Let’s continue our analysis of the main complex selling methods, and their relevance in the digital world, by looking at the method created by the splendid Jim Holden, CEO of the Holden International sales consultancy (that he founded in 1979) and author of the book The Selling Fox (2002).
For him, selling to a client also means being better than your competitors while, in contrast, not selling means the death of your company. So, a simple rule: be better than the rest in order to survive.
And as far as Holden is concerned, the king of the jungle is the fox, which is the nickname he gives to a company’s most talented and involved employees. Sales is a difficult profession. For 30 years now, I’ve heard professionals complain about the regular shortage of sales people in France, despite an unemployment rate now bordering on 10%. And the situation is not really improving.
Personally, I was lucky enough to be trained by Selling Foxes when I was learning the profession at Philips (in its B2B division) in the 1980s. So let’s take a look at this method and ask ourselves the question we often hear: does the digital era, notably inbound marketing and social selling, mean the death of sales methods, and is it still necessary to close a deal?
What is a Selling Fox?
First of all, it’s interesting to clearly understand the Selling Fox concept. During his years of training, Jim Holden constantly sought out profiles that had the diverse attributes he deemed essential. He insists on the importance of this rare individual and is convinced that one Selling Fox is worth a hundred sales people. This is how Jim Holden describes a Fox:
- As they win deals, they describe their methodology to other sales people, so as to improve their skills;
- They provide help and train the other sales people, most of the time without any compensation;
- They are the voice of their clients in the decision-making process, and seek to use their influence to bring the company’s offering in line with the client’s needs;
- The actions they undertake have a direct influence on sales figures, making them one of the company’s most precious individuals.
I was lucky enough to be surrounded by Selling Foxes at the beginning of my career. I thought you had to be nice to clients and “serve” them, and I was astonished to see, to the contrary, good sales people being capable of educating their clients. I even saw some of them requesting this need for education and firmness from my boss. The hardness of the relationship — without taking away from its politeness in any way — was essential to making the transaction run smoothly. Among these Selling Foxes was my friend Michel, who never hesitated to stop what he was doing to help me and give me tips that would let me close deals. And in this case, the closing was happening every month, because the sales figures were constantly measured. What a school, what a lesson in sales; every day in my career as an entrepreneur, I think of Michel, my Selling Fox, who taught me everything and without whom I wouldn’t be capable of writing this for you today.
Despite all this, Holden emphasises that the Selling Fox is not always recognised for what they are or for the value they actually bring to their company. My experience at Philips was very different (Michel became Sales Director of the company before leaving it 25 years later).
Close a deal like a fox
According to Jim Holden, the agreement of the client results from three conditions coming together, and the Selling Fox has to know them:
- The client must be ready (“readiness”), that’s to say that they have reviewed all possible suppliers, and are capable of comparing their arguments. This stage will enable them to take an informed decision. This is the preparation stage for the decision;
- The client must have validated their decision(“willingness”): once their shortlist has been drawn up according to the interest given to the suppliers, the client makes their first opinion of each of them. They have to be capable of making their decision, that’s to say that they have identified potential suppliers and solutions, assessed them, and passed them through the approval process. This is the approval stage for the decision;
- The client must have the means to conclude (“ability”). This is the final phase: the budgetary stage for the decision. This ability is not just financial, it is above all logistical: you will certainly have already come up against internal decision-making processes or the holidays or business trips of decision-makers, which constantly delay decisions. So, you have to arrive at the psychological moment.
A Selling Fox must be proactive in these stages in order to achieve a good close. Knowing this, the sales person can do it in three different ways:
- The soft close, when the sales person, wishing to avoid any confrontation, strives to never explicitly push the client towards the sale;
- The trial close, when the sales person sells to their client provided that a condition is met, for example a product test;
- The hard close, when the sales person takes the most direct path and explicitly asks the client for their agreement for the sale.
What do you think is the ideal approach for a Selling Fox?
Jim Holden is clear on this point: too many sales people with low confidence use the most comfortable and time-consuming solution by giving the lead time or by beating around the bush in never-ending meetings. The Selling Fox acts differently: always on the lookout, they will never let the lead procrastinate and will very quickly obtain their agreement with assurance, professionalism and openness.
The Selling Fox will also use the “trial close” if one of the three closing conditions (readiness, willingness and ability) is missing.
The key points of successful closing
Anticipate objections: without spending days on this, the sales person should consider which client objections could compromise the sale.
Identify, sound out, and resolve objections: in any negotiation, the client will raise objections, but the way to respond to them varies depending on the sales people. A Selling Fox will identify the problem without becoming overwhelmed by emotions, and then question the client to find out exactly what is hiding behind the problem and the consequences of this problem. They will then deal with resolving the problem in question as quickly as possible, which is easy if they have been able to anticipate the objections.
Close early: the aim is to take up your position early on and not let a moment of hesitation into the sales process. The sales person who “lets the client breathe” is in reality letting the client choose another supplier.
Close without hesitating: in a commercial relationship, it’s in the sales person’s interest to be direct. The client knows whom they’re dealing with, and a sales person who doesn’t get straight to the point is inadvertently showing the client their lack of confidence. As we saw in the article on SPIN Selling, the more the sale is complex, the more the sales person is associated with the solution sold. The client will thus associate a sales person who is confident and professional with a reliable and high-quality solution.
Close explicitly: the sales person has to push the client to clearly give their agreement. Even if it’s conditional, this agreement makes the sale official and reduces the chances of the client changing their mind.
Secure the decision: in complex sales where several people are involved on the buyer’s side, the sales person needs to inform the stakeholders who are involved around the decision-maker. Indeed, an agreement formulated by a client is never official while only the sales person and the buyer are aware of it. The aim therefore is to pass on the news to colleagues of the buyer with whom the sales person is in contact. A decision-maker wanting to change their mind would be likely to lose face because everyone would have already acknowledged the decision.
Trap the other foxes: according to Jim Holden, during a complex sale, it is common for competing sales people to approach the client with a counter-proposal as soon as news of the transaction gets out. In this case, the Selling Fox will warn their new client of the risks of the competition’s unethical practices (forbidden, of course, within their own company) which could tarnish the client’s reputation and credibility.
Digital: an ally of good closing
In 2002, the use of digital by sales and even marketing roles was still in its infancy. Social media did not yet exist when Jim Holden wrote his book, and digital was largely limited to Sales Force Automation. And even then it was really nothing like the modern tools of today, which are connected to social media and to a mass of information sources linked to company events (“business signals”).
Almost 15 years later, I often hear it said that digital is a game changer, and this is eminently true. Our articles on this blog have accorded enough significance to this shakeup. Sales intelligence tools have completely transfigured the sales person of today. While the roles of marketing and sales are coming closer together (much is expected from the marketer in terms of their abilities to provide leads and spontaneous reputation through digital, and the sales person is increasingly asked to curate or even market content), it would be easy to conclude that the sales person no longer needs to close their deals. We could say that, in a way, the sales person — this being almost akin to a swear word for some — has become a sort of cashier or seated sales rep who no longer really needs to put pressure on their clients. All they need to do is click on the Internet in their office and that’s it, the client buys. Yet nothing could be further than the truth.
Closing techniques are more important than ever
The marketing team can certainly bring in more clients, in particular through their websites, traffic generation and significant nurturing that considerably reduces the work of the sales person. However, although sales intelligence tools are going to improve the sales person’s knowledge, they must in no way forget to close. Given that marketing is within the grasp of all B2B suppliers, at least in appearance, then it’s even the opposite that’s going to happen.
The Selling Foxes with the ability to mix the modern and old worlds will be the winners of tomorrow. Not those who naively believe that sales has become easy thanks to the Internet, but those who are able to provide the best content, have the best sales intelligence tool and, at the same time, know how to close sales in the most natural and effective way possible. The winners will also be those who know how to raise, congratulate and encourage their Selling Foxes to train little fox cubs themselves.