In They Ask, You Answer, Marcus Sheridan conveys the importance of Assignment Selling in digital sales and marketing.
I sat down with IMPACT Client Success Manager Nick Salvatoriello to get his take on the practice.
Assignment Selling is an intuitive and essential technique in the inbound sales rep’s repertoire that makes use of the great content you’ve already created and helps improve relationships with customers.
If you’ve never heard of this or don’t know where to start, read on!
John Becker: Can you first start us off by just talking us through a useful definition of assignment selling as you see it?
Nick Salvatoriello: The first I had heard of assignment selling was in Marcus Sheridan's book, They Ask, You Answer.
The concept has been around in sales for a long time, but I’ve found there’s a lot more of an opportunity to practice it in this increasingly digital world where we can easily create content and put it in front of a particular person we're working with.
What Marcus says is that assignment selling is when reps use information that's authored by themselves or their company, that's educational about what they're selling to resolve their prospect’s issues or concerns in general — before they come up.
Basically, it’s to much more dramatically prepare a prospect for a sales appointment than if the prospect went into one not knowing any information.
JB: It seems like such a natural part of the process. If the sales team feels as though they are always answering the same questions and they want that buyer to be as informed as possible, it seems like a natural step, especially if they've already created the content.
Sort of like, “Go back and look over this so that you know exactly where we come from, our philosophy and our kind of ethos. And then if you're still interested, let's move forward.”
NS: I think it does seem natural. Anybody who buys something is going to want to do some research. I think any sales rep that's still in business today knows they need to educate and provide content to a prospect. I just think what Marcus Sheridan was able to articulate makes so much sense in terms of how reps can do that as a standard practice.
It's the reason why They Ask, You Answer is a bestselling book and the reason our whole consulting firm exists: companies are not putting two and two together. They're not saying, "Well, instead of being viewed as reps, our prospect-facing people need to be viewed first and foremost as educators and guides who are helping people become prepared to understand the world that the business is operating in."
In Marcus's case [when he was a pool salesman], most people had never bought a swimming pool before. He needed to assign homework to educate them if he wasn’t going to spend hours at their home providing that education manually.
He used assignment selling to demonstrate he’s willing to take the time to teach proactively — if the prospect can demonstrate they’re willing to listen and learn from his experience in the pool industry.
JB: So it’s about producing the content that would be most helpful to those prospects?
NS: That's correct.
JB: What do you say to the salesman who says, "Well, I'm worried about scaring people away by giving them an assignment or addressing issues of price, of fit, of problems up front."
NS: That is probably the number one reason why a sales rep might not adopt this — or an organization might not adopt this. What we as a team have come to understand is that number one, our success as an organization stems from our ability to find, identify, connect with, and bring on the best fit possible client or customer. And that's a two-way street.
We're taking the time to put out good-quality, educational content that can prepare a prospect before they come into an appointment and help them figure out how we think and if we're a good fit for them. I have the permission to ask a prospect about, "Hey, would you now take the time to review this helpful educational content?"
The number one thing that will determine if a prospect is a good fit in any sales process is if they're willing to listen to you. If you give them an assignment to review a piece of content before the next appointment, the prospect has an opportunity to prove they’re willing to put in some time and educate themselves and thus have a much more productive meeting and a more positive buying experience.
However, that will not happen if we first can’t can prove that we're worth listening to and being educated by. And that is why we at IMPACT put such a big effort into authoring educational content that our prospects will find useful in their buying process.
JB: Some potential customers who might not be a good fit, they're going to fall out of the funnel at some point along the way.
Assignment selling is a way of knowing that the people who are moving forward are already willing to put in the time to learn about our business and what we do, willing to educate themselves about a process that might be unfamiliar to them. That way, going into it, we know and they know more about what the relationship will be.
NS: That's correct. There are really two stages you can best focus on doing this in.
The first is before you actually take that first appointment with a client. Some visitors may just be doing research.
You the prospect to be as educated and prepared as possible — and to have zero regrets and remorse about the time and the effort and the decisions they are going to make in the buying process. If you can give them some information before that first appointment, it's going to be a much more productive meeting.
The second stage where you can really help the prospect out is after you send in your proposal, your quote, or your pitch. It used to be that after I sent something like that over, I would just wait around a few days.
Every rep knows this feeling. You haven't heard anything from them and then finally you have to send them an email ‘checking in’ and seeing if they have any questions. It's annoying to send that email. It's annoying to receive. It's a lost opportunity if you’re not using it to educate and prove you’re a teacher first and a sales rep second.
If you already know what the common concerns are because you were listening in the sales appointment and you've already published a lot of research and educational content, you should be able to follow up and go, "It's been a few days since I sent you in the proposal. Here are some top concerns I heard that you have and here is a video and an article we have published addressing each. I’ll call you in a few days to see what you thought of how we address those concerns and we can decide if we’re a good fit to move ahead together or not."
JB: It's like sort of having a script for what would otherwise be a difficult or awkward conversation.
NS: Yes. And it gives you permission to then follow up and say, "I took the time to create that information. I took the time to listen to you and send that information. Did you take the time to review?" And if they did not take that time, then you then have the permission to say, "Then we may not be the best fit for you." And then they have a decision to make.
I think a big tenet in being successful in sales is helping the prospect always feel that they are in control. Now they have to decide if they would like to become a good fit (by watching, reading learning) or if they'd want to go in a different direction.
JB: Can you think about or share an example that's outside of digital marketing?
NS: I have a DJ business on the side, and people hire me for doing weddings or other events. I got a call today from somebody and they just wanted to know prices, which means they're shopping me against somebody else, and I said, "Have you looked at our website yet?" "No. I just went down and called these phone numbers. What's the price?"
I said, "Well, there's actually a lot of different factors that could impact the price. How many hours it is, the location of it. Will there need to be a detailed timeline for me to have to help you coordinate? Will there be additional sound systems needed, multiple locations, lighting effects and so on?"
I'm trying to now educate the prospect, and I told them where I have some information that helps them understand those different factors.
The prospect was surprised to hear I had such transparent information about pricing on my website. In this way, I'm being more upfront and more transparent than anybody else they could consider. That builds the trust.
JB: So you'll talk about price, right there?
NS: Yes. I say, "We have packages on there for what it looks like and what's involved. Why don't we take a look at that and if that's to your liking you can fill out the form and contact us and we can have a conversation." And that is a win/win for everybody.
The prospect wanted to know the price. I was willing to educate them on the price in the right context so they could make a better decision. And then I let them stay in control; it's easy for them to contact me and follow up.
If you have a lot of content and you have a lot of people come to your site and you get a lot of people wanting to talk to you, you can start to be picky and say, "I want to talk to those who are willing to take the time and effort to educate themselves rather than just give me the price and let's go for the lowest bidder."
JB: If a company wants to practice assignment selling, to what extent do you need to front-load the process with content creation in order for there to be something to point those prospects to?
NS: I think every business can and should be doing more of this. They should do more educating before and after every sales appointment. If you have an upcoming appointment or you've just finished an appointment, think about how you could educate prospects a bit more and anticipate some of the things they'd want to research next.
If you've been a sales rep at your organization for any period of time, you're probably familiar with some of the common questions, challenges, obstacles, fears, and desires people share when buying from a company like yours. Take the time to write out answers.
Then you can save those common answers as an email template. Eventually, you can take those paragraphs, load them into an article on your website so that you can say, "What I'm asking you to review and read on this topic is not a secret. It's something that we've made available so we can better educate the market about how our industry works.”
Start addressing some potential issues or concerns, and you can start creating content that way. You don't need a bazillion videos. I think at a bare minimum you need a content piece that addresses "This is what we do and why we do it. This is how the process works at a high level to be a client or customer of ours."
What I'm describing could be a 50-page document, could be it a one-page website.
Marcus Sheridan, when he started his own consulting firm to work with companies on implementing business principles like assignment selling, he took the best blog articles he had written and compiled them in a PDF eBook he required people to read before setting an appointment with him. And if someone read it, then they would know pretty quickly whether Marcus was a good fit for them or not.
If this type of content would scare off your prospect, you should say Hallelujah, because that was the goal, to find out the best-fit prospect who is willing to listen and learn from your experience and to not waste time with people who are not good fit prospects who might just want the cheapest price.
Now, if assignment selling is going to work for you, it's important that you put a lot of love and care into whatever piece of content you create to assign to prospects. It should be content based on the prospect's best interest so you can rightfully ask them if they're willing to commit that time to review it.
If they do, that is a great sign of somebody you want to work with. Give your prospect an opportunity to just show you if they are a good fit for you.
With today's technology you can find out if or when they clicked, how long they spent reading it, or what percentage of the video they watched.
If they turn out to just be in research-mode and aren’t ready to move forward, that's fine. Because the statistics show that about one in four of your prospects are like that. The benefit here is neither you nor the prospect wasted any time on a phone call or appointment that wasn’t going to be as productive because they weren’t ready.
JB: Maybe they come back in a year or 18 months.
NS: Yes. And they'll remember that you were the firm that stuck to their guns and insisted on them being as educated as possible and not the firm that just said, "Okay, okay, let's get to the sale. Let's get to the money." Because especially in this high demand industry that we're in, getting people to give you budget can sometimes be the easy part. What will be the hard part is, was that the best decision for everyone?