The New Situational Fluency: How Buyers Changed the Sales Conversation
In our book, The Collaborative Sale, Keith Eades and I explored how the concept of situational fluency has changed as a result of new buyer expectations of salespeople. Salespeople who possess situational fluency demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and attitude that today’s demanding buyers expect in their interactions with sales professionals.
Buyers have more access to information than ever before. As a result, they are more empowered in their purchasing evaluations and decisions. They wish to interact only with sellers who understand their business, their situations, their challenges, and their opportunities. Buyers no longer have time for generalists – they want to work with expert specialists who can bring new insight and value, and who can help them solve their problems and create new value.
In addition, most buyers now lose patience quickly with “relationship sellers” who focus first on building rapport and interpersonal bonds, and then try to leverage that relationship into a sale. Research on how buyers buy today, conducted by McKinsey, shows that the “buyer journey” has changed in a fundamental way: emotional bonds and loyalty with a solution provider come only after value is recognized, not before. “Likability” is a good quality to possess as a salesperson, but it is no longer any kind of guarantee of sales success.
This fundamental change has profound significance for sellers who want to align with today’s buyer preferences and sell more effectively. In The Collaborative Sale, Keith and I described the five key components of sales situational fluency, as follows:
- Situational Knowledge – the awareness of a buyer’s circumstances, as well as the understanding of the implications of that situation based on the seller’s experience or learning. A thorough knowledge and understanding of the buyer’s industry, trends, key players, problems, challenges, opportunities, and desired results is a requirement for sellers today.
- Capability Knowledge – the understanding of a solution provider’s products or services, and how those capabilities can be converted into desired results. Sellers need to know what their capabilities do for customers, and not just what the capabilities are.
- People Skills – people buy from people, and they are much more likely to buy from people whom they like. Therefore, sellers must possess good interpersonal skills, so that they can appeal to buyers’ emotions, as well as their intellect.
- Selling Skills – the ability to execute essential selling functions, such as stimulating buyer interest, qualifying opportunities, identifying buyer needs, diagnosing problems, presenting solutions, conveying value, negotiating, and closing.
- Collaborative Attitude – the ability to work with buyers to create or enhance solutions in a spirit of openness and transparency, and to demonstrate that they are acting with the buyer’s interests in mind first.
The components of situational fluency represent the required set of competencies that buyers expect from professional salespeople. But, even if a seller develops all aspects of situational fluency, they can still fail if they do not express these competencies in a way that is consistent with how today’s buyers want to buy.
For example, one of our clients invested in developing the situational fluency competencies of their sales team – with industry and product training, coaching, and improved content resources. However, they were not consistently getting better results. After investigating how these sellers were engaging with customers, it became clear why some were still struggling.
Despite their recent training, some sellers were still using “old school” sales methods: leading with rapport building and relationship in hopes of developing a degree of collaboration, pitching product capabilities in hopes of finding a potential fit with the buyer’s situation, and finally, pushing to close a sale. Throughout each sales opportunity, these sellers’ typical path through the components of situational fluency generally looked like this:
This approach to selling touches each aspect of situational fluency, but it does so in a very flawed and imbalanced fashion. First, it does not align with the preferences of today’s empowered buyers, who need to first see value, expertise, and insight from sellers before they are willing to invest in relationship. Second, this approach does not fully embrace the critical change in attitude required of sellers to truly collaborate with buyers – sellers who confuse rapport with collaboration see that as permission to pitch product features and functions, which is really not collaboration at all. Finally, it puts the burden of finding a fit between a seller’s offerings and the buyer’s situation fully on the buyer’s shoulders. Sellers who do this are not demonstrating situational expertise or providing any valuable insight.
This “old school” approach may touch each aspect of situational fluency. But when examined closely, it clearly over-emphasizes people skills, capability knowledge, and selling skills, while de-emphasizing collaborative attitude and situational knowledge. This imbalanced approach does not align with today’s buyers, and therefore, leads to poor sales results.
In contrast, high-performing sellers manifested the components of situational fluency very differently. They first studied each buyer situation, and then developed a hypothesis about what kind of capabilities could provide the most value. They expressed these insights to buyers, earning the right to further collaborate to validate and enhance the vision of a solution. Once the buyer recognized the value of this solution, they were more open to building a closer relationship with the seller, who could then guide the buyer more easily to a buying decision.
Throughout each sales opportunity, these higher-performing sellers’ typical path through the components of situational fluency generally looked like this:
Successful sellers are those who not only exhibit situational fluency competencies in the right sequence, but also do so with equal weight throughout their entire engagement with buyers. Collaborative sellers recognize that every aspect of situational fluency is critical to aligning with today’s buyer preferences, and do not short change any part of it – thus, ensuring success not only for themselves, but more importantly, for their customer.
Does your team possess situational fluency? We’ve developed a summary assessment for identifying potential barriers and obstacles to a collaborative sales approach – you can download this assessment tool here.