Your prospects encounter many salespeople in all areas of their lives. It’s easy for salespeople and their products and services to begin to blend together. In order to make your sale, you’ll need to convince them that there are reasons why they should choose what you’re selling over what other people are selling. How can you do that? By making sure that you can stand out from the others. You have to differentiate yourself and your product.
Today’s guest has written a book that can help you understand sales differentiation and how to use differentiation to make your sales. Lee Salz is a sales management strategist and the CEO of Sales Architects. He’s also a keynote speaker, author, and consultant. Lee joins the podcast today to talk about his most recent bestselling book, Sales Differentiation. Listen in to hear what Lee has to say about why describing your product as “the best” is ineffective, how to help buyers make informed buying decisions, and how to identify the things that differentiate your product from others.
- What happens when you describe your service, product, or company as “the best”
- Why saying that your product is the best doesn’t help to differentiate you from other salespeople
- Whether buyers are really as educated as you may think
- Helping buyers make informed decisions
- Two parts to sales differentiation
- Five steps to profiling your sales differentiation
- Exercises that can help you identify your sales differentiation
- Your biggest competitor
- Customer service and account management
- Pre-call research
- Why the way you sell is also a differentiator
Marylou: Hey, everyone. It’s Marylou Tyler. Today’s guest is Lee Salz. Lee is a leading sales management strategist and CEO of Sales Architects. I’ve asked him on the show today to talk about his super-great book called Sales Differentiation, which won a silver medal for Top Sales Book of 2018. He’s also the author of five additional books. When you go on Amazon to look him up, make sure you get the library of books because I think you’re going to be totally glad you did. Lee, welcome to the show today.
Lee: Thank you, Marylou. I appreciate it.
Marylou: Besides being a feature columnist, and media source, and guru, what else are you featured on that people can look for before we start this conversation that would get them started on understanding how you work and what your message is for our audience?
Lee: Absolutely. Marylou, could I ask you a question before we come back to that one?
Marylou: Sure. Yeah, ask away.
Lee: Over the years, you’ve had a wonderful show. How many expert guests would you venture that you’ve had on?
Marylou: Let me think about this. I’m on Episode 128 right now. We’re recording this in January 2019. I would say 110 or 115, somewhere in there.
Lee: Your listeners are probably wondering why you’re having Lee Salz on your show so, if you don’t mind, I’ll tell them.
Marylou: Please go right ahead. The floor is yours.
Lee: I’m the best sales consultant in the world. That’s rude. You’re laughing at me. To those of you listening, what do you think of me now, the fact that I’ve described myself to you as the best sales consultant in the world? Are you thinking to yourself, “What a wonderful human being,” or are you saying, “What an arrogant jerk. Marylou, what were you thinking having this guy on the show?”
Marylou: There’s a little bit of both, I’m sure, going on in people’s heads right now.
Lee: If you’re thinking negative thoughts about me, here’s my question for you: Why do you think your prospects feel any differently about you than you feel about me at this moment when you come marching and saying, “My company, my products, and my services are the best.” Guess what? They don’t. They feel the same way about you that you feel about me when I introduced myself as the best sales consultant in the world.
Marylou: Touché. The first thing I thought was, “Wow, he’s very confident.”
Lee: You’re polite. Usually, the word is cocky, arrogant, and full of himself.
Marylou: It’s funny because I keep thinking about one of our colleagues who wrote the book The Only Sales Book That You’ll Ever Need. It sounds like coming off of that, I’m not surprised now where I hear things like that and I think, okay, there’s got to be a story to this.
Lee: If you think about, Marylou, why do salespeople use that word “best”? There’s actually two reasons. The first one is we think we’re building relationships; we’re endearing ourselves to others. I just proved to you that we fail for that purpose. The second one is to differentiate ourselves from the competition. Now, I’ll give you a little insight on me, Marylou. I was a history major in college. I went to Binghamton University in Upstate New York.
While I was studying history, I discovered an interesting fact I’ll bet you’ve never come across this. In the history of business, there has never been a salesperson who’s come into a prospect and says, “You know? Our product’s so-so, our service is pretty good, and our technology is ‘eh’. How many would you like to buy?” It’s never happened. We say that we’re using that word “best” to differentiate ourselves. In reality, we sound like every other salesperson because everyone’s coming in preaching that what they have to offer is the best.
Marylou: A hundred percent. What’s even more difficult is we don’t really know we’re saying that. We think we’ve figured it out. We think we found the gap of the reason why people should choose us over somebody else, and it’s really hard to sit down and brainstorm how are we really different, and is there a magic recipe that we could use to build our differentiation or is it completely art?
Lee: Yeah, that’s a great point. You transitioned exactly the right way of going from that word “best”. That’s not a word that salespeople should have in their vocabulary. What we want to be thinking of is “different”. In my mind, that’s our responsibility, is to position “different” in such a way that our prospects say, “Hey, you’re the best,” without us every saying the word. I did discover there’s actually one person on the planet who can say “best” and have it be meaningful. Do you know who that is?
Marylou: No, who?
Lee: Your client. When your client says, “You’re the best,” that’s meaningful. When we say it about ourselves, the same word is meaningless. You’re right. There is an art to this, which is, first, having the mindset of saying, “We’re going to get out of the business of arguing or trying to say that we’re the best and position different.” Imagine starting a sales call in a way like this: “I’m not going to tell you that what I have to offer is the best. What I will do today is share some differences that our clients find meaningful, and you could decide for yourself if those are meaningful to you as well.” Isn’t that refreshing?
Marylou: It is, and it’s built in a little bit of social proof as well that you’re not speaking from what you think is the best but what from your clients and colleagues of theirs, peers that they may admire, think is the best.
Lee: Absolutely right.
Marylou: I love that, but I’m still stuck on how does one go about finding our differentiators. We’re feature and benefit-rich. We have sheets, upon sheets, upon sheets of why we’re better feature and benefit-wise, but that gets cloudy after a while.
Lee: It does. One of the worst pieces of advice that salespeople have been giving in recent years is that we have educated buyers. There’s this fad called the internet, and the people we’re selling to are so well-informed. There’s a question I’ve asked audiences for I can’t tell you how many years and how many places I’ve been asking it, and the question is this: Who knows more about the world of potential solutions in your industry: you or the people you sell to?
Marylou, I’ve never had one single salesperson raise their hand and go, “The people I sell to know much more than I do about this stuff,” never one. Even though we say that all of this information is there, we still really don’t have an educated buyer.
Marylou: Or at least a buyer that may have too much information. We may be overloading them with so many choices that they get completely lost in the weeds.
Lee: That’s right. A follow-up question that I’ll ask the audience is, “What’s the difference between an organic apple and a regular apple?” and I never have more than one or two people that raise their hand that could tell me the difference. Everyone else cites one thing: It’s exponentially more expensive. Here’s a product we buy every week, and we don’t know how to make an informed decision on an apple. They certainly don’t know how to buy your stuff.
In my mind, that gives us both an obligation and an opportunity. I believe that we have an obligation in sales to help our buyers make an informed buying decision which then gives us an opportunity to help shape buyer decision criteria because they don’t know how to buy what we’re selling. If your approach is, “Let’s go into the executive’s office with this presumption that they don’t know how to buy what we’re selling, and we’re going to lecture them on what they don’t know,” you make for a very short meeting.
Where there is an art to this is asking thoughtful questions to help people think differently about the solutions they have or could have. One of the mistakes that’s commonly made in discovering meetings is we ask only pain or challenge questions. “What are three things you’d like to have that you don’t have today?” and that’s one side of the equation. The aspects that they perceive could be better or different than what they have to day.
If you agree with me that we know more about the world of potential solutions in our industry than the people that we’re selling to, then we can’t just rely on the questions that expose the aspects that they perceive; we have to help them think differently through questions. I call those types of questions “positioning questions”, and they map back to your differentiators. No one likes to be lectured even if you have young kids. Young kids or adults, no one likes to be lectured, so we need to get that out of our toolkit and rather ask questions to help them think differently about the solutions they have or could have. Would you like an example?
Marylou: I’d love it. Yes.
Lee: I’m in Minnesota, and Minnesota has one of the oddest aspect to it, which is that every homeowner and every business has to contract for their own trash removal. On Wednesday mornings, there is a parade of garbage trucks coming down my street representing all the different haulers, and each one pulls up to a home seemingly doing the same thing. The truck pulls up, an arm extends out, grabs a can, lifts it up, dumps the contents into the garbage truck, puts the can back down, drives away, and you get an invoice at the end of the month.
A CEO of one of these companies reached out to me and he said, “You know what, Lee? I believe we have something different to offer. I believe that we have meaningful value so that we don’t have to fight over price.” I was intrigued because, gosh, I just witnessed this countless times on Wednesday mornings. How could that be? He was right. One of the aspects that salespeople and executives struggle with is where they’ll be so passionate about their differentiators. They’ll say, “Boy, this is unbelievable. Nobody else can do this the way we can do it,” and they’re ineffective at building that same passion in someone across the desk.
When we talk about sales differentiation, there’s two parts to it. There’s sales differentiation on what you sell and how you sell. When we talk about sales differentiation strategy around what you sell, it’s understanding what your differentiators are, the right timing to position them, and a strategy to position them in a compelling fashion so that that person who goes outside of their desk sees what you see and they’re so excited about it.
That was a struggle that this particular company had. They had a differentiator called the “Can Be Clean Truck”. Twice a year, this truck follows a garbage truck and cleans your garbage cans. Isn’t that cool? They’re the only ones in the state of Minnesota that offer that, and it’s free for their clients. Again, they struggled with, “How do we have that conversation?” For their residential salespeople, the ones who knock on doors or making calls to homeowners, we developed a positioning question. The question was this: Right after they introduced themselves, the question was, “When was the last time you had your garbage cans cleaned?”
Lee: Correct, unless they did it themselves. Folks, if you’ve ever cleaned your garbage cans, you know what a miserable experience that is. Right in that moment, we’ve helped someone think differently about something as simple as trash not because of something we’ve said but rather a question that we’ve asked.
Marylou: We start this whole conversation by looking at where in the spectrum of offer do we differentiate ourselves or where are the gaps. You have a process person so I’m trying to sit here and figure this out from the standpoint of process. What are the steps to figuring out what the differentiators are that you should be using? Second to that is do you have to be really experienced to know how to do this, or can my guys where some of them are just starting in sales become differentiation machines, or do you have to be really in sales for a while?
Lee: No, they have to help them. It’s a team effort. It’s not something that you would want to do on your own.
Marylou: Point number one is more heads are better.
Lee: More heads are better, yeah. Then, when you identify your differentiators, there’s a five-step process you put each one through. I thought you’re a process person. As am I, so don’t be surprised that there’s a process.
Marylou: I feel so much better already.
Lee: Here’s the first question you ask for each differentiator: Why does this matter to a buyer? So often, I find buy that we’ll say that we offer this–for example, we have this patented technology. Now, tell me why does that matter to a buyer? They’ll look at me like I’ve got 14 heads. If you can’t figure out why that differentiator would matter to a buyer, let’s not talk about it because those moments that we have with a buyer, whether it be on the phone or in person, are so precious. Let’s not waste it on something that they’re going to find of interest.
I had a prospect call me yesterday, and they were selling laboratory services to veterinarians. I asked that question, “Share me with some of your differentiators,” and they said, “Well, we don’t have a contract.” “Okay,” I said, “Well, aren’t you calling on businesses that already have an established relationship?” Veterinarians already have a place where they’re sending those specimens for laboratory testing. They said, “Absolutely.”
The fact that you don’t require a contract and all the competitors do really is only going to be a conversation point if you’re talking to someone who is miserable with their current laboratory provider. Other than that, the general public, if you will, of veterinarians doesn’t care that you don’t require a contract to do business with them because they already have a solution, so that’s not going to get the door open for a conversation. That’s Question #1 that we need to answer in the process of, “Why does this matter to a buyer?”
The second question we need to ask is, “To whom does this matter?” When you look at the spectrum of people that are involved in making the decision for what you sell, we need to figure out which differentiators matter to which people. I’ll give you an example. Marylou, let’s say our business has just changed and you and I sell copiers for a living. Today’s a very exciting day for us. Do you know why, Marylou?
Lee: Our R&D team has a major announcement. For the last three years, they’ve worked so hard, and they now have the first copier that has the ability to print 50 shades of gray, first ones ever that can do that. Tomorrow, we have a meeting with a CFO to talk about this new copier. I hope none of our listeners would be talking about the Fifty Shades of Grey with that CFO for so many reasons. Most importantly, CFOs don’t care about color, shades and hues. They do care about the financial impact that that copier is going to have.
That afternoon, you’re meeting with a marketing manager to talk about that same copier, doesn’t necessarily care about financial impact, but does care about print quality, the color, shades and hues. The next day, you have a meeting with the IT manager, doesn’t care about financial impact, doesn’t care about color, shades and hues, but does care about security, integration, reliability, all of those kinds of things, so three completely different conversations even though what we’re selling is the same.
For our sales differentiation strategy to be effective, we need to pick the right differentiators for the right person. I get pretty bold. I like to ask salespeople if they have an elevator pitch and they’ll say, “Absolutely, we do. That’s our best practice,” and I’ll tell them the worst thing they can do is have an elevator pitch. They think I’m nuts. My issue isn’t the concept of an elevator pitch; it’s the word “an” in front of it, thinking of it in a singular sense, having one spiel that it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re going to hear it. Just like with that example of the copiers, we need to figure out the right audience for the information we’re going to share.
The third step is to identify when does this matter, what have we learned before or during the meeting, something that they’ve said or something we’ve observed that screams to you a conversation about, “This differentiator is really going to resonate.” The fourth step is to develop the positioning question which is an open-ended question, which means a non-yes or no, designed to expose interest in a conversation about that differentiator. “When’s the last time you had your garbage cans cleaned?”
The fifth step is to document what information are you going to share once the door has been opened with that positioning question. Why does it matter? To whom does it matter? When does it matter? What is the open-ended question that helps a buyer see that this matters? What information will you share once they want to learn more?
Marylou: Is it very customary, then, to take what we have as solid feature benefit and starting with that, flip that on its side, so to speak, so that we get into this, “Why does it matter first?” or is there another process that you feel has better results, working with a group of people to brainstorm about these differentiators?
Lee: There’s a couple of workshops that I talked about in this the book and the ones that I do for my workshop clients. One is to make a list of your main competitors and ask yourself two questions. I would do this, again, in a group setting. “Why do we win and why do they win?” because, after all, nothing else matters other than the outcome. The second exercise is to make a list of the decision-influencers who’s anyone and everyone who affects the decision to buy what you sell, and, again, ask two questions: What is it that’s keeping them awake at night, the things that are at the forefront of their mind? and the second question is, Based on what is keeping them awake at night, what do you offer that can help them? The answers to why you win and how you can help will give you a laundry list of differentiators to then put through that five-step profiling exercise.
Marylou: Okay. Now, you also mentioned previously that this pain and challenge, these things that we know about and keep us up, are things that we know. What you also asked us to do just a little while ago was think beyond that into the unknown. How can we use the materials that we have to think into the unknown, or do we need to do another exercise of walking through a day in their life? I don’t want people to sit here thinking fat and happy, “Great, we just have to figure out what’s keeping them awake at night,” but there could be things that are unknown to them that should be keeping them awake at night that are not. How do we get at those nuggets?
Lee: The positioning questions that I referenced earlier are the questions designed to expose the areas that they didn’t perceive could be better or different. If we just relied on the pain or challenge questions and we said something like, “What are three things you’d like to have from your garbage provider that you don’t have today?” no one would say, “Boy, I’d love it if someone cleaned my garbage cans,” because they don’t know it exists.
Marylou: We have to come up with those.
Lee: We do. One of the other challenges that salespeople have is they don’t know who their biggest competitor is.
Marylou: I remember reading or seeing you talk about this. Who is our biggest competitor? I think of it as another colleague, but there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?
Lee: Yeah. I’ll ask this question to salespeople. “Who’s your biggest competitor?” and three will just roll right out of their mouths. I’m sure that’s a pretty good competitor, but there’s one even tougher. Someone will say to me, “You mean the old sales trainer one, the status quo, the choice to do nothing?” which is also a very tough competitor, but there’s one even bigger. They look at me like, “I have no idea where you’re going,” which is fine.
Marylou: Like me right now.
Lee: We get egocentric in sales. We think the world is all about is. It’s not. It’s about people we’re selling to. Our biggest competitor is every salesperson that is calling the same person we are, trying to get a meeting. That’s really the completion. You’re calling these executives who have this broad purview of responsibility. They’re getting calls from anyone and everyone within that purview and beyond. They’re getting emails, phone calls, voicemail messages, everyone trying to get face time, and I don’t mean the Apple technology.
I mean the ability to have a meeting. I’ve shared with you before as a history major another interesting fact: In the history of business, there has never been an executive whose responsibility has been meet with a salesperson every hour on the hour. This never happened. We have to differentiate ourselves right in that first moment or there’s never going to be a meeting. If there’s no meeting, there’s never a proposal. If there’s no proposal, there’s no win and we don’t make any money or hit our quota.
That’s where the side of the equation comes in of sales differentiation around how you sell. Every interaction between seller and buyer provides us with opportunities to be different, to provide meaningful value that our competitors have not. We need to go through the steps or process, if you will, to be different when we’re first making that prospecting call all the way through when we have the meeting down to when they ask for references. We can be different than our competitors and provide meaningful value and even into account management.
I find that a lot of companies will go that end of the spectrum. They use the expression, “Customer service and account management are synonyms,” and I define them. Customer service is not the people but the function of customer service that takes place when every one of your clients asks you for something. The measurement is, “Did you respond timely and accurately?” and that’s the expectation, is that you will do those two things for customer service.
Account management is the proactive set of activities and behaviors that you’re going to provide to your clients not what they’re asking for but additional value, things beyond the features, and functions, and benefits of what you’re selling, but the overall experience in them buying from your company. I don’t think I’ve come across a single company that has defined their account management experience. What I find is they’ll say, “We have our A, B, and C lists,” so they’ve ranked them only by revenue, which is short-sighted as well because you might be doing a nickel of business with someone that has a potential to be doing millions with you, and you treat them like a C because they’re doing so little with you.
There needs to be broader thought in how you rank your clients. There could also be a wonderful name and strategic account that is a smaller name, but, strategically, it’s great having them in your portfolio. Maybe you don’t want to treat them like a C. Maybe you want to treat them like an A. I don’t find that there’s a prescription around that. I know you’re a process person so you say, “We’ve got these A, B, and C lists. Now what? What is the account management experience going to be?” When that’s not defined, what happens is you have C-list clients treated like an A, A-list clients treated like a C, and no two salespeople providing account management the same way.
Marylou: The fact that you mentioned my favorite word “proactive” is definitely something that I agree with you, that there is a blending or a feathering of those two roles that doesn’t make sense. One’s more reaction-based and one is very proactive. It’s the difference between business development that, when we separate the roles out, that prospecting piece is usually not responding to inquiries but actually outbound.
There are two portions to it but, definitely, the proactive side is what I love the most, and that allows us to really target and create plans and profiles for people and accounts that we want to go after. In your book, though, I remember reading something about an intriguing way that you’ve viewed prospecting. Would you care to share that with the audience?
Lee: Sure. Imagine it’s two in the morning and there’s a pounding on your front door. It’s the police. They want to talk with you about a crime that’s recently been committed. Now, they don’t randomly pick your home and you for a conversation; they follow a trail of evidence and put together a crime theory, and that crime theory has led them to you for a conversation right now. Do you see where we’re going, Marylou?
A sales crime theory is founded in the answer to this question: “Why should they want to have a conversation with you right now?” not, “Why should we talk with them?” Why should they want to talk with us right now? We need to first identify what types of evidence would lead them to want to have a conversation with us right now. For example, let’s say you sell technology for conference rooms. The types of evidence that might make sense to look for would be ones like a business is opening a new location or a building is being renovated, et cetera. Then, you look for companies that are having those types of events because you know that conference room technology is going to be part of that conversation. Therefore, they should want to have a conversation with you right now.
You want to do what I call pre-call research. I’ve got to do some research. This is a way to make that work and put some framework around it, process, so that we’re not just saying, let’s go do some homework and try to find something. We’re seeking the answer to this question: Why should they want to have a conversation with us right now? Here are the events that would say that is the case, and let’s find those buyers who are in those cases.
Marylou: It’s the same thing you said before. This is going to be different for the different levels of decision-maker, direct influencer or indirect influencer, so not unlike that elevator pitch. You’d probably need multiple crime theories.
Lee: A hundred percent true.
Marylou: Yeah, I love that because when we’re calling a top of funnel and we’re trying to get that first appointment, we can be talking to a myriad of people. One of the biggest mistakes we make with our automation is to generalize everything. I’m loving the fact that you’re saying it’s segmenting and continually segmenting so that that conversation resonates and it has a sense of urgency tied to it that they just can’t say no. Their body is not allowing them to not want to know more, and that’s what I love about the way you’ve described this. I think this chapter in the book for prospecting is one that I think would finally get that light to go on for some of these folks that are just stumbling, bungling that first conversation to get in the door.
Lee: I’m sure you’ve experienced this as well. It’s so easy to tell salespeople, “You’ve got to be creative. You’ve got to find a way to get it in the door. Do some pre-call research.” It’s easy to say that. I believe we have an obligation when we’re in the sales management role to provide a framework, and guidance, and help our salespeople to be successful.
Marylou: Yes. When Jed did the forward to your book, he described differentiation as an art. I just had such a hard time with that because, yes, there is art in a lot of this, but there’s also science. There’s also foundational elements. There’s building blocks that you can pull in because, immediately, when I hear the word “art”, I think it’s a one-off. It can’t be repeatable. I know your book is all about consistency, promoting the return on effort; that we’re trying to do a good baseline. Yes, we’re going to artistically sometimes segue or pivot, but there is a foundation there that we’re building by putting these frameworks together.
Lee: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in developing sales playbooks. Back to what I said a moment ago, I believe that employers have an obligation to provide that success framework to their salespeople. The name of my firm, Sales Architects, I didn’t even come up with the name. One of my salespeople many years ago came up with that name. She said, “What I love about what you do is you give me the framework to be successful like an architect”–she should have said “engineer” but that’s fine–”but you don’t tell me what color the drapes should be.” In other words, don’t just say, “Memorize all these scripts and you’ll be successful.” Put the framework in place and provide your salespeople with the tools so that they can use their style and personality in that framework to be successful.
Marylou: This has been a fabulous entrée into this world of differentiation. You’ve developed 19 sales differentiation concepts for this book. Of those, knowing the audience today, which one of those concepts could you teach right now to the audience that they could put into effect?
Lee: How you sell not just what you sell differentiates you. We alluded to this a little earlier. When salespeople think of differentiators, they think of features and functions of what they sell. Back to what we were saying a few moments ago, if we look at every interaction and say, “What can I do different than what my competitors are doing that a buyer would find meaningful?” and employ that strategy, and when you look at why people win deals, lose deals, it’s not just features and functions. I asked my wife this question the other day and I said, “Would you rather go to a restaurant that has pretty good food and outstanding service or one that has great food and horrible service?” What do you think she said?
Marylou: The first one.
Lee: The first one. If you think about what you’re selling, in theory, you’re feature and function in this example, but the way they package it, the way that they delivered service delight people in such a way that people want to return there. It’s beyond just what we’re selling.
Marylou: It’s totally beyond that. It’s all about you. It’s about how you represent yourself and your products and service and how much you love your prospects and clients.
Marylou: Folks, the book, Sales Differentiation, 19 Powerful Strategies to Win More Deals at the Prices You Want, Lee Salz. He’s the CEO of Sales Architects. For those of you driving around, make sure you check in and find all the spots to reach out to Lee. Are there any other places or things that you want to share with the audience now before we part ways?
Lee: Yeah, there is one other piece. The book is available in hardcover, Kindle, in audiobook, and it’s available at freaking motor stores and your favorite online site like Amazon. Regardless of where you’d get it, when you do, go to salesdifferentiation.com and register for my Sales Differentiation Minute video series. I initially had planned to do 20 videos but, gosh, it’s going to be more like 50. We’re just having so much fun producing these. Those are normally only available to my workshop clients, but, for those purchasing the book, you register for that, you’ll get a video a week for at least 20 weeks, though it’s probably going to be like 50, with information that’s going to help you put what you’ve read into practice.
Marylou: The other thing is this is a team-building exercise, so what better way than to take Lee’s episodes? It’ll have a teaching point in it. Get your folks together, brainstorm, work through that episode, do the homework, and then continue to do this. By the time you get to Episode 50, you guys will be rocking and rolling, ready to go, and have a consistent and predictable sales pipeline. Lee, thank you so much for joining us today.
Lee: Thanks for having me, Marylou. It was great fun.