Behavioral economists sometimes draw the distinction between “declared preferences” (what people say or feel) versus “revealed preferences” (what people actually do). They typically refer to this idea when explaining the discrepancies that tend to exist between opinion polls and actual behaviors.

There seems to be a similar discrepancy among sales reps, who may say they’re struggling in a certain area of their customer conversations but are actually struggling in others. In other words, what reps believe to be their biggest skills and challenges do not align to what the behavioral outcome data reveal.

Last year, when I co-authored the book “The Three Value Conversations,” we launched a parallel online self-assessment tool aligned to the key skills and concepts detailed in the book. The assessment is designed to measure reps’ proficiency in three critical areas of the sales cycle: creating value (differentiation skills), elevating value (executive conversation skills) and capturing value (negotiation skills). Nearly 300 sales professionals have taken the assessment.

Discrepancies Revealed

For each skills area, we asked reps which of six skills they viewed as their biggest selling challenge. Then we compared this answer to what the behavioral outcome survey questions revealed. In each skill scenario, the assessment showed a discrepancy: The selling challenges that reps believed were their most difficult didn’t match what their answers to the behavioral survey questions indicated.

Here’s a summary of the results.

Create Value

Objective: Defeat the status quo and differentiate your solutions.

  • Participants declared: Their top challenge is illustrating a sharp contrast between a customer’s current state and a desired future state.
  • But the data revealed: Their actual top challenge is creating and confirming urgency by stirring emotions.

Elevate Value

Objective: Make a business case that passes muster with executive decision makers.

  • Participants declared: Their top challenge is winning access to executive buyers rather than being delegated down.
  • But the data revealed: Their actual top challenge is identifying the specific financial metrics that their solution will impact.

Capture Value

Objective: Protect pricing, and expand deal size amid tense negotiations.

  • Participants declared: Their top challenge is encouraging customers to reveal their underlying motivations.
  • But the data revealed: Their actual top challenge is procuring agreements to mutually beneficial terms in response to their concession plan.

Many companies plan their sales training based on what their reps say their biggest needs are. Our assessment results cast serious doubt on that approach and suggest something worth keeping in mind the next time you plan your training: Perceptions are not reality.

In other words, take what your reps say about their biggest selling challenges with a grain of salt. Relying heavily on anecdotal evidence rather than behavioral data could prevent you from addressing the most pressing needs and skills gaps in your customer conversations.

A Performance Gap?

Speaking of behavioral data, the results of the assessment reveal another serious problem with sales conversations: Reps, on average, are performing 30 percent below the benchmark we’ve identified among reps who have gone through skills training on the three value conversations.

Underperforming to this degree in the most pivotal buying moments could be preventing your organization from hitting its targets. It also suggests that what’s hampering reps’ efforts isn’t an easily correctable flaw but rather some fundamental skills gap.

Here are some tips to help you close that 30-percent performance skills gap in the areas of differentiation, executive conversation and sales negotiation.

Defeat the status quo with a great “why change” story. When salespeople obtain a meeting, their first impulse is often to launch into a product-focused message that centers on features and benefits, not realizing that leading with this “why you” story is a prescription for a commodity conversation.

Instead of beginning by telling prospects why they should choose your solution, salespeople should lead with a story that shows prospects why they need to change – why they need to do something different from what they’re doing today. That “why change” story is how they will sharpen the contrast between the pain of their prospect’s status quo situation and the value and relief your solution can bring them.

Demonstrate business acumen to free up the budget for an opportunity. Your sales reps worked hard to obtain access to executive buyers, but they only get one chance to show they can go toe-to-toe with them on the business issues, challenges and trends that matter to them. If they aren’t relevant to executive decision makers, they’ll squander that chance and get delegated down to the level to which they do sound relevant.

To have a business conversation that passes muster with executives, you need to adopt a C-suite perspective in your story, speaking to the external factors that are top of mind for them.

Make sure your reps have a thorough understanding of the regulatory challenges their prospects face as well as economic conditions or shifts in customer preferences. Then, to create a compelling executive buying vision, link these issues to their strategic business initiatives – and to your business value.

Assert your low-power advantage. In the world of complex B2B sales, customers and sellers are in full agreement on one point: Customers have the power, and sellers do not. At face value, that doesn’t seem to bode well for vendors. And that’s true – if you’re relying on conventional wisdom about sales negotiations.

The conventional approach to this skewed power balance is to try to match your buyer’s power or retake control. But research suggests that this approach can actually backfire and lead to worse outcomes for buyers and sellers alike. To capture more value for their deals, reps should embrace their low-power position and turn it into a competitive advantage, using counterintuitive skills and techniques to execute.

One negotiation technique sales reps can use to give themselves an edge in pricing is to make the first offer rather than letting their prospect broach pricing matters first. This approach allows them to anchor their price higher and expand their prospect’s range of reason, giving them the foundation they need to protect their margins.

Defeating the status quo, engaging executive decision makers, protecting your pricing … these skills cover some of the most pivotal moments in the sales cycle. To win better, more profitable deals, reps must shore up the skills they need to articulate value in these key moments – and put a dent in that 30-percent performance gap.