Constant change and uncertainty have exhausted buyers. The global economy has made every major purchasing decision seem like life or death. Customers today are trying to keep up with changing marketplace dynamics by innovating and taking their company from its current state (X) into the future (Y). They need salespeople to help reduce complexity and guide them through the chaos of this transformation.

This presents an opportunity for training professionals because while industry insights and product knowledge quickly become outdated, causing them to struggle to keep up with change on their own, salespeople will continue to need to help their customers manage change for at least the medium term.

Much has been written in recent years about the need for salespeople to provoke or challenge their customers to drive change through insights. There’s a lot of truth to that within the trusted advisor concept, particularly when it’s done with genuine humility and curiosity rather than arrogance and condescension. While this relationship requires trust, trust alone isn’t enough. Customers want help narrowing down the options and making the right buying decision. Customers now expect salespeople to be navigators.

Customers have a destination in mind. Typically, that destination (the vision for Y) is defined by the business goals they want to achieve and the targets they need to hit, as well as the dynamics of their industry. They may or may not know the best path to take, but they will engage with someone they believe will guide them toward that destination. Navigating the sales journey with a customer is a three-step process, and it has little to do with intrinsic personality traits; it is a set of coachable actions that can be designed into training and made into habits through on-the-job tools.

Navigation Step 1: Identify the Destination

First, you have to gain a full understanding of the customer’s intended destination. That destination can be thought of as the customer’s desired result and can be communicated by the customer in multiple ways, including vision of success, goals and metrics.

Becoming an expert on the customer’s desired result means asking the right questions and having sufficient business acumen to understand the answers and know what to do next. By showing customers that you understand their destination and starting point holistically and by making it clear that you are genuinely interested in their results, you begin to earn the right to provide the customer with navigation assistance.

In an environment of customer change, applying navigation skills requires you to fully understand the customer’s vision of their destination. Once you figure out what the customer’s destination is, you must deeply understand the customer’s vision for achieving it. That takes, in part, familiarity with the metrics that the customer will use to measure the success of reaching the destination.

Navigation Step 2: Clarify the Path

The second step for salespeople who want to use navigation skills is to offer expertise along the journey to the destination. That, too, begins with questions. Few customers are standing still, waiting for their journey to begin. Most have already begun the process. So the salesperson must ask questions about what they have done so far and where they have been. This includes topics such as current strategic initiatives, marketplace trends they are leveraging, and innovations and improvements they are making.

Applying navigation techniques also means understanding how the customer organization views the X starting point. There is no path without both X and Y.

Some of the greatest value that salespeople offer is something that most salespeople don’t even recognize: their awareness of how other similar companies are executing. Providing expertise on the journey involves sharing insights and examples about what other companies have discovered along the way.

This is also the time to challenge traditional thinking and offer insights. Many times, great salespeople can highlight what the customer sees as constraints but are actually self-imposed limitations. The salesperson can recommend alternative paths to success that the customer, who is just too close to the day-to-day realities, cannot see. The key to doing this in a way that the customer will appreciate is to be humble: ask questions, offer hypotheses and show empathy.

Next, the salesperson has to advise the customer on the path from X to Y. The recommendations should incorporate what the company is already doing and include the steps it should take to get to its results faster. This is when the salesperson begins to talk about products and services. In complex sales, we often recommend that no products or services be discussed in the first two interactions. The first interaction is all about understanding the customer’s desired destination. The second is about the route options. In the third, the salesperson can offer recommendations for the path — a proposal.

The proposal should lay out the way that the seller’s offerings contribute to the X → XY → Y journey and should include options. It should document the value of defining the XY space and how that will actually accelerate progress toward the Y destination. Typically, the benefits of defining XY are:

  • Creates a short-term picture of success
  • Represents a smaller, more manageable increment of change
  • Reduces resistance to change
  • Reduces risk
  • Maintains the commitment to achieving Y in the same time horizon

Navigation Step 3: Measure Progress

Our research tells us that customers today will buy more and at higher prices if by doing so they will genuinely accelerate the achievement of their desired business results. What salespeople often fail to do is to demonstrate progress on the metrics that customers care about. So the journey must include a way of measuring progress on those metrics. More specifically, it must incorporate performance metrics that will be used to measure the purchaser’s contributions to X, to Y, and to XY.

In many situations, the salespeople disappear once the sale is closed, handing off the “service” aspect to others in their company. And while the implementation of the purchase almost inevitably requires such a handoff, the best salespeople do not disappear. As customer navigators, they know they must be present at key points throughout the implementation process. Their main role during this stage is to help the customer interpret the progress being made, as well as ensure that any obstacles impeding progress are removed. When progress against the metrics is measured consistently and the original promises from the sales process are being met, salespeople are setting up their next sales.

When a salesperson uses navigation skills, everyone benefits: The customer gets to the desired destination (or results) faster. The selling company gets paid not only for its products or services, but both for the added value its salesperson provides by guiding the customer through the implementation process and for demonstrable, clearly measured results. In turn, the salesperson benefits by deepening the relationship with the customer and becoming an essential partner on the customer’s journey.