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Book Club: Lee Salz on Core Strategies for Sales Differentiation

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Olivia Fuller: Hi, and welcome to Book Club, a Sales Enablement PRO podcast. I’m Olivia Fuller. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs. When someone claims that they’re the best at something chances are it triggers some skepticism. Think about your own buying tendencies as a consumer, without solid proof or clear differences between competitors it’s likely that you’d have a hard time believing that one is better than the other while both claim to be the best. That’s why differentiation in sales is so critical. As buying decisions are becoming increasingly complex with more stakeholders involved, more information available online, and more market saturation, organizations need to devise a strategy to not only stand out to buyers, but to motivate them to take action. Sales enablement can play a core role in helping sellers develop the skills and behaviors they need to differentiate themselves.

Today, I’m so excited to have Lee Salz, author of “Sales Differentiation”, join us to talk about some of the advice that he lays out in his book. Lee, I’d love for you to take a moment to introduce yourself to our audience.

Lee Salz: Well Olivia, first of all, thank you for having me on the show. Hello everyone, I am Lee Salz, as Olivia mentioned to you. I’m the author of the bestselling book “Sales Differentiation”, and also have a consulting firm called Sales Architects. And what I do is I work with companies to help their salespeople win more deals at the prices they want.

OF: Fantastic. So, you titled your book, “Sales Differentiation”. What is sales differentiation all about?

LS: Well, sales differentiation is a philosophy that I’ve developed over 30 years working with companies in every industry. You could name companies of all different sizes, selling products, services, technology, software, as a service, and it B2B, B to C, even business to government. And I’ll tell you where the idea even came from. When I was a teenager, I got this summer job. We had a family friend who had this crazy business idea. And I’ll give you an idea of how old I am, this was back in the 1980s. And his idea was transportation for dry cleaning. So, he had this idea that you have these brick and mortar dry cleaners, but if you were a busy executive, you didn’t have time go to the dry cleaners to drop off your clothes and you didn’t have time to pick it up. So, he developed strictly the transportation arm and you may say, “wow, well, this is 2020, that’s not overly interesting.” This was 1986. It didn’t exist back then. So, we had this crazy idea that people would pay more for this service and he hired me as his driver. And I was rooting, I’ll tell you, Olivia. This had to work because I needed the money, this was my summer job. And the question is, did it work? Were people willing to pay more for this service? And the answer was some.

I lived in a town called Marlboro in New Jersey, and we had a lot of people in our town that commuted to New York City, which is about a 90-minute commute, and executives who were making that commute, who were still dressed, I mean, this was again, 1980s, so people actually wore suits to work. They needed a way to get their clothes dry cleaned. Their dress shirts, their suits. But at the same time, didn’t necessarily have the time to do it. Some people had a way, maybe they had someone at home that could do it for them, but they didn’t have the time themselves. So those executives who didn’t have someone that could help them out saw tremendous value in that service, and very quickly signed up.

Those who had a resource for it, just saw it as a very expensive, unnecessary service. So, it taught me a couple of really important messages. Number one is yes, people will buy different if it’s meaningful to them. But not everyone is going to see value in what you offer. So you have to figure out who will see meaningful value in what you’re selling and focus your selling time there rather than wasting it chasing the masses where you get to the finish line and the deal either stalls out, or they squeeze you on price because they don’t really see that meaningful value. So, the business did work when we focused with that alignment.

OF: I love those two keywords that you just mentioned: meaningful value. So on the other hand, what are some of the biggest mistakes that salespeople make when trying to differentiate themselves?

LS: Well, there’s a lot of them. So, I just told you, I grew up in Marlboro, New Jersey, and I now live in Minneapolis and there’s a little bit of a climate difference between those two geographies. And when I lived in New Jersey, whenever it snowed it wasn’t a big deal, but we also didn’t want to deal with it either. And when I came to Minnesota and discovered a new definition of the word cold, as well as amounts of snow compared to back east, my neighbors would be out plowing the snow, having a grand old time. But people like me that are from the east coast, we don’t deal with snow that way. We get a guy. We get a guy to deal with the snow. So, when I moved here, I had to find a guy to deal with getting the snow off my driveway, my sidewalk and the walkway up to my front door. And I used this online service called Thumbtack and put in my criteria and they connected me with guys, if you will, that could handle snow removal. And there was one that lived in the same city where I am in Minneapolis and we exchanged some pleasantries and then I got his price and he was by far the highest price of anyone there. And so I sent him back a one-line email saying, “boy, I wish your price was lower.” And he sent me this hateful email because it was my fault that I didn’t see the value in what he was providing.

In no time where when we were communicating back and forth did he demonstrate meaningful value, it was just pleasantries. Nor did he say an expectation with me that his price would be higher. And he’s been around like 25 years and he talked about the quality of what he offers, the reliability in what he does. Quality? Please. I’m asking him to get snow off my driveway and my sidewalk. What is this quality? Well, he did what salespeople do so often, he just tossed out the word “quality” and he left it for me to figure out what it meant and why it mattered. He also tossed out the expression “reliability”. Again, salespeople toss that expression out and we leave it to the person on the other side of the desk to give it meaning, to give it context.

And here’s the thing about differentiators, if you’re going to leave it to the person on the other side of the desk to figure out what it means and why it matters, one of two really bad things are going to happen. You either never get to figure it out, or they’re going to give it a meaning that doesn’t help your sale, either way you lose. So, it’s on you as the salesperson to give meaningful context, to help them see the value in what you’re providing.

OF: Yeah, that’s such an important point that you really can’t put the burden on the buyer to understand that. So, in your book, you raise that interesting point as well, that people don’t know how to buy what salespeople are selling. Within sales differentiation, you say that that’s both a sales obligation and a sales opportunity. What do you mean by that?

LS: Yeah. You know, the worst feedback that salespeople have been given is they’ve been told that they’re selling to educated buyers. It’s not true. See, there’s a question that I’ve asked audiences all around the globe. I’ve asked in every industry you can name, every sale setting you could imagine. And the question is this: who knows more about the world of potential opportunities in your industry, you or the people you sell to? And not one salesperson in all of those audiences, all around the world, all those sales settings has ever said, “oh, the people I sell to know much more about the world of potential opportunity and solutions in my industry,” not one.

So, we know more about the world of potential solutions in our industry than the people that we’re selling to. Yes, they have access to information, but we still know more than they do. And to me that gives us both an obligation and an opportunity. I believe if you’re in sales, we have an obligation to help people make informed buying decisions, which gives us an opportunity to shape buyer decision criteria because they don’t know how to buy what we’re selling.

OF: And you’ve developed 19 sales differentiation concepts. And one of those is that how you sell and not just what you sell differentiates you. So how can our listeners really put this into practice to help sales reps improve the customer experience?

LS: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, when I look at sales differentiation, I separate it into two parts. There’s sales differentiation in what you sell and sales differentiation in how you sell. So, the what you sell side is understanding what your differentiators are to whom they’re relevant, when they’re relevant, and most importantly, developing a communication strategy so someone on the other side of the desk is just as excited about it as you are.

And that’s where most attention is paid from both. Not just the sales side, but also executives. How are we going to differentiate the widget? But we have this other side of the equation as well. It’s the how you sell side of the equation. Every interaction, every touchpoint you have with a prospect gives you opportunities to provide meaningful value that the competition does not. How you prospect, right? That initial contact you make, how you handle a discovery meeting, how you handle a proposal. Every interaction, right? How you handle customer service, how you handle account management. Every one of those touchpoints challenge yourself with this question: What is it that I can do different than my competition, that my buyers will find meaningful?

So, it’s not different for the sake of different, but something meaningful, something that they will appreciate. And if you take the time to think about that, you’ll find there are so many opportunities that you can stand out, provide meaningful value that your competition doesn’t. And I have another book that’ll be coming out one year from this month, building off sales differentiation it’s titled “Sell Different”. And I get even further into that side of the equation of differentiating how you sell.

OF: Well, I am very much looking forward to reading that book when it comes out next year. I think that how you sell part of the equation is just so important. And in your book, you delve into that a little bit more as well using the term “personal value differentiation”. What is that and why is it important to sales differentiation?

LS: Absolutely. Super important concept. So, we talked about differentiating what you sell and differentiating how you sell. Within the how you sell umbrella, there’s personal value differentiation. I don’t care if you’ve been in sales a couple of months or 30 years, there is value that you personally bring to the table. And I find salespeople don’t think enough about that. And if you don’t know what your personal value is, you can’t possibly position it in a meaningful way. You see when someone buys from your company, they get you as part of the deal, right? You’re part of the package. You aren’t working for those guys; you’re working for these guys. So, what is that value? So, if we don’t know what that is, we can’t leverage it to help us win more deals at the prices that we want. So, there might be expertise that you have in your industry, in the product that you’re selling, but there’s an expertise that every one of you watching this should have and may not have at the level that you should. And that is expertise in the people that you’re selling to.

So, if you normally call on CFOs, you should know that CFO role inside and out. What’s keeping them up at night? What are the challenges that they’re having? What is key terminology that they use? What are their folk layers? What are they trying to accomplish? Because if you know that, if you have that mastery, you can connect your industry with their world, and you demonstrate meaningful credibility. Remember, you know more about the world of potential solutions in your industry than they do. So, they need you. But they got to trust you. And the way that trust is established is by becoming an expert. An expert in your world, but also an expert in their world so they see you as that valued resource.

OF: That’s excellent. I think another one of the big questions that has been on everyone’s minds over the last few months with how the world has changed is how to differentiate yourself in a virtual selling environment. In your opinion, what are some of the challenges that salespeople might face in differentiating themselves in this new normal and how can they overcome some of these challenges?

LS: Yeah. Great question. It’s definitely a different selling time right now. We hear this expression “virtual selling.” But think about it, virtual selling is just inside sales on steroids. We’re overthinking it, right. Yes, there’s sensitivity we need to have in the communication that we use and the tools that we use, but let’s not overthink this.

We put this name, virtual selling. It’s a pretty name, it goes with the times. But I think we’re also putting way too much emphasis on it. That being said, not everyone fits in an inside sales role or a virtual sales role and not everyone fits in an outside sales role. So that’s one of the key consideration points as you look at this, there’s plenty of assessment tools when companies are hiring. And they look at where does this person fit best? Is it in that insight sales role or in an outside sales role? See when you’re in inside sales there are certain things that you have as disadvantages that outside salespeople have.

One of them is when you meet face to face with someone, you get to see body language and facial expressions and taking notes and all those kinds of things. In a virtual environment you may not have that opportunity unless you’re using a webcam. Now, if you’re going to use a webcam, one of the things that’s also very different is, if I’m an outside salesperson I’ve been taught to look someone in the eye, that’s a sign of respect. Well in a virtual environment, looking someone in the eye is not really looking them in the eye. I have to get comfortable looking in the lens of a camera because that’s truly looking someone in the eye and that’s very different. So, what that tells us is if we’re going to use a tool like that, we’ve got to get comfortable with it. So, if I’m looking down here talking to you, because I think I’m looking at your face and I’m really not, it’s odd, it’s awkward, and it makes for a very uncomfortable selling environment. But when you think of the selling aspect of it, there’s a discovery meeting. Well, that discovery meeting, you should be preparing the questions you’re going to ask, the information you’re going to share. No different than when you were selling outside. You get to a point where you need to memorialize the relationship in a proposal. So again, very similar, but one of the things that you would be able to do in an outside sales environment is to present the proposal.

When I see a lot of inside salespeople, now called virtual salespeople, do is they email the proposal over and sit there and fingers crossed saying, “Oh my gosh, I hope I get the deal.” Never, ever, ever email a proposal. Present it. Just like the outside salesperson would sit down with someone and take them through it, use a virtual environment like the zoom meeting, for example, show it on screen and walk them through the different sections of it. Because if you send it over, here’s, what’s going to happen. They’re going to flip to page seven, which has the pricing on it. And they’re going to look at the price and they’re either going to love it, or they’re going to hate it. And they’re either going to say you got the deal or more likely, they’re going to say nothing and go dark on you.

If you guide them through it, it helps to remind them of the differentiators that you have. Why are you even talking, so the challenges that were covered during discovery lead them down the path and then explain the investment that’s associated with your solution. But the key there is mastery of the tools that you’re using. Using a webcam, some type of sharing tool, whatever it might be. The time to figure those out is that when you have a client involved, you do that outside. You make sure, you know every aspect of those tools inside and out, and then guide them through that process just as you would in outside sales. Don’t overthink the role, but rather take what you did in outside sales and figure out ways to apply it in that virtual environment.

OF: Well, those are some fantastic, actionable tips. Lee, thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise with our audience. I’ve really enjoyed this conversation.

LS: Well, thank you for having me, Olivia. It’s been great fun.

OF: To our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.