Trusted Advisor Or "C-Rate Consultant" : Which One Are You Turning Your Sales Force Into?

Cheesy salesman Most of the companies I speak with are focusing on changing their go-to-market models and asking their sales people to call higher in organizations. The term “trusted advisor” is batted about within the halls and conference rooms of vendor organizations.

I’ve yet to run into a marketing or sales leader who IS NOT encouraging their sales team to elevate their access level. 

Who could have a problem with a sales organization focusing on gaining more consistent access to the budget holders that control their fate? 

The real problem here is that these organizations do not realize they are making a dramatic and fundamental shift from being focused on market share (promoting products and measuring their unit sales) to a wallet share (the percentage of available spend a particular executive has in the vendors category) orientation.

Incremental changes don’t work when you are fundamentally changing the game. 

What am I talking about?

Part of my job is to field inquiries (which is a 30 min scheduled call about a topic of our clients choosing.  We use this to help apply our research to their organization). I’m often speaking with organizations wondering what they can do to improve the adoption of a new selling model within their sales force.

Most want their sales people to be calling higher, and be “trusted advisors” to their customers. What have they done to date?

Sales people have been herded through a “corporate car wash” type training session where in a day or two they are trained on some ideas for how to gain access and influence executives. This material is usually generic, like executives want to know this or that — but doesn’t focus on the problems the vendor can help address. Sales people are asked to go “read the annual report” and “get to know the business”.  In some cases, sales people are asked to create a SWOT analysis of the business they are calling on.

Does this approach lead to "trusted advisor" level sales people?

No. Actually, we’re hearing from the executives you are trying to sell to that its actually getting worse. 

Here’s why.

No doubt there have been some significant improvements in how meetings are set up. Vendors have moved away from the big promises of “I can save you 20% of your infrastructure costs” that they cannot back up and don’t reflect reality. Sales and marketing groups are being much more targeted.

These targeted messages make executives think, “Wow, these people understand my issues — I can actually have a business conversation with them.”  So, these business leaders allot more time for these meetings, only to get the standard PowerPoint pitch as the pay out. To them, it’s still the exact same kind of sales pitch they avoided in the past, only this time, they have been duped. 

In order to help isolate these various bad practices, we’ve developed a term to describe this phenomenon.  We call it: the rise of the “C-rate” consultant. 

The idea is really simple — it’s basically when a sales person is trying to communicate with enthusiasm things they have “discovered” about the company they are calling on (by reading publicly available information) and have been able to make a connection between a business objective and their products that isn’t quite right.

Sort of like finding out a company is looking to boost its margins (no, really? Large corporations are looking to boost margins — wow, what insight!) and claiming the cost-take out offered by an outsourcing service would save a CEO of a $50B company . . . cue Dr. Evil… ONE MILLION DOLLARS! While $1m might seem like a lot of money, that’s not the kind of savings that are going to move the dials for a CEO, or even any of their direct reports. To put this in perspective — Pfizer has launched a multi-year effort to remove $4 billion out of their cost structure. 

Whose fault is this? While sales people are always accountable for their own actions, we actually think this is the result of a poorly planned and executed training and support program. In other words, it’s much more the environment with which sales people operate, than it is the sales people themselves.

What is a "C-rate" consultant?

A "C-rate" consultant is typically the by product of a poorly executed transition from a product-selling culture to a solution-oriented one. He or she is a sales person who is unable to effectively synthesize business information about a targeted account which is relevant to a particular topic, in context of a given executive’s perspective, and articulate specifically how their company can help that executive address those stated problems.

Because they are unable to achieve these outcomes, a "C-rate" consultant takes up more of an executive’s valuable time and offers no more insight than their product-centric peers. As a result, each "C-rate" consultant creates conflict with every executive they encounter. A sales force populated by "C-rate" consultants contributes to some major problems such as: rising costs of sales, wasted marketing resources, slower than expected traction of corporate strategy, and stagnate organic growth.

Are you creating a crop of "C-rate" consultants?

Unfortunately, the answer is probably yes.

Here are a five questions to help you determine if you might be retooling your sales force into "C-rate" consultants.

  • How many people in your organization have ever held the position (CIO, CFO, etc) for a company you are looking to target? If that number is less than 30, how do you know you are getting enough of a sample size to build an engagement strategy to target that role?
  • How much access do you have within your client base to that targeted role? Does your organization assist these executives through the entire problem solving process, or typically engage at key points in time?
  • How do you develop hot button topics for that executive, and once you do, how do you maintain that information?
  • How do you connect executive level hot button issues with industry accepted best practices, and then relate that back to the specific capabilities your organization can bring to bear for that customer?
  • If you are creating this program, how do you validate what’s being said, and how do you make sure it’s different than what your competitors may offer?

For your sales teams to effectively execute go-to-market strategies which require elevated access, the information they use to engage with targeted executives must be: authentic, accurate, and actionable. Without that, you’re not really adding value and your sales teams are bound to become "C-rate" consultants.


re: Trusted Advisor Or "C-Rate Consultant" : Which One Are You

Great insight. I completely agree with the problem you've outlined. what I don't see in your post though is any sense of where the solution lies. Although I'm assuming it is contained within your work on sales enablement. So I'd be interested in your thoughts on how you counteract the C Rate consultant syndrome and actually prepare your sales force to successfully engage the C suite.In my world as a marketing consultant, I'm seeing a trend that not only are companies asking their sales force to become trusted advisors, they are also looking for ways to make "trusted advisor" a core element of their brand. This means that not only should sales people become business consultants, so should customer service and marketng departments.Recently I have been working with one of largest technology clients to bring the trusted advisor role to the Web, which is often where technology buyers get their first contact with a vendors brand, beyond the face to face contact with the sales person.So, at the end of the day, its not only sales, but the entire customer facing organization that needs to understand sales enablement and who can either become C rate or be the face of the real truster advisors

re: Trusted Advisor Or "C-Rate Consultant" : Which One Are You

Hi John,Thanks for the note and the feedback. I greatly appreciate it.Living in a multi-channel (fancy way of saying that I write research reports, do podcasts, blogs, speak at conferences, do webinars, field inquiries, conduct workshops, and perform consulting assignments), it’s really hard to push through all of the answers through a blog. The biggest problem we have right now in our industry is recognition of what our core problems are, so that’s what I’m focusing on in this channel.Different topic – You have a keen eye.There is definitely a trend right now to supply more valuable information to higher level buyers. You are also very correct in pointing out there needs to be alignment across all functional areas (product, delivery, marketing, sales support, sales) if the goal is to be really relevant to executives.The core challenge is that each of those individual people look at the problem (being more relevant to executive level buyers) through dramatically different lenses. At the end of the day, most companies still have a business unit construct based on products, and the P&L realities create a vendor-centric bias in all materials. In addition, the perspective of people in the value communications supply chain each have different perspectives based on WHEN (and if) they are engaged directly with customers and WHO they engage with.Unfortunately, we as human beings have real difficultly dealing with complex situations without tools or frameworks. Part of the challenge here is getting people who are so certain they know what the real problem is to realize their world view is not shared and others in their organization also have legitimate perspectives as well. This understanding is not “front and center” and usually needs help for people’s light bulbs to go off.This is why I advocate cross-functional working sessions to get everyone on the same page. It takes between one and five days (depending on the size of the company), but the yield is tremendous. When I facilitate these sessions, I beak it down into three parts:1) Understand the problem2) Recalibrate to focus on the customer3) 30-60-90 day action planThe purpose for the first part is to help others see how big and complex the problem is to help people resist the urge to launch into talking about deliverables and other random acts of sales support. The agenda goes like this…After assembling a cross functional group of people – sales, sales engineers, delivery, marketing, etc and about 20 minutes of expectation setting, I go around the room and ask everyone to answer three very simple questions.1) What do you want to sell?2) Who do you want to sell to?3) What do you think needs to be done to sell more?You would be amazed at the variance of answers and how clear it becomes that the company is rowing in different directions.The second part of the day focuses on the customer perspective; I lead a facilitated working session (based on specific pre-work) to get a common answer to the following three questions.1) What is the problem customers have that we can help them solve?2) Who get’s fired if that problem doesn’t get solved? (A little crass I realize, but it’s very centering and saves a TON of time in the exercise)3) What does that person need to help solve that problem?Without fail, all of the complex realities that customers and sales people face come to the surface and creates “moments of truth” for a team to come together and align around common goals.I can’t really write about insights for what’s accomplished in the last section (30-60-90 day plan) because that’s dependent on a variety of different variables such as:1) The altitude level you need to sell into2) Where the “comfort zone” is with the current sales force and the gap between desired level and current state3) The initiative level your problem maps too (program, project, or task level)4) How aligned the sales and delivery processes are5) The maturity level of executives tackling that problem6) The level of sophistication of the vendors reference program7) The degree of cross-functional support required8) How customers will main sure the realize the outcome and how they will measure it9) Etc.Finally, I’d like to add my two cents about web sites as knowledge clearing houses and a point of entry to executives. Personally, I think this is a concept that required more investigation.For my research, my core design point is the “valuable conversation between buyer and seller”, so I spend a majority of my time speaking with top performing sales people and buyers.On the seller’s side, they have very little – if any, visibility into who within their base is accessing the web site. So I think that an important step (which you may have already done) is capture more specific web analytics by account (network) – and work with a handful of reps to see if your assumptions of click through analysis match what they see happening.From a buyer’s point of view, there are really two fundamentally different sales processes (that don’t get delineated effectively because of too much of a focus on managing opportunities as transactions).1) The buyer has defined need (demand exists – this is what most focus on)2) The buyer has a problem and doesn’t know how to solve it (demand needs to be created, but the conditions exist to become a customer)Scenario 1 doesn’t create the chance to become a “trusted advisor” and the business will go to:a) the incumbent vendor with whom the buyer already has a relationshipb) the vendor who is the most flexible meeting their needs (think about coordination with delivery teams or partners, financing terms, pilots, risk sharing etc).c) the lowest cost provider.Scenario 2 creates the most opportunity for differentiation – in fact 65% of buyers tell us that will usually select a vendor that helps the figure out how to solve a problem in a competitive situation (those are far better odds that the 35%-20% win rates we see in scenario one). However, since these executives don’t know what they are looking for – you need to have people involved in the process to help guide them through the process.I hope this added detail is more satisfying to you. Obviously, this is why I do so many inquiries because there are a lot of nuances to be ironed out here to make all of this stuff work.

re: Trusted Advisor Or "C-Rate Consultant" : Which One Are You

Great post! You have cut to the heart of the issue of sales culture transformation that so many companies are dealing with today. Sales organizations simply decree that they are going to change their sales culture, then have a brief sales training event, and expect sales reps to go make it all happen. Given the economic environment, selling certainly has not been easy, and even after the recovery, we don't expect it to get much better - and many companies are leaving their reps completely unprepared.I especially enjoyed your definition of the the "C rate consultant" - which cleverly points out the difference between "contenders" and "pretenders" on a consultative selling environment. There is nothing worse than a rep who (knowingly or unknowingly) is trying to make the square transactional peg fit into the round consultative hole.One of the actions that we've seen organizations take to help increase their success rate in a sales culture transformation is to increase the amount of formal pre-call planning activity. A formal pre-call planning process goes well beyond simple research: it helps reps plan how actual customer interactions should go and how such interactions should be meaningful to the customer. Formal pre-call planning helps assist in transformations because: (1) reps are prepared, thus helping to avoid the "C rate consultant" unpreparedness, and (2) management can use the pre-call plans to provide ongoing coaching to reps, therefore helping to facilitate the culture transformation above and beyond a training event. These steps together reduce "Dr. Evil" moments.Keep up the good work, and I look forward to reading more!

re: Trusted Advisor Or "C-Rate Consultant" : Which One Are You

You touch on a big challenge - changing behavior. You're right - the 2 day "carwash" is just one phase of training - and more broadly enabling salespeople to have better dialogues. The second phase is that once we've identified the best practice approach our reps should be taking, we need to institutionalize that in reps' day-to-day lives, so that the approaches that lead to positive outcomes are repeated. Technology is a great way to begin to do that. Many CRM applications and Sales Enablement tools out there provide ways to recommend actions to be taken, suggest materials to use, pull in a wealth of relevant information from the web, or recommend internal subject matter experts for a given selling situation. In this way, sales people are not just mandated to perform differently, but they are continually given the tools to do so.