How to improve sales: The four “D’s” of better B2C sales performance

Matt Dixon, Ted McKenna, Tom Shepherd

Here at Tethr, we’re on a mission to peel back the layers of uncertainty that surround customer conversations and deliver real, actionable data instead. We’ve done it with customer experience (CX), customer care, and customer success, all with great success—delivering insights that have changed how many major companies do business from the ground up. 

This year, we’re exploring a new frontier: inbound sales. 

We all want to know how to improve sales performance—so there’s a lot of snake oil out there founded on the mystique of a good seller, or the “x-factor” of a good sale or sales agent. “We know who our best sellers are,” a sales leader might say, “But our ability to replicate that behavior is limited by what we can physically observe, which often results in generic advice that is difficult to adopt.”

In the age of technology, VoC analytics, and machine learning, our observations are no longer limited. We have the tools to analyze 100% of sales calls, 100% of the time. We can know, and we can know with absolute certainty, exactly what agent behaviors drive sales. As we shared on the Harvard Business Review in our initial announcement of this research: Empowered with that knowledge, you can now coach for conversions with unprecedented precision. 

Today, we’ll take you through our research on successful B2C sales behaviors, and the four lessons we learned about how to improve sales. 

Tech talk: About the project

We built a predictive sales model using Tethr to test inbound sales behaviors. This model contained more than 120 concepts, each representing thousands of distinct, explicit articulations by reps or customers across the course of a conversation. The independent variable set was expanded to include combinations and sequences, creating a time and position representation of the event sequence of a conversation.  Finally, several real-valued variables were added to test for audio characteristics and conversation efficiency (e.g., talk time, silence time, interruptions, and overtalk).

In total, the model calculated partial correlations for nearly 8,400 independent variables with a dependent variable of a “closed sale.” The final model proved to accurately predict outcomes with close to 85% accuracy. Finally, we tested the model against a data set of roughly 2.5 million sales calls from a dozen companies.

The resulting analysis surprised everyone… Even our research team. We broke down the results into the following four areas where the best agents outperform their peers and generate more sales. 

1. Disqualify aggressively

The first lesson we learned was that great sales agents disqualify aggressively. A large number of sales calls where the customer contacts the sales department are actually service calls that have gotten a little bit lost. A great sales agent will head this off at the pass and redirect the call within the first minute, saving themselves (and the company) valuable time. 

Shouldn’t sales reps try to help with service inquiries? 

We found that when sales agents try to help with service inquiries, this leads to more silence time on calls. And we know from prior research we’ve conducted at Tethr that silence time is one of the biggest drivers of customer effort, which we know correlates with churn and negative word of mouth.   

In addition, in research we conducted previously while at CEB (now, Gartner), we found that one transfer can actually be a net positive when positioned in the right way by the representative (“I want to get you to somebody who I know can solve this problem for you”) and when the transfer is “warm,” meaning that the first agent stays on until the second agent picks up the transferred call and explains the customer issue to the new rep.  

The bottom line is this: Companies should pass service calls to their service departments to help ensure customers get the help they need…. while also freeing up sales agents to maximize the time they spend with customers who actually want to buy something.

how-to-improve-sales-b2c-inbound-hbr

2. Drive customer decisions by prescribing, not diagnosing

An average agent can make an easy sell. When someone calls in with an order, already 90% of the way to being a buyer, that’s a simple close. That’s not a shopper, that’s a customer-to-be. Where the wheat separates from the chaff, however, is when the caller isn’t totally sold on that purchase. Dealing with these “shoppers” is where great agents really shine–and they do so by prescribing, not diagnosing.

In our study, we isolated shoppers from buyers to better understand the unique dynamics of those shopper conversations. Overall, we found that 14% of all calls were from buyers looking to place orders and that these opportunities converted at 36%, the highest of any call type.  Conversely, we found that shoppers made up 40% of the sample, the largest of all groups, and their conversion rate was an order of magnitude lower at only 22%. than that of willing buyers (36%). 

Put simply, converting shoppers into buyers is where inbound sales are won or lost.

4 Behaviors that Boost Inbound Sales

How do top performers handle shoppers? 

Top performing sales agents make a recommendation, or prescribe a solution. Contrary to popular sales training techniques, they do not ask questions to diagnose the issue. Instead, they offer a solution or directly address the need with a pointed diagnostic. As we stated in our initial breakdown of this research, “Of all of the agent behaviors we surfaced in our analysis, offering personalized, prescriptive guidance to customers (e.g., “Personally, I would choose this package” or “Here’s the plan I would go with”) had the greatest positive impact on conversion rates.”

Shoppers are looking for a salesperson to address their concerns, make a recommendation and ultimately instill confidence in their purchase decision. If you want to know how to improve sales in your organization with one change–this is it. Improve those “shopper” conversations!

3. Dig into customer objections

Does your customer have an objection? Are they concerned about price, length of the contract, competitor offers, or others? A top-performing sales agent knows their customer’s concerns and isn’t afraid to address them. In fact, they dig into customer objections before letting the customer off the phone. 

If that sounds a little aggressive to you, you’re not wrong. Some of the most successful sales calls we analyzed were actually animated, debate-like conversations where the agent addressed concerns head-on, occasionally by speaking firmly over the customer. This surprised us, as it goes against conventional sales wisdom that says to never interrupt the customer! 

As an example, in our study, one rep had to act quickly to derail a customer’s objection regarding a competitor’s seemingly cheaper offer: “Actually—and I don’t mean to cut you off—but you’re right that our service is more expensive but remember that it includes the installation fee. Our competitor charges separately for installation which can cost several hundred dollars.” This rep has openly disagreed with the customer, but they are more likely to make the sale, since that objection has been dismissed, rather than allowed to fester and sabotage the customer’s decision. 

The truth, we found, is that customers need to have their fears put to rest before they feel comfortable buying. Sometimes that means the agent needs to dig aggressively into both subtle and less subtle customer objections—even if that means risking an argument. 

how-to-improve-sales-tethr

4. De-risk the purchase decision

The most common objections used in calls that result in lost deals are these: “I’ll think about it” and “I need to talk to my significant other”. Both allow the customer to get off the phone and think about the purchase on their own terms. Top-performing agents know to avoid this situation at all costs… so they de-risk the purchase decision

In our study, we found that top performers will de-risk the purchase decision in one of two ways:

  1. Creating a sense of urgency
  2. Providing a safety net

Creating a sense of urgency can look like saying something like, “I can’t guarantee this rate will be the same tomorrow……if you are inclined to purchase, you should lock in the price now”. This creates a sense of scarcity that can push the sale forward on the call. 

Providing a safety net can be as simple as the following: “Remember that you have a 30-day cancellation window.  So, if you talk to your partner after you hang up and decide you no longer want the service, you can easily call us back to cancel.” If the customer still has the flexibility to back out, they are more likely to commit on the call. 

These are small tricks, but they go a long way towards driving conversions on sales calls that might otherwise have gotten: “I’ll think about it.” 

In conclusion…

If you’re looking for the magic formula for how to improve sales in an inbound B2C sales environment, it doesn’t get better than this. According to our research, these four behaviors are the key to improvement in where conversions are concerned. By disqualifying poor opportunities, driving customer decisions, digging into objections, and de-risking the purchase decision, you can take the guesswork out of sales strategies, and instead use techniques that actually work. 

The data doesn’t lie: When all of these techniques were used in a single sales call—which we only saw on 1% of all calls—the result was a 70% conversion rate. Imagine what that kind of conversion rate would look like on a company-wide basis for most B2C brands!

When all of these techniques were used in a single sales call—which we only saw on 1% of all calls—the result was a 70% conversion rate.

4 Behaviors that Boost Inbound Sales

Technology enables more informed sales tactics than ever before. At Tethr, we’re committed to pushing the envelope, and seeing how much we can learn with the data and tools available to us today. That data enables us to eliminate inefficiencies, elevate the customer experience, and ultimately drive more revenue. Our research team says it best: “The era of guesswork is over.” 

Want to learn more? Stay tuned for our upcoming learning series on data-backed inbound sales strategies.

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