The Power of a Collaborative Sales Approach: Lessons from HubSpot Partner Sales Training

Written by Fes Askari

Aug 21 2017

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After being accepted on to the HubSpot Partners Project Lion Coaching, our Head of Inbound Sales, Fes Askari, discusses his experience. Outlining how sales is evolving, Fes explores why building a collaborative process is the answer to delivering true value - for prospects, clients and back to the agency.

Reconsidering the Sales Process

Joining the course was a real eye-opener for me. I’ve always considered myself to be a consultative salesperson; I work with clients to first understand their goals, then see how to align solutions with their relevant challenges.

However, until I really began to analyse my behaviours in the process of engaging with a potential customer, I hadn’t realised the full potential of building a truly collaborative process.

This analysis was triggered by my acceptance on to the HubSpot Partners Project Lion Stage 2 coaching led by David Weinhaus (I had been through stage one, with HubSpot Director Dan Tyre, in 2016). The coaching runs via intense weekly sessions - both group (a very international group at that!) and 1-2-1 sessions via webex. Over the course, we explored concepts such as the three-sale-sale, storytelling in sales, the challenger sale, inbound sales, and much more.

From Consultative to Collaborative Selling

Only when you have a true, clear diagnosis of the problem, can you move forward with clarity around the real objectives, drivers and goals.

As the next level up from consultative selling, for complex B2B selling (i.e. sales that involve long sales cycles with multiple decision makers), collaborative selling puts all the emphasis on supporting your buyer on their journey. It’s no longer about you, your solution or your company. Not until much later anyway. This is the crux of an Inbound Sales approach.

The real value, or what our coaching group likes to term ‘diagnoses of the buyer challenges’, is when you work with the potential customer (be they a decision maker or strategic influencer) to delve deep into their challenges. So how can you gain a true perspective on what your prospect’s buyer challenge is? You may need to dig deeper than you think.

Diagnosing the buyer’s challenge typically means going past the surface layer of “I need more traffic to my website”, down past the issue of “I need to deliver leads for the sales team”, deeper still through “I need to create pipeline opportunities and demonstrate the value of marketing”, right down to “I want to understand how we change as a business, a team or as an individual, to achieve on goals and drive more value through everything we do”. In turn, this often translates as; “we need to become more customer centric”, as of course, there is an inextricable link between customer centricity and profitability.

It may not always appear to be that great a shift, as some companies we speak to are already doing this, but helping the buyer to uncover a crucial ‘why’ is the real goal of a collaborative exploratory process at this stage. Only when you have a true, clear diagnosis of the problem, can you move forward with clarity around the real objectives, drivers and goals.

Establishing Real Motives For Change

An inbound sales approach leverages collaboration between a supplier and a potential customer (plus key stakeholders in the buying group, a.k.a. demand unit); breaking down the process to establish real motives for change (the ‘why are we really speaking about this’). This process identifies how change can work in the prospect’s business (and who needs to be involved) - and it’s only then that you as a salesperson can create a framework of potential solutions to address the challenges at hand. Often these are then prioritised as we move forward with ideas on projects and campaigns.

Related: What is Inbound Sales?

Of course, as a partner to our clients, we will only be able to support them with certain elements on this journey of change. However, what really helps - what really builds trust and demonstrates sincere interest - is supporting the buyer in realising this journey. This is often enabled through deep strategic questioning. Not strategic in the sense that we have an agenda that leads to a sale (as that is not always the case or end result, for a range of factors - both internal and external), but rather, strategic in the sense that you must question and understand to challenge the preconceived, cut through the BS, and get to the real pain.

Collaborate to Find the ‘Why’ and Lead the Process

As the potential supplier and subject matter experts in our field, we must lead the process; it's what buyers expect. However, recent data shows that only 31% of salespeople are able to converse effectively with senior executives. So having the right process and framework for this is crucial.

If something is not working then why is that? Is what they want to achieve really possible? Is it right for their business? Is it something they have the power to deliver? Do we need to involve others? What will influence the outcome of our discussions? What does success really look like?

Most importantly, as Simon Sinek advises, get to the ‘why’, and don't always take things at face value. You must be able to push back, for the right reasons and with the right tone.

This is relationship building. Not selling, selling, selling. Not take, take, take. But questions, questions, questions. Understanding, is there a need and can we help?

Through an inbound sales approach, working collaboratively with the buyer, we break through the usual barriers between potential customer and supplier. There is no pitch process per se. I’m not selling anymore. I’m helping diagnose a problem so that together we can arrive at a conclusion about what a sound potential solution may look like.

I’m not selling anymore. I’m helping diagnose a problem so that together we can arrive at a conclusion about what a sound potential solution may look like.

Even when a client comes to us with a brief, it’s often a valuable process to explore it in more detail to get to the bottom of the challenge at hand. There are always internal agendas that must be met by a project for it to be seen as successful - but this is not always reflected in the client brief provided, or at least, by the time we see the brief, the remit and needs may have evolved or shifted.

Things move quickly in the the modern business world and you need regular sanity checks with the (prospective) client to ensure that you are both anchored to a clear understanding of what is of value and what success actually means, on a number of levels and often for multiple stakeholders.

Supporting the buyer in driving this conversation is often what helps to set us apart as a supplier. However, be aware that it is easy to get distracted too early on in the process by trying to solve the challenge or deliver solutions without having first clearly diagnosed the real issue. This is when opportunities are missed and when perceptions of value and success become misaligned.

Collaboration is Continuous

As an agency we are facilitators. We are the bridge between expertise and insight into a specific area of our client’s challenges. We value our clients knowledge, experience and questioning of our methods as much as we value their business.

For my team and I, this collaborative approach with clients extends through the sales process to the campaign ideation, campaign strategy, content development, project management and on. We collaborate with our clients to get them to where they want to be and achieve on their goals. Importantly, we do this together, learning and growing with them. We are not the gatekeepers of knowledge; as an agency we are facilitators. We are the bridge between expertise and insight into a specific area of our client’s challenges. We value our clients’ knowledge, experience and questioning of our methods as much as we value their business.

Listen to Understand at all Times

One last stand out for me from this period of intense HubSpot coaching, was in how I handle constructive criticism. Working through feedback, lowering my guard, not being defensive were all key to improving; I found it’s important to learn how to listen to understand - both the buyer and in this instance, those coaching me through the process. There is also additional value here for our clients; who I work with in turn to coach their sales teams and support them in their Inbound Sales development. It's always great sharing new techniques and methodology with others, who are often early in their sales career.

Related: Achieving Sales Enablement With HubSpot

Finally, I’d like to thank the team at HubSpot (and David Weinhaus, Steve Vaughan, Dan Tyre in particular) for providing this in-depth level of Partner support.

It’s this kind of training - telling you exactly what you need to hear to improve, no holds barred - that helps us add continual value to our client’s businesses.