posted 3 Nov 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 2
Lessons learnt from experience and research
There is plenty of knowledge about the art of selling, but how do you use it to get buy-in for knowledge management? This story provides the basics. The sidebars apply them to KM.
A number one lesson from involvement in KM is that above all it is a selling activity, the hardest sale of them all. Like it or not selling is competitive. David Dorsey’s superb book. The Force, outlined a year in the life of a Xerox salesman and conveyed the associated ultra confident state of mind that can make a salesperson feel “like an athlete playing in the zone”.
Does this matter for those involved in selling KM? Absolutely. The reality is that we compete for the attention of our executives against the well-schooled, groomed and trained McKinsey consultants through to squadrons of systems integrators as well as homegrown brands of boutique consultants, not forgetting one-man bands and self- styled gurus.
So what follows is advice grounded in experience and research. It starts with an exploration of the buying cycle, explores selling as a change process, provides lessons from research and a proven way to structure the sale and value creation through relevant questions. It leans heavily on experience of SPIN, a research-led sales approach devised by Neil Rackham over 30 years ago. It’s basic and has a sophisticated simplicity. It also works.
The nature of the selling game
Focus on the customer
This is a comprehensive rule. Too many KM sales strategies neglect the individual or collective customer. Walking, talking, brochures, books and purposeful powerpoints, the focus is on the product, the technologies or the solution(s), be they through narrative, story telling or communities.
Unfortunately, they create value for their own organisations or themselves, not to the organisations or customers they sell to. Remember customers have feelings to… and you can’t manage them.
Understand the buying cycle
It’s critical to align efforts to a customers’ buying cycle. The decision cycle can generally be broken down into distinct phases. Consider your own organisation (or personal) situation. If you’re completely satisfied with a situation, then generally no decision has to be made. In a changing world, a stability zone is comforting. The decision process begins when you ‘can’t get no satisfaction’ or something changes.
There is in the beginning of Phase One, a recognition of needs. A gap between where you are and where you want to be is developed either through perceived problems in your old world or possibilities and promises of a better world. The time lag from irritation to action in recognising the need for change and doing something about it can vary. Key dependencies are the perceived seriousness and scale of an issue, typically in the light of emotional triggers, contractual obligations, and customer impact.
If there is a decision to change, then in Phase Two options are developed and evaluated. Once options are selected there is Phase Three, which is described by sales professionals as resolution of concerns. During this anxiety-ridden phase, paralysis of analysis, self- (or organisation-) doubts may prevail as terms are negotiated, plans are debated, ROI cases explored and best intentions forgotten.
Once a decision is made, Phase Four – implementation the sale – is not over. For a KM professional, users have to buy into the decision.
Selling as a change process
Any buying cycle can be seen as a change process. First there may be a state of ‘equilibrium’, where a customer is not aware of the need for change. Typically a customer balances need in terms of the level of dissatisfaction with the status quo, the extent to which it is important to satisfy that need as well as his or her perception of the benefits and ease of adopting the proposed solution.
This is offset against the perceived cost, in terms of: the financial figures, the energy and disturbance in implementing the new solution, the risk of changing from the familiar to something new (we can’t all be pioneers) and the level of overall satisfaction with the existing situation. Rather like a frog in boiling water, some buyers resist change and their conservatism or complacency has to be nudged, or in some cases jolted by what is often termed the shock model of change.
Many customers approaching a decision are obsessively aware of the ‘cost’ implications of the equation. The price of the solution is clear; but where the solution is unconventional, there is no clear precedence, or it is likely to have a significant impact – a ‘risky shift’ and the buyer is nervous of the upheaval which may result from its implementation. They have second thoughts and internal debate derails action.
With a major decision too, most buyers are risk averse. Their level of seniority and security play a role as they consider the business and career risks should anything go wrong. At times they will express resistance to change, at others they will be conveniently distracted by more pressing priorities. Initial enthusiasm gets replaced by inertia as phone calls are not returned and meetings cancelled.
All of these factors, can weight the scales against making a change or buying decision in favour of an ‘unfashionable’ KM initiative. Any ‘seller’ who jumps to a solution without understanding the complexity and interaction of the above factors will simply create and encounter hostility of the ‘show me the ROI’ nature or ‘it is all a bunch of concepts’ type. The seller will be seen to lack credibility; the perception will be that they cannot be trusted or have insufficient expertise or ‘savvy’.
At a wider organisational level, the buying cycle is likely to be politicised and complex with a multiplicity of customers, influencers and stakeholders. As my former Professor Andrew Pettigrew in his study of organisation change noted, generally there is a tendency to stick to the old system that works. It takes courage and a crisis (real or constructed) to change.
Without knowing how to prevent objections or following research advice on effective persuasion, those associated with selling KM run the risk of having their solution rejected out of hand.
The best sales performers structure the sale and kick off by ‘connecting’ with the customer at a conceptual, business, and personal level. From the outset they gain credibility, build trust and the rights to explore sensitive business topics. Comfortable both on the top and ‘shop’ floor, the most successful look like directors, see themselves as directors and act like directors. They are also empathetic and psychologically minded.
The above attributes are not dissimilar to Rob Cross’s energisers described as “fully present and engaged at all meetings: such people listen actively and use their expertise appropriately. Their interactions are marked by a sense of progress”. It is interesting to note further similarities: Energisers create room in interactions for people and note the positives. When they disagree, they offer alternatives and disclose their own logic. They are able to separate the critique of the idea from the person who offered it.
In short, as Cross says, “in terms of implementation, energisers excel at attracting others to an initiative and convincing others to act on their ideas”.
Similarly, goal-driven, effective sales people are flexible in output and create trust step by step. They have self-belief. Under pressure from customers with tough challenges, rather than disagree with the customer directly (and expose the customer’s stupidity), they reveal difficulties and problems by asking smart questions… and give themselves thinking time.
They may not offer the elegance of your KM solution or may even be based on an ‘industrial model’ of consultancy. You may not want to do business with this person, but decision makers do.
Structuring the sale
There are as many sellers as there are KM strategies. The approach summarised in the next paragraph is a framework based on asking the right questions at the right time. It was originally developed for multi-national organisations by Huthwaite. It’s a consultative style of selling which is best used with flexibility.
Effective salespeople (not just those involved in KM) recognise that statements of dissatisfaction and expressions of interest are only the start of the sales process. Consequently, either naturally or through training, they recognise there is a need to probe deeper and to help the customer to explore the problem in greater depth and to appreciate its true significance. They have a structure for the sale that builds mutual trust with the end result in mind – progress and change – symbolised by a result, a purchase order.
Contextual clarity and behavioural certainty
Based on an understanding of the buying cycle, after sufficient but not excessive situation questions where they establish contextual information and facts, effective sales people also gain insight into personal drivers, attitude to risk and connections of the buyer(s).
Problems, problems… opportunities
One of the easiest ways to identify whether someone has received sales training is by the number of problem questions they ask.
The seller’s problem questions typically explore the customer’s needs in terms of identifying the precise (where possible) nature of the problem – its extent, its frequency, its impact and the seriousness of it. Linked to this focus on searching for problems can create the appropriate conversational context. They also help clarify, in this stage, what the customer sees as the main benefits of solving the problem –business drivers in their jargon. Generally they begin with: what, how, when and where.
Work out the implications… leverage the consequences
Implication questions are designed to help you understand, not to prove a point. They are not designed to increase the threshold of pain to unacceptable levels. They help raise awareness of the effects of problems associated with the status quo or state of flux. In line with one of the fundamental principles of consulting, the intent is to create moderate, not excessive, pain. They help build the seriousness of the problem so it becomes significant enough to take action. Their purpose is focussing on the consequences, amplifying, extending and expanding the effects and linking a problem in one area to other potential or actual problems.
Questions structured in this way help the customer build a picture of needs that leads naturally to a ‘tipping point’ in favour of a decision in support of change. They also expand the buyer’s perceptions of value and get down to the basics – buying signals or ‘explicit needs’. Generally in a sale involving multiple decision makers, such questions also help develop common ground, a shared perspective and feeling of urgency around a problem. Often an energiser, or inside coach, will lobby and help develop a shared perspective through raising this type of question on a one-on-one basis or using these issues to provoke group discussions on these areas.
Where implication questions work best is when they help link internal problems with the wider world of the customer and focus on issues that can impact on the key performance indicators – the bottom line. They are most relevant to decision makers whose success depends on seeing beyond the immediate problem to the underlying effects and possible consequences at a business level.
The objective is to ensure both parties have a clear understanding of exactly what is required in order to solve the problem. More importantly, however, they also explore the potential benefits of implementing the solution and creating a desire for action. Only then do effective sellers begin to explore potential solutions (their own) with the customer This is a crucial step because the customer must be left with a clear understanding of the value of the solution versus its cost.
The purpose then is to energise buyers, to develop their perceptions of pay-off from working with you and your approach and develop a clear explicit desire for you and your solution.
Since you know the capabilities of your solution, it’s always easier for you to see the payoff. Do not believe your own propaganda. Whether you believe your approach has value is irrelevant; the buyer has to believe it also.
In a complex sale, too, your success depends not just on your own selling ability, but how well people sell on your behalf. Consequently it’s also useful to get the buyer to explain the benefits to you, not the other way round. This can help rehearse ‘internal energisers’ and increase their confidence in you.
But what about KM?
You’ll probably notice that in this approach there has not been that much talk about KM per se. Correct. One point that may help is to remind ourselves at all times that ‘telling is not selling’.
To demonstrate the capability of KM then, it is essential you have completed your groundwork before you introduce your solution. Remember a buyer has also to have expressed an explicit need. In essence then, the perspective is to build the buyer’s problem so that it is strong and clear and in so doing develop their desire for and ownership of a joint solution.
Over 10 years ago at one of the first KM conferences, Leif Edvinsson requested an audience that was ready to understand and espouse KM to list the questions they had about KM.
Once he had heard the questions, Leif refused to answer them. Instead he suggested to a shocked audience that implementing KM successfully was about asking the right questions. He was right.
Remember, in selling there are no prizes for coming in second. Do your homework. Prepare like an Olympic athlete and analyse your own performance. Be optimistic, connect to the right people and use Rob Cross’s Organisation Network Analysis (ONA) to track down energisers, prepare your questions, ask them at the right time and create value.
The advice covered above stems from personal experience. Much of this was gained whilst working with and for a leading psychologist Roger Sugden (who worked for the Huthwaite group before becoming a colleague) in the area of sales effectiveness, as well as responsibility, (whilst at Xerox) for sales training and selection in Africa, India and Eastern Europe and experience selling KM. Thanks also to the Association of Knowledgework and Jerry Ash for their catalytic roles in developing this paper.
Box 1: From research: advice when selling KM
In selling, behavioural research suggests that:
Customers place higher value on what they conclude than what they are told;
Customers place a higher value on what they request than what is offered freely;
Just because you are right does not mean your valid conclusions will be implemented (this is particularly the case in large corporations).
We are not persuaded by listening to the opinions of others. Presentation of ideas does not change opinions. Giving information has a low impact on other people and rarely succeeds in the long term. It’s much more effective to let people talk themselves into acceptance. It’s better to seek than it is to give.
Box 2 : Connect to energisers
In selling KM with its collaborative goals of knowledge sharing, enthusiasm is essential. At the same time it’s important to bear in mind that even in the Knowledge Age, organisations, are not, as a rule Shangri-las of social harmony.
There is one influential group when selling to a major organisation. These are the target oriented and ambitious. With an average tenure of two years in their role, this latter group wants to make an impact, force the pace and move on, rather than stabilise change. Short term in approach they can be your best sponsors in selling a KM initiative. Or your worst nightmare. What counts for this group is not history or what others have done. It’s what you’re doing for them today… and can do for them tomorrow.
Rob Cross in his work on social networks has written widely about how work really gets done in organisations. In trying to sell and influence KM, his research on mapping energy levels in social networks is relevant. His work concludes that position in the energy network is four times the predictor of performance as compared to expertise, use of informational networks and/or use of impersonal sources such as databases. These energisers win out with customers and the internal labour market where the ability to motivate others is as, or more important than, knowing the answer!
As Rob Cross put it “energy has a dark side as we… we all know people who can drain the life out of a group” as soon as they enter a room. De-energisers are disastrous to all associated with a KM effort. For whatever reason, a case of ‘can’t change, won’t change’ see roadblocks everywhere, and every conversation derails KM and other initiatives.
In selling KM, we are only as good as ourselves and connections – our strongest or weakest links.
Box 3: Focus on the dissatisfied and powerful
Linked to the research on energisers outlined in the sidebar on research advice, a useful distinction can be made between the receptive, dissatisfied and powerful. It’s distracting and deceptive to spend too much time with the receptive (easy to say in retrospect).
Encountering the receptive can feel like an organisation episode of Groundhog Day. The objective should be to address the locus of dissatisfaction as these have more value in terms of creating and wanting change. These are the people who are hurting most. If you only associate with the receptive or worse still de-energisers, ideas get lost in translation.
The essence of selling KM then becomes building on the experiences of the dissatisfied and helping them elaborate on ‘pain points’, ultimately to build a case for change, then accessing and developing a relationship with the powerful (those who can approve, prevent or influence action). Sometimes – particularly in the area of strategic change – it is not possible or desirable to access decision makers who are located all over the world. An inside energiser can intervene on your behalf with great credibility. By contrast, a de-energiser theoretically ‘on your side’ can be counter-productive.
SPIN Selling, Neil Rackham, McGraw Hill, 1988;
‘Charged Up: Managing the Energy that drives Innovation’, The Network Round Table at the University of Virginia, Rob Cross, Jane Linder and Andrew Parker.
Richard Cross is director and founder MCH Global, a member of the editorial board of Inside Knowledge, and charter member of the Association of Knowledgework. Website: http://www.mchglobal.com/home.html; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org