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The Provocative Sale

June 1, 2009
You can expand your arsenal of sales techniques by going after the problems your customer has overlooked.

Selling is a transfer of confidence. It's a matter of making the customer as comfortable buying your product or service as you are selling it. A host of competencies contribute to that confidence: insight, knowledge, expertise, training, skill and credibility. These traits are the trademark of the professional salesperson, someone who doesn't get too attached to the tools and strategies of the past and who is always looking for new frontiers to forge. If that salesperson is you, you might want to add this new tool to your arsenal called “provocation-based selling.”

Provoke Your Customers

Probably the two most familiar sales models to those in the wholesale distribution industry are product-based and solution-based selling. Now, a third model has emerged as a result of sales pioneers responding to a challenging economy. In an article for the Harvard Business Review titled “In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers,” authors Philip Lay, Todd Hewlin and Geoffrey Moore define this model as provocation-based selling. For the sake of comparison, all three models are briefly described below.

Product-based selling is arguably still the most widely used sales approach in the wholesale industry. Simply defined, it's the process of translating a product's features into benefits in the hope that one or more will strike a chord in the heart of the customer. It's a shotgun approach. Scatter enough benefits and maybe one or two will have an impact. Show the product to as many clients as you can until you hit.

Solution-based selling involves a probing dialogue with the customer. The intent is to seek out a business problem for which the distributor has the answer by listening for pain points that the client reveals along the way.

Provocation-based selling focuses on finding a problem in the customer's blind spot that is in critical need of attention. In other words, the customer isn't aware of the problem, but once informed, is eager to address it.

At first glance, it might seem that provocation-based selling is just an overhaul of solution-based selling. The two are similar. The term “solution selling” has been around for decades, and in the early 1980's, Keith Eades had the foresight to trademark the phrase. Today, his company, Sales Performance International, still owns it. In Eades own words, the objective of his methodology is to reach “…a mutually agreed-upon answer to a recognized problem.”

And that statement is the essential difference. In solution selling the customer is aware he has a problem. He may have the budget to solve the problem but isn't sure you're the solution. It's your job to sell the solution. In provocation based selling, the focus is on uncovering a problem the client has, but may not recognize. Sound hard? It is. It requires insight to identify a problem and finesse to provoke a response.

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

With provocation-based selling, you may only get one shot with the appropriate person who can support your proposal and secure the money to fund it. When that meeting arrives, you need to be ready. Authors Lay, Hewlin, and Moore, have broken down the sales process into three steps.

  1. Identify a critical problem facing your customers

    It has to be large enough that once enlightened, they can't ignore it.

  2. Formulate a provocative point of view

    Find an interesting way to present the problem from a new perspective.

  3. Lodge your provocation

    Present your idea to someone who has the influence to take it to the next level.

Now let's take this concept and figure out how to make it practical for the electrical distributor. Start by selecting a client you wish to target. Next generate a list of hot issues related to this customer's industry. Let's say your customer is a manufacturer. Sustainability, arc flash, ballast and lamp disposal, sustainability and environmental impact would be on any manufacturer's list of potential problems.

Some of the individual items on the list lead to another list. For instance, arc flash would expand to Personal Protective Equipment, arc resistant switchgear, and thermographic imaging. It's even better to get with other sales people or your marketing department to see how many potential issues you can itemize.

After you're satisfied with the list you've created, study each item and determine which one would be most likely to keep the CEO up at night. In other words, will neglecting the issue jeopardize the organization's ability to make money? Secondly, is it currently being ignored? Finally, do you have the remedy and are you a credible resource?

How to Be Provocative

Once you identify the problem you want to present, begin by laying your cards on the table. Start big. Present the issue in clear, unflinching detail. Be creative in your approach. Use PowerPoint, video, white board, Tinkertoys, or whatever it takes to make your presentation — well — provocative. You don't want it to be viewed as just another sales pitch. This isn't the time to be average.

Evaluate the reaction. No reaction? No problem. Leave the building immediately. Seriously, wrap it up with grace, thank the customer for the time, and leave the door open in case later the client does stay up all night worrying about the cost of doing nothing thanks to this new problem you put into his head.

On the other hand, if you receive encouragement, or at least interest from the customer, then take the next step: formulate the provocation. Mention other cases of companies who unsuccessfully, unwittingly became victims of the problem, because they were unaware, or unconvinced of the existence of a problem. This also lets the client know he or she is not alone. Other organizations have had the same issue.

Offer to conduct a diagnostic study. An audit of the customer's resources puts you inside the infrastructure, deepening your relation with and your understanding of the organization. You'll meet people you might not have otherwise met. Your sphere of influence will grow. Even if the provocation leads to a dead end, you've taken a step closer to become indispensible to your customer.

If your audit validates that the customer does indeed have a problem, take the next step: lodge the provocation. But, before you do, rehearse your presentation. Perhaps test-drive it before some of your advocates at a lower level within the organization. Get feedback and refine your production. Remember, you may only get one chance to win over the decision maker.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Provocation-based selling isn't for every situation and it doesn't replace product-based or solution-based selling. Those sales models are effective tools when appropriate. And some may see provocation-based selling as just a remix of other sales methodologies. Maybe so, but that's missing the point. The point is that anything that provokes you to seek opportunities from a fresh perspective opens the possibility of new frontiers. And that's where the high margins grow.

Mike Dandridge has 25 years of experience in the electrical wholesaling industry, including positions as corporate trainer and consultant for all branch merchandising for Rexel USA, Dallas. He is a nationally recognized speaker on sales, marketing and merchandising, and author of Thinking Outside the Bulb, (later republished under the title The One Year Business Turnaround). Reach him by e-mail at [email protected] or via his website,

About the Author

Mike Dandridge | Founder

Mike Dandridge has 25 years of experience in the electrical market, including sales and management positions with Rexel and authored the books, Thinking Outside the Bulb and Business Turnaround. You can contact Mike at [email protected] or 214-708-2534.

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