Go On, Provoke Your Customer

I just finished reading The Harvard Business Review’s article “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers” It’s good. I think it’s timely too, not because it’s filled with new, save the day advice, but because it reminds us there are many ways to sell. And, I do agree with the authors, economic times like these require us to understand as many different sales approaches as possible.

Although not innovative in it’s idea, Rick Page a Best Selling Author called this approach “Business Development” in this book Hope is Not a Strategy. Provoking your customer is a real and effective sales approach for sophisticated sales companies and their teams.

HBR describes Provocative Selling this way:

1) Identify a critical problem – so ominous that, even in a downturn, the company will find the money to address it.
2) Formulate a provocative view of the problem – a fresh perspective that frames the problem in a “jarring” new light.
3) Lodge you provocation with an executive who has the power to approve the solution you’re proposing. To win support, convey magnitude and intractability of the problem

The idea is to identify a problem in your customers environment they are unaware of. Create a powerful solution to the problem. Finally, educate your customer of the problem and of YOUR solution. The key, according to HBR, is to persuade customers that the solutions you bring to the table are not just nice, but essential.

All in all, it was a good article. There were things I like and things I didn’t.

What I liked:

-I found the article motivating, as it made you feel that in difficult times there are strategies that work.

-It did a good job of outlining the theoretical underpinnings of Provocative based selling. Provocative based selling works. It is compelling and strengthens the customer, vendor relationship

-It was Branded brilliantly. “Provocative Based Selling” is a catchy, “Sticky” phrase. It’s easy to remember and therefore easy to adopt. As I referenced earlier, Rick Page describes a very similar sales approach in his definition of Business Development, but without the sticky branding it is lost in his book.

-There were good supporting materials: tables, mini-case studies, graphs and educational how-to’s.

-HRB did a good job of emphasizing the sophistication level of provocative based selling. They acknowledged the role of Marketing, Services and other company wide resources required to successfully execute this approach. It is NOT an approach that can be easily accomplished by a lone sales guy or even a good pursuit team. Provocative based selling requires experienced analysts, cross functional teams, (finance, sales, marketing, and vertical experts).

– They do a good job of comparing provocative based selling to solutions selling and product bases selling. It is very different. The approach relies heavily on information about your customers, their business, and the industry than it does on YOUR product and it’s features or even it’s enablers.

What I didn’t like:

-I think HBR grossly underestimates the ability to implement provocative based selling into an organization. The traditional sales person does not have the business acumen, industry knowledge or financial wherewithal to sell this way. You can’t just drop provocative based selling into an organization and expect it to work. Training and support will be critical for most organizations.

-The length of the sales cycle is underestimated. Depending on when an organization chooses to measure the sales cycle, it can be the longest and most complex of the selling processes. Provocative based selling takes tremendous preparation, and pre-sales effort. The internal effort can be as large as the client side effort.

-The article assumes that once the critical problem has been identified and lodged with the customer the sale accelerates as the client will quickly buy from you. This assumption is based on the premise that customer’s won’t look to your competitors to see if they can solve the problem too. It is a bad assumption. Just because you found it doesn’t mean your competitors can’t solve it as well.

-I think they could have spent more time on emphasizing the importance of having a provocative product or solution. This seems obvious, however far too often organizations aren’t real with themselves. Identifying the critical business problem is just one aspect of the approach. It is critical for your organization to have a powerful offer that can deliver substantial impact and resolution to the problem. Not all companies have a solution like this. If they do, they are most likely already provocatively selling.

-Expanding on my last point, due to the substantial impact product has on the ability to provocatively sell, the HBR completely left out the importance of partnering with the product organization. In many cases, successfully executing on provocative based selling, new products or offers are required. And when new ones aren’t required, enhancements may be required. The Product Development and Product Marketing groups are CRITICAL to provocative based selling.

Provocative based selling is a real approach. It’s not fluff. It requires a sophisticated team of sales people, analysts, product developers, industry expertise and a committed organization. Getting it right isn’t easy. But if you do, it’s one of the best tools you can have in your bag.

Just one successful, provocative based selling win, can put you and your organization at the cool kids table within your clients organization for a VERY long time. It can make all the other sales process much easier.

If you think you can do it, go do it. Go on, provoke your customer. It’s always cooler at the cool kids table!