The impact of accelerated change in the business environments of most companies is undeniable. Disruptive technologies, lower barriers to competitor entry, shifting needs and expectations of customers, macroeconomic conditions; and the impact of numerous geopolitical events are some of the variables that now require most companies to be in a state of constant evolution. This accelerated rate of change impacts just about all industries, functional areas and job roles; however, it is quite possibly the world of sales in which we find some of the greatest disruption and need for evolution.
This trend reversal can be attributed, to a large degree, to the new level of complexity facing sales professionals in today’s business environment. This new level of complexity is fuelled by the reality that the buying process has become much more sophisticated and customers have an expectation for value that extends well beyond the features and benefits of any particular product or service. Unlike the days of transactional and tactical selling, customers are increasingly demanding tailored solutions anchored in industry and functional expertise. There is also increasing expectations that vendor/supplier companies will partner to solve tangible business problems, with overall value determined by measurable business outcomes, not just by features and price. That is, unlike the days in which the sales professional was responsible only for communicating functions, benefits, and advantages (a situation that often led to significant disconnects between the sales professionals and economic decision makers), today’s sales professional is expected to provide solutions that result in relevant business-driven return on investment.
The Ever-Changing Sales Environment
Advances in the B2B procurement process during the 1980s and 1990s ushered in more advanced buying practices, fostering supplier competition and reducing the impact of “charismatic” sales professionals. The drive to install greater structure into the buying process in order to “protect” purchasing personnel from the ego-driven sales person, as well as to ensure that purchase decisions address the diverse needs of the full range of stakeholders impacted by that buying decision, moved the world of sales from transactional to solution selling. It was around this time that thought leaders in the sales profession increased awareness that aggressiveness manifested by sales professionals often led to defensiveness in the buyer, while fostering trust and understanding created an environment of cooperation.
Recent research in the neuroscience of influence and persuasion confirms that sales professionals can have a significant impact on how the brains of buyers process interactions as potentially rewarding or threatening. As the sales process became increasingly more complex, techniques emerged that were designed to promote top-down alignment to the political and economic power within the buying organisation. This led to the most successful sales professionals focusing on implications of business problems and the specific benefits of resolving them by implementing solutions. However, the world of sales generally was slow in adopting the solutions approach and continued to operate below the level of real power, as many sales professionals persisted with the features and benefits approach to conveying value.
“ Today’s successful sales professional can no longer expect to show up, fill the room with personality, and win based on a persuasive presentation of features and benefits.”
Perhaps the most obvious change in the reality of today’s sales professionals is the significant increase in the amount of product/service and company information available to the customer at the earliest stages of the buying process. Long before the buyer is introduced to the sales professional, he/she is likely to be fully aware of the features and benefits of the product/service offering, what competitors offer as alternatives, and reviews from other companies that have previously engaged the vendor/supplier. Therefore, today’s successful sales professional can no longer expect to show up, fill the room with personality, and win based on a persuasive presentation of features and benefits. To be successful, today’s sales professional must serve as a business consultant and partner and help the company hone its competitive advantage by clearly conveying deep, contextual knowledge of the needs of the customer organisation, competitor activity, trends in the customer’s customer base, and how the product/service being offered will address strategic issues and provide real RoI.
While all of this reflects an obvious need to continually evolve the approach to B2B sales, it is also true that there are many elements of sales that remain as important as they were in years gone by. At the core of sales remains the critical task of building rapport and then persuading others to make commitments and take action. As such, it remains important for the sales professional to initiate new relationships, establish credibility, and use personal impact by confidently expressing ideas and opinions, tailoring communication style to meet the receptivity needs of the audience, and eliciting trust by conveying the intention and competence to affect positive outcomes for the customer. These aspects of effective selling remain necessary, but are woefully insufficient to establish one’s self as a top performer. The sales professional today must be willing and able to take on the added “burden” of helping customers navigate the complexities of their consistently changing realities and business needs.
Caliper’s extensive research in sales performance over the last 60 years points to the need to greatly expand the traditional hunter/farmer conception of sales and to consider a wider range of sales-related functions that are more in line with how customers buy in today’s complex environment. This research has involved scores of companies and thousands of incumbent sales professionals across a wide range of industries. Below, are tabulated the success profiles of the various sales categories that emerged from the analysis. Each one is described at length in subsequent Articles which can be accessed here:
- The ‘Traditional’ Sales – New Business and Account Development
- Sales through Service – Account Service Specialist
- The Collaborator – Consultative Sales
- The Subject Matter Expert – Technical Sales
- The Knowledge Broker – Strategic Sales
Find out how leading Indian companies are using psychometrics for profiling candidates that fit into various types of Sales Roles.
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