For OneNeck IT Solutions, success now gets measured one question at a time.

Like many—maybe most?—companies in its field, the Scottsdale, Ariz., solutions provider deployed the typical hard sell to woo new and existing clients. That meant lots of chatter about technology feeds and speeds along with a stellar exaltation of OneNeck’s track record for packaging and installing complicated technology packages at customer sites.

But OneNeck’s sales team is being encouraged to take a more consultative approach. Long before crafting a proposal, the company’s reps now seek to gather as much background information on possible on prospects and their business. They also meet with the prospective client to learn about the company’s operations and what challenges they face. Above all, they’re expected to listen and ask questions—lots of questions.

“One of the things that I’ve found is that reps often want to jump quickly to a discussion about solutions,” says OneNeck CEO Terry Swanson. “They often have assumptions about what the solution should be, even before really diving deeply enough into the conversation to figure out what the customer actually needs.”

“And if you talk about pricing too early, that is too much of an old school approach,” Swanson adds. “I like to see folks get more into what they are trying to accomplish and talk about the solution.”

Since OneNeck began emphasizing its new approach about a year ago, Swanson says the change has made a difference.

“One of our reps was meeting in Des Moines with the CIO of a large insurance provider,” Swanson says. “About 10 slides into his PowerPoint presentation, which was focused all on the account,  the executive stopped him and said, “I just have to tell you that you have demonstrated more knowledge about our company than any other vendor who I have ever worked with and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it.”

The Practitioner’s Story

In practice, though, the process can bog down for any number of reasons - particularly when the person sitting across the table from a sales rep is uncertain about what their organization needs or is unable to set priorities. In other cases, the company may also balk about revealing too much about itself to a perfect stranger.

So it’s up to solutions providers to persevere. If they can grasp the nature of the business challenges at hand, they improve their chances of closing the deal. Here’s how Swanson recalled his organization’s experience.

“We brought in a third-party consultant to work with us. The idea was do more up-front work to research everything we could about a customer related to their business, their strategic goals and their challenges. We gathered information from online and also from sales calls. These research visits aren’t used to promote the company. Rather, we go in and ask a ton questions to learn more about the customer. We’ll try to do that at multiple levels, if possible. The Idea is to compile knowledge base about the customer so that they can then map out the business to better understand the requirements of a tech solution.

And we create this customer presentation scenario where it’s focused on them. We found that helps us become more knowledgeable about what prospects are up to and allows us to see whether there is a good business fit.

It makes more sense to step back and learn more about the business and what they’re trying to accomplish. We do as much research as we can to make sure that we have as good an understanding as we can of who they are and what they do. The upfront work that shows we’ve done the research prior to meeting with them will usually give us an opportunity to engage in a sales conversation.

It has helped to move the needle. Getting sales reps to adopt new training is always a challenge. But if you can get 30-40 percent of your reps to grasp major portions of the new methodology, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. We’re not going to claim that we get 100 percent adoption. But when it comes to the sales people who are showing buy-in, this has been an effective approach."

Keep This Checklist Handy

A few years ago, the Harvard Business Review published an influential piece about the need for sales reps to learn to engage customers much earlier in the process—in fact, well before customers fully understand their own needs. OneNeck’s strategy borrows from that basic formula: The more they know about prospects and clients, the better their chances for success. Your sales reps can apply the same approach. Here are eight tips to guide the process.

1) Do Your Homework
Some prospects simply are not going to open up to outsiders. So long before walking through their door, do the necessary market research and gather up enough information to present a view, no matter how cursory, of an organization’s competitive situation along with a technology needs analysis. What business problems are they trying to solve? If you paint a good-enough picture, that’s going to earn trust.  

2) Target beyond the C-Suite
Sure it’s great to speak with the company CIO, CTO—and yes, the CFO and CEO. But that access may depend on the size and scale of the customer you are meeting. At the same time, don’t overlook the opportunity to meet with vice-presidents and director-level executives as well. Line of business managers have become increasingly influential in driving an organization’s IT procurement needs and they know what tools they need.

3) The Requirements Conversation
Ask higher level questions to start the conversation. One of Swanson’s favorites is to ask a client’s take on cloud computing. That opening can lead to a broader conversation about current and planned initiatives underway already. One answer leads to another. Cloud specialists, for instance, can then probe to learn whether any apps have shifted to a SaaS model or whether a company is considering moving any legacy infrastructure workloads to a third-party cloud infrastructure as a service provider. That can then quickly spin off to five-to-six other non-threatening questions where a provider can learn a lot about a prospective client’s strategy.

4) Carry Out a Needs Assessment
Your ability to frame potential solutions based on previous experience with similarly-sized customers in the industry can burnish your bonafides. Depending on the strategic nature of an account, as well as its size and potential, you can offer to perform a fee-based tech-needs assessment, either on a standalone basis or as part of the total solution package.

5) Avoid Going Straight for the Jugular
Whether you’re trying to work your way into a new account or an existing client with the intention to cross-sell more opportunities, resist the urge to immediately turn this into a full-throttle sales discussion. Stick with the consultative format. Otherwise, you’re going to sound like every other pitch they hear from every other salesmen on the planet.

6) Go Easy on the PowerPoint
You have to be able to prove to customers that you’re worth their time so keep the focus on the customer. If you’re using PowerPoint slides, don’t clutter up the presentation with needless messaging promoting your company. You’re there to talk about them, not you.

7) Don’t Disparage Rivals
Part of the homework assignment is to find out who the prospect already works with. But once you’re inside their conference room, there’s no advantage disparaging the competition’s capabilities. It just leaves a sour taste with customers and reflects poorly on your professionalism. Instead try and identify opportunities where another technology approach can help their operations or improve the bottom line. Find out whether a prospect has already tried a technology solution to solve particular business problems and whether there’s an opening to demonstrate a better alternative.

8) Pricing
Eventually, the conversation will turn to dollars and cents. But instead of focusing the discussion solely on how much money a client has to pay for a particular project, look for ways to optimize their dollar budget. Try and establish whether they have a bias for OpEx versus CapEx spending. Also, what’s their comfort level with outsourcing any of their data or security needs?

There’s no shortage of business literature establishing a nexus between a client’s trust in a salesperson and the likelihood of pursuing future business with the salesperson and their company. Some sales reps may doubtless find this unsettling and need more time than others to get accustomed to a more deliberative, consultative approach. In the end, however, it will work out to their customer’s advantage—and yours. As the HBR paper noted, they are not just selling solutions but more broadly selling insights. And that’s what separates legitimate solutions providers from the wannabees.