Whichever way you look at sales it’s a career full of no’s, no-decision outcomes and losses. You become accustomed to rejection and disappointments.

It’s the nature of the beast. Sure, some will have more success than others and this can be contributed to a bunch of reasons including price, product, relationships and of course some skilful selling.

Success should follow a path of improvement, we listen, we learn, we execute, we discover, we experience, we reflect. However, not everyone takes sufficient time to reflect and be self-aware and analytical of their own performance.

This comes with time, the more you know yourself professionally and personally the more you’re able to judge yourself against the standards that have been set for you, or you have set as personal goals.

No matter how great a salesperson someone may be everyone has battle scars and wounds from past failures. We have all failed along the way.

There are quick fixes that can be implemented to make small progressive steps but real success comes from understanding and addressing your own weaknesses. It’s a tough thing to do to criticise yourself, sometimes it takes others to identify and point them out but knowing what they are and dealing with them will contribute towards a brighter future.

I’ve spent a long time in sales and one of the biggest weaknesses I had to deal with from a personal performance perspective was PRESUMPTION. It was on many levels in many situations over the early part of my career, and occasionally the latter part as well. It was easy to be presumptive.

Before you start thinking here goes another dinosaur waffling on about what it was like in their day, nothing has changed. It’s as much of a problem for sellers today as it was for me, if anything there are now more hurdles of presumption to overcome.

Here’s a few situations of presumption that I failed with and learnt from:

Presumption of business priority

In sales we’re focused on building a pipeline and hoping that each opportunity is genuine, so much so that we bypass or fast track decent levels of qualification just so that the high value, high focus or well-known company opportunity sits proudly in our pipeline. These opportunities become a priority to win, they become a priority for the sales person, the sales leader and the business. They stick out like a sore thumb amongst the rest of the deals the business is vying to win. They become the opportunity that everyone in the business keep asking you about.

We presume that this level of priority is reciprocated by the prospect, the reality is we just don’t know where this sits amongst the many business cases being considered for budget sign off internally. We don’t know the level of the business problems they’re looking to solve and what the impact is to the business and who’s affected, details that determine their priority to focus on them.

We just know that it’s an important high priority opportunity for us with an important company. So, we presume and charge onwards. Needless to say, there was a lot of wasted time and resource chasing dreams.

My learning from this was to know what’s important to the prospect not presume it was important for them because it was for me.

Presumption of position

We’d hunt down and engage with senior level contacts within an organisation. C suite, decision makers and key stakeholders. And the joy we felt when we met with them and got them excited about what we did was immense. These were the contacts that were going to be game changers for us. They loved what we did and as good as convinced us we were the preferred option and well positioned to win the deal.

We were in pole position. Only we weren’t.

Turns out there were parallel activities going on in the business through another senior contact and another vendor. This other senior contact won the internal battle and the other vendor the deal.

My learning from this was to not assume that good business improvement ideas belong to one person in an organisation and don’t assume that working with one stakeholder is ever enough.

Presumption of the right relationships

Building on the previous presumption there have also been situations where too much attention and focus had been prioritised on the decision makers and not enough on the rest of the prospects team (what’s now referred to as the buyer team in modern sales terminology).

We assumed decision making status came with power, we weren’t wrong but what we sufficiently failed to recognise was that power was influenced and therefore so were decisions. A common term used in sales today is the need for salespeople to become ‘Trusted Advisors’ to executives within our prospects. That’s great and as top sales author and expert Anthony Iannarino states regularly you need two things to become a Trusted Advisor – Trust and Advice. These are the two things that some people within the prospects business have already established with the senior contacts, so why ignore them? Decision makers lean more and more on these individuals and often the decision outcome is determined by the opinion and influence of one or more of them.

My learning’s from this was to identify and engage with everyone in the buyer team when possible, especially the key influencers, and understand what was important for each of them. Everyone in the buyer teams today want to feel that their opinions, thoughts and needs count.

Presumption of just gains

In B2B sales today it’s often seen as another form of ‘change management’, and rightly so. The product or service that you sell will generally have an impact on a business that changes how they currently do something, and change often results in winners who gain and losers who feel the pain. As salespeople pain association with what we sell never enters our mind, we’re transfixed on all the gains it will give to a business.

I remember a major opportunity for a software solution with a mobile carrier I was involved with, this was a big one. By implementing this there would be huge benefits to the marketing department, and they knew it as well. Momentum was positive, but then it hit a brick wall that killed it dead.

We were so focused on who wins and we never thought to understand who loses and, in this instance, it was a big group of internal software engineers who developed and maintained the internally built existing system. Our solution would mean that they were no longer required. This is a normal part of business progress we thought so what’s the problem. Turns out senior execs didn’t want to face dealing with this issue at this time.

My learning from this was to understand that there is gain and pain associated with every change management decision and to never ignore the latter as it can bite you. Take both into account and find a way to manage them collectively, seek and explore some common win/win scenarios. If we’d considered who loses and feels pain with our solution, we could have devised a proposition incorporating TUPE that enabled both the business and software team needs to be fulfilled. Suffice to say several years later this happened but not with us.

Presumption of understanding

As I moved into sales leadership a new type of presumption developed within me, a presumption that most salespeople understood their prospects and what was important to them from a business perspective. I made this assumption on the basis that it was something that as a sales professional I worked hard to understand and build my sales engagements around. Whilst others may not have gone to the same prospect research levels as I had (or achieved the same levels of success) I assumed they knew enough. I was surprised and disappointed to discover this wasn’t the case.

Like many, if not the vast majority of sales leaders, I was head down and focused on the numbers because it was a constantly moving treadmill. Monthly, quarterly and annual pipeline and forecast reviews, with order and revenue commits, the business demanded almost forensic levels of details. It never ceased to amazed me how many forecasts were held together with sticky tape!

My learning’s from this was that most salespeople didn’t know what they needed to know about their prospects and I didn’t know that they didn’t know. Sound stupid, of course it does but it’s the norm. So, I changed to focus my attention on the who, why, what, when and how for forecasted and committed deals. Why? Because knowledge enabled actions and the right actions lead to results.

My conclusion

Presumption is borne out of complacency and a blasé approach to knowledge about your prospects. I quickly learnt the hard way and rectified my weakness.

Whether it’s examples like this or others, presumption is the fastest route to failure, even more so in today’s demanding buyer-centric markets. Assuming is a trait of the traditional seller centric approach. B2B sales are now referred to as ‘complex sales’ for reasons that have to be understood.

By Kevin Dixon, Founder at Boxxstep

Successful sales today need a buyer centric approach. Check out my blog on The three phases of being buyer centric

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