Source: HBR.org/ Matthew Dixon, Ted McKenna, and Tom Shepherd
Particularly during the pandemic, when face-to-face visits with customers have been constrained, inbound selling in calls centres has become more important to company revenue. New research uses recordings of millions of such calls, analyses the way Salespeople drive the conversation, and record whether the call results in a sale. This analysis shows four behaviours that play the biggest role in converting callers into buyers: Disqualifying callers who shouldn’t be dealing with a salesperson, prescribing a solution to the customer problem, digging into objections, and de-risking the purchase so callers don’t get off the phone to “think it over.” Only 1% of calls contained all four of these behaviours — but when they did, 70% of calls resulted in a sale.
The inbound call centre has always been a significant revenue channel for B2C companies in industries like financial services, insurance, home services, travel, and retail — to name just a few. While the quest for higher sales conversion rates is nothing new for these organizations, this effort has taken on new urgency during the pandemic as companies look to make up for the steep decline in in-person interactions with their customers.
Our research team at Tethr, an Austin-based conversational analytics venture, recently built a predictive sales model containing more than 8,300 independent variables that we tested against a data set of roughly 2.5 million sales calls from a dozen companies. The resulting analysis surfaced some surprising and counterintuitive discoveries about how the best companies and agents increase conversion rates and generate more sales than their peers.
Lesson #1: Disqualify aggressively
Even when looking specifically at calls that end up in a company’s sales queue, a sizable percentage of that volume comes from customers who have no interest in or intention of buying anything. In other words, these are customers who have service requests but, for one reason or another, wind up in the sales queue. We found that these misdirected calls happen for many reasons: some callers accidentally key in the wrong number, while others select the sales queue because they know that the company answers sales calls faster than service calls. Regardless of the reason, these service contacts end up creating a significant drag on the overall productivity of an inbound sales organization.
In our study, roughly one-third of all “sales” calls were actually service inquiries. These calls result in the lowest sales conversion rates — 16% — of any of the call types in our study. Not only do sales agents not sell very much to customers looking only to get problems resolved, but the calls themselves — while shorter than sales calls — are still time-consuming for agents. (They average 7.5 minutes apiece.)
A hallmark of high-performing B2B salespeople selling complex solutions is that they don’t “chase garbage trucks.” Instead, they aggressively disqualify bad-fit opportunities from their pipelines in order to free up time to concentrate on those deals that have a real chance of converting. The data suggest that high performers in call center-based sales environments also see their time as a scarce resource. These agents were far more likely to suggest — typically within a minute — that the caller’s issue would be better handled by a service representative so that they can get on to the next call in the queue — ideally, a call with a potential buyer.
Unlike their high-performing peers, average-performing sales agents spend significant time trying to help customers looking to resolve service issues. While their hearts are surely in the right place, the analysis shows they would be better off sticking to sales and passing along service calls to the right department. The percentage of time these sales reps are silent on service calls — an indicator that reps are stumped by a customer request and unsure of how to proceed — is significantly higher than what we see from them when they are dealing with sales inquiries.
Lesson #2: Drive customer decisions by prescribing, not diagnosing
High performers know that taking orders from willing buyers is easy, but what really separates them from their peers is their ability to convert more hesitant “shoppers” into buyers in the span of a short call.
In our study, we found that shoppers constituted 40% of the sample, the largest of all groups, and their conversion rate was an order of magnitude lower (22%) than that of willing buyers (36%). Put simply, converting shoppers into buyers is where inbound sales are won or lost. This represents one of the biggest points of leverage for the sales organization to boost performance.
Similar to what we’ve found in researching what the best B2B sales reps do – and contrary to what is typically taught in sales training — our analysis shows that high-performing sales agents focus less on diagnosing customer needs and more on prescribing solutions to customers. Of all of the agent behaviours we surfaced in our analysis, offering personalized, prescriptive guidance to customers (e.g., “Personally, I would choose this package” or “Here’s the plan I would go with”) had the greatest positive impact on conversion rates.
More often than not, today’s shoppers have already done research online before calling in. As such, the last thing they want or need is a sales rep to drag them back to square one by asking a series of scripted questions. Similar to previous research that has shown that customers want to interact with “controller” service reps when resolving complicated issues, it turns out that shoppers have a similar preference for sales reps who tell them what they need, not ask them what they want to buy.
Lesson #3: Dig into customer objections
High performers know that the kiss of death in inbound sales is letting the customer off the phone with a promise that they will “call back later,” which customers rarely, if ever, do. In fact, our data show that phrases like “I’ll think about it” and “I need to talk to my significant other” are the most prevalent objections in lost deals. In the fast-paced world of consumer sales, these reps know they have only minutes to convert an opportunity into a closed sale.
Where average performers look to avoid discussing concerns and objections for fear that bad news will ruin their chances for a close, high performers look to actively engage customers to surface unarticulated objections so that they can address these concerns head-on and overcome them. When surfacing and addressing customer concerns, the conversation with a high performer can sound a bit like a sparring match. Conventional wisdom in sales is that reps should talk less than the customer, avoid speaking over them and never interrupt the customer when they are talking. But, surprisingly, these are exactly the behaviours that we found to be some of the strongest positive drivers of deal closure. The opposite is true of rep silence time which proved to be one of the strongest predictors of a lost sale.
The guidance for sellers isn’t that interrupting and cutting off customers will make them buy, but rather that they shouldn’t be afraid of openly disagreeing with the customer, pointing out misunderstandings and putting misplaced concerns to bed. When we looked at examples of these behaviours in actual calls, it came across as respectful but firm intervention. High performers know an objection unstated is an objection that will continue to fester and lead to hesitation and reconsideration.
Lesson #4: De-risk the purchase decision
Even when reps have prescribed a perfect offer to the customer and dealt with their concerns and objections head-on, customers often still need a nudge to get them to commit to a purchase before the end of the call — especially when the call started with the customer expressing hesitation about purchasing and with a natural predisposition to not commit in the moment and instead take more time to think about it.
In our analysis, we found that the best reps give customers a nudge by de-risking the choice to buy now. For customers who come into a call intent on purchasing — but then start to talk themselves out of the decision — a skilled rep will look to de-risk the purchase decision by creating a sense of scarcity and urgency (“I can’t guarantee this rate will be the same tomorrow…if you are inclined to purchase, you should lock in the price now”). And for more hesitant shoppers, high performers might look to de-risk the decision by providing a safety net (“Remember that you have a 30-day cancellation window. So, if you talk to your partner after you hang up and decide you no longer want the service, you can easily call us back to cancel.”). Doing so provides shoppers with the confidence they are looking for before deciding to buy.
By contrast, average performers in our analysis tended not to create any closing urgency and were far more content to let customers off the line so that they could think about the offer on their own time.
Better understanding how we sell…and what we sell
Our research shows that these four skills – disqualifying poor opportunities, driving customer decisions, digging into objections, and de-risking the purchase decision — are highly predictive of closed sales in an inbound B2C environment.
The sales improvement opportunity from using these techniques is compelling. Because these techniques are not taught in the typical sales training class — and, in some cases, are the opposite of what’s being taught — we don’t see them very often in real sales calls; 16% of the calls we looked at showed none of these high performer practices being demonstrated. In those cases, conversion rates were a dismal 5%. By comparison, when all of these techniques are used — which, in our study, we only saw on 1% of all calls — we saw a 70% conversion rate. For most B2C brands, just getting reps to regularly use a handful of these techniques can translate into a huge improvement in revenue generation.
The potential insights from this new, relatively untapped data source aren’t limited to selling skills, however. Leading companies have found that these unstructured data offer a better source of customer insights into things like products, marketing offers and competitive positioning than traditional data collection methods like surveys.
The era of guesswork is over. Advances in technology now allow sales leaders to gain a deeper level of insight into performance —both how to sell more effectively and how to improve the effectiveness of their offers — than they’ve ever had before.
Comment: There are some very interesting tips mentioned above . Is your inbound Sales team spending too long on “Service” type calls or Account Management rather than selling? Perhaps it’s time to review your “Inbound” call handling process.