The New Action Selling: Act 1: The Commitment Objective
Act 1 The Commitment Objective
If you aren’t moving ahead, you’re backing up.
At Seattle’s Sea-Tac International Airport, Matt and Joe dumped the rental car and checked in for their flight to Denver, Matt’s home base. There, Joe would catch a connecting flight and continue alone to Chicago.
They cleared security with an hour to spare before the Denver flight and headed for the airline’s V.I.P lounge. They poured themselves some coffee from an urn and found a quiet table.
“So, tell me about Action Selling,” Matt said. “It starts with Commitment Objectives?”
“All right,” Joe began, “first you tell me if this sounds familiar: You’ve made an initial appointment with a great prospect—call him Mr. Wright. You’ve heard his company has had some problems with its current vendor, and you figure they’re ready to make a change. You’re pumped. You’re confident. You’re going to walk into this guy’s office and wow him. You feel good about this one.”
“So you introduce yourself to Mr. Wright, and right off the bat he says, ‘Tell me what you can do for me.’ This is terrific, you think, because it lets you go right into your product pitch. Which you do. You cover our features, our service, and our technical support—the whole nine yards. Wright is taking it all in. He seems receptive. He gives you 20 minutes before he tells you he has another meeting. He asks you to leave your product brochures. And you walk out thinking, ‘Hey, that went well. I’ve got this one for sure.’”
“Every sale is a series of steps, a progression of milestones. And every milestone demands a commitment objective.”
Matt nodded again, more warily this time because except for the name Wright, Joe was describing their first client call that morning. Matt indeed had been confident going into the meeting and, yes, he felt good coming out. But he sensed that good feeling was about to evaporate. He was correct.
“So, where did you leave things with Mr. Wright?” Joe asked. “What did you agree on as the next step?”
“Well, I guess I’ll call Bob back and get another appointment,” Matt said, dropping the “Wright” pretense in favor of Bob Howell, the client to whom Joe obviously was referring. “I mean, there was no formal agreement, as such, but he did ask for the brochures. That means he’s interested…right?”
Joe’s head was shaking sadly before Matt finished. “You know what I’d be thinking if I were Bob Howell?” Joe said. “I’d be thinking: ‘Matt seems like a nice guy, and his product sounds pretty good, but for all we accomplished in here today he could have just sent me the brochures. I don’t have time for this. If he calls back, I’ll probably blow him off.’”
Ouch, Matt thought, remembering too many callbacks that had followed just that pattern.
“I take it this is where the Commitment Objective comes in?”
“Right,” Joe replied. He explained that Action Selling defines a Commitment Objective, as an agreement the salesperson wants from the customer, a commitment that will move the sales process forward to the next step.
A goal that we set for ourselves to gain agreement from the customer that moves the sales process forward.
“Our principal mission as salespeople is to get customers to commit,” Joe said forcefully. “That’s what we get paid to do. That’s the only reason we have jobs. If we’re not planning for the customer to commit to something, we’re not planning to do our job.”
What distinguishes a Commitment Objective from the salesperson’s other objectives is an agreement from the customer, Joe explained. A sales rep may have any number of goals or objectives for a client call, many of them excellent and even vital: to learn about the customer’s business, to discover who the competitors are, to figure out who makes the real buying decisions for the customer’s organization, to learn if funds are available for the purchase, and so forth. But none of those goals can be the primary reason for making a sales call because they do not require a commitment from the customer that will move the process forward.
“When you originally phoned Bob Howell to arrange this morning’s appointment,” Joe said, “you had a clear Commitment Objective in mind: You wanted him to agree to meet with you. And he did. He committed to a real, live meeting at a particular time on a particular day—9 a.m. today. So far, so good. You achieved your Commitment Objective for that phone call. And the process moved forward.
“But where was that clarity this morning when you walked into the meeting you’d succeeded in scheduling?” Joe asked. “This time you had no Commitment Objective. So you wound up leaving behind some brochures you could have mailed to him. And having given him reason to believe that scheduling appointments with you is a waste of time, you ‘guess’ your next step will be to call for another appointment.”
Matt thought about it. Then he muttered an expletive that will not be repeated here.
“Don’t beat yourself up too much,” Joe said. “Yes, it’s a dumb mistake, but it’s the most common mistake in selling. That’s what I meant about professionalism being a rare thing in sales despite all the people who sell for a living.”
Matt leaned back in his chair, scenes of past client calls playing in his mind. Where would I be today if someone had told me this nine years ago? At that moment it occurred to Matt that Action Selling was not just one more garden-variety sales program.
“For every interaction with a customer,” Joe said, stressing each word, “you must have a clear Commitment Objective firmly in mind. The Commitment Objective always comes first. No Commitment Objective, no sales call—period. Now, when you call Bob Howell for another appointment, what will your Commitment Objective be?”
“Easy,” Matt said, brightening. “I want him to agree to let me present a proposal detailing the advantages we offer and what his investment would be. And I want to do it in a meeting where other decision-makers in his company are present—ideally, everyone who’d have a say in the buying decision.”
“OK…that’s a clear Commitment Objective,” Joe said. He hesitated, as if about to argue some point, then evidently decided to swallow his reservations for the moment. “But if you’d thought about it beforehand, that actually would have been your Commitment Objective for this morning’s call, wouldn’t it? So when Howell told you he had to go to another meeting, you’d have been prepared to say something like: ‘As a next step, I’d like to present a proposal detailing our offering and the investment involved. Could we schedule something for next week?’ If you’d done that, you might already be at the spot you’re now hoping to reach as a result of your next call. But since you didn’t have that Commitment Objective in mind, you weren’t prepared, the process failed to move forward, and the opportunity most likely blew away.”
“No Commitment Objective, no sales call – period.”
Matt muttered the same expletive.
Joe grinned. “I’ll say it one more time: Every sale is a series of steps, a progression of milestones. And every milestone demands a Commitment Objective.”
Joe pulled a pad out of his briefcase and began to sketch. “For most companies, including ours,” he said, “some major milestones in the cycle will look like this.” He drew the diagram, and handed it to Matt.
Matt studied the diagram. “This is pretty much what I already do,” he said, “though I admit I never thought of it in terms of Commitment Objectives. But out in the field, you know, it isn’t nearly as simple as your chart makes it look.”
“What parts do you find difficult?” Joe asked.
“Well, hell, all of it,” Matt said. “Take the jump from the presentation meeting, where I first speak to all the decision makers, to the proposal meeting. In the real world, after I present our offerings to the decision-makers, they won’t immediately agree to listen to a formal proposal. They’ll want to talk it over, they’ll want to consider competitors, they’ll give me the old song and dance about how their company is unique—solutions that work for everyone else on earth won’t work for them. They’ll have a dozen reasons why they aren’t ready to listen to a formal proposal.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Matt hastened to add. “I can see where establishing Commitment Objectives up front would speed up the cycle. You’re right about Bob Howell; I could be further along right now if I’d set a Commitment Objective for this morning’s meeting. I’m still kicking myself about that. I’m just saying that the sales cycle will still be a tough nut to crack, regardless.”
Joe sipped his coffee and considered this. “Okay, two things,” he said finally. “First, defining the milestones in the sales cycle and setting Commitment Objectives for them will speed things up even more than you think. I’ve found that this alone can shave 25 percent off your sell-cycle time. That’s like giving you an extra three months of selling time every year.”
You can shave 25% off your sell cycle time with a Commitment Objective.
Matt’s eyes widened.
“That’s a fact,” Joe said. “But here’s the second thing. What you’re really telling me about why the cycle takes so long is this: Even after you’ve done a needs analysis with the client in your first meeting, a lot of issues arise later that you haven’t heard about. Is that right?”
“Well, yes, more or less,” Matt agreed uncomfortably.
“Where was the needs analysis in this morning’s meeting with Bob Howell?”
Matt’s confusion showed.
“Remember when I said you thought it was terrific that Howell gave you an opening to go straight into your product presentation and skip the chit-chat?” Joe asked.
Matt nodded warily.
“And do you remember that I hesitated when you first mentioned your Commitment Objective for the next meeting with Howell—the proposal meeting you want to schedule, where you tell him what his investment will be?”
If you skip vital Acts early on in the sales process, you will pay for it later.
Matt remembered, all right. Yes, he thought, there was that uncomfortable moment when you seemed to want to tell me that a proposal meeting was a foolish Commitment Objective for my next appointment with Howell.
“Those are two faces of the same mistake,” Joe said. “Namely, you’re skipping vital acts in the sales process. I don’t think you’re ready to present a good proposal to Howell or to talk price because you don’t know enough about his situation or his problems. And the reason you don’t is because you didn’t ask him about his problems. You let him push you into selling your company and your product before you could analyze his needs— before you could find out what really is unique about his company, at least in his perception. If you don’t uncover those things in the early going, of course they’ll come back and bite you later. They’ll gum up the process somewhere further down the line, like after you present your proposal to the decision-makers.
“Any chance that’s another reason why your sales cycle might seem long and difficult?” Joe concluded.
By this time, visions of unemployment were dancing in Matt’s head. Replaying the morning’s call on Bob Howell, he realized he really hadn’t done any needs analysis to speak of. I know better than that, he thought. Why did I do it?
Again, Joe seemed to read Matt’s mind. “This is another common mistake,” he said. “You’ve worked on your product presentation, you’re good at delivering it, and the temptation is to launch into it as soon as the client gives you an opportunity. The trouble is, that puts you out of sync with the predetermined order of the customer’s buying decisions.”
“Yes, you mentioned those before,” Matt said.
“Here’s another way to tell you everything I just said,” Joe went on. “In Action Selling’s terms, your mistake was to let Howell push you into selling your product before you could sell yourself. In fact, he won’t buy your product until he ‘buys’ your company, and he won’t buy your company until he ‘buys’ you— the salesperson.”
Matt decided he needed more coffee—or maybe something stronger.
“Don’t panic,” Joe laughed, seeing Matt’s expression. “I told you there are nine acts in the Action Selling process. We’ve just covered Act 1. Establishing a Commitment Objective takes place before the curtain rises on the actual drama—before the interaction with the client begins. In Act 2, we actually walk onto the stage. Which means it’s time to give you the big picture.”
From his briefcase, Joe pulled a laminated sheet and placed it on the table. Matt saw only that it showed a colorful diagram of some sort. Then Joe reached again for his pad and began to draw.