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 geopolitical events are some of the variables that now require companies to be in a state of constant evolution. This 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.
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As any veteran salesperson or sales leader can attest, the buying process has become more sophisticated, and customers have an expectation for value that extends beyond the features and benefits of a particular product or service. Customers now demand tailored solutions anchored in industry and functional expertise, and they want vendors/suppliers to partner with them in solving business problems. Unlike the days when sales professionals were only responsible for communicating functions, benefits, and advantages, they must now provide solutions that result in relevant business-driven return on investment (ROI).
A major change in the reality of today's sales professional is the amount of product, service, and company information available to the customer. Buyers are already aware of features and benefits, alternative offerings, and reviews from other customers. Therefore, salespeople must now convey deep knowledge of the needs of the client organization, competitor activity, and trends in the customer's own client base, in addition to how the product/service being offered will address strategic issues, provide real ROI, and help the client hone their competitive advantage.
However, some elements of sales remain as important as they were in years past, such as initiating relationships, building rapport, and establishing credibility. Salespeople must still rely on personal impact when expressing ideas and opinions, tailoring messages to different audiences, eliciting trust, and conveying competence.
Research into sales performance over the past 15 years clearly demonstrates one thing: the business world must expand the traditional hunter/farmer conception of sales to include something more closely aligned with how customers buy in today's complex environment. Here are six approaches to sales that organizations may consider, depending on the type of product they sell and their client base:
1. New Business Development
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This is the approach that comes to mind when one thinks of the traditional sales professional. Opportunities are created by initiating contact with prospects, often through cold-calling, in order to generate interest in products or services. New business developers persuasively present their value proposition, persist past resistance, and negotiate the close. This category of sales typically requires competencies such as influencing and persuading, building relationships, negotiating, and resilience. Top performers tend to be self-starters driven to initiate action on their own.
2. Account Development
If new business development is associated with the "hunter" style of sales, account development aligns with the "farmer" model. Individuals in this category are often charged with maintaining and strengthening relationships with current customers and working to develop new relationships through introductions or referrals. In addition to competencies such as persuading, developing relationships, and negotiating, top performers are able to effectively collect and leverage information related to the client organization's formal and informal communication channels and power dynamics.
3. Account Service Specialist
This category of sales professional often finds success by providing strong service to existing customers/accounts while strategically taking the opportunity to cross- or up-sell. Top performers in this category build rapport with clients, identify their needs, offer tailored advice about products or services, and create additional opportunities to generate business by focusing on the overall customer experience.
4. Consultative Sales
This approach reflects recent trends in the world of sales, in which customers expect to partner with the sales professional to collaboratively develop solutions to pressing business problems. Top performers win business by building working relationships based on mutual trust and shared accountability, asking probing questions to systematically uncover root causes of issues, and providing compelling proposals. Important competencies include interpersonal sensitivity, active listening, and relationship-building.
5. Technical Sales
Professionals in this category generate opportunities by leveraging technical expertise and product/industry-specific knowledge, perhaps working as the primary salesperson in a technical or scientific sale or as a subject-matter expert in conjunction with a closer. Technical sales professionals leverage their expertise to build credibility and gather important information or specifications, and they often have educational backgrounds in engineering, medicine, or another specialty. Competencies of a top performer typically include analytical thinking, business acumen, and learning agility.
6. Strategic Sales
Top performers in this sales category, who may be thought of as "knowledge brokers," establish themselves as industry experts and true business partners. They leverage deep knowledge of the client's business, industry, product, and marketplace to bring new insights, challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom, and ask the difficult questions that the customer may not have thought about or has been avoiding. They often manifest competencies such as strategic thinking, business acumen, learning agility, and organizational savvy.
A New Paradigm
Role boundaries that once dominated thinking in the world of sales are no longer valid in understanding the profession. Buyers now do the prep work that replaces the features-and-benefits salesperson. Conversely, the sales professional is now expected to do the homework that was once the purview of the buyer, such as understanding the buyer's business needs, providing insight into the buyer's own industry, and recognizing the implications of current and anticipated changes related to markets, technologies, and so on. The complexity of the business environment requires the blurring of boundaries between sellers and buyers as they navigate the nuances and intricacies to achieve their complementary goals. Today's sales professional also needs to convey true business value not through persuasive communication, but through compelling and tangible ROI evidence.
Thomas Schoenfelder, Ph.D., is vice president of research and development at Caliper.