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19DecHow Learning Leadership Improves Sales Results

Editor's note: This post was originally published on Sales Pop on December 11, 2017. 

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Here’s what we know: Modern buyers are empowered, demanding, finicky, price-focused, impatient, and less loyal than they used to be. They take extraordinary measures to dodge sellers’ calls and won’t meet with us until they’re ready to buy – and then, it seems, all they want to talk about is price.

As a result, our products – no matter their quality — are commoditized. Many sellers cut prices to the quick, even as they are struggling to reach quota. Relationships with buyers feel adversarial and selling consultatively requires first jumping through flaming hoops. Sellers have been burned, and many good ones are leaving the profession.

Something’s gotta give

What if sellers abandoned stereotypical sales behaviors that are off-putting to buyers, and replaced them with leadership behaviors? Along with two top leadership experts, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, I set out to test a theory that buyers would respond favorably to the 30 behaviors of leaders proven in The Leadership Challenge® to mobilize others toward shared aspirations. We conducted a panel study, backed by Santa Clara University, with 530 B2B buyers representing all sectors.

Here’s what we learned from buyers

B2B buyers rated every single one of those 30 behaviors as favorable. The ideal frequency of each behavior is higher, they said, than the current frequency demonstrated by sellers with whom they choose to do business. What’s more, buyers would be more likely to meet with and buy from sellers who demonstrated these behaviors. Maybe we were on to something!

What sellers’ own stories indicated

Next, we checked to see if this matched up with sellers’ own experiences. We invited sellers to submit stories about their own “personal bests” in selling. Hundreds responded. We combed through every story, looking to prove or disprove the impact of these leadership behaviors. Without knowing what we were looking for–without even recognizing their own behaviors as those more typically associated with leaders–sellers affirmed that buyers do, indeed, respond favorably when sellers more display leadership behaviors.

Our evidence-based insights and conclusions

While some of these leadership behaviors ranked higher than others and generated more feedback and stronger reactions with buyers, the research revealed that all 30 have merit and are important to buyers.

To aid in understanding leadership behaviors, we use the Five Practices of Exemplary Leaders® as found in The Leadership Challenge®. Each practice groups six behaviors. For leaders, these have been validated in 600+ research studies with data collected in more than 5 million assessments over 30 years in 72 countries. Here are the Five Practices.

Practice #1: Model the Way

Leaders clarify their values and set the example by aligning actions with values.

Buyers wrote more open-response comments about this Practice than any other. The importance of follow-through, honesty, and integrity came through loud and clear. These are the behaviors that build trust and cause buyers to lower their guard enough to form relationships with trusted sellers. Buyer loyalty is the reward for consistently demonstrating these behaviors.

Practice #2: Inspire a Shared Vision

Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities. They enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.

Buyers want to connect with and be inspired by sellers who see the larger purpose of their work together, in service of a mission or vision. Buyers don’t want sellers to over-promise or tell blue-sky stories without backing them up with follow-through.

Practice #3: Challenge the Process

Leaders search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and by looking outward for innovative ways to improve. They experiment and take risks, learning from experience.

The behaviors related to challenging buyers did not rate as highly as we anticipated. This may suggest that “challenger selling” is not a stand-alone solution. Our interpretation of buyer comments indicates that sellers should not lead with challenging but that buyers do welcome it once trust has been established.

Practice #4: Enable Others to Act

Leaders foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships. They strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence.

Buyers are making a shift that was predicted in the book The Future of Competition: “Consumers will migrate to businesses that allow them to be participants in creating what they want.”

Rather than delivering seller-generated insights, buyers want sellers to work with them to brainstorm and co-create insights. Acknowledging and affirming buyer ideas and engaging in two-way dialogue has become increasingly important.

Practice #5: Encourage the Heart

Leaders recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence, and they celebrate victories by creating a spirit of community.

Buyers want to be praised and recognized for their contributions to a solution – not just thanked for their business. Buyers also want sellers to encourage them along the way and show confidence in buyer decisions made. For many buyers, internally selling a shift or new idea is arduous. Encouragement goes a long way in helping the buyer feel less alone.

What you can do, starting now

Adopting leadership behaviors doesn’t require any special tools. You don’t need to wait for company-wide process changes. This is a simple choice – one that individual sellers can make for themselves. Sales managers and directors can create a sales culture founded in these behaviors. Our work to date with sellers has been met with eagerness to make the shift, and even the thought alone to “stop selling and start leading” gives sellers a much-needed confidence boost.

If you want to differentiate yourself from other sellers by stepping into your leadership potential, be sure to get a copy of the new book Stop Selling & Start Leading. If you lead a sales team or are planning a sales event, let us know – the engaging presentation about this ennobling body of work will put the swagger back in your sales organization.

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