A UNIQUE MOMENT IN TIME
If there's one study that is the envy of every sales researcher, it's the groundbreaking work done by Professor Neil Rackham and his team, as profiled in the book SPIN Selling. Twelve years to complete. Thirty-five thousand sales calls observed. One hundred and sixteen unique factors assessed for their potential impact on sales outcomes. More than one million dollars ($2.3 million in today's dollars) spent on the study. For more than thirty years, this study has been considered the gold standard of sales research. It was a study so broad, so deep, and so resource-intensive that nobody dared to even ask if it could be repeated, let alone surpassed.
It wasn't the number of calls studied or the number of variables in the study that was the challenge. Advances in big data analytics, machine learning, and GPU-powered processing have made it possible to study much larger data sets and to consider far more factors than Rackham's team had. The issue has always been that many sales conversations—especially the most pivotal ones—take place in the customer's office. Collecting the data therefore meant committing to traveling the world to actually sit in on those sales meetings and observe what was happening. No organization would sponsor a study like that given the cost, time, and resources required—and especially given the uncertain outcomes of such an undertaking.
But something interesting and altogether surprising happened in the spring of 2020. As the world went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all sales became virtual—literally overnight.
For sales researchers like ourselves, this represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Partnering with several dozen companies, our research team went to work collecting millions of sales conversations recorded on platforms like Zoom, Teams, and Webex as well as the dozens of bespoke recording platforms used by companies all over the world. Using automatic speech recognition, we turned the unstructured audio from these recordings into unstructured text. Then, using a machine learning platform from a conversation intelligence company called Tethr, we brought structure to that data, tagging more than 8,300 unique factors across those sales calls. Finally, we did the math to determine which of these factors drive sales performance and which do not.
And what emerged from this analysis was a story that was entirely unexpected.
For as long as sales training has been delivered and sales books have been written, there's been one singular objective we've all been focused on: How do we overcome the customer's status quo?
Focusing on the customer's status quo makes perfect sense. After all, it's a formidable enemy—one that salespeople lose to all the time. Human beings have a deep-seated bias for things to remain as they are. And customers, we all know, will regularly pass on pursuing opportunities that have been clearly demonstrated to make them better off.
It should come as no surprise, then, that companies have spent untold amounts of time and money on sales training, coaching, and enablement in order to help salespeople overcome the customer's status quo. Sales organizations equip their reps with better scripting, tighter value proposition messaging, customer case studies, reviews, testimonials, proof points, ROI calculators, and objection-handling techniques—all designed to help the customer get over the hump, to get them to say yes to their offers and no to doing more of the same.
Of course, there is no shortage of opinions as to how to do this. Some say it's about building trust while others argue it's about diagnosing needs. In fact, we wrote about this very problem in The Challenger Sale more than a decade ago. In that research, we discovered that the best sellers—Challengers—bring disruptive, provocative insights that reframe the customer's thinking as to how to make money, save money, or mitigate risk. What these gifted reps had figured out was that the way to get the customer to move forward is to show them that "the pain of same is worse than the pain of change."
But that is not what this book is about.
This book is about a newer, more nefarious, and seemingly intractable problem facing salespeople today: What happens when the customer agrees that the status quo is unacceptable, that yours is the only solution that can help them attain their objectives, that the whole buying committee is on board...and you still lose?
This sort of thing happens more often than you might think.