In Search of Sales Subtext

To win more complex B2B sales, change the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid” —to— “it’s the sales subtext, stupid.”

The altered phrase will remind sales reps to dig deeper to understand customers’ businesses before they rush the pre-packaged obvious in front of them.

Hopefully, “it’s the sales subtext, stupid” activates sales thinking rather than insult.

For those unfamiliar with the original phrase, here’s where it came from:

“It’s the economy, stupid” is a slight variation of the phrase “The economy, stupid”, which James Carville had coined as a campaign strategist of Bill Clinton‘s successful 1992 presidential campaign… Carville’s original phrase was meant for the internal audience of Clinton’s campaign workers as one of the three messages to focus on…”

If you can forgive the brusqueness of “it’s the sales subtext, stupid,” let’s unpack it to improve our chances to win large, complex sales.


Defining Sales Subtext

Most definitions of “subtext” associate it with fiction, such as Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe.

But, if we revise it slightly we have a great sales definition:

Sales subtext is the unspoken thoughts and motives of customers — what they really think and believe — the deeper, actionable truths instead of what customers tell sales reps. Click To Tweet

What sales rep wouldn’t want to know what customers really think and believe?


Deeper, Actionable Truths

Sales subtext gets at those “deeper, actionable truths” — truths that get inside customers’ heads.

And when customers are presented with their deep truths in an emotionally, engaging proposal, they’re shocked out of complacency:

“Hey, what the….?”

“How did they…?”

“Well, wait a minute…now come to think about it…that makes perfect sense…”

“OK, wow! That’s amazing what they came up with.”

In that moment customers come to realize the truth of those insights as well as recognize they hadn’t articulated them before.

For sales reps, this is an almost magical moment. It’s the biggest payoff, second only to winning the deal:  To tap into a level of connection with customers that makes them feel:

“Hey, this supplier really gets us.”

“They really know who we are.”

“We’re kindred spirits.”


The Heart of the Sale

In B2B sales, as in life, seeing what’s really happening, and then speaking to it has incredible power and persuasiveness.

Whether that’s describing an unspoken risk and presenting a way to mitigate it while protecting against future vulnerabilities —or— describing a new, unseen  opportunity with a plan to leverage available resources to profit by it.

It’s all about the customer’s world, and understanding sales subtext gives reps actionable advantages.

But it’s not easy.

Sales reps must dig for subtext among the distracting communications of business; to hunt for the true signals buried in the noise. There are no easy connect-the-dots. Click To Tweet

That ability, and commitment, to look for sales subtext is of the greatest importance to sales reps.

For without those deeper truths, how can an emotionally engaging narrative be created? Or how can an intellectually compelling solution be designed?

Sales Intel in 3 Levels

In Search of Sales Subtext
(click image to download)

Public Info — Simple, Easy, Obvious

The easiest of all customers’ sales intel to gather. And while easy to get, it’s still necessary.

Public Info provides the meta-business context within which sales subtext will sit, and includes:

  • Ads, websites, & marketing collateral (white papers, case studies, industry reports, etc.)
  • Public filings (10-K, annual reports, etc.)
  • Press releases

Sales subtext begins here with theories and best-guesses. By reading between the lines of Public Info, reps can come up with a list of possible theories of what’s really going on.

However, at this stage, the intel is only the basis for sales subtext. It requires further sleuthing in Informal Conversations and Inside Confidentials (see both below).

Also, RFP communications are included in this level. Even though they’re less public, they are published to multiple outsiders (suppliers) during an RFP process, and include:

  • RFP documents — give scale & scope but not the intel needed to win the sale
  • Q&As in RFP Walk-Throughs — clarification around specs to get pricing & coverage correct

Unfortunately, far too many reps rely on RFP documents and Q&As for actionable sales intel. But deeper insights just aren’t there. Procurement makes sure of it. And by the time an RFP is relased, customers aren’t allowed to share what reps need to know to win.


Informal Conversations — Testing Theories

Hopefully, sales reps talk to customers long before an RFP is released. It’s in these social events that reps seek to build customer relationships and test their theories of what’s really going on.

  • Wining & Dining — out of the office, customers may feel freer to speak
  • Association Meetings — 1-on-1, sidebar conversations at industry associations

Sales subtext theories get tested here. Nothing overt but throughout multiple seemingly casual conversations reps float possibilities and best-guesses up as trial balloons to see how customers respond.

At this stage, reps’ theories get revised repeatedly as parts of sales subtext are revealed during Informal Conversations. Theories are annihilated and reborn with better ones. And often, what customers’ don’t say can be just as enlightening as if they had expressly shared confidential info.


Inside Confidentials — The Goldmine

The deeper the customer-rep relationship, the more clearly sales subtext crystallizes. These are customer-friends, willing to tell it like it is, and they’re either more secure in their jobs or have great trust in the rep, or both.

This open-kimono sharing of critical and confidential information is the most powerful for reps to get — It is THE sales subtext, the most desired sales intel to acquire.

Only with this level of deep truth and insight can reps surprise jaded customers, change rigid mindsets, and flip foes into evangelists.

It all comes down to how well reps know what their customers really think and believe. With that sales subtext, emotionally engaging narratives and intellectually compelling solutions almost write themselves.

All the following aren’t necessary for that level of insight. However, the more that’s known, the more light is thrown on customers’ realities. Here’s what reps should seek:

  • Departmental Politics
  • Personal Rivalries
  • Inside fast-track Star Managers
  • “Inside Baseball” Cultural Rules
  • Changes in Strategic Direction
  • Key Executives Ambitions
  • Yet-to-be Published Goals
  • Secret Initiatives



Sales subtext is:

  • What customers really think & believe
    • The deeper, actionable truths instead of what customers tell sales reps
    • The truth that gets inside customers’ heads & surprises the jaded ones, changes rigid mindsets, & flip foes into evangelists
  • Read between the lines of Public Info to start theories & best-guesses
  • Tested with customers during Informal Conversations, then refined to more crystallized versions
  • Confirmed and/or finalized with Inside Confidentials: the customer-friends who trust & respect their reps
  • For writing emotionally engaging narratives & creating intellectually compelling solutions
  • The basis for winning large, complex B2B sales

Image: High definition by Ramon Eduardo Lugo Gutierrez, Listen by Thomas Hawk

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