TALKING SALES 33: “Understand the business context”



24aaeb9In this short discussion John Smibert asked Bernadette McClelland what salespeople need to do to engage more effectively with prospective customers.

Bernadette said that we need to move to a new level.  We need to understand the business context that the customer is in and chunk up our language – we need to communicate with them in that context – not in the context of our product – and not even in the context of their problems and issues.

Bernadette outlines why this is valuable for our sales and she provides us with insight into how we can achieve this.



Bernadette McClelland is a sales leadership expert. She helps bridge corporate goals with revenue potential. She’s a leading author and she’s a keynote speaker.

See more of the ‘TALKING SALES’ series here


John: Bernadette, we spoke previously about the fact that salespeople need to be more entrepreneurial. Then we talked about how to leverage social media to be more entrepreneurial and engage more effectively. I’d like to talk about how salespeople would do that more effectively, to engage more effectively.  I know a lot of salespeople still think “feature, function, benefit” around their product. I think that mindset might be wrong for effective engagement. What should the mindset be and how do people need to adapt?

Bernadette: I don’t necessarily believe it’s wrong, it’s foundational. We need to understand the features, the advantages and the benefits of our product – so we need to understand it from a product perspective. But what we also need to understand is: ‘Why did our buyer go to market in the first place? Not why would our buyer buy our product’, but – ‘why did our buyer go to market?’

John: So, we need to think about the product feature, function and benefit in that context. Is that what you’re saying?

Bernadette: It’s almost like “Let’s just put that to the side.” We need to know that anyway, as professional salespeople we need to understand that. But the next level up from that is understanding why our buyer has gone to market and what the context is. So, we can understand the content of what we’re selling, but to increase our business acumen – and a lot of salespeople think that they need to be financially more knowledgeable when it comes to business acumen, but it’s really not.  It’s also understanding the context.

So, for example, if you’re with a buyer and you’re understanding their challenges and the implications of those challenges, and you’re able to recap back to them what it’s really all about. So, John, what this is really all about, it’s really about elevated levels of communication, isn’t it?

John: And that’s being able to challenge them.

Bernadette: It is, but you can do both.

So, if you’re looking at being able to go to that next spot of “challenging” by bringing it into some kind of context then you’re going to allow both of you to go down that path as far as the conversation’s concerned. But, we need to chunk the conversation up, we need to get the conversation away from the problems and the challenges and the implications, and it’s about agreeing on a context. So, those words such as “It’s all about growth.” or “It’s all about innovation.” –] we put our own interpretation on those words.

Which is why politicians – you know, they speak in that language all the time; linguistically it’s called normalisation. So, salespeople need to understand how to chunk up their conversations to a real contextual level.

John: And that would help them speak at a more senior level, at the CXOs and so on of this world.

Bernadette: Absolutely. Because the higher up the organisation you go—we know that the C level are not interested in specifics, so we need to be able to talk in their language.

John: Let’s go back then. What are the basic steps for a salesperson that’s listening to what you’re saying right now; first, second and third things they need to do to start thinking this way.

Bernadette: What I believe that you need to do is you need to understand from your own perspective what your products actually—the benefits. So, you do need to understand that.

John: The value. I like the word “value” versus “benefits.” Is it hackneyed?

Bernadette: Yeah, okay – I’ll go with that! [laughs]

John: Okay.

Bernadette: But, we also need to understand why our buyer has gone to market in the first place and understand their language.

John: And that’s understanding then what the buyer perceives as value.

Bernadette: Absolutely, absolutely.

John: And not what we perceive as value.

Bernadette: Because there is a disconnect, so we need to be able to understand the context that the buyer’s gone to market.

John: For a lot of salespeople this is difficult, isn’t it? Because they’ve lived in this world of “feature, function, benefit”.

Bernadette: Correct.

John: “I have a product, I can understand my company value proposition.” But it’s really saying “Put all that aside. Now let’s get in the customer’s shoes and really understand the context of their business and their issues and their challenges and where they’re going with that.”

Bernadette: Yes.

John: “We’re not even thinking about our product.”

Bernadette: Absolutely, and that’s where you can go to a challenger level if you like, once you’ve got that ability to speak at a contextual level.

John: You can now become a domain expert.

Bernadette: That’s exactly it.


See more of the ‘TALKING SALES’ series here


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John leads three related organisations, Custell, Strategic Selling Group and Sales Masterminds APAC. These help B2B selling organisations, who recognise the need to transform their sales capability, to respond to the tsunami of change that is starting to wash over us all. He works with people who recognise that to survive they must more strategically support their customer in their buying journey - and understand that they must become specialists in the customer's domain in order to be of value to them. He also helps sales teams build differentiated personal brands and leverage the digital and social worlds to engage to create trust and value.

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