Followers of this blog know that at Qstream, we place a high value on the power of science and data to improve sales performance. That’s why we were so excited to get a copy of consultant David Hoffeld’s new book, “The Science of Selling: Proven Strategies to Make Your Pitch, Influence Decisions, and Close the Deal.” Recently we had a chance to speak with David about the book, and learn more about his provocative approach to selling.
The title of your book is intriguing. Where did the idea for the book came from?
DH: It started over a decade ago. I stumbled on an academic journal on social psychology. Social psychology is literally defined as the scientific study of how people influence one another in a social setting, and as I read this journal and one of the articles in it, I thought it was very applicable to what I did as a sales professional every day. So I tried to use it and I found that I got results from it. I shared it with others on my sales team and they also got results. I thought, “Well, if there’s one article in a journal that could help us, I wonder if there’s more.”
So, I began a very odd hobby of reading academic journals. In fact, I became obsessed with them. I would read at night and on the weekends because I found so much insight, all backed by the science of how our brains make choices and the factors that influence what we say, how we act and what we decide to buy. I began to apply these into everyday selling situations and the results were staggering. I was VP of Sales at the time and the sales took off. We became one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States, and were named to the Inc. 500. All these accolades started coming in and I was hooked. I said there is definitely something to this. Sales strategies, based on science, that allow us to align how we sell with how our potential customers’ brains form decisions, gave us a tremendous advantage.
In 2009 I launched my own firm, the Hoffeld Group and we now specialize in precisely this approach. We don’t deal with anecdotal evidence or conjecture. We don’t guess our way to success. Everything we do is based on academic journals, on real science as verified in numerous studies, over and over and over again. And the good news is there’s such a wealth of data on this. A couple of years ago I decided someone needs to write the book about it and I said, “It might as well be me,” so I began that journey and so far the response to the book has been overwhelming.
Data and analytics have become so pervasive in almost every aspect of business. But CRM systems aside, it feels like sales is only beginning to harness the power of data for its own benefit. Why do you think sales has been so resistant to the effects of science and data up to now?
DH: There are a variety of reasons for this. I think one of them is just that sales has not been studied the way most other disciplines have. We actually talk about this in the last chapter of the book. Why no one has done this didn’t make sense to me until I looked at some of the history, and the long and short of it is this: most academics are not interested in selling. There are many courses on marketing. There are many courses on so many aspects of business except for sales. Very few universities and business schools have courses on this, so professionals for the last 50 or 60 years have been left to fend for themselves.
What we’ve done as a profession is to focus on best practices. While other disciplines look at data, sales usually looks inward to ask, “What are the best of us doing?” And then we copy that, but there are so many problems with that. Just because one person does something on a sales call doesn’t mean that’s why they’re successful, or that it will work for others. So, just copying is problematic.
The second reason is that we don’t innovate. You can’t innovate by just looking in the mirror. We’ve been so self-focused as a profession for so long that we’ve forgotten about the people who matter most: our buyers. This is where the science comes in. It forces us to look at our buyers, to focus everything on them, and to start with not how we should sell, but how people buy. It’s a whole realignment of focus and that’s the goal of my book and what I hope comes out of it. I want sellers to start having different conversations, to start looking at buyers and asking, “How can I better serve them by understanding the foundation of how they want to buy?” The more your way of selling is aligned with how the brain makes buying decisions, the more effective you will be in sales.
A common theme in your book is that sales is really about personal interactions, and if sellers can recognize human responses and even the potentially unconscious biases of their potential customers, they’ll be more successful at influencing them. This seems easier to do when you’re selling face to face, but for many businesses today so much of the sales process is done remotely. What can sellers do to recognize and react to the emotional cues of these buyers?
DH: When you’re face-to-face with someone you can look for non-verbal behaviors. They’re on display so you get visual feedback, but the science applies regardless of whether you’re engaging someone on Twitter or LinkedIn, or you’re doing Web events. We’re still dealing with people so all of these lessons still apply. Science has disclosed what’s happening inside your potential customer’s mind. Here’s how perception is shaped. Here’s how choices are being made.
Many times, salespeople unknowingly drive down their performance, regardless of the channel they’re using, by conflicting with some of the biases mentioned. So, if I’m aware of what the data says, and I’m engaging someone on LinkedIn, now I’m going to ask, “How do I leverage the science in my favor? What about this principle or that principle?” And it starts to shape your behavior and instantly make you more effective.
You encourage sales leaders to support a “growth mindset” in their reps as part of the learning and development process. What are the characteristics of someone with a growth mindset, and what specifically should hiring managers look for when recruiting new sales reps?
DH: What the research shows is that without a growth mindset, it’s very difficult to become a high achiever, not just in sales but in almost every profession. A growth mindset is the belief that my skills and abilities are malleable and are something that I can develop over time. The opposite of this is a fixed mindset, which implies you’re born with a certain ability, like selling, or you’re not. The important distinction for the sales profession is the way these two groups respond to failure and feedback.
Imagine you’re a sales manager and you have two salespeople, one that has a fixed mindset and another that has a growth mindset and you’re trying to coach these individuals by pointing out an area for improvement. The growth mindset says, “Right, now I can get better.” The fixed mindset says, “That’s a personal attack against me because I believe either I have it or I don’t and you’re saying I don’t have it, right?” So, they respond negatively to failure. They shrink away from learning. This is why salespeople with fixed mindsets struggle and why it’s hard for them to compete with someone with a growth mindset who says my skills and abilities are like a muscle that I must continually develop.
When hiring, sales leaders should look for individuals that have a growth mindset and in the book, we give some specific questions that explain how to do this. What you want is for them to demonstrate specific examples in their past that convey a growth mindset. If you hire a salesperson with a fixed mindset, the likelihood of them becoming a top performer is extremely small.
One of the biggest takeaways in your book is the idea that even though an ultimate buying decision may not be revealed until the conclusion of the sale, in fact, that decision was being cultivated, and literally won or lost, in every interaction that a salesperson has with the customer. In other words, it’s not one “Big Bang” decision but rather a series of small commitments that are made over time. This is manifested in something that you call the Six Whys. Can you define them for us?
DH: I believe this is really one of the biggest breakthroughs in selling in a long time, both in regards to how we sell, and in what behaviors we should use. What the research shows is that small commitments lead to larger ones. There are a number of fascinating studies on this going back to the 1960s and the data is consistent.
What we know is that commitments are the building blocks of the sale, and we describe this series of commitments as the Six Whys. These are six questions, each beginning with the word why, that describe how our brains make choices. The goal of every sales process is to get your customer to commit to each of the Six Whys, and when you do, a buying decision will almost always happen in your favor, provided you’re talking to someone who has the authority and the means to purchase your product or service. However, if one of these Six Whys is not committed to, the buying process always breaks down. It results in objections and in many cases, a no decision.
So, what are the Six Whys? The first one is, “Why Change?” Why should someone change? This is mission-critical in selling because, until we get a commitment to change, everything we say or do as a sales professional is irrelevant. Second, “Why Now?” Why can’t they wait? Why do they need to move forward now? Third is “Why your industry solution?” Why can’t I develop this on my own? Why can’t I find a workaround of your entire industry and try to figure this out internally? The fourth is, “Why you and your company?” Fifth, “Why your product or service?” and then finally, number six, "Why spend the money?”.
Number six is the one we often overlook in selling because you can get all the other commitments but with a limited budget for example, someone might say, “I want to buy your product but, boy, I also need some new machines for our factory and I only have enough money in the budget to buy one this year.” So now you’re competing with something totally outside of your sphere which is capital equipment in a factory and you’re selling sales enablement tools. So how do you do that?
Gaining commitment to each of the Six Whys is what your sales process should be focused on. This is the most accurate representation I know of on how our brains construct a buying decision. Your buyers are asking themselves these same questions. The question is, are you going to use them, align how you sell with the questions your buyers are asking, and help drive the sale to a yes decision?
About David Hoffeld
David Hoffeld is the CEO and chief sales trainer of Hoffeld Group. A sought-after sales thought leader and speaker, David Hoffeld works with small and medium businesses to Fortune 500 companies showing them how to align their sales behaviors with how the brain naturally forms buying decisions. Because of the results his insights generate, David has lectured at Harvard Business School and has been featured in Fortune, U.S. News and World Report, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, Investor’s Business Daily, INC, Forbes, CBS Radio, Fox News Radio, and more. Prior to forming the Hoffeld Group, David Hoffeld was a top performing and award-winning sales person and sales leader for numerous organizations. He has earned a Master’s Degree and studied selling at Harvard Business School.