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Norm Bilsbury, Ph.D. | Champaign, IL

Erica's sales manager loved working with her. Erica was positive, finished her reports in on time, and regularly embraced the rapid cycles of change required to thrive in a sales organization. Yet to her manager’s dismay, Erica couldn't seem to get her accounts off the ground when it came to new-product sales, the up-sell, or the cross-sell. This was puzzling from her manager’s standpoint because Erica's demeanor was so cooperative and friendly. So, what was Erica's problem?

Though a gifted and articulate communicator, Erica's sales style suffered from a fatal flaw. She was unintentionally guilty of the quintessential "hard-sell"—being pushy without being aware of it. How was this possible given her compliant and affable demeanor?

Much to the delight of her company, Erica led her sales calls with the product’s value proposition. Conversely, much to the chagrin of her customers, Erica also led her sales calls with the product’s value proposition—say what?

Erica had dutifully studied the online training modules, familiarized herself with the product’s value proposition, features and benefits. Ironically, it was Erica’s good intentions towards executing her company training strategies that were killing her sales opportunities and causing her manager’s disappointment.

Of course, everyone knows that before a sales person spouts off the value proposition, features and/or benefits, that one should first be consultative in the approach and understand the situation before speaking. These basic tenets are undisputed.

Yet, while these principles are taught in training rooms, known by sales veterans, and preached by sales managers, most sales people deviate from these guidelines when in the field.
While every salesperson should know the stated value proposition for a product, they shouldn’t lead with it. Why?

As Marshall Goldsmith coaches us all to do in his latest book, “Triggers”, sometimes the secret to success isn’t necessarily doing all of the right things, as much as it is the selective avoidance of the things not to do. With this vein of wisdom in mind, here are 3 reasons why NOT lead with the value proposition on a sales call.

1. The first reason your salespeople should not lead with the value proposition is because it reduces their business stature. When a salesperson goes to the value proposition too quickly in a sales dialogue, it’s like showing one’s hand in a poker game prematurely. We all know how the game is played. First some initial amount of money is put on the table, chips are added in a sequence of events, new cards enter the ante, all building toward a climactic outcome—a showing of hands.

If the natural progression of these events is circumvented, the poker game can turn weird. If cards are shown before it’s time for the raise or the call, the timing feels wrong. Everyone feels the unnatural sequence, and detects that something is “off”. Money that could have been won, is now left on the table, or worse, lost altogether. The same is true in the game of sales.

Once the value proposition is stated in a selling situation, the salesperson’s “hand”, for all practical purposes has been played. And if done too early in a sales conversation, just like in a poker game—everyone at the table knows that an amateur is present. And who wants to work with an amateur? Customers lose confidence when this happens. Things feel wonky to them. They throw their cards in. They move to a new table.

Sales people have both the DNA and desire to bring something of value to their prospect. In fact, many thrive on the dopamine injected into their brains when this accomplishment is achieved.

Yet, this same desire for a dopamine fix is a double-edged sword, that slays them. If the value-prop is shared too soon, or as a means to “please the prospect with a reason to partner with us” it has a deleterious impact. Like the school child who wants to bring a good report to their teacher or coach, the salesperson who seeks to please a prospect with new information at the wrong time, severely jeopardizes their credibility and social stature. Their poker hand was played out of order, having a debilitating effect on their ability to influence the negotiation further.

For managers, this problem is easily identified through a field-ride. And while it is easily identified, it is far more difficult to treat. The fundamental issue at hand is rooted in a sales person’s personal identity. I have seen people with an MBA crumble and fold in front of customers; conversely, I have seen other reps with a high school diploma assert themselves like royal executives.

2. Second, it is dangerous to lead with the value proposition because in doing so one is assuming that the reason a customer wants to use a product aligns with the stated value proposition of the product. This fact, coupled with the reality that most sales people are gifted communicators, sets them up to take unfruitful action based on a series of false precedents.

The first of these is the unarticulated assumption that the stated value proposition as narrated by the company is equivocal to that of the prospect’s. I used to work with a 30 year sales veteran named Pauly who always told me—“Normy, marketing tells us what they know—which points us in the right direction, but then we have to tread lightly from there.”
As Pauly astutely noted, often the reason a prospect is interested in the product, does not match with the actual purpose of the product.

Customers are famous for inventing their own reasons for using a product. Consider the recent spike in the sale of Elmer’s glue: Elmer’s executives could never have anticipated the craze to make “slime” by elementary and junior high schools students and forecast this into their growth.

Likewise a salesperson can’t accurately predict why a customer may want to use their product. When these errors are made, nicely or not, they unknowingly setting themselves up to come off as “pushy”, because they are advocating their reasons to buy, not the customers. This point was best made in the #1 Amazon Sales Book by David Mattson: “The Sandler Rules”, Rule #26—that is, “People buy in spite of the Hard-Sell, not because of it”.

This is why Erica couldn’t get new sales off the ground. She was telling the customers her company’s reasons as to why they should buy her product. Customers tolerated this because she was nice. But it wasn’t never going to get them to buy. Erica failed to uncover the fundamental problem her new product solved for each of her different customers.
Teach your sales people to be fully knowledgeable of the product, but to be a professional dummy when seeking to understand why their customer may want to use them. Teach them to coax that information from the customer themselves. This will make your prospects feel as though they are “teaching” your sales people (which they love to do). Your prospects will feel smart, get to be the expert, get the stroke, and your people will get the sale.

3. The third and final reason it is dangerous to for a salesperson to lead with their company’s value proposition because, intended or not, the unspoken message is “you have a problem” and “I’m here to fix you”.

Even though Erica’s sweet demeanor would never permit her to be be convicted in the fictional courts of dysfunctional selling for working a customer over, at a minimum she is passively guilty of doing so because of the inherent condescension in the positioning of her message.

While she has the noble and evangelistic intent of bringing the “good news” of her company’s gospel to a “lost” prospect who needs her product to reduce their pain, she is a lot like the pastor or priest whose desire to save his/her flock is thwarted because the recipients are offended by the positioning of the message of salvation itself!

Regardless of how powerful the value proposition and positive the intent, when one leads with the value proposition, without understanding if the customer perceives that they first have a problem, it is dangerous.

The great risk with these dynamics is that the customer invariably hears the message that “your baby is ugly”. Something no parent will tolerate.

Give your prospects the credit for doing the best they can with what they have and know. They really are doing the best (even if they do have a deal on the side with your competition’s product---and you know some of them do! Lol. ☺ ). But don’t accidentally indict them when you show up to save them with your new product or service. This isn’t a good strategy for growth. Like the bad priest or pastor with good intentions, your sales pews will remain empty.

In summary, when a salesperson prematurely leads with the value proposition they: 1) risk being perceived as reckless with their social equity and business stature, 2) errantly assume that the company’s value proposition and the prospects interest automatically align when they may not, and 3) accidentally convey an unintended condescension toward the customer’s current product or service.

In closing it should be noted that sometimes the road to success has a ditch on both sides. How true in the world of professional selling. If you can avoid these pitfalls as you develop sales dialogues you can make it further down that road and live to fight another day!

Good Selling,
Norm Bilsbury, Ph.D.


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