Subtext is the Tricky Part of Sales Intel

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  This article, and my strength is talking to people who are already committed to selling large B2B service contracts, and I want to take them further. Therefore this article may not be suited for beginners but it won’t hurt them either.

To win large B2B service contracts, sales reps propose customer solutions.

Those proposals are actions (think marriage). And in my opinion the proposal is the most important action in the sales cycle.

But before taking that proposal action, doesn’t it make sense to figure out “what’s really going on with that customer?”

Wouldn’t that help sales reps develop truly persuasive proposals and boost win rates?

To sell is to engage customers in a vision of their desired future that comes true because they've hired you as their supplier — It requires an emotionally engaging sales narrative — Get their hearts first and their heads will follow. Click To Tweet

And emotionally engaging narratives must be about something. Something that is strong, definitive, and clear. They need to be yes/no, for/against, blue/red, etc.

A 50/50, neutral, equally balanced narrative is zero, nothing, non-commital, not bringing anything to the party. It’s not memorable. Nor is it emotionally engaging (think school cafeteria lunches).

In Search of Sales Subtext

(click to enlarge)

To create emotionally engaging narratives (and their intellectually compelling solutions) one needs to have a motivating vision of “what’s really going on with that customer;” the unspoken with the spoken.

And that only comes from sales intel, which sales reps must acquire to win contracts.

Knowing where to look for that sales intel is the first part of the challenge (see “In Search of Sales Subtext“).

The second part of the challenge is knowing what sales intel to get AND how to make sense of it, which includes the tricky part: sales subtext.

But before we dig into sales subtext, let’s put the whole ball of wax (and the other types of sales intel) into context.

Types of Sales Intel (in 3 Levels)

Understanding what’s really happening with customers is never 100% visible to sales reps, nor is it solid concrete.

Sales intel is a murky world in which sales reps use facts, rumors, confidences, and best-guesses to create emotionally engaging narratives and their intellectually compelling solutions. Click To Tweet

The reality is reps must weave together sales intel from three different, unequal threads (all are important but some more than others).

Using all three sales intel in a sales rep’s/team’s proposal will motivate customers to select their proposed solution and secure those large, complex B2B contracts.

Sales intel is found in three different levels.


Level 1: Public Info provides Documentary Evidence

Customers’ public info provides documentary evidence of “what’s going on with that customer,” with some that may be aspirational and hopeful (marketing positioning) in addition to their factual performance.

Documentary evidence is found in:

  • Public filings (10-K, annual reports, etc.)
  • Press releases
  • Ads, websites, & marketing collateral (white papers, case studies, industry reports, etc.)
  • RFP communications because they’ re published to multiple suppliers during an RFP, 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

How Documentary Evidence HELPS Sales Reps

Documentary evidence gives sales reps:

Credibility with their own bosses that the opportunity at hand is worthy, i.e. the customer being pursued is desirable, whether its big, growing, profitable and/or in a strategic industry…

And provides a sales rep’s executive team confidence that…

Factual vetting has been done by sales reps and/or inside sales team, and the proposal that follows will be worth the risk pursuing… 

Which in turn provides sales reps…

Leverage with their bosses for aggressive pricing and/or including additional value-add services in their proposal.

Additionally, documentary evidence gets the entire sales team…

On the same page of understanding as to who the customer is and wants to be — a necessary starting place, don’t you think?

Why Documentary Evidence is NOT POWERFUL

Documentary evidence, because it’s public info, is available to all competitors and therefore doesn’t provide any one sales rep/team a competitive advantage — IF that’s all the sales intel they have.

By itself, documentary evidence is part of the known sales intel landscape. And hypothetically, if every bidding supplier were diligent enough to get it, they’d all pitch from the same playbook. And customers would see very similar solutions, which they do even though most suppliers believe they’re uniquely different.


Level 2: Informal Conversations provide Business Context

Informal conversations provide business context, which clarifies documentary evidence found in public info.

Business context adds color and depth to factual evidence to give sales reps a more useful picture of “what’s really going on with that customer.”

For example, when a customer publishes info about entering a new market it rarely describes the “who, what, when, where or how” of it. That’s what business context provides: It’s the useful specifics for sales reps to see where the customer is going, and how sales reps can develop a solution that will help the customer get there.

Sales reps get business context through informal conversations in social interactions, it’s part of their traditional relationship work, such as:

  • Lunches, dinners, coffee — out of the office, customers may feel freer to speak
  • Association meetings — 1-on-1, sidebar conversations at industry get-togethers

How Business Context HELPS Sales Reps

Business context helps sales reps…

Understand how customers’ organizations may move in a specific direction and/or implement strategies that are only hinted at in public info,

Which guides sales reps’ to dig deeper into customers’…

Specific initiatives that may arise from those public strategies,

That can make sales reps/teams aware of customer initiatives that may…

Impact purchases the customer makes relative to the sales reps’ proposed solutions.

Lastly, sales reps will begin to get a picture of, or potential scenario about the…

 Customer initiatives‘ importance, scope, timing, executive sponsors, and accountable owners.

Why Business Context is USEFUL but NOT POWERFUL

Experienced sales reps typically use customer relationships to get business context during informal conversations.

Since customers can, and often do have relationships with competing suppliers that means if some reps can get business context, then so can others.


Level 3: Insider Confidentials provide Sales Subtext

The most powerful level of sales intel is sales subtext. It’s powerful because it’s:

  • Hard to get
  • Not published to the outside world
  • Not known by competitors
  • What customers are secretly trying to accomplish / deal-with / overcome
  • An astonishing jolt of pure persuasiveness if captured in sales proposals

Sales subtext is found in the most intimate of places within customers’ organizations, such as:

  • Departmental politics
  • Personal rivalries
  • Identifying rising stars & fast-track leadership candidates
  • “Inside baseball” cultural rules
  • Changes in strategic direction
  • Key executives’ ambitions
  • Yet-to-be published goals
  • Secret initiatives

How Sales Subtext HELPS Sales Reps

With sales subtext, sales reps can create emotionally engaging narratives and intellectually compelling solutions. These are the narratives and solutions that win large B2B contracts because they:

  • Get inside customers’ heads
  • Surprise jaded customers
  • Change rigid mindsets
  • Flip foes into evangelists
  • Persuade customers to select your solution & contract your services


The Tricky Part of Sales Subtext

Reps get sales subtext only from being close to customers. Very close.

But now comes the tricky part. Ready?

Sales subtext is two things at one time; two aspects simultaneously.


1st Aspect: Sales Subtext is First-Hand News

First, sales subtext is insider confidential intel; told directly to reps from their insider customer confidantes. Direct questions that get direct answers for “what’s really going on with that customer.”

Sales subtext provides strong insight into the personal and human motives at play within the customer’s leadership and decision making groups — as much as it’s a full picture of the customer company’s status and future.

It’s All About Trust

To achieve this demonstrates a great deal of trust between customer and sales reps considering the confidential nature of the intel, and the potential consequences to customers if they’re discovered sharing that intel with outsiders.

First-Hand is Never the Entire Story

Alas, this direct, first-hand news from an insider confidential is never the full story. How can it be? The customer insider can’t know everything that’s going on in their firm.

And it’d be wonderful if sales reps had many customer insiders willing to tease out sales subtext. But again, that’s not typical.

Which leads to the necessity of the second aspect of sales subtext.


2nd Aspect: Sales Subtext is a Best Guess that Fills in the Blanks

Second, and simultaneously, sales subtext is what reps deduce from all their conversations and investigations. Some call it right-brain intuition sensing and feeling, rather than analyzing.

And then it’s about filling in the gaps. It’s about reading between the lines of what’s known and what’s not; of what sales reps have been told and what they’ve figured out on their own.

Sales reps and teams must wind together those different levels of intel into a single, cohesive scenario. A scenario that…

  • Starts with the documentary evidence,
  • Intertwines the business context,
  • Adds first hand insider confidential, and lastly…
  • Fills in the scenario’s blanks with informed best-guesses

This scenario will never be 100% certain, or 100% accurate because it can never be fully known. Large B2B service contracts have too many variables and players.

Sales reps and their teams accept they’ll move forward with a “good enough” scenario rather than holdout for “perfect” because the RFP clock ticks towards the proposal due date. And it’s more impactful to come in with a definite scenario, even if it’s off base, than to come in without one at all.

Remember, if a neutral, beige, middle-of-the-road scenario doesn’t move customers’ hearts, their heads won’t buy that supplier’s solution either.

At the end of the day, it’s this scenario that gives birth to an emotionally engaging narrative. One that practically writes itself — if strong intel exists.

It’s this scenario that drives the creation of an intellectually compelling solution. One that practically designs itself — if you have enough scribes to capture all the creative ideas that come rushing forth.


An Over-simplified Summary

  • Do the work — get 3 levels of sales intel — large B2B contracts are worth it
  • Get documentary evidence from public info
  • Learn business context from informal customer conversations
  • Sleuth out sales subtext from insider confidentials
  • Fill in the gaps with informed best-guesses
  • Thread together all intel into a single, cohesive scenario that will write it’s own:
    • Emotionally engaging narrative…and…
    • Intellectually compelling solution
  • Get that narrative & solution into the RFP response for a persuasive, winning proposal

Images by CC Flickr: London – Archive Research by Magnus HalsnesConversation by Alan Levinefolder-6 by michael_swanLet me tell you a secret by Cohen Van der VeldePuzzle by Thomas KohlerStraightforward by Thomas Quine

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Sales Subtext