? In our experience when no partner commitment is sought it is because none had been planned.
Simply not listening. Too often we see channel sales people concentrating on what they plan to say or ask next, and failing to really listen to what is being said. Not only is it important to focus on what the partner is saying it is vital that channel sales people can paraphrase and summarise both the content and feeling of what is really meant. Only when communication is two-way like this will the partner executive know that the sales person has both listened and also understood them. Believe it or not, partner executives tell us this ability seems to be rare among vendor channel sales representatives even though research tells us partner executives rate it very highly when they assess credibility. Role play observers can see this happening; they watch as channel sales people miss major clues and ‘buying signs’ from partners.
Too much control. Some sales people insist on working through their list of questions as if it was a form for the partner to fill in, rather than a conversation. A good conversational flow means moving easily from one topic to the next after using a summary reflection to bring one topic to a conclusion or action. Conversation must flow naturally so that investigation does not appear to be a clinical data gathering exercise. Channel sales people may need to move around their call plan, investigating all the topics they planned to cover but not necessarily in the order they first planned.
Avoiding questions about emotions. Hopes, fears, goals, what keeps you awake at night? Many sales people are not comfortable questioning for emotional responses and stick only to the facts. However, partners will disclose their feelings to a skilled and sensitive listener. Emotions convey a much of the true meaning and weight of what is being said. Emotions energise partners to act!
Overly complex questions where a short simple open question would be much more effective. Common errors include asking multiple choice questions, long complicated preambles before questions and asking questions they give the answers for themselves.
Note taking. Sometimes channel sales people focus too much on their notes, as if they were reporters or stenographers. While some notes are important, their focus should be in building a peer to peer business relationship and influencing partner’s to invest and execute. Notes should record key points clarified through reflective listening, or record action commitments and decisions. Be mindful of the position of note pads as well; notes should be positioned away from the eyes of the partner or prospect who is probably as just as good at reading upside down as most sales people are!
Behavioural style matching. Do your channel sales people have the awareness and skills required to adjust their personal communication ‘style’ to best match the style of their prospect or partner? Three common problems are:
- Overly friendly channel sales people who try to ‘warm up’ a dominant bottom line focused partner.
- Overly clinical or aloof channel sales people who fail to build personal relationships with friendly outgoing partners.
- Channel sales people who drag the level of discussion down from executive issues such as funding, growth and culture, and focus a partner executive on operational issues that are beneath their level of concern.
The ability to re-create interest and get back into investigation. Most experienced sales executives know that an effective and thorough ‘investigation’ is the heart of the sales process. Thorough investigation will uncover the partners own reasons to change and invest, and effective questioning will raise awareness of value potential. However, partners will innocently drag channel sales reps into proposal mode too soon when they ask for more detail on a program, product or topic. If the investigation phase is not yet complete, channel sales people should reflect and document areas of interest, offer some partial solution to re-create partner interest, and get back into investigation mode until this stage is completed. It’s not time to start ‘selling’ until compelling reasons for the partner to change and invest have been uncovered.
Objection handling. The main skill in objection handling is listening. Instead of immediately answering the objection they think they heard, channel sales people need to reflect the issue, ask a question in return or otherwise probe to understand the true nature and impact of the partner’s concern. Only when the real issue is identified should it be addressed.
This list describes some relatively basic channel sales skills and many vendor executives want to focus training and development on more advanced channel management skills such as partnership planning, coaching and management. However, more advanced skills are built upon these firm foundations and sometimes even the ‘best’ sales people need to revisit core channel selling skills.