Episode 3: Prescribe, don’t diagnose | The four "D's" of better B2C sales performance

Matt Dixon, Ted McKenna, Tom Shepherd

April 9, 2021

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This material originally appeared as part of our Learning Series podcast. Listen to the original here.

Welcome to episode three in our five-part learning series! In this series, we’re unpacking some of the research that went into our recent HBR article, 4 behaviors that boost inbound sales. Today, we're here to talk about the second key behavior discovered in our study: How high performers drive purchase decisions through prescription, as opposed to diagnosis. 

Q&A: Disqualify aggressively

Before we move on to our topic for today, we had a lot of folks who listened to last week’s episode on the first behavior, and had some questions. We discussed this idea of disqualifying aggressively, and we found that almost a third of the inbound “sales” volume was from customers who had no intent to buy anything. Now, a question we’ve gotten several times since then is this: How do I know if I've got a customer who's not really a sales opportunity? How do I diagnose that?

How do I know if I've got a customer who's not really a sales opportunity? How do I diagnose that?

It's an understandable question. In an inbound sales situation, how can you expect to disqualify someone, when the customer is the one who's calling in? In some ways, the easiest answer is the most obvious one: If they’re calling in to inquire about some aspect their purchase decisions, they probably have done enough homework to not need help from sales. And that usually comes up in the first minute of the conversation. Some customers will tell you this at the beginning of a call; “Hey, I’m an existing customer,” but others might not be so transparent as they start talking. 

Inside Tethr, we see the signifiers we are looking for in a real buyer as buying reasons. When a customer says “I was trying to buy online” or “I'm moving” or “I saw this ad,” these are all signifiers of a real buyer. As opposed to somebody who's looking to get an answer to a question. When you’re looking for these identifiers, it’s important to practice active listening and use that to your advantage. There's a lot that customers will offer (or not offer) that allows us to detect whether this is a real opportunity or not.

Driving purchase decisions through prescription as opposed to diagnosis

So, let's get into the second of the four key behaviors. As we’ve discussed before, one-third of calls in our study were actually service calls, not sales. This is interesting in terms of this conversation, because that leaves two thirds of the total volume in our sample. But we found that not all of those “sales calls” are created equally, either. At the highest level, we broke those out into two types of people: buyers and shoppers. Buyers are actually trying to execute a transaction. Shoppers, on the other hand, are still collecting research, still thinking, still weighing the purchase decision. And there’s a significant difference between these two categories when it comes to analyzing the conversion rates. 

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Caller comparison: Buyers vs. Shoppers

At the really good end of the spectrum, buyers made up 14% of the sample, and they tend to convert around 36% of the time. These are people who either have to buy, have already tried to buy, or they've indicated that they're quite close. On the other hand, shoppers present as asking buying-related questions, or have shared some degree of detail about homework that they might have done related to the purchase, but they also express some degree of hesitancy or objections. And those shoppers made up 40% of the sample—the largest single segment across the grouping—at an order of magnitude lower conversion rate of 22%. So there’s a real difference between those types of individuals the reps are facing in those conversations.

Why are the buyers not converting at 100%? 

Now, a very relevant question here is this: Why aren’t my buyers converting at 100%? But you have to think about the kind of person who is calling in. At the end of the day, even if they are using buyer language, there is still a reason they called in, instead of buying online. For all the companies in this study, it was possible to buy their products online. So, we’d say that the real buyers actually bought online. These “buyer” callers are buyers who still have some level of hesitancy.

The real buyers actually bought online. These “buyer” callers are buyers who still have some level of hesitancy.

So the real buyers are buying online, but the buyer callers are still trying to call in and place orders. They’re not just looking, so naturally they have a higher conversion rate than the shoppers who are still expressing hesitancy. Now, those shoppers are 40% of the overall sample, which is a lot. It’s helpful, though, to think of this as a spectrum, as buyers will have questions and shoppers may just lack a little intent when it comes to purchase decisions. But the difference in conversion rates is huge. 

Converting shoppers to buyers 

As the inbound sales leaders we've worked with at Tethr will tell us, your ability to convert shoppers into buyers is where your inbound sales are won or lost. You’ve got to convert those hesitant shoppers into buyers by the end of the call. Converting buyers is not as complicated obviously, as converting somebody who's calling in merely to collect information. Successful sellers, however, will get those folks who came in to collect information to actually convert. The big, big difference between average performers and high performers is converting those hesitant shoppers. And of course now we want to know... how do they do it? 

The dangers of trying to diagnose customer needs

One of the primary techniques high performers use is they actually prescribe a solution to the customer versus instead of trying to diagnose their needs. Now, let’s unpack that. If we think about sales training as delivered in almost any sales organization around the world, the behavior that is most often taught is this: needs diagnosis. In practice, this looks like questions like this: “Can you tell me why you’re shopping for car insurance today?” The belief is, if I can ask the customer these open-ended needs diagnosis questions, they will say something that I can then attach my value proposition to, and make the sale from there. This is taught because there's this belief that it is a more empathetic way to engage people, and it’s been taught for 30 or 40 years in the world of sales. But high performers don't do that. 

They don't spend a lot of time on those basic questions. Instead, they pick the story up where the customer already is. It was very clear to us by looking at these high performer calls. They know that that customer has already done a fair amount of research online. They already figured out why they're shopping for car insurance, they've already shopped across a bunch of different websites, they've narrowed it down, they're maybe looking at a couple of options. And as we said in the last episode, there's a specific reason they're stuck, and that’s why they're calling us. They don't need to be dragged back to the beginning, so the agent doesn’t go there.

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Instead of diagnosing, prescribe a solution

High performers start the customer where they already are in their story. High performers say things like, “I would recommend this package, because customers who buy that package are really happy, they call me up six months later a year later, and they say they're so happy they made that decision.” There's this element of, of guidance, of advocacy. In this light, your average performers are really acting more like bartenders: Let me let you do the selling. And I'll just answer your questions. And your high performers are acting more like personal trainers: I'm going to tell you what you should do, I'm going to advocate for a specific course of action for you. Inside of Tethr, we call these behaviors proactive guidance and advocacy.

Why does this work? It comes down to emotion

It's really interesting in the data, when you look at the customers in these situations, you see way more emotion than you would have expected. There’s tons of decision uncertainty, emotion, and even confusion that you maybe wouldn't expect in a sales conversation. And I think that does get to the question: Who are these people? And why are they feeling the need to go talk to a human to make this purchase? 

The recommendation there, in some ways, just becomes simplicity when it comes to purchase decisions for those customers. You want to narrow down the focus for them. It's this or that. And the personal recommendation ends up mattering quite a bit, according to the data. You see agents using their own personal opinion to say, “Hey, if I were you, I would choose this. And for this reason.”

That personal recommendation just cuts right to the heart of that customer confusion. The customer is paralyzed with all the choices and all the options: there's a lot of emotion here, “I'm stuck. I'm confused. I don't know what to do.” But the high performer instills that confidence, and says, “I understand. Let me cut through all the noise and tell you exactly what you should do. Trust me, I'm an expert.” 

Emotion makes probing questions unproductive 

One of the most surprising findings when we looked at the data was the fact that asking these probing questions was not only unproductive but counterproductive. This doesn’t mean don't ask questions. But it probably means that the types of questions will be different. You may find yourself needing to ask questions like, “What’s the thing that's prevented you from buying already?” Now you're getting to the heart of that indecision, and pushing them towards purchase decisions.

In many respects, this is similar to the research we did around the different types of customer service representatives. In that article, we found that there were seven different types of service professionals. The one that all companies want to hire is the profile we call the empathizer. This is the people person, who genuinely feels bad the customer is having an issue. They sit on the customer’s side of the table, and it seems like the right answer. But it turns out that they were not the lowest effort rep, not even close. The lowest effort rep was actually the one we called the controller. They're a bit more of an opinionated know-it-all on their subject matter, and their engagement with the customer is focused on showing their expertise. 

When we did focus groups for this study, we diagnosed some controller reps at one company, and they were a little offended! Someone stopped us, actually, and said, “We are deeply empathetic, but our empathy is rooted in our current understanding of what customers are doing. I know that the only reason the customer called the call center and had to talk to me is because they already tried to self serve, and they couldn’t, so the last thing they want in that situation is for me to offer an apology. That’s what all of my colleagues think is the best way to handle that upset customer, but i know the best way you handle that customer in that moment is by instilling confidence, by showing them that they are talking to somebody who knows their stuff and they're talking to somebody who's smarter than they are about the issue they're experiencing.”

Empathy for the modern customer

It’s that controller mindset that’s really valuable here. It's empathy, but the nature of that empathy is different than we might expect. We found in those sales conversations that we looked at, that while what is taught classically is to ask the customer questions—your best sellers know that that's not empathy in the modern world. if you're really going to be empathetic with today's customers, understand that the only reason they're calling you is because they're stuck. They already did their research online. They put that thing in their shopping cart, but they didn't make any purchase decisions because they're stuck for some reason, and now they've called you, the sales agent, because they're stuck. If you have to ask them questions, do it in a way that recognizes the buying journey that they've already gone down, instead of dragging them back to square one. 

If you're really going to be empathetic with today's customers, understand that the only reason they're calling you is because they're stuck.

In conclusion...

The level of emotion in the sales calls is palpable, it's real, the customer is stuck and it causes anxiety and frustration. It's bad, it's a high effort moment for the customer. They are stuck and they are calling you because you are an expert, and they want your expert opinion on the best package, product, or deal. You've advised customers before this, and those customers have been thrilled. High performers know that this is where their customers are, and they slice through that uncertainty to confidently prescribe them a solution so that they can make purchase decisions. 

Thanks for joining us for this breakdown on the second behavior identified in our study on inbound B2C sales: Prescribe, don’t diagnose. Please join us next week for the fourth episode in the series, and make sure to send us your questions on LinkedIn or Twitter so we can address them on the show!

This material originally appeared as part of our Learning Series podcast. Listen to the original here.

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