Director of Client Success, Partner, Speaker, 8+ Years Sales & Client Success Expertise
December 2nd, 2019
Imagine this: You’re a salesperson getting ready for a call with a prospect. You’re anticipating any and all possible questions that might arise, ready to provide answers, case studies, details, and expertise that can assuage any buyer concerns that come up.
Then, in the call itself, just when you’re preparing to answer those same old questions from pretty much every sales call you make, something magical happens…
There are no questions. The prospect already knows the answers. Every one.
Somehow, this prospect already has all the information they need. Somehow, the trust you’re looking to establish is already there. The prospect is eager to move forward into the next stages of the sale.
This is assignment selling in action.
The wisdom of assignment selling
As coined by Marcus Sheridan in They Ask, You Answer, “assignment selling” is the process of using website and other digital content to educate prospects and address many of the questions that typically consume sales calls.
Before a sales call, a sales rep “assigns” several pieces of content to the prospect, asking them to read or view each piece before the call takes place. In turn, if the prospect completes the assignments, it’s a signal to the rep that they’re ready for and committed to the next stage of the sales process.
For Marcus, this switch in tactics yielded huge gains in his closing rate. As he details in his book, prior to developing and perfecting assignment selling at River Pools, he and his sales team operated with a close rate of about 30 percent.
However, after implementing assignment selling, his close rate more than doubled to 79%.
Now, what’s important to note is that Marcus wasn’t suddenly selling way more pools. While the number of sales certainly increased, the biggest change was that more of his sales meetings were with much more educated, and therefore qualified, prospects.
Assignment selling benefits
There are important ways that assignment selling can benefit your sales process immediately:
First, as mentioned, the most common and repetitive buyer questions can and should be answered for prospects by content on the company website. There, they can educate themselves on-demand and at their own pace, not having to worry about missing a detail during a call. Think of the experience as a walk-through of their future home without a real estate agent (sales rep) following them around, room-to-room.
The added benefit here is that a sales process designed around educating and teaching is a source of differentiation, and by default, puts the company ahead of the competition without doing anything else.
Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson present this concept in their book, The Challenger Sale, as “commercial teaching” — an essential part of building trust quickly with a prospect and creating separation between their experience with you and their experience with competitors.
Ultimately, when prospects are more educated in the sales process, sales conversations are shortened and more focused on the elements that close business. More sales opportunities are won — and won faster.
Better qualify leads = better use of sales reps’ time
Second, assignment selling helps to qualify leads beyond the standard inputs you’ll get from a prospect after they fill out a form on your website. Assignment selling qualifies a buyer’s level of commitment for going through with the purchase.
A committed buyer understands expectations around budget, timing, how things work, and the different options they have. Those are the prospects sales reps should be spending their time with.
Testing a prospect’s commitment, of course, comes from requiring them to consume specific content before or after calls. Whether they do or don’t is a clear trigger for reps on who to spend their time with.
It might seem counterintuitive, but should a prospect not complete their homework prior to a call, assignment selling empowers that rep to say, “We’re not yet ready to have this call,” and redirect their precious hours toward more committed prospects.
While this might seem discourteous, it’s actually of benefit to the prospect as well. After all, only the most educated buyer can make the best decisions for themselves or their organization.
Third, when sales reps begin to use your brand’s content, the process becomes more standardized across the team. Sales are approached with the same voice, language, and messaging. From the prospect’s side of things, it means they’ll have a consistent experience with your organization. From the company’s perspective, it means that the value of your product or service will never be missed or misconstrued through your reps.
Marcus calls this a “shared doctrine.”
Overall, assignment selling can be a sales reps’ greatest tool, but it’s all in how it’s used.
Just like anything else, assignment selling can be done wrong, turning a process designed to facilitate sales into a stumbling block.
Troubleshooting assignment selling
If you’ve adopted assignment selling and you’re finding that a prospect is hesitant to consume the content your sales team assigns, you can draw one of two conclusions.
Not ready to buy
First off, it simply might indicate that the prospect is not ready to buy. In other words, they’re likely still in the awareness stage of the buying journey.
This doesn’t mean, however, that your efforts have been wasted. Simply from assigning content for your prospects to consume, you have positioned your company to be top-of-mind when they are ready to make a decision. Perhaps you could start a nurturing campaign.
Moving a buyer from awareness to consideration to decision (or “zero moment of truth”) requires a great deal of education. Being seen as a teacher will help you stand out from your competitors.
Content quality and relevance
Second, perhaps the issue is in the content you’ve created. Do the materials that you’ve assigned address the main concerns or questions every single buyer has before making any purchasing decision?
Think about the things you must know before buying something. They will always center around the following:
How much does the thing cost? What could go wrong with it? How does it compare to the other things I'm looking at? If a certain company is not the best fit, who might be? and What are the best options?
We call these the Big 5 and this is the foundation for all sales content.
Simply stated — if you’re not addressing these topics directly in your content, it will not be useful in assignment selling.
Consider also that there could be a mismatch between where the buyer is in their journey and the content you're asking them to absorb.
One of my clients told me that a sales rep of theirs reflected, "I'd just rather have the conversation with the person than trust a document or video." In other words, the content didn't really address the needs of the buyer in a way that the salesperson could use.
Moving forward even if the prospect blatantly disregarded the assignments. In nearly all cases, we ask our prospects to read Marcus Sheridan’s They Ask, You Answer, which heavily informs our business model. If a client hasn’t taken the time to become familiar with They Ask, You Answer, we instruct our sales reps to assess the overall situation before moving forward with the prospect. We’ve learned in the past that when clients don’t educate themselves on our philosophy, it becomes a much longer and more difficult sales process for both sides.
Basing your assignment selling on content that is solely text-based. It’s no wonder that Cisco is saying that by 2022, 82% of all content consumed online will be video-based. Humans are visual creatures, and we want to “get it all and get it fast.” Video often proves to be the most useful tool in educating quickly and thoroughly.
Assigning too much content — or content that is not specific enough. Imagine receiving an email with 15 different links, along with a request to read it all before the next call. Or, perhaps a link to a page without guidance about its relevance. Often times, when someone is presented with too many options, no option (or the wrong option) is selected.
At IMPACT, we make sure that any assigned content is highly relevant and absolutely necessary to have a productive conversation.
Vetting the process
So, how can a company self-evaluate and “audit” its assignment selling process?
Start by interviewing your sales reps. Ask them the following two questions:
"What are the questions prospects ask you in almost every sales conversation?"
"What things do you wish you didn't have to explain or re-explain to prospects while on a call?"
Each of your sales reps should have no problem drumming up dozens of questions since they've been peppered with them for months and years.
Interestingly enough, you'll find that the vast majority of those questions will align with the Big 5 content topics.
With these questions documented, you've now not only created your content editorial calendar for the next couple of months, you've also put into motion the production of content that every sales team member will actually use and potential buyers will crave.
Once that content has been put to use by sales, it's important to seek frequent feedback.
Are prospects showing up to calls more prepared?
Are conversations more focused on action and next steps as opposed to education?
Is this content proving to close deals faster?
What are prospects asking you that we still haven't addressed? (remember: content production is a continuous process)
This is the way sales and marketing teams create alignment.
As you gather this information, iterate on the process. Update content, produce relevant video resources, document close rate and content consumption, and encourage sales and marketing alignment.
The right path forward
If your sales reps' time is being exhausted repeating the same information to multiple prospects, or worse, speaking with prospects who aren't yet ready to commit to the buying process, you're leaving money on the table.
Your website and digital content is the best sales tool your reps will ever have. Delivering that content to prospects in the form of assignment selling allows your sales teams to spend their time in the right places — closing deals, not "working" deals.
Assignment selling is the key to better qualifying a prospect's commitment to the sales process, creating differentiation through education, shortening the sales cycle, and giving valuable time back to your sales reps, all resulting in dramatically improved close rates.