Provocation-Based Selling: Loosening the Status-Quo for Sales Success

Updated: March 31, 2011

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, one of the most respected names in technology marketing and strategies, Geoffrey Moore (Crossing the Chasm) discussed how diagnostic and benchmarking sales techniques can be used, particularly during a downturn, to help engage executives, open up new opportunities and unfreeze previously stuck sales processes.

Moore describes the bad news facing B2B solution providers:

  1. Forced to do-more-with-less, most organizations lack formal budgets for new projects, leaving less than 15% in discretionary funds to fund a backlog of projects, likely your proposal.
  2. With less money to go around, proposals are subjected to higher levels of review in buying organizations, and the managers you've traditionally dealt with are no longer the decision makers.

Geoffrey Moore confirms simply that what we have termed Frugalnomics is in full effect.

The good news, is that savvy marketers and sales enablement groups have found a way to succeed in this tough environment, using a best practice approach coined Provocation-Based Selling - using diagnostic assessments and benchmarks to reach their customers' resource owners and motivate them to allocate the necessary funds, persuading customers that the solutions they bring to the table are not just nice, but essential.

Frugalnomics Changes Everything
As many of us have already realized, two economic firestorms in the past decade have fundamentally changed B2B buyers - making them more empowered, skeptical and frugal than ever before. And this is not just a temporary change. As we saw in technology bubble-burst, even when the economy recovered, technology sales and marketing was never the same.

There is a cold hard fact: the old selling approaches don't work well in today's environment:

  • Product Selling: Approach today's buyer with a product selling approach, presenting features, functionality, and benefits, and the buyer's eyes will glaze over. Product Selling relies on the buyer to connect the dots - understand the application and outcome of the solution that they can receive. Buyers just don't have the time, patience and resources for this "you figure it out approach". However, we find that over 30% of vendors and sales professionals still rely on this antique sales approach.
  • Solution Selling: The most common sales approach today with over 60% of sellers, Solution Selling is where vendor's sales team "seeks out current concerns in a question-and-answer dialogue with customer managers". According to Mr. Moore, solution selling is not dead, as it is "still the right approach when the customer understands the challenge to be faced and has the budget in place but believes that point products or services are insufficient to solve the problem." However, this approach does not work well higher up in organizations, as executives want insight and advice, not question and answer sessions. Moreover, most buyers are so overloaded that they often are not even aware of "pain" you are trying to solve. These overloaded customers want consultative advice and a focus on value / outcomes, not just a salesperson listening for keywords and presenting canned advice.

According to Mr. Moore "Whereas solution-selling listen for "pain points" that the customer can clearly articulate, provocation works best when it outlines a problem that the customer is experiencing but has not yet put a name to."

Fight Frugalnomics with Provocation-Based Selling
Provocation-Based Selling works best in the earliest stages of the buying cycle, where it is currently easier for the buyer to avoid spending precious budget dollars and new project risk. Provocation-Based Selling helps to loosen the "status-quo", by making the buyer aware that there is a cost-of-doing-nothing, helping to proactively and holistically:

1. Illuminate issues of which they might not have been aware,
2. Confirm the symptoms they were aware of, but could not easily put a name on,

3. Prioritize which issues require the most ardent pursuit, and quantify the competitive or other value which may be achieved by resolving the issue (creating urgency), 4. Consultatively, based on priorities, recommend a solution roadmap to stepwise remedy the issues.

How to develop your own Provocation-Based Selling Program?
So this approach seems to make a lot of sense, but how do you get started in implementing this methodology and what is required?

We have found that it should be applied for a particular solution set / grouping, and its best to start with one product line in mind. Moore offered several key steps to help develop a Provocation-Based Selling Program:

1. Identify a critical problem - find the critical issues the buyers / decision making executives may be facing in their industry, company specific challenges, or group / day-to-day challenges, and that are aligned with what your solutions can help resolve.

2. Formulate your Provocation - The provocation can be formulated into a diagnostic / assessment methodology and tool. We recommend implementing a tool with the following components to help automate the provocation process:
  • Survey - In order to diagnose key issues, you often have to ask a few questions. These questions often probe the customer on their current sentiment, goals / plans, management practices and spending.
  • Benchmark Comparison - from these survey data points, the current (as is) of the customer is compared against a set of known data points representing what others are doing - a benchmark. Comparing the customer's survey responses to those of peers, and especially leaders, confirms where the organization is doing well, and more importantly illuminates where the organization is falling behind / lagging the competition and/ or best practices.
  • Diagnostic Assessment - comparing the survey versus the benchmark, the tool and sales team can assess where the customer needs to improve the most - where they are lower performing compared to peers and leaders - highlighting specific issues and priorities.
  • Roadmap Advice - for each priority, a solution is recommended, forming a stepwise recommendation of potential remedies over the next couple of years.
  • Outcome / Value - as organizations are risk averse, there often has to be more than competitive pressure justification to approve a plan. From the customer's current improvement opportunities, and the recommended proposed solutions, an estimate is made as to the value of the improvements - how they can help the customer do-more-with-less, cut current costs, avoid future capital spending, reduce operating costs, generate more revenue / business, reduce business risks, and become more flexible / agile. Quantifying the benefits is a requirement for today's economic-focused buyers.
  • Next Steps - with buyers more overloaded than ever, the first steps towards health are so important. A succinct action plan is essential, covering how to get started on the way to the cure, over the next 30 / 60 / 90 days.

3. Lodge you Provocation - The delivery of the program and presentation of results is an important aspect of the provocative selling method.

For marketers, the diagnostics can be used as the centerpiece of engagement campaigns, offering a free assessment to respondents, and a part of the offer may go like this: "We've worked with companies in your peer group and have seen how the leading players are experiencing this painful problem. We think it's possible that your company is at risk in this area as well."

For sales professionals, the provocation engagement and presentation are vitally important. The engagement needs to be a facilitative discovery process and not a confrontation or a sales pitch, helping the customer to uncover the issues that might be preventing them from reaching their goals and helping them realize that change would "do them good". According to Mr. Moore, "The goal is to disturb the executive's equilibrium—and make the status quo untenable—without putting him or her on the defensive. Presenting specific, well-supported concerns and remedies in a forthright manner keeps the focus on business performance for an executive who is accountable for it."

Provocation-Based Selling Examples
So what do provocation-based assessment programs look like? Having pioneered the development of tools and methodologies with several major B2B vendors over the past ten years, we present a couple of representative provocation-based selling campaign examples:

Microsoft Infrastructure Optimization Assessment
Microsoft wanted to find a better way to engage with decision makers for core IT infrastructure, business productivity, and application development, but was having trouble moving its enterprise sales group and channel partners from the traditional product / solution presentations.

To address this opportunity, Alinean developed a suite of Microsoft Infrastructure Optimization Assessment tools, which are used to diagnose customer's most pressing issues, and help them advance along a four step capability & maturity model. The suite consists of three assessment tools to engage at a strategic level with core IT infrastructure, business productivity and application lifecycle development decision makers. The tool is available on-line, so customers can assess themselves directly, but is most often used in consultative sales-led workshops, promoted by marketing via direct e-mail campaigns, offering a free insightful IT, business or application development assessment.

With a comprehensive survey of 60 practices questions, the tool analyzes responses against a dynamic and growing database of other participants, and a capability & maturity best practices model, helping the customer benchmark their performance to confirm where they are performing well, or identify where they are falling behind best practice leaders and peers and need improvement.

The assessment tool automates the benchmark comparisons, scoring and intelligent recommendations, delivering a compelling 20+ page assessment report. In a tough selling environment, the tool has helped Microsoft and its channel partners proactively engage customers, collaboratively set customer goals and strategies, help deliver tangible savings and incremental value to customers, while allocating discretionary budget to Microsoft proposed projects.

The assessment tool has been available since 2008 and has been fueling direct marketing programs by Microsoft and channel partners. The tool consistently generates more than 600 analyses per month, driving more high level customer engagements, significant evolution of Microsoft's relationship with clients from tactical to strategic, and generating substantial multi-million dollar incremental sales opportunities.

Trend Micro Risk and Compliance Assessment
Trend Micro wanted to help busy security officers and IT managers quickly and easily understand and assess their security and compliance management policy shortfalls and risks. To address this need, Alinean created the Trend Micro Risk and Compliance Assessment tool, designed to benchmark a company's current security risk and compliance practices versus peers and best practice leaders.

From a 20 question survey, the risk and compliance assessment tool collects current management practices information. These responses are compared to prior responses from peers and a best practice framework, to confirm which practices are already in place, help illuminate which practices are missing or less than adequate, and develop a roadmap to help reduce risks and improve security and compliance management capability and maturity. A comprehensive 20+ page assessment report is delivered to the customer to help frame the issues they are facing, create urgency that doing nothing is too risky / costly, and provide a consultative and justified guide to improvements.

Available directly to customers for self-assessment, the on-line tool is the focus of e-mail and on-line / social media campaigns, offering a diagnostic assessment to entice security and compliance officers and stakeholders. The tool has been used to capture hundreds of incremental / high quality leads per month, driving incremental higher level customer engagements and hundreds of additional sales opportunities in a tough selling environment.

Sage Pacer Survey
With cost control and justification being a focus for most executives, most organizations are often wary to make a change unless they know that doing-nothing actually has a cost and justifies the necessary investment for change.

Leading business management software provider Sage understood that prospects needed some real diagnostic advice to help them assess and identify current business issues they may not have been aware of, and justify important changes.

Alinean worked with Sage to develop the Pacer Survey, an on-line tool that uses a 20 question survey to collect important information about the current state of the prospects' business, and benchmarks the responses against peers and leaders. From this comparison, the tool helps identify potential improvements and consultatively recommends / promotes improvements and remedies utilizing Sage's solutions and other best practices.

Using the tool to self-diagnose their issues, or in a sales-led workshop, the tool delivers a 20+ page personalized diagnostic assessment reports. Sage successfully uses the tool to connect and engage higher in prospect organizations, drive more, higher quality leads, realize additional sales opportunities that it would not have otherwise.

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