Gap Selling: Getting the Customer to Yes
It was 0-0. Our opponents were on our 10-yard line. We had stopped them seven plays in a row. It was impressive. We must have had a penalty or something, because as I recall they hadn’t gotten a first down. But now it was 4th and goal late in the fourth quarter. All we had to do was hold them for one more play.
The year was 1979, and I was eleven years old. I had never played competitive football before and this was my first season. I didn’t watch it on TV. My mom and dad were ‘60s hippies, not sport enthusiasts, and certainly not football fans. So, my knowledge of the game was pretty much zero.
I was skinny but fast so the coaches figured I’d make a great running back. They pulled another kid and me aside and showed us a chalkboard with circles and numbers scrawled all over it. These represented the offensive line and the “holes” between each lineman. It might as well have been in Chinese. I honestly can’t remember if I didn’t have much desire to learn or if I found the whole thing too complicated, but the outcome was the same: I didn’t pay attention.
In our first scrimmage, the coach put me in at running back. We huddled up and the QB called the play. I had learned enough to understand that the quarterback’s play determined who got the ball and who didn’t, but nothing else made any sense to me. So, once the huddle broke, I asked the other running back, “Who gets the ball?”
“You do,” he said, giving me a weird look.
Ok. Got it.
When the ball was snapped, I took the handoff and ran. I was tackled within half a second in the backfield for a loss. As I got up, the entire team, including the coach, started yelling at me.
What are you doing, Keenan? Where the hell were you going? The hole is over there! What the hell, Keenan?
I had no idea what they were talking about.
Apparently, what the QB says in the huddle matters. I didn’t go to the appropriate hole. I didn’t understand the play that was being called. I didn’t understand the plays at all. As you can imagine, that single play was the end of my running back days, at least for that year.
I was benched for the rest of the scrimmage. Embarrassed, confused, and frustrated, I swore I would do better next time, if next time ever came.
The next day at practice, the coach put me on defense in the safety position, and he said something I’ll never forget: “Keenan, just run as fast as you can and tackle the guy with the ball.”
I don’t know if this coach was the best coach in the world, or if he thought I was the dumbest kid in the world. Regardless, he understood that despite being a talented athlete, I was struggling to understand the game. So, he made the game as simple as possible for me.
“Run as fast as you can and tackle the guy with the ball.”
That I could do. From then on, I flew around that football field like a Tasmanian devil, tackling whomever dared run the football against our team. It was my job. I loved it, and I was great at it.
Until the day it was 4th and goal, and the quarterback for the opposing team was about to snap the ball.
I was playing safety on the right side of the field, eyeing the quarterback, when he snapped the ball. I watched to see which running back he was going to hand it off to, when all of a sudden everyone started yelling, “Pass!”
Pass? Huh? No one passed in Pop Warner. Not back then, anyway. We were 11-and- 12-year-olds, for God’s sake.
The quarterback dropped back to pass and I looked up and saw the wide receiver camped just five feet in front of me to my right. The quarterback turned our way and heaved the ball. It was a sorry excuse for a pass, a wobbling duck oscillating from side to side. I was standing right under it, as was the wide receiver. My heart began to pound. I was in the perfect position. I knew I could make this play and make it big. I’d timed the whole thing out. I envisioned everyone cheering me after the play ended. A calm came over me as I stepped back two steps, sized up the wide receiver, looked up at the ball, waited for him to catch it and timed my hit perfectly. The second he caught the ball, I lunged with all my weight and strength and tackled him to the ground. I jumped up, psyched about the punishment I had just put on this poor kid. However, as I got up, I realized I was the only one on my team celebrating. The other team, however, was going wild.
What happened? I had done what the coach told me to do, and yet we had lost, and judging by the dirty looks I was getting from my team, it was all my fault. I didn’t understand. I had tackled the guy with the ball. No, I had pummeled the guy with the ball. I knew I had done my job.
It’s what I didn’t know that had cost us the game because I didn’t know that my job was to make sure he never caught the ball in the first place.
Not only had I had never played football before, I hadn’t bothered to learn anything about the game, either, and it all came out in that play. The first thing I didn’t understand was the concept of turnovers. We had practiced fumbles, but since no one ever passed we didn’t cover interceptions, and my knowledge of football was limited to whatever I had seen on that practice field. I also didn’t understand the value of ball possession. I simply saw being on defense and therefore on the field as a chance to play. It never entered my mind that having the ball or being on offense was how you kept your opponent from getting a chance to score and win the game. But my fatal misunderstanding was what constituted a touchdown. For whatever reason, at eleven years old, I was under the impression that you had to pass the goal posts to score. The goal posts were my touchdown indicators; therefore, I saw no problem with waiting to tackle the other team’s wide receiver until after he had caught the ball five yards before the goal posts—smack in the middle of the end zone.
We didn’t lose because I wasn’t a good athlete. We didn’t lose because I was unable to tackle the receiver. We didn’t lose because I wasn’t able to intercept the ball. We lost because I didn’t understand the game. My lack of football acumen meant I couldn’t execute properly, and it cost my team a win they deserved.
It’s Not That You Can’t Sell—It’s That You Can’t Diagnose
I didn’t lose the game because I couldn’t tackle. I lost the game because I didn’t understand the concept of turnovers, particularly an interception. You aren’t losing sales because you can’t sell. You’re losing them because you don’t understand how to diagnose your customer problem(s) and how the problem(s) drive the sale. Your product doesn’t drive the sale. The problem does, and if you can’t diagnose the problem, no sales skill or any other sales training is going to help you. When you reach out to get just “15 minutes” of your buyer’s time, it’s not going to happen if your buyer doesn’t have a problem you can solve. That’s why you get no answer to 99% of your cold emails. They don’t highlight a problem that resonates with the buyer. It’s why you’re losing 80% or more of your deals. The buyer has determined the problem isn’t worth solving after all. You get beat up on price because solving the problem isn’t worth what you’re asking. You see, the problem drives the sale. Being a great salesperson means being able to diagnose the customer’s problem and understanding the impact the problem is having on their business.
Gap selling is going to make you a badass at diagnosing and then it’s going to change the way you sell after identifying the problem. You’re going to understand the game far better than you ever have, so you can stop being the reason you’re losing deals.
Learning the Rules
I was a great athlete, maybe even an exceptional one, but that wasn’t enough. Unfortunately, even after that experience, as much as I loved football, I still didn’t commit to mastering the nuances of the game. That knowledge deficit kept me from ever reaching my full potential as a player. Instead, I took all that inborn optimism and confidence and all my crazy energy and put it into mastering the nuances of the sales game.
It made sense. Growing up, I was the kid setting up the lemonade stands—the Tom Sawyer of my neighborhood who could always convince the other kids to join me in the game or adventure of my choice. As I got older, I became known as the guy with mad influencer skills who could figure out the solution to any problem or obstacle—at the time, mostly embodied by club bouncers and bartenders—and I had an awesome time doing it. Going into sales was a natural move.
I started my formal sales career slinging chamber memberships for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce in 1996. Though I came in with zero formal experience, within a year I had beaten every sales record they had. From there, I jumped into Information Technology sales, getting hired despite admitting in my job interview that I had never even heard of Y2K. Four years and two jobs later, I was a VP managing $300 million in revenue and running a nationwide 120-person sales team. Then in 2009, I started blogging. Every day, I wrote about running sales teams, managing sales teams, addressing poor sales strategies, putting in processes—all the things I was doing in my current job. Within two years, I was getting consulting offers and amassing tens of thousands of followers. I launched my company, , in March 2011. Since then, I’ve traveled around the world helping B2B marketers and sales leaders navigate the turbulent, constantly evolving, information-saturated sales landscape. It’s been a blast!
Yet, as time marches on I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the state of the selling union. The fundamentals of selling have not changed (and never will), but in recent years, as sales organizations have increasingly transitioned from field sales to inside sales and from outbound to inbound, salespeople are struggling to set appointments and win deals. Buyers are far more educated and resistant to the traditional selling methods salespeople use to drive sales. According to CSO Insights World Class Sales Practices Report, only 53% of salespeople in 2016 attained quota, down from 63% in 2012.i
What’s going on? Part of the problem is that salespeople have become overly reliant on selling tools. They are also victims of unrealistic sales quotas, poor sales management, and the absence of a formal sales process. But even when the issue isn’t organizational, I find salespeople sabotaging themselves. They don’t see it that way, of course. Losing a deal is somehow always someone else’s fault. For example:
- The prospect went dark.
- There was competition we didn’t know about.
- Our price was too high.
- The deal didn’t close when it was supposed to.
- After eight months, the prospect made no decision and kept to the status quo.
- No one returned my calls.
- I couldn’t get access to the decision makers.
- The prospect kept leading me on but wouldn’t commit.
- We didn’t have all the features the buyer needed.
- They told us we won the deal, but then changed their mind.
- I have a crappy territory.
- The leads are bad.
- The competition has advantages I don’t.
I’ve heard them all. But these are not reasons for losing a sale. They are excuses.
Yes, this list represents real issues that can at times undermine the sale, but ultimately the real reason why they get the best of salespeople is this: Too many salespeople suck at selling.
I know that’s blunt, but sometimes the truth hurts. Anyone who regularly misses quota sucks at sales, plain and simple. Listen to me closely now, though: The reason why so many people suck is not for lack of natural selling skills or potential, but for the same reason that I let that wide receiver score a touchdown—they haven’t learned the game. In a world that runs on providing value, their ignorance is limiting their ability to drive the sale.
I couldn’t be bothered to learn all the rules of football but I know the rules of selling to the core. Following that set of rules is why I always hit my numbers when I was on a selling team, and why my clients hit their numbers once I teach it to them. I teach it to them. I know why the rules exist. Too many salespeople are losing deals because they don’t. Not only that, they don’t even know that they don’t know! They can’t see that they themselves are creating the situations that allow a buyer to go dark. They’re the ones pushing their prospect to go with the competition. They’re allowing the buyer to walk away on price. They’re emboldening prospects to demand features not currently available. In the same way that I stepped back and let that kid catch the ball in the end zone, salespeople are pushing buyers to walk away from a sale, and it’s costing them and their companies millions. Salespeople are their own worst enemies. They have lost sight of what selling is really all about. But as in football, or anything in life, the deeper you understand the rules, the better you can maximize your opportunities to win.
I wrote Gap Selling to clarify the rules of selling and show salespeople and sales organizations how to sell more by teaching them how to better help their customers. See, at the heart of every sale, there’s a gap. It’s a gap between what buyers have now and what they believe they want in the future, between who they are now and who they want to be tomorrow, or even where they are now and where they want to go. This gap represents the value of the sale to the buyer and the salesperson. Without it, there is no sale.
The Secret to No More Sucking!
Gap Selling will teach you everything you need to know about the gap and why it matters. It will also teach you how to leverage the gap that exists in every opportunity and maximize the value of the solutions you have to offer, whether it’s by increasing your buyers’ customer base, augmenting their revenue, streamlining their processes, or making their life or work more productive and enjoyable. By the time you’re done with this book, you’ll understand how properly assessing the gap drives the entire sales process, from negotiating price to overcoming objections, from addressing blockers to handling the competition, from preventing leads from going dark to the close. You’ll learn how to:
- “Read” prospects’ minds during discovery—so you can learn their concerns and spotlight possible objections ahead of time, and avoid getting blindsided by their decisions.
- Identify and even anticipate buyers’ unique needs and problems—so you can provide customized solutions and provide unparalleled value
- Influence the change process—so buyers can see why they should want you to help them.
- Maximize your value as a resource—so you’re not perceived as just a salesperson, but as a consultant and industry thought leader.
- Better service your customers and put their needs first—so they insist you come along on their buying journey.
- Create a sense of urgency—so you can shorten sales cycles.
- Improve close rates—so you can stop wasting time on deals that aren’t going to happen.
- Prevent unnecessary complications—so you can control the sale and not let it (or the customer) control you.
- Improve predictability—so you never have to scramble at the last minute to make quota.
Every selling challenge we salespeople face can be traced to the gap; every solution stems from identifying it, properly assessing its value, and selling to it (which, as you’ll see, is totally different from selling a product or service). Whether you’re selling software, consulting services, or smartphones, the insights and techniques revealed in Gap Selling are applicable to any type of sales or transaction.
Quit Just Selling; Sell Better
I didn’t go into sales because I love selling. I did it because I love helping people and solving problems. I love fixing shit. That’s what gap selling is all about. It’s not about pitching products and services; it’s about solving problems and making people’s lives easier. I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t been astonished at the difference gap selling makes in their close rates. As with anything, once you know what you need to know, everything falls into place. I learned a lot after that first disastrous football game, and even went on to have a few interceptions. The first one sent the coach into a tizzy, he was so excited and happy for me. That day, he told me, I had made up for the mistake that cost us the game a few weeks earlier. I was as proud as I could be, and went on to enjoy playing football for years. Yet, I can still see the stupid ball wobbling in the sky just over my head. I can still remember taking those fateful few steps back to allow that kid to catch the ball before I tackled him a split second later. I still remember the immediate jubilation I felt thinking I had done my job, and the immediate shock and horror that followed as I learned that I had cost us the game because of what I didn’t know.
Losing a deal sucks. It affects your morale, your quota, your bank account—everything! But losing a deal you shouldn’t have lost, a deal you had the talent, skills, and capabilities to close but didn’t because you didn’t understand the sale? That is the worst. Read this book and you’ll never again lose a deal you shouldn’t.
You’re not losing deals today because you don’t work hard, or don’t care, or you’re dumb. No, you’re losing deals because you don’t know what you don’t know. You don’t understand the rules of the selling game. Many of you are still selling, and if you’re selling while you’re selling, you’re not selling. You’re working with an outdated concept of what selling is all about. You’re missing out on important sales principles and techniques that can provide you with so much insight into your customers and what they need that you’ll be half-way to securing the deal before you do the demo. There’s a hole in your sales education; a set of important concepts you’ve never been taught. Gap Selling will fix that, making sure that when it comes to the game of sales, you don’t just know better; you know it all.
|August 27, 2022
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