How Provocation Changes the Sales Cycle - HBR large


Unconventional circumstances call for unconventional approaches. Instead of the classic search for a solution, maybe you need to search for a failure

The enduring economic downturn (‘double dip’, ‘structural recession’, ‘long slide’) has made the discipline of selling harder than ever. Maybe you don’t want go so far as to ‘fire your customers’, but Philip Lay, Todd Lewlin and Geoffrey Moore (yes, that ‘Geoffrey Moore’ of ‘Crossing the Chasm’ guruship) have argued in in the Harvard Business Review that you should at least ‘In a Downturn, Provoke Your Customers.’

Provocation-based selling helps customers see their competitive challenges in a new light that makes addressing specific painful problems unmistakably urgent.”

Three requirements…

  1. Identify a problem (embrace a failure)
  2. Take a provocative point of view
  3. Lodge the provocation with the decision maker

They contrast it to the most prevailing form of selling…’Solution Selling’. Solution selling ‘aligns with the prevailing point of view’ while Provocation ‘challenges’ it. Solution Selling ‘addresses acknowledged pain points’, while Provocation ‘addresses unacknowledged angst’.

The article does talk about ‘Reaching the Right Ears’. I think that this consideration is a useful application of the ‘Leader vs. Manager’ distinction. In principle, you want to target an executive with a ‘Manager’ persona and who will pay heed to problems and failures you identify, versus a Leader who might prefer to just carry on ignoring them. So Provocation Selling is about targeting the customer who is willing to embrace failure that you present them.

The business bonus to ‘Everything Must Go’ is a primer on salesmanship as the protagonist Nick mentors Kenny in the art as he applies his years of experience to his unconventional yard sale (Rule #1: Know Your Products. Rule #2: Know Your Customers. Rule #3: Go the Extra Yard). Coincidentally, Nick does a bit of his own Provocation Selling with his new neighbour Samantha…

  • Nick Halsey: You need to put up some curtains.
  • Samantha: Why? So I don’t have some drunk staring at me all day?
  • Nick Halsey: No so you don’t have to look at your future.