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Book Review: A Seat at the Table

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By Marc Miller

Reviewed by Michael Webb

In B2B sales, selling to senior executives and key decision makers has become the main event.  But how do you get past the velvet rope?  Sales trainer and entrepreneur Marc Miller’s A Seat at The Table (Greenleaf Enterprises, 2010, paperback, 186 pages) gives salespeople and their managers valuable insights and clear direction toward that destination.

Following up his 2005  book, Selling Is Dead, Miller extends his thinking about sales strategy and, in eleven chapters, shows how to position what you sell in ways that relate to the organization’s larger strategic needs and thus to the concerns of senior executives.

Chapter 1, Game Change, notes that senior executives see most salespeople for what they are: focused on short-term sales that add little value to the mission of the customer's enterprise. The reason is the mindset of the selling company’s top executives. That is ultimately what has to change.

Meanwhile, suppliers and customers alike face the challenges of globalization and commoditization. Miller states that traditional selling cannot address these larger forces. To avoid being commoditized, marginalized, or killed by low-cost competitors, sellers must credibly connect their products and services to customers’ larger strategies. That kind of selling earns you a seat at the key decision makers’ table.

Chapter 2, A New Role, A New Mindset, explains how salespeople mistake product value for strategic value.  Product value is about better, faster, and cheaper. Strategic value is about differentiation and productivity for the customer.

However, if you ask product-focused salespeople to sell strategically, they may become defensive or suddenly inept.  Learning to truly understand the customers’ business challenges means understanding how customers develop and deliver products and services that enable them to create value for their customers.

Miller lays out an ambitious agenda for salespeople, which has huge implications for their leaders.  (Unfortunately, he does not address the implications of a new approach to selling on the rest of the organization.)

Chapter 3, Velcro Value, points out that, like your own company, customers must cope with standardization, reverse engineering, globalization, disruptive technologies, and similar challenges – and offers two useful rules for selling in this environment.

Rule #1: Strategy dictates spend:  The seller’s solutions must stick with the customer’s strategies in myriad ways – like Velcro. Otherwise, you may wind up like many suppliers to Wal-Mart several years ago.  At that time, Wal-Mart was making little money on many of the products their purchasing agents secured. When the company found it could secure these items just as effectively over the Internet, they eliminated 3,800 procurement personnel – and the 6.8 salespeople per day who called on them.  After all, what value had those salespeople been adding?

Rule #2: To change spend, add value to customer strategy:  To counter this situation, Procter & Gamble decided to create more value for Wal-Mart. Indeed, P&G understood that Wal-Mart executives didn’t gain the most value from the cheapest price, but from innovative products that could grow Wal-Mart’s business.

P&G saw themselves not as a soap manufacturer, but as a market researcher, problem solver, and product developer.  For example, people in third-world countries face water scarcity, which makes washing clothes a low priority. Could P&G develop a soap to help them?  It could and did, and Wal-Mart found that P&G’s focus helped them to sell more.  In development sessions, the two companies became one team. P&G was not just at the table with Wal-Mart, they were on the same side of the table.

That is why Wal-Mart, notorious for its aggressive treatment of suppliers, grew its relationship with P&G from $350 million in 1987 to $2.8 billion in 2003!

Chapter 4, Bridging the Divide, shows that the skills required to sell innovative or complex solutions differ sharply from those needed to sell mature, core products and services. Further, selling divergent solutions differs from selling concurrent solutions.

Miller takes us through several fascinating examples of why selling divergent solutions requires a different approach. For instance, Trimble Manufacturing had to switch from selling $1,500 surveying instruments, to selling $100,000 GPS- systems for earth-moving equipment – a fascinating example.

Chapter 5, The Great Game of Strategy, provides sales leaders (and CEOs) with a roadmap for thinking about their customer’s strategies and issues. Miller draws on the “Blue Ocean Strategy” made famous by the book of the same name (which refers to creating new demand in an uncontested market space rather than in an existing, contested “Red Ocean” market).  To that, he adds Peter Drucker’s Urgent versus Important categories to create a valuable four-cell matrix:

  1. Blue and Important = Innovation decisions
  2. Blue and Urgent = Implementation decisions
  3. Red and Urgent = Optimization decisions
  4. Red and Important = Outsourcing decisions

Of course, you need more than a framework for understanding customers’ strategies. Effective selling means drawing the customer out and painting a picture.  Miller quotes a Timken Company vice president who sums it up nicely: “The challenge is that a client cannot envision game-changing possibilities [of your product] unless it is in the context of their strategic picture.”

Chapter 6, Connection Mastery,  builds on the thinking of Glenn McCoy, baseball coach extraordinaire, who uses digital technology and “prepare, capture, feedback” cycle to create motivation. Prepare: He explains the process. Capture: He films the batter’s swing.  Feedback: He plays a video of the swing synchronized frame by frame with the swing of a world class professional. Players compare their own movements with a great professional’s and gain motivation as well as pointers.

The rest of this chapter explains how to apply this concept to salespeople in the context of a sales pitch for Miller’s Sogistics Smartpen.  This device includes a microphone, voice recognition, and handwriting recognition, all embedded in an ink pen for note-taking during customer meetings. Afterward, the sales call can be diagnosed “frame-by-frame.”

Chapter 7, Conversations that Connect, presents a “strategic blueprint” for building the customer’s motivation to act.  Powerful decision makers make important, long-term decisions. How do you really get to them?

Salespeople must call at executive levels to understand what drives company priorities, and in those calls they must avoid discussion of products and services until they have fostered the right connections in the executive’s mind. Miller provides the following guidelines for conducting this conversation:

F – Fact Questions

O – Objective Questions

C – Concern Questions

A – Anchor Questions

S – Solution Questions

The Concern and Anchor categories of questions represent a kind of breakthrough thinking, and are among the most valuable ideas in the book.

Chapter 8, Focus on Customer Strategy, shows how to ask questions around the Facts and Objectives. In addition to the traditional organizational, departmental, and personal questions, Miller adds “Quadrant” (strategy) questions, working with the strategic and Urgent versus Important concepts described earlier.

Chapter 9, Focus on Building a Case for Change, explains that as a seller you must keep your eye on what prospects perceive rather than on what you and your company want. This tension exists at all levels, in every organization and in every customer relationship. To assist you, Miller describes Concern questions that help clients identify their own reasons to change the way they do business (while avoiding discussions about your potential solutions).

Process excellence professionals face a similar challenge when teaching problem-solving. Just as salespeople want to jump to presenting their solution, most beginning students of problem solving (including senior executives) want to jump to conclusions about their problem without defining their terms, checking their evidence, and validating their logic.

Executives need to see the true consequences of a problem to the enterprise and its true roots. In process excellence terms, they must identify the cause-effect chain, which Miller likens to a train of dominoes. Properly used, Anchor questions help executives see the “bigness” of a situation. They also enable salespeople to gauge whether or not the customer sees an issue as strategic.  If he doesn’t, it frees up the salesperson for prospects with better potential, while having served the customer well.

Chapter 10, On the Same Side of the Table, moves into the decision-making conversation.  Here, Miller offers a template for what he calls a bridging conversation:

  • Situation summary
  • Goals and objectives
  • Constraints, issues, and challenges
  • Vision
  • Options

This chapter provides guidelines for each of these sections of the conversation.

Chapter 11, Difference Maker, explains that to sellers it may appear as if customers are becoming less friendly, more difficult. In reality, they still want help, just a different kind of help. With this new view of the world, sellers can succeed even in our current challenging environment.

 What Does This Have to Do with Process Excellence?

There are many potential linkages to sales process excellence in this book.  These include defining what customer’s value, clarifying the Customer’s Journey, developing observable characteristics, and assessing the quality of sales opportunities.  Any or all of these elements could readily be linked to the framework presented here.

Miller seems more attuned to the nature of value arguments than with the tactics of managing and leading salespeople so as to encourage the needed behavioral changes. However, the latter was not the subject of the book.  Rather this book set out to examine the current professional selling environment and to provide direction toward the table at which most B2B salespeople would like to be seated. Miller achieves that goal, and this book is a valuable addition to any B2B sales manager’s or salesperson’s bookshelf.

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