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8 Techniques Sales Pros Can Borrow From The Helping Professions

Blog - 8 Techniques

Although the titles have changed over the years I've always considered myself to be working in the behaviour change business. Whether it was working in sales fresh out of University, a pivot to work in healthcare, or my return to marketing ten years ago. All involved helping people shift their perceptions.

Along the way I've noticed some interesting patterns that can be seen in the approaches of great sales people and the helping professions.

In this article I'll share some of my favourite examples (applied to a sales context) of one behaviour change model - Motivational Interviewing (MI), that can be useful to anyone wanting to improve their effectiveness, and broaden their understanding of what makes us all tick.

Consultative Selling and MI

Most sales professionals would agree that consultative selling is no longer hot news, but it's important to understand that this shift of emphasis away from high pressure manipulative sales techniques is supported by a different set of values.

In fact this consultative, customer-centric style has much more in common with MI, a practice used extensively by skilled members of the helping professions, than you might expect.

So much so that the best of today’s sales consultants often exhibit behaviours, and adopt techniques, which are grounded in ideas about patient/practitioner interactions and relationships. 

I'd like to share some specific elements of the model that you can use straightaway, if you're not already using them....

Enter - The Stages of Change Framework

MI itself owes a lot to earlier work in the medical field on helping people to make behavioural changes in order to reap life-changing health benefits, high stakes stuff like cancer and diabetes. The ‘stages of change’ model sees this journey, often involving someone with entrenched negative behaviours, as a series of step changes.

Many people in this kind of predicament first engage with services while they are in an ambivalent state of conflict: they know their behaviour is problematic for them, and they hate the negative consequences, but they’re still stuck somewhere between whether or not to change.

Applied to a sales scenario this could be a prospect who knows deep down that something isn't working for them professionally, they feel a tension between where they are, and where they want to be - and a range of factors can make this more, or less, pressing. For example I'd bet that Amazon sees a spike in searches for sales coaching books during the last week of the month, and the last quarter of the year.

The stages of change model itself isolates five-phases that a person moves through in order to make a change, I've taken each stage below and applied it to a sales context to show just how applicable they are.

Cycle of Change Diagram

1. A ‘precontemplative’ phase, where the (unready) person shows no signs of wishing to change behaviour.

Sales scenario - "I'm not interested in anything you have to say, we're fine as we are."

2. A ‘contemplative’ phase, where change appears on the agenda but is accompanied by ambivalence and conflict.

Sales scenario - the prospect identifies and recognises within themselves that something is not as it should be, but they're torn between doing something about it and staying as they are.

3. A ‘preparation’ phase, where the (ready) person starts to accept the idea of change and begins to map out realistic change strategies.

Sales scenario - the prospect engages with your company in some way - possibly downloading some content on your website, taking a discovery call, or booking a demo of your product. They recognise the issue is real and believe that a solution to the issue exists.

4. An ‘action’ phase where previous plans are trialled and prioritised in a bid to achieve behavioural change.

Sales scenario - the prospect demonstrates commitment to action by taking a trial of your product, or ideally goes one stage further and becoming a paying customer.

5. A ‘maintenance’ phase where successful methods have worked and, recognising this, the individual works hard to make the changes stick permanently.

Sales scenario - the customer uses the product successfully and recognises progress towards the desired outcome. If they fail in their bid for change (whether that's because of your product, or not) they may churn.

But it's never that simple

Although the model seems to suggest that change is as simple as moving through a series of stages, we all know that life is never that simple.

The stages of change model acknowledges that with a problem behaviour for example, 'falling off the wagon' can happen at any stage. When this happens, health professionals encourage patients to use these events as a chance to learn more about how to develop sustainable change. Above all, what this model really does is guide and remind us to customise our strategies to precisely match the person's readiness and motivation to change. 

In a sales context this might involve taking the time to explore some of the underlying reasons why a prospect, or customer, lost some of their initial momentum or enthusiasm - perhaps colleagues who indirectly influence the prospect's decision making have voiced scepticism that has weighed on the prospect's mind.

In healthcare contexts, as in many sales scenarios too, readiness for change is the essential ingredient. And if the person is ‘ready, willing and able’ to make crucial behavioural changes, then a professional's job is to resolve any remaining ambivalence. If successful, this fuels the motivation which will help drive the individual forward through the change, or sales, process.

Using the OARS process

Motivational interviewing practitioners often use the OARS process as a tool to guide their communication, regardless of the stage of change the person they are working with is at. These too share lots of similarities with a modern consultative sales approach.

There are four core OARS techniques:
Open-ended questioning
Affirmative statements
Reflective statements

Asking open questions

Open ended sales questions aren't going to be new to anyone reading this. In the context of MI, much like sales, the main aim of asking open questions is to get a person to start, and then continue, talking as a means of identifying their needs.

So when talking with someone looking to stop smoking, a practitioner might begin by asking: ‘I notice you have expressed concern about your smoking. Could you tell me a little about your worries?’

In a sales context this might involve asking a prospect what promoted them to initially engage with the company or content. Or as one of our superstar SDRs has literally just asked a prospect as I'm write this: "What are you hoping to achieve with the sales coaching initiative you're spearheading?"

Affirmative statements

We all hear affirmative statements as evidence our views are being understood and that our feelings are appreciated. As a result, we're encouraged and start to believe we aren't alone and will get support. Statements from a helping professional like: ‘I know it takes a lot of courage to come in to see me’, or: ‘I can see how hard you’ve had to work to cope with these difficulties for so long’ help to create the trust and rapport upon which the change process further downstream will invariably depend.

In a sales context that might translate to statements that affirm the underlying motivation or interest that triggered the prospect engaging with you and your company.  For example reinforcing the prospect's desire to not sit still in the face of adversity, to be ambitious, or to drive change within their organisation.

Offering reflective statements

Providing reflections involves the adept rewording of a person's own talk to capture and highlight the underlying emotional content and motivation within what has been said. This helps people by expanding their own understanding, whilst also encouraging them to continue their journey of change. As such, reflections can obviously serve to feed, focus and strengthen the desire to make health and lifestyle changes - as well as buying decisions. 

In the context of alcohol-related issues, a reflection might be phrased like this:

‘It sounds like you enjoy having a drink as it's a way to de-stress after work, and because it makes it easier to socialise. But I get the sense that you’re worried too, because you’re noticing alcohol is now affecting your health. And what I hear you say is that where you once thought you could control your drinking, the health issues – as well as some things your partner has told you – now make you wonder if drinking is actually any help at all.’ 

When applying motivational interviewing techniques, most helping professionals generally aim to follow any open-ended question they ask with two or three reflective statements based on what the person says in response. This ensures the person receives a supportive response after each moment of revelation, and therefore helps to build and maintain the momentum of the discussion. Of course experienced salespeople will also notice how a very similar, delicately balanced process is also used to move the buyer further along the purchase journey. 

Within a sales conversation these types of statements are likely to be ones that reflect the person's differing internal opinions: "What I'm hearing is that on the one hand you recognise sales coaching is an issue within the organisation and targets are regularly missed, but you also have some concerns about how open your team are to receiving coaching."

Providing summaries

A well timed summary of a discussion can make important links with other discussions which have taken place, I hear our sales team at Refract do them all the time and they sound great.  They ensure that the person is in agreement with the shared understandings the summary provides. A summary proves the person has been listened to and understood. And furthermore, a summary can restate where a person is and the goals which represent where they wish to be in the future. 

In practical terms, a sales coaching-focused discussion might be summarised as follows:

‘Can I just run past you what we’ve talked about so far? Recently, your team have begun to struggle to consistently hit targets, and you've become concerned about how well they're implementing the sales training they've received. You’ve said too that there's some pressure on you from the board to reinvigorate the sales team but you have some reservations about not overburdening them, whilst also recognising and sharing best practice that does occur. Does that cover what you’ve told me? And is there anything I've missed?'

When every second counts

For the sales or helping professional, talk and empathy are the key components of change discussions – often within a limited amount of time.

In order to address time limited situations you can think of the principles of the RULE acronym, these principles are:

Resisting the reflex to take over
Understanding what drives the person's behaviour
Listening and showing empathy
Empowering the person

Resisting the reflex to take over

When time is short, every professional knows the frustration of watching/listening to Joe Bloggs struggling with a problem to which they have an instant solution. But when helping/selling, and anywhere else where motivation is a vital component, people must have the chance to fully express their ambivalence.

Understanding patient/customer motivation

The focus must be on what drives the person to seek change, because understanding that information will be crucial to the outcome. You can do this by curiously and openly exploring what a person has to say about their interests, concerns and values.

Listening empathically

The person needs to talk, while empathy has to be demonstrated. For practitioners, that means keeping a healthy balance between listening and responding. Note that just keeping quiet won’t show empathy, while dominating the talk has no hope of building a person's self-belief.

Empowering the person

Research suggests patients do best when they feel they play an active role in developing treatment options. And they perform even better when they sense their consultant also believes they can make real changes.  This sounds very much like a consultative sales process where the prospect is in the driving seat, guided by the sales professional.

Triggering ‘change talk’

Talk builds rapport, but specific change talk must be generated to move the person towards the change objectives. Once again, practitioners need to use talk sensitively and introduce ideas in a way that enriches the conversation rather than limiting it. A phased discussion usually progresses through themes in the following order:

1. Disadvantages of the present situation

Present issues can be highlighted – for example, by asking: ‘What would the impact be if the situation were to continue like this?’ or ‘Can you tell me more about the concerns you have over the team's ability to reflect on their technique?’

This may prompt change talk, such as: ‘Deep down, I think some of the team simply don't have a model they can use to develop their sales skills.’

2. Advantages of making changes

Desirable and achievable targets can be mentioned – for example, by asking: ‘So what would be the impact on you personally if your team went from hitting 39% of target to say, 60%?’

This may encourage a response, such as: ‘It would mean a lot for me professionally, my role is to help the team develop and succeed, and I take a lot of pride in that.’

3. Reasons for optimism

The sales person could ask the prospect to recall strengths and past success, perhaps by asking: ‘Have there been any times in the past where you were able to drive real change with a particular member of the team?  What did that look like?'

Reflecting on this, a prospect might respond: ‘Alison always struggled with overcoming a specific objection that got in the way of a number of high value sales and she lost a little bit of self belief each time.  I coached her and we developed some new alternatives that really worked well, and that she shared them with other members of the team.’

4. Creating intentions to make changes

Questions which float the idea of committing to change might be phrased as: ‘If we look ahead 3 years say, what would you like to see the team doing differently?  And what would give you confidence that the changes have happened?'

This may prompt responses, such as: ‘For me it would be regular exchanges of ideas. Naturally it also means hitting targets more often, but that it also fosters more of a collaborative environment where the team can learn from each other and develop together.’ 

Developing consultative selling skills

Great sales people know they must actively adapt to their buyer’s changing world. And those who are prepared to do so will find there is a significant overlap between the motivational interviewing techniques discussed here and the emotionally intelligent, client-focused sales dialogue employed by the cream of today’s sellers. 

Like the nuanced enquiries delivered by the helping professions, a good sales professional will use high-quality questions to gather feedback about the customer’s business needs and will be careful to pitch the right questions at just the right time. This approach reflects the need to establish trust, empathy and authenticity, and signals to the client that these values genuinely underpin the dialogue and are far more important to the seller than simply contriving an opportunity for a quick sale.

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