What should you, a business-to-business customer, expect from the sales professionals who are asking for your time?

This is a question you may not have considered. If pressed, you'd likely say, “Well, I expect him or her to answer my questions, sell me the product or service I need, charge a fair price, deliver on time and follow through on promises.”

Sounds reasonable, doesn't it?

Not really. In today's complex business world, the rules of selling have changed. The man or woman whose role once centered on polished presentations and glossy brochures (if not a line of self-serving propaganda) must now function as a valued and trusted adviser and be a source of competitive advantage.

There are many, many companies that claim to offer the products and services you need. Yet, all too often the strategy of their sales force is to battle the competition on capabilities and pricing in order to capture your business.

But the reality is that succeeding in today's marketplace is not about price. It's not even about products. Instead, success means being able to understand the very real, very complex problems you face and sort through all the available alternatives. And the right salesperson should be able to help you do so—and to create a solution that you would not have been able to come up with on your own.

It is this characteristic—the ability to collaborate with you, stimulate your thinking and create revenue-building solutions that you don't have the time or the wherewithal to create for yourself—that you should look for in the sales professionals who want to work with you. They are able to provide a competitive advantage for your company. They don't sit across the desk from you spewing information and hoping for a commission. They actually become an integral part of your business, making your life easier and contributing to your measurable success. The sales process is not done “to you,” but “with you.”

So how do you distinguish these top professionals from the traditional sellers? Look for these clues on how to spot great sales professionals:

They diagnose your problem. When a sales professional launches into a description of his “solution” without first establishing a clear understanding of your situation, be wary. A great salesperson never assumes that they or you understand the very real, very complex problems you face.

Instead, like a good psychiatrist, he methodically questions and diagnoses until he uncovers those problems and expands your awareness. Once you both clearly understand your problem—and you perceive all the ramifications of that problem—then he is justified in making recommendations.

After all, if you're not feeling any pain, why would you want to change? Diagnosis takes time and hard work. A credible salesperson proves that he is willing to provide both.

They ask questions, rather than tell stories. Conventional salespeople tell stories about their solutions, not to mention proclaiming the superiority of their company's brand, history and reputation. Prospective customers expect to hear these stories and rarely take them seriously. (Think about it: do you? )

Chances are you will take a salesperson seriously when she displays concern for the problems you may have and the expertise to solve them. This is demonstrated by asking questions, questions that you would not have thought to ask yourself. The true professional's activity is additive to your knowledge as well as her own. How else could a sales professional acquire the raw information she needs to make an accurate diagnosis and design an efficient solution?

They let you set the pace. If a salesperson is truly there to serve you, he will not rush you, pressure you or manipulate you. The last thing he will want to do is create mistrust or a confrontational atmosphere. Therefore he will let you discover, understand the impact of and take ownership of problems before he discusses solution options.

This will take a while. You will know you have a great salesperson if you find yourself feeling emotionally comfortable and communicating openly. This state of being is the only way to do mutually beneficial business.

They help you calculate the cost of your problem. It's not enough for a salesperson to say, “You have a problem and it's costing you money.” She must say, “We need to determine how much this is costing you and see if it make sense to pursue a solution.”

Vagueness is a red flag. If a salesperson shies away from establishing an accurate cost, it's either because she doesn't know the cost (or is too lazy to do the work to find out), or she's afraid the cost will be too low to justify the solution she's offering. Generally, the second reason is the most likely one. And maybe your problem isn't significant enough to justify the expense—and a great salesperson will suggest that to you and respect that outcome.

They don't let you fall into the “creeping elegance” trap. Let's say that you become so enthusiastic about the potential value of the solution a salesperson is offering that you drop into the “as long as we're going to do this we might as well also do that” mode of thinking.

A conventional salesperson might let you run up your wish list, all the time counting up the extra commissions in his head. A great salesperson will ensure that his sales do not expand beyond reasonable financial parameters. He knows that because complex sales inherently involve more than one decision maker, if you unnecessarily expand the scope of a solution one of your colleagues will shoot the whole project down. Thus, he loses your business—and you lose the benefit of the solution.

A truly good sales professional is worth his or her weight in gold. He will function as a consultant for you, a strategic partner, even an advocate. He will give you a competitive advantage. Instead of reluctantly dealing with a high-pressure adversary, you'll be forming a partnership based on mutual trust and respect.

Once you've known such an experience, you'll even be likely to recommend that your own salespeople adopt this approach. It really is the only way to do business in the 21st century.

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image of Jeff Thull

Jeff Thull is president and CEO of Prime Resource Group (www.primeresource.com) and the author of Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales (September 2006), The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale (Dearborn Trade Publishing, 2005) and Mastering the Complex Sale (2003).