My very first sales role was a sales engineer for a high growth software company. We provided time and attendance solutions to some of the world largest manufacturing organizations. I was 25 years old.
In that business, many of our clients had been in operation for decades and had legacy systems in place that were just as old. I vividly recall one experience where I was helping kickoff a discovery session with a manufacturer of heavy-duty construction equipment. The boardroom was full of executives and as the discussion got going, one of them turned to me and said with a smile on his face, “I bet we have systems in place here that are older than you!”. A chuckle spread over the room.
The phenomenon I experienced that day is what I call experience asymmetry, and it can be a highly disruptive force for modern sellers. Let me explain.
While modern B2B sales cycles continue to get increasingly complex and often involve multiple stakeholders on both sides, most of them still start with a conversation between two people. But not two equal peers.
The genesis of most sales cycles involves a younger, newer, or generally less experienced sales or business development rep calling on a more senior decision maker whose job they’ve never done.
Hence, experience asymmetry. This asymmetry of experience between buyer and seller can present a variety of challenges. On one hand, the customer is wary about talking to salespeople in general. Not to mention being skeptical about what they can learn from a seller (especially a younger seller) about how to run their business. On the other hand, the seller is trying to figure out how they can punch above their weight, quickly establish credibility, and add enough value for the buyer to want to take the next step.
As for my boardroom confrontation, I was determined! I was young but this wasn’t my first boardroom discovery session. Not only did I know my solution cold but having worked with many similar organizations during my tenure, I was intimately familiar with many of the legacy challenges similar companies had when it came to their operation.
In the hours that followed I use the tactics outlined below to slam the door on any perceived value gap in my experience. By the end, the same executive turned to the group and said “Wow, you know what? I think if we had an older guy come in to tell us about the latest technology, we wouldn’t have believed him!”. So never fear! If, as a seller, you find yourself in an environment where experience asymmetry is prevalent, what you say and how you say it when calling high can have a huge impact on your success.
1. Know Your Audience Well Enough to Read Their Minds
Nothing says “Oh wow! This person can actually help me” than a seller that comes into a discovery call armed with a quiver of well-articulated pain points that resonate deeply with their customer. This technique is called labeling, and when you label someone’s pain (even if they haven’t internalized or clearly articulated it) it powerfully demonstrates that you have the ability to help them. For example, as you begin the dialogue with your customer, one of the things you might say is:
“I speak to customers in your position every day and the number one challenge I hear from them is _________”.
Now imagine your brilliant synthesis was not only accurate but shared either at the outset of the conversation or after the customer had shared a few disparate insights about their current environment. Not only are you likely to hear a “that’s right!” (or equally powerful confirmatory reaction) from your customer, but the act of labeling will create strong resonance with your message and boost your personal credibility in the process.
Note: the labels you apply should be specific, differentiated and not sound like high-level pitches! For example:
Bad: “I speak to Sales leaders like you every day who are looking for a better, more effective CRM”
Good: “I speak to Sales leaders every day and what I hear consistently is that they don’t always trust that the information in their CRM is up-to-date”
Bad: “I speak to HR leaders like you every day who are looking to revamp their performance review process”
Good: “I speak to progressive HR leaders every day who tell me their people love feedback but they hate performance reviews.”
2. Invoke the Credibility of Others (When You Have None)
If you’re new, young, less experienced or your name isn’t Oprah, chances are your level of personal credibility is low. That’s why saying things like “What I’ve found is…” or “I think…” carry little weight. You know why? Because no one cares what you think! On the other hand, your customers, academics, industry experts, and the collective experience of your organization carry much more weight and credibility. After all, the stories of success and value are rooted in those experiences, not yours.
So how do you shift the burden of credibility? Easy! Phrase your talk track in the context of the people who the credibility belongs to. Start your argument with phrases like “Our customers have consistently found that…” or “A recent study by a leading analyst group found…” or “What we’ve seen time and time again is…”.
Note: the positioning of the second phrase is subtle but important. By saying “we” instead of “I” you invoke the experience of your collective organization. It’s no longer your arguably inexperienced opinion, but rather an entity with more experiential symmetry to your customer.
While this concept seems simple, it requires practice. We’re so used to sharing our personal perspectives that phrasing stories in the context of other’s experience is something you need to get in the habit of doing in customer-facing situations.
3. Learn How to Tell Your Story with Conviction
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a sales rep delivering a canned, robotic pitch that someone told them to give, you can appreciate the eye-rolling sensation your customers feel when you do the same to them.
In the rock-paper-scissors battle of customer engagement, no messaging tactic packs more punch than conviction.
As Toastmaster International champion Mohammed Qahtani correctly declared in his 2015 World Championship winning talk, The Power of Words, “words when said and articulated in the right way can alter someone’s belief”. And if the perceived asymmetry of experience between you and your customer promotes a belief that you are not someone who can help them, then that sentiment needs to be altered early in the relationship!
The good news is there are many ways to muster conviction in your approach. For example, telling your story with emotionally rich vs. functional messages. Sourcing and recounting stories you heard first-hand from existing customers instead of your marketing department (yes, there’s a huge difference). The key to building conviction into your pitch lies in removing the layer of abstraction. In transforming your message from a sales pitch that senior customers are naturally resistant to, to a personal account of something you strongly believe in.
When it comes to engaging buyers, the perceived lack of personal experience and value can be a credible threat to the success of modern sellers. Especially those new to their organization or early in their careers. While bridging this gap with your customers can be challenging, the rewards for doing so can span far beyond that singular interaction and serve to accelerate both your sales cycles and career.
BONUS CONTENT: check out my related post in the Harvard Business Review on how younger salespeople can win over older customers.
BONUS PODCAST: listen to David talk through these insights with tons of examples on the Sales Engagement Podcast