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Studies In Selling: One On One With Chris Harrington

I spoke to Chris Harrington, Chief Operating Officer of InsideSales.com, about his best sales advice

Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your best sales advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?

Chris: Sales has always been my passion—I’ve been in the industry 30 years, with 28 of those in senior leadership positions. I began my career in tele-sales, but my ability to drive sales growth quickly led me to focus on the B2B software market where I’ve led sales at Omniture, Adobe, Domo and Computer Associates.

I’ve recently joined InsideSales.com as COO, where I’m focused on helping customers use data and analytics to inform marketing and sales, improve the buying process and ultimately drive revenue.

Adam: What is the single biggest sales mistake you have ever made and what did you learn from it?

Chris: I believe sales mistakes are most often the result of lack of listening and preparation, which is why I do what I do today. I’ve been in the business of using data to drive business growth for decades. Every sales professional can and must be prepared well in advance before reaching out to a prospect, and must approach every engagement with curiosity, not arrogance. It’s the only way to understand your buyer, tailor your approach, and build a relationship.

This was the case in my biggest, most costly mistake. I basically went into a call with one of my top sales representatives completely blind. It wasn’t that he didn’t try to prepare me—he shared a full brief beforehand, but I neglected to review it and went in thinking I knew what I was doing. In the meeting, everything about the prospect’s body language screamed, “they aren’t going to buy.” So, I decided to initiate a game of business chicken and played the “take-away card,” asserting it seemed clear there was no opportunity for us. The prospect’s curt response was, “Yeah, I think you are correct,” and he proceeded to award a five million-dollar deal to our competitor—a deal that would have earned my guy a million-dollar commission.

I cringe when I think about how uninformed and arrogant I was. I hadn’t learned the history of the deal or the budget committed to the purchase; I didn’t listen. It was a five million-dollar lesson but an investment in wisdom that has paid off one-hundred-fold. I learned to never, no matter what the circumstance, go into a sales meeting unprepared.

Adam: In your experience, what are the key pitfalls to succeeding in sales and how can you overcome them?

Chris: The biggest mistakes are actually made at the beginning of the sales process—the discovery stage. Too often sales people act like they’re paid by the word for everything they say, instead of what they hear. Really there’s no value in the words we say, only in what we learn. Never stop being curious about the customer, how long they’ve tried to address their pain points, and why their previous solutions didn’t work.

Adam: What are your three best tips when it comes to selling?

Chris:

1.Listen first and always. If you’re talking, you're not selling. Stop and listen inside your head—are you thinking about what you’ll say next or are you engaged in what the customer is saying?

2.Be prepared before you reach out. Do the work upfront to understand the prospect and their buying preferences, but never assume you know it all.

3.Be a sponge. Always be curious and learning about the market, buyers involved in the purchase, what’s resonating and how you can best serve your customers.

Adam: Describe your sales methodology. Have you found that different types of prospects are responsive to different types of styles, and if so, do you adapt your style to the type customer you are selling to?

Chris: Every sales person has learned a methodology, whether SPIN, Value, Sandler, Targeted Account Selling or others. There are so many approaches, but at their core they’re incredibly similar. As you build your team, you’re going to hire people with exposure to these different methodologies and they’ll each bring their own lessons learned to the table. In the end, you must adapt, integrate the best ideas to inform your process and align.

The methodology I love the most is Selling Through Curiosity - using curiosity as a force to look at different buyer types and actively listen and vet the information they provide. Customers don’t love to give up information; they keep their cards close. For these customers, you need to adapt your approach by using third-party data sources and behavioral buyer intelligence to help fill gaps.

Adam: What sets your approach apart from others in your industry? Describe your industry and your best tips specific to selling within it.

Chris: The Sales and Marketing industry is crowded. Competition is intense, so selling smarter is a must. We use every technology and source of data to inform our efforts. I advise our team to listen to what the data tells you first, then understand what the customer is saying to secure the partnership.

We challenge ourselves and our customers to think differently about data. It helps create an equilibrium between the sales person and prospect. And, it’s far more valuable in forecasting because it doesn’t have bias. When leadership asks why a deal isn’t progressing, sales reps will always have an answer; but it will generally be subjective. Data gives you the opportunity to increase pipeline velocity by identifying stuck opportunities—i.e. the average deal close is usually 90 days, so this 120-day deal is probably dead. Don’t let uninformed guestimates give you false hope instead of moving on to a prospect that could be more valuable.

Adam: What do you believe is the hardest step in the sales process and how can it best be navigated?  

Chris: Our research shows the most difficult step is Prospecting. I like to think of leads as calories and I need to feed the sales machine calories, or leads, to fuel performance. Unfortunately, finding good leads is a huge challenge today. Buyer attention is scarce and the bad practices of unscrupulous sales people have sent them into hiding.

We have to get smarter and more automated when it comes to finding motivated buyers by creating the right balance of marketing and sales cadence, informed communications and strong differentiation.

Adam: What are your best tips for improving your close rate?

Chris: Stop talking. Don’t worry so much about what you’re going to say and so little about what you hear—that’s what drives the close rate. What is the prospect telling you? Listening and being patient has let me become an informed partner/advisor. I can use the customer’s words to drive the deal.

Adam: What is your best advice around making the ask?

Chris: You would be surprised by how many sellers sit back and wait for the customer to place an order vs. proactively making the ask. But before you ask, show them you’ve been listening all along. Remind them of your first conversation where they identified objectives and how you could work together to achieve them. Ask them, “did I miss anything?” Then shut up and listen.

Finally, ask the customer what’s preventing them from doing the deal and solving the problem. Use the customers’ own words to remind them why they’re buying and show them you care about solving their problem, not just closing the deal.

Adam: Language is obviously very important throughout the sales process. What are key phrases or words you have found have helped or hurt your chances of success?

Chris: Use the customers’ own words when you do speak. Too many business leaders become enamored with their own company vocabulary, jargon, category names, or clever phrases. Stay away from that—it won’t resonate. Use the customers’ words strategically in a way that isn’t heavy handed—customers typically aren’t trusting. It’s a dance, and we have to always stay in balance with the customer.

Adam: On a scale of 1-10, how important are ethics to succeeding in sales? Explain.

Chris: Paramount – a 10. Every successful sales relationship comes down to building and maintaining trust, and that takes the highest integrity. There’s no coming back from a lie or a broken promise. Your (and your company’s) long-term success are riding on your reputation for delivering on your promises.

Adam: What is your best advice on how to best manage and stay on top of leads?

Chris: Hands down, there’s no way to do this today without leveraging state-of-the-art technology and data. The pressure to increase quota and drive revenue growth far exceeds the rate at which companies are adding sales and marketing resources. To complicate matters, buyers are generating an ocean of data with their behavior. If you aren’t applying machine learning and intelligent automation to sort, prioritize and inform your prospecting and account expansion, your competitors who are will be ten steps ahead of every move you make.

Adam: What is the single best piece of sales advice you have ever received? 

Chris: As a sales person, your job is to come back with an order or education – that’s it. Now I constantly ask my team, “what did you learn?” If you aren’t learning, you’re not properly selling. That’s why I think it’s a shame we don’t publish more loss reports. We all know everything that went into the win but often ignore what happens when we lose. This means we aren’t learning from 80% of our calls and that’s an enormous missed opportunity.

Adam: What sale are you proudest of? Walk us through how you made it happen and its significance.

Chris: My proudest sales win came during the early years at Omniture, when we were the underdog competing for the world’s biggest and toughest buyer—Walmart. It was a struggle to win with big brands in those days because we were an unknown company. We had been invited to respond to an RFP competing against the incumbent and market leader; the odds weren’t in our favor.

I had to make the call: are we column fodder or can we win? We knew we could differentiate, but it was a long shot and we would have to throw everything at winning over the 13-month sales cycle. It made sense to go hard because taking a customer like Walmart from your top competitor is a game changer. We interviewed everyone they gave us access to and even hired sales experts who had sold to Walmart in the past to give us insights into how they used related technologies. We needed to level the playing field and did that by becoming experts.

Thirteen months in, I got the call that we had won the deal. The Omniture business unit of Adobe will do $3BB this year, and all because we listened and soaked up every detail like a sponge, using that insight to win. This win changed the landscape for our company—we quickly became the industry leader and ended up acquiring our biggest competitor. It’s winning strategic accounts like this that really move the needle.

Adam: What is one thing everyone can do tomorrow to become better at selling?

Chris: Stop talking and start listening to customers and utilize every piece of data you can get your hands on.

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