In Conversation With: Michael Ahearne (Part 2)

Today we continue our conversation with Mike Ahearne, Professor of Marketing at the University of Houston and Research Director at the Sales Excellence Institute. An interesting finding from recent research by Mike and his colleague Tom Steenburgh is that when selling new or innovative products, successful salespeople differ from their more average colleagues in the amount of time they spend with prospects and customers.

Mike explains: “One of things we studied is how much time salespeople spend with them, and how much time they physically spend with them – in person. We did the study across all three divisions of 3M, and the way they sold, and across 86 different companies involved in B2B selling. One of the uniform findings across companies is that top salespeople spend more time in person in the first couple of stages of the buying process, that is, in the first few meetings, and then at the very end, in the close stages.

“At other stages of the buying process, they’ll spend time with the customer virtually. So, the total amount of time the top salesperson spends is larger, and in particular it’s much larger at the beginning and at the end of the buying process, when the customer is getting ready to make the decision. A lot of that time is spent in person, rather than over the phone or virtually.

“We found these sellers were spending hours of additional time on-site with the customer, supporting those decisions. And by doing this, you’re able to get hidden information from the buyer – information they would be slower to share over the phone or in email. In-person meetings allow them to get more information and get through the barriers to the sale.

“We compared the top 20% of sellers of innovative products in companies to the rest of the salespeople, and this was one of the common findings. When we look at how average salespeople spend their time, they tend to spend a little more time upfront, but then for the rest of the buying cycle, they appear to divide their time almost randomly, and whether the meetings are in person or over the phone is purely a matter of the seller’s convenience. In contrast, top salespeople systematically choose the best times to be physically present with customers.”

We asked Mike if buyers today are less willing to schedule in-person meetings. Don’t they prefer to talk by phone or online?

“That’s true early in the buying process,” he said. “Early on, they use alternative forms of information, particularly digital forms. But at later stages, top salespeople get more access, and that difference in access is what changes the outcome. So it’s not a question of buyer resistance – it’s true that buyers are resistant – but top salespeople build relationships in a way that they can gain access during key periods. Average salespeople do get meetings with customers, but it may not advance the sale, because they let the customer drive when those meetings take place. These average sellers want the meetings to be as convenient as possible, whereas the top salespeople systematically try to gain access at the best times during the buying process.”

Speaking of “early in the buying process,” we asked Mike for his views on the assertion that buyers are waiting until later in their decision-making process to interact with salespeople. (See our 2018 Buyer Preferences Study.)

“We’re doing research now on engagement and on selling models,” he said. “A lot of companies show data that customers are engaging later in their buying process, because they don’t want the salesperson involved. There’s an asymmetry of information. But what we find is that another shift has also occurred: It’s more common now for a buyer to invite a salesperson in to meet them than it is for the salesperson to find an opportunity.

“Fifteen or twenty years ago, the opposite was true. The salesperson generated opportunities through early meetings, because that’s how customers became aware of the product or initiative or service. But now, because they can become aware of that product or service in so many other ways, they don’t have the same need for salespeople early on.”

These two points – that buyers are engaging later with salespeople, and that buyers are often initiating the engagement when it does occur – have implications for how organizations train their salespeople. Mike observes that some selling models assume that engagement begins early in the buying process and that it begins with the seller educating the customer. Today, this may or may not be the case.

When the buyer has already done their research, and has contacted vendors after the decision-making process is well underway, it’s usually a mistake for a salesperson to “challenge” the buyer and try to re-set the decision process. Mike says that his research suggests that if buyers are persuaded to rethink a solution they’re already leaning towards, it doesn’t actually help the seller.

“It causes cognitive dissonance,” he says, “and we know that for an already-decided buyer, cognitive dissonance will cause then to postpone their decision and search for additional information. Psychologically, the best strategy is an affirming strategy. Instead of attempting the shake what the customer already knows, the seller might begin by asking, ‘Why did you invite me here today? What is it about my company that is appealing to you?’ And then the buying influence who invited you can affirm, in front of their team, why they invited you in. That positive affirmation will help the seller close the sale more quickly.’

Harvard Business Review will be publishing an article on this research in the near future. We look forward to it!

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