The sales profession has seen more changes in the last ten years than in the eighty previous. Here are the five biggest.
We live in a new world of selling. My career started in 1990, and I often look back at the early 90s as (what should have been) the death throes of the old-time, old school manipulative sales tactics. In fact, my first training as a salesperson used most of those old tactics. When I got back to my job, I quickly learned that, the less of these tactics I used, the better I did and the more my customers enjoyed the experience.
As my career progressed, I’ve developed certain philosophies and ideas about how selling should be conducted. I’ve also discovered, however, that it’s best to allow these ideas to evolve over time; salespeople who don’t evolve are left behind. In fact, our profession has seen more changes in the past ten years or so than in the previous eighty – and salespeople are, unfortunately, getting left behind every day.
Today, I’d like to discuss the five biggest changes in the world of selling, as we find it today – along with the ways that you can evolve to keep up and maybe even get ahead of the curve.
Change #1: The need for salespeople to EARN our place in the customer’s buying process: When I started in selling, I had no real competition. By that I mean that I had no competition for my place in the supply chain. I had competitors for my customers’ business, of course – but the salesperson’s spot wasn’t threatened. Whether I was selling cars, industrial supplies, or plastics, my customers HAD to deal with me, or someone like me, in order to get what they needed. They couldn’t just order off the Internet. A few customers chose to fax orders in, but even then they would get a confirmation call from me or my inside salesperson to make sure the order was right.
It isn’t that way anymore, folks. Your customers can simply get on the Internet and buy what they need – no matter what it is. That means that our burden has changed. We now have to EARN our spot in the customer’s visitor chair, or they won’t see us.
Change #2: The end of old, manipulative sales techniques: Once upon a time, the sales training world was a different place. Sales trainers spent decades piling new insincere, manipulative tactics on top of the old, insincere, manipulative tactics. It worked like this: Come up with some way to manipulate people into buying, or into thinking they had no alternative to buying. Then give your tactic a clever name – so your audience would think that you knew some magic technique they didn’t. This made you “marketable” to your clients. This begat the Sharp Angle, the Take Away, and yes, even the Firing Horace. The trouble is that all those tactics have trained not only salespeople, they’ve trained our customers. Customers can spot this junk, and when they do, you immediately lose your credibility.
Change #3: No more “Person Who” calls. The “person who” call is low-end prospecting. When I started in selling, our best prospecting tool was the phone book. So, you’d call a prospect company and ask the receptionist, “Can you direct me to the person who handles industrial purchasing? (or whatever you were selling)”. The receptionist would then direct you to the lowest possible person on the food chain who had any tangential contact with what you were selling – or worse, to the purchasing department. You were as removed from the actual buying decision as you could get while still being physically on the premises.
Nowadays, there are simply too many tools available to find the real decision maker. Savvy salespeople now find the decision maker, ask for him/her by name, and get an audience with the right person.
Change #4: Product knowledge is no longer king. When I started in selling, one of the first pieces of wisdom they gave me was “Product knowledge is king, son. Know your product better than the other guy, and you’ll outsell the other guy.” Sounded great, right? The trouble is that this isn’t a true statement any longer. Your customers can now spend 5-10 minutes on the Internet and know your product’s features and specs as well as you do, making all that wonderful product knowledge superfluous. It’s still good to know your product, of course – you lose credibility if you don’t – but that’s no longer the trump card.
Today, customer knowledge is the trump card. If you know your customers better than your competitor, you can better understand, anticipate, and assess needs – and then translate that knowledge into benefits targeted directly at your customer and their situation. Plus, other than very basic information, your competitors can’t access customer information remotely. This creates a different – and frankly, exciting and challenging – burden on salespeople.
Change #5: The rise of information technology. This is the change that underpins all the changes above. What is driving most of these changes in customer behavior (and thus our world) is the rise of information technology, and the need for us as salespeople to adapt to a more knowledgeable, savvy, and educated customer base. There are simply too many easily accessible information tools out there for customers to settle for meetings with us that don’t drive new and additional value over the Internet, and there are too many tools out there for us not to take advantage of them. The Internet has made the sales world into the autobahn with no speed limits – and nobody is picking up hitchhikers.
So, how do you adapt to these changes? Well, it’s not simple, but it’s doable, and here are the five keys to surviving and thriving in today’s world:
Adaptation #1: Commit to a Purpose Driven Sales Call: If your sales calls are only driven by the need to drop off doughnuts and pick up this week’s order, you’re dead in the water. Instead, have a purpose to your call that drives value and interest for your customer. Become a student of their industry and pick up articles and tips to help them solve problems. Get involved in situations that don’t directly impact your selling, and find ways to refer customers to resources. Make every sales call count- and your customers will still see you.
Adaptation #2: Unpack. Salespeople take a lot of baggage into calls with them, literally and figuratively. One of the biggest bags contains what I call “head trash,” or old techniques that don’t work anymore. Get rid of that stuff. If you’re trying to figure out what to get rid of, ask yourself this: “Does this technique improve the customer’s experience or create value for the customer?” If the answer is “no,” get rid of it. Hint: Any sales technique with a name (the “Firing Horace,” for example) should be left behind.
Adaptation #3: Get your prospecting act together. There are simply too many ways to learn the names of key executives to settle for the “person who” call. Instead, use databases like InfoUSA, Hoover’s, or ReferenceUSA (check with your local library – this one is free) to create call lists that include good info and allow you to ask for your prospect by name. This isn’t even a 21st century tool; it’s a 20th century tool.
Adaptation #4: Focus on customer knowledge. Most salespeople learn their product in depth, and their customers on the surface. Instead, get to know your customers in depth. What are their biggest concerns – their plans – their key needs? What motivates them to come into work? Instead of asking surface questions, ask questions that dig deeply and uncover information that your competitors don’t get. And don’t ever STOP asking those questions; customers change over time and so do their needs.
Adaptation #5: Use information technology. I’m constantly amazed by the number of clients I see that don’t use a contact manager or CRM system. Those clients fall farther behind every day. CRM is now cheap and readily available. So are Internet based tools like Jigsaw, LinkedIn, etc. All of these tools allow you to do a better job of connecting with, and relating to, your customers. If you are sitting there thinking, “I don’t need to do that stuff,” your career has an expiration date on it – and it may have already passed!
I realize that, for salespeople who have been in the business for a long time, these can be challenging habits to change, but this kind of change is essential to survive in the new world of selling. Dinosaurs didn’t adapt. I see “Sales Dinosaurs” every day. Don’t be one of them.