Every few years, a new “sales fad” comes along that sales organizations jump into headfirst. Companies indoctrinate their reps into the latest “proven methodology” in hopes of finding that silver bullet to sales performance excellence – only to find (like dieting) that there is none.

Just when we thought the world could not possibly need another fad diet, they keep coming: The Cabbage Soup Diet … The Lemonade Diet … The South Beach Diet. We dive headfirst into these diets, hoping to find the “easy button” for losing weight – only to learn that it’s never as easy as it sounds. The truth is we all know there’s no “silver bullet” to getting in shape; it takes eating less and exercising more. Yet hope springs eternal.

The same could be said of the world of sales training. Every few years, a new “sales fad” comes along that sales organizations jump into headfirst. Companies indoctrinate their reps into the latest “proven methodology” in hopes of finding that silver bullet to sales performance excellence – only to find (like dieting) that there is none.

Based on the discussions we have with sales leaders, it seems that one of the current sales training fads focuses on the idea of “provoking” your buyers. Based on concepts laid out in a March 2009 Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled, “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers,” written by Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin and Geoffrey Moore, the premise of this approach is that a rep needs to walk into a buyer’s office and provoke them into action by stating a problem that they have, and framing it in such a compelling way that the buyer must address it. The article goes on to outline the differences between traditional “solution” sales approaches and provocative selling.

There’s no doubt that a provocative sales model could be helpful in enhancing the ability of reps to engage buyers early in the sales process — especially buyers that may be stuck in status quo, either unaware of a problem that needs addressing, or aware of a problem but unable to justify taking action on it. But before sales organizations jump onto the provocative selling bandwagon, we’d like to share some words of caution:

  • It’s a methodology with limited applicability. Provocative selling should not be considered or rolled out as your new “sales process.” As outlined in the article, it’s not right for every selling situation. It is designed to be used with a senior executive, and where the rep is looking to create a catalyst for taking action and initiating a buying process. Perfect if you’re selling a new concept or new paradigm solution where, by definition, need will not exist; or where you have a buyer who simply does not see a need to change (or can’t find budget). But in many selling situations, buyers have already defined their need — and are well along their decision path before they may invite a salesperson into the process. Using a provocative approach here would likely alienate and frustrate a buyer, who would then view the rep as just another “show up and throw up” salesperson — one who talks rather than listen.
  • Solution selling can also provoke. The HBR article goes to great lengths to differentiate between solution selling and provocative selling. The article positions solution selling as being applicable only to selling situations where the buyer already has defined their needs, and cannot be used to create needs where they don’t exist. This simply is not true. Many of the early solution-selling methodologies, such as SPIN Selling from Huthwaite, Professional Selling Skills (PSS) from Achieve Global, Solution Selling from SPI, or Consultative Selling by Richardson, focused specifically on getting buyers to realize previously unrealized needs (Neil Rackham, developer of SPIN Selling, labeled them “latent” needs). I was a certified trainer in the PSS methodology in the 1990s and there was an entire module focused on engaging the “indifferent” (stuck in status quo) buyer. Rather than provoke by telling the buyer what problems they have, these approaches looked to provoke through effective probing. I have seen both approaches work effectively, and live side-by-side in the approaches that sales organizations can take with different buyers.
  • I’ve provoked them — now what? As we mentioned, provocative selling is designed to jump-start a buying process. Once that process is in motion, the rep will still need to manage a complex sales/buying process, engaging with the various buying roles (e.g. influencers, users, ratifiers). When rolling out a provocative selling approach, don’t take your eye off the sales performance ball. You should still invest in developing the core competencies your reps need to manage in today’s complicated selling environment, including creative problem solving, the ability to orchestrate resources, and ensuring they have the necessary knowledge to outpace what buyers can now find on their own.
  • Don’t underestimate the work required. In concept, provocative selling appears simple; find a pain point of the buyer, get access to a senior executive, and deliver a compelling, action provoking message. But implementing this process and getting reps to execute it on a high level across your field force requires significant effort. Reps will be expected to work with marketing to identify quantifiable pain points in their prospects’ and customers’ organizations; and in the latter, they’ll also need to develop supporters who will help them gain access to a key decisionmaker. They will then need to walk into that key decisionmaker’s office and present a convincing point-of-view message with conviction — a tall order for any rep regardless of experience, requiring significant skill development and comprehensive subject knowledge. This type of transformation won’t happen without plenty of practice, support and coaching. If you’re looking for that silver bullet to improved sales performance in provocative selling — keep looking … or call The Lone Ranger.