Selling in a VUCA World

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TTM associates Article

Selling in a VUCA World

So What Is VUCA ?

Simon Lawson
Simon Lawson is a senior management and sales consultant with a strong focus on managing key accounts, corporate accounts and sales management.

Wherever we find ourselves living in the world today,we are surrounded by uncertainties. These could be economic (financial crisis), natural disasters (such as an earthquake or extreme weather conditions) or instead, political instabilities. Many economists,commentators and company CEOs have started to talk about the challenges of making business work in a ‘VUCA’ world.
VUCA is a term that was coined more than a decade ago by the US army. They described their military environment as being ‘VUCA’,meaning that it was volatile,uncertain,complex and ambiguous.This is the bare minimum that can be said about rapidly changing business environments too,where not all the facts or inter-relationships can easily be identified.
In addition,business leaders and salespeople have to operate without having all the information that they need to hand, or without fully understanding the forces that may be influencing a situation.The US army quickly realised that it took a certain kind of person to embrace this ambiguity and to provide a sense of structure and vision for themselves and for those around them,despite the apparent chaos.

TTM associates Approach

Wherever we find ourselves living in the world today, we are surrounded by uncertainties. These could be economic (financial crisis), natural disasters (such as an earthquake or extreme weather conditions) or instead,political instabilities. Many economists,commentators and company CEOs have started to talk about the challenges of making business work in a ‘VUCA’ world.
VUCA is a term that was coined more than a decade ago by the US army. They described their military environment as being ‘VUCA’, meaning that it was volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.This is the bare minimum that can be said about rapidly changing business environments too, where not all the facts or inter-relationships can easily be identified. In addition, business leaders and salespeople have to operate without having all the information that they need to hand,or without fully understanding the forces that may be influencing a situation.The US army quickly realised that it took a certain kind of person to embrace this ambiguity and to provide a sense of structure and vision for themselves and for those around them,despite the apparent chaos.

Selling In A VUCA World

All sales professionals need to get their minds around the realities of selling in a VUCA world. The easy response would be to concede and to propose an end to strategy and planning on the basis that the buying and selling process has become simply too unpredictable. A VUCA-bedazzled Sales Director may put forward the idea that their salespeople should concentrate on contacting ever-increasing numbers of potential buyers in the hope that,‘If you throw a lot of mud at a wall,some mud will stick’.

What Do Buyers Want?

In fact, in a VUCA world, the last thing buyers want is for salespeople to run around in circles, just hoping that every so often they will be in the right place at the right time. Instead, when buyers are asked what they think their supplier’s salespeople should be doing in a VUCA world, (http://www.tackinternational.com/sites/tack.guavadev.dk/files/tack_buyers_views_of_salespeople_2012.pdf) their collective response is that salespeople should be concentrating on quality,not quantity. This research supports and extends TTM associates own interview findings referred to above.
Specifically,buyers prioritise four key behaviours:

o The first is for salespeople to investigate and understand their buyers’ needs in total and then to create innovative solutions which directly meet those needs.Most buyers surveyed said that the majority of salespeople are only poor to fair in establishing their needs. Not surprisingly,those surveyed also then said that the majority of salespeople are only poor to fair at matching solutions to their real needs.

o The second is that salespeople should be fully prepared and well researched before contacting (prospective) buyers. Buyers report that a significant number of salespeople still turn up to a first meeting without even having looked at the buying organisation’s website.

o The third is that salespeople should listen to the buyer talking about their needs,instead of not listening at all and talking about their products instead. And the fourth is to be willing to negotiate on price. After all, salespeople skilled at negotiation can concede on price whilst winning valuable concessions in return that more than compensate.

So,In A VUCA World,Is Selling Really Different ?

Actually, no, not in approach or skill set. After all, consultancy companies have been promoting the criticality of salespeople working as consultants for their buyers for some considerable time. What’s different in a VUCA buying-selling world is that a supplier will lose competitive advantage even faster if their salespeople cannot deliver against the four behaviours described above in full. A VUCA world Sales Manager needs to consider the following four questions:

o How strong are my salespeople at consultative selling?

o How well do they prepare before meeting a prospect buyer for the first time?

o How good are their listening skills?

o How well do my salespeople negotiate around price?

And what if the Answers are all Good ?

In a VUCA buying and selling world,there’s no room for complacency. If the answers to the four questions above are good,then a VUCA Sales Manager needs to be exploring the implications of each of the V,U,C and A areas for their own activities and for those of their sales team.

‘V’ is for volatility. Any seemingly stable situation will change rapidly. A Sales Manager’s response should be to ‘dedicate resource to develop flexibility’. This may mean holding some resource in reserve so as to be responsive to change. It requires agility, the ability to change sales approach, sales offer, even the sales team make up and composition as things move forwards with a prospect or existing buyer. Expect and attempt to anticipate changes in priorities and process from buyers often during the buying cycle itself.

‘U’ is for uncertainty. Both the buyer and the supplier just don’t know what will happen (even though in the very short term,the situation may stay the same. The Sales Manager should add a focus on high quality intelligence as in addition to the flexibility referred to above. For the sales process,this means going beyond existing sources of information and deliberately accessing a greater number of client contacts in order to get multiple angles on the buying situation. A real benefit here is a growing sense of solution co-creation,as more client contacts become engaged.

‘C’ is for complexity. If a supplier’s sales reality is particularly complex, involving a number of routes to market across a number of countries, then the Sales Manager needs to find a way to communicate the complexity easily. A first step should be to map all the contact points that a buyer (and also end user) will have with the supplier,its products and its salespeople. The maps can then be examined for gaps and bottle-necks it may take the involvement of a number of supplier experts outside the sales function to work out how to reduce complexity and overlap. Should the widening contact interface from the client’s company be interested in getting involved in this mapping process,so much the better.

‘A’ is for ambiguity. Of all of the four areas,this is the one in which the least is known,and there is no certainty about anything that is knowable. An appropriate sales management response is experimentation. A range of options should be developed and a sales approach to a client should start with the one that is the lowest risk from the client’s perspective. Once a supplier has established credibility, then the client will increasingly trust that supplier’s salespeople to help them work through increasingly ambiguous scenarios where less and less is clear or
known.

Summary Selling In A VUCA World

Considering all of the ideas discussed above,selling in a VUCA world requires as a bare minimum that salespeople are always thinking ahead and never tire of asking more questions. In A VUCA world, these questions will be open and probing, designed to stimulate the client contact’s thought processes,rather than closed questions to merely establish facts.
And salespeople will increasingly be judged by the extent to which they challenge those assumptions presented by their clients ‘as fact’. In the VUCA world,a fact today is an uncertainty tomorrow.
The race will be won by the swift,the agile and the fleet. And the winners will be those suppliers who can put their hands on their hearts and say, ‘Yes! Our sales function out-performs all others in the new VUCA world!

References

  • “Living and Leading in a VUCA World”, Paul Kinziger and Karen Walch  [Link]
  • “Leaders Make the Future”, Robert Johansen  [Link]

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