by Scott Berinato

An Inside View of the Software Sales Game

Sep 01, 20019 mins

DURHAM, N.C.?Edd Brown is having a few problems this morning. His assistant is AWOL, which means no coffee, no hotel sticky pastries and no one to register the baker’s dozen of us who have signed up for Solution Selling, the software sales boot camp being held at the local Marriott. Edd registers the 16 male and eight female sales reps who have shown up, then stands in the middle of the room. Edd, a former salesman himself, is running the boot camp, and he begins with the basics: “Power buys from power.” “Act like an equal, and you’ll be treated like one.” “Sell to executives, not IT.” This is also known as the California Rule?get high, stay high. And don’t control the buyer, control the process.

We are sitting in a “U” around Edd, who uses paper on an easel and an overhead projector to walk us through his 53-page presentation. Maybe it’s because of the lack of coffee and Danish pastries, but immediately there’s cranky skepticism.

One salesman, who identifies himself as Mike, says, “We all know this. But every time you call, everyone here knows, your stature gets a little smaller.”

Edd pads over to Mike’s seat and presses an ink stamp of a lightbulb onto his paper nameplate. The lightbulb is intended to encourage participation, and it’s Solution Selling’s logo.

“Maybe it’s time we stop saying salesman,” says another cadet, whose nameplate is out of view. “Maybe we should be value brokers.”

“We have all sorts of names. Pond scum. Liars. Cheaters. Thieves,” says Edd. He sounds like he’s been through this before. “Let me offer this. Where would they be without sales?”

Mapping the Buyer

The “they” Edd refers to are, of course, corporate executives. The CEO, CIO or Senior VP of Whatever, and Solution Selling has this buyer mapped.

Solution Selling was founded by Mike Bosworth, an ex-salesman who based his courses around research into the buying and selling process. (The company was recently acquired by Provant, a Boston-based provider of performance improvement services and products.)

According to Bosworth’s research, 13 percent to 20 percent of the companies that buy software are innovators or early adopters, and sales reps don’t need to fight their way into these places; the software sells itself. Sixty-eight percent are either early majority or late majority buyers. It takes a skilled salesman, an “eagle,” to open this person’s purse. The rest, 5 percent to 16 percent are laggards who aren’t worth the bother.

Only 20 percent of all companies are even looking for software. The other 80 percent are window-shopping. Boot camp is all about getting that 80 percent in the store and buying. If the salesperson can get a sponsor inside the company, 70 percent of the time that sponsor will introduce the salesperson to the “power sponsor”?the one with the money and influence to buy software.

No Pain, No Gain

As frazzled as Edd was at the start, he soon collects himself and quickly lays out the tactics of a successful sales battle: “We’re going to use the word pain throughout the day. Buyers try not to focus on their latent pain. We’re going to help you pull their pain from the back of their minds and put it in the forefront.”

The sales reps in Meeting Room 105 have paid $295 and round-trip airfare to Durham, the home of Duke University, to locate that pain. And to learn how to negotiate without caving in on price, how to shorten the sales cycle and how to tilt the playing field in favor of their software.

“Sales is a hurt-and-rescue operation,” Edd expounds. “You’re hurting them in order to rescue them. You have to hurt them first, make them focus on their problems.”

Edd is neat but not overly so in black shoes, black Dockers and a basic blue shirt opened to expose a black T-shirt. His face is boyish, though he must be close to 40. His hair is as straight and as unremarkable as the conference room.

“I’m going to rock your boat,” he says. “I’m suggesting today you take steps you might think will kill your sale.”

For example, on setting up the first meeting: “You actually look better if they ask you ’How’s 3 on Thursday?’ and you say ’I’m booked.’ Even if you’re not,” Edd says. Some are looking at him quizzically, so he reminds us, “Power buys from power.”

Later, we review a litany of reasons that it’s hard to sell software. There are 14 of them listed on Page 10 of his presentation. Edd treats them as excuses. One is “They wouldn’t let me in at the right level.”

“Oh, I hate this one,” Edd starts. “Who’s barring the door?”

My classmate Margherita, eager to participate, misses Edd’s rhetorical tone and shoots back, “The secretary.” Her answer draws a few snickers, but she gets a stamp.

The Sincerity Script

Much of the day is devoted to scripts. There are scripts for everything from cold-calling (phone prospecting, Edd calls it) to creating in the CIO’s mind something called a capability vision. That’s a script whereby the salesperson gets a CIO to talk about her pain in a way that will make the salesperson’s product seem crucial to buy. Say a sales rep is trying to sell antivirus software. His script might sound something like this: “When a virus hits your network, would it help if you had software that automatically detected and quarantined the virus?” Seventy percent of the time a CIO will answer yes, and the hard part is done.

There’s even a script for references?a customer testimonial. The references build trust, which Edd defines as “sincerity plus competence.” Edd says, “Of course, these references have to be real because they may ask ’Who was that?’ or ’Can I talk to that customer?’ What do you say to that?”

“The truth.” Stamp.

“The truth, yes. Always the truth,” Edd says. “But what specifically?”

No one answers, so Edd does. “Here’s what I suggest: You say, ’You know what, that’s confidential, but if it makes sense for us to go forward, I will ask them if I can reveal who it is, and I will also keep your information confidential.’ I am showing power buys from power. I already have permission from the testimonial customer but…”

“Wait! Then that’s not the truth.”

“He doesn’t have to know that. I don’t want to give anything for free. Always quid pro quo. I’m establishing he’s a big shot, but I’m a big shot too.”

By far the most elaborate script is the Nine Block Vision Processing Model?which walks the seller through a start-to-finish sales questioning process. Crudely summarized, the first six blocks create the hurt. The last three suggest a rescue.

A CIO can spot a sales rep walking through the nine blocks by noticing certain cues. The sales rep won’t mention specific products and will phrase everything in the form of a question. And the questions follow a pattern. Open-ended questions, then more focused queries and last, summary questions to get the CIO to repeat back his needs to the sales rep.

“You want to get it out of their mouths,” Edd says. “When you’re in the seventh block you ask, ’How do you see yourself solving the problem?’ They say ’I figured that’s why you called.’ Perfect. They just opened the door so you can drive a big truck of products in.”

CIO = Career Is Over

In the afternoon, Edd realizes he hasn’t introduced himself. His background is far less scripted than the course. He’s from a family of lawyers. He started a career in social services. He left that and sold Lexis-Nexis to law firms for 10 years. “If I could spell modem they thought I was real technical,” he says. From there, he moved to Internet software sales. He also tried to sell to National Public Radio because, he says vaguely, he once worked in radio. Now, Solution Selling contracts him to run Software Sales Rep Bootcamp.

Edd loves role-playing. When we practice cold-calling scripts, he plays the prospective buyer. As CTO, he draws up his pants into high-waters. As VP of engineering he requests a pocket protector. As VP of HR, he says playfully, “I’m always in a meeting, planning a picnic.” “CIO,” he says. “You know what that stands for? Career Is Over. The average CIO lasts 18 months in a job.”

By the time Edd gets to the art of closing a deal, much of the skepticism in the room has evaporated. Most of the attendees are furiously scribbling notes. In the far corner, John asks Edd to repeat one sentence so that he can get it verbatim in his notes.

Edd swings into what he considers the clincher, the meeting that sales reps set up supposedly to review a rough draft of the sales proposal. It may sound innocuous, but this is an ambush. At this meeting, the salesperson will suggest that if there are no objections to the rough draft, why not make it a final draft, sign off and get going on the project? “You will have an extra copy [of the sales proposal] handy,” Edd says. “You want to make this the final close. You want it to be a nonevent. You’re trying to close at this meeting because they don’t have their negotiating shoes on.”

If the salesman has done his job, the sale is closed right here. Done. Finis.

Edd pauses, then asks, “Do you know the person who invented this tactic? Who every year made his 12-month quota by the end of January doing this?”

John calls out, “Ross Perot?”

“Yep!” exclaims Edd, as he darts across the room to give John his fourth lightbulb stamp. “I don’t care what you thought of him as a presidential candidate, he was a hell of a salesman.”