Selling has changed in the 21st century. For years, it was the work of an individual. Now selling more often involves people who must be trusted advisors to prospects as well as product promoters, while delivering a quality customer experience that involves coordinating efforts across multiple units at their firms and customers.
Consider two recent surveys: one with more than 3,100 sales professionals about trends affecting the role of sales in their companies, and the other with over 7,000 consumers and business buyers about their expectations when dealing with companies and sales people [See Sidebar]:
- Almost 3-of-4 sales respondents (73%) rate collaborating across departments (e.g., sales, service, operations, marketing) as critical or very important to their sales success;
- Conversely, 73% of consumers and 78% of business buyers say they are likely to switch if faced with inconsistent levels of service from their suppliers;
- 79% of business buyers say it is critical or very important to interact with a salesperson who is a trusted advisor that adds value to their business;
- 58% of consumers agree that technology has significantly changed their expectations of how companies should interact with them.
Multiple factors help to explain these results. Smart phones and other devices make product and price comparisons a click away, enable prospects to control more of their buying journeys and, because buyers already have basic information in hand, put more pressure on sales people to add value when they do interact with prospects. There have also been longer-term structural changes in buying. The “great recession” drove a push to rationalize supply chains. Purchasing in B2B markets has become much more rigorous in the past decade, and that will continue whatever happens in the global economy. In both B2B and B2C markets, online communities like Gartner Peer, D&B, or Yelp allow buyers to compare vendor experiences as well as products and services.
The impact of these developments is often misunderstood. The media commonly emphasize stories that are variations on “death of a salesman.” But if you look beyond newspapers and a few other industries, the opposite is true. The number of sales people in the U.S. has increased in the 21st century, and customers value human connections in a tech-saturated world. The survey found that in-person and telephone remain the most favored forms of sales communications—for both buyers and sellers–with social media, online chat, text/SMS, and messenger apps as decidedly less important means. But these technologies do affect customer expectations: they expect in-person interactions to add value and be customized. Treating customers as “accounts” rather than individuals is increasingly risky.
These developments affect how companies manage customer data and measure salespeople. But the biggest impact is that more people at the buyer can now interact with more people at the seller throughout the buying journey. As a result, sales organizations can no longer operate in siloes. The surveys identified two foundational elements essential to collaborative selling:
Single view of the customer. Consider the order cycle in many businesses. For the seller, an order touches multiple functions as it moves from initial customer contact to purchase to post-sale activities such as billing, warranty or field service. Each function often has different priorities and views of customer reality. This is one reason why “customer focus” is a perennial slogan but not a behavioral fact in most firms. Cross-functional coordination—and its evil twin, misalignment—is pervasive in selling efforts today. While almost 7-of-10 sales people say it is critical or important to have a single view of the customer across departments, only 17% rate their companies as outstanding at providing this capability.
A major reason for this gap is a disconnect between 21st-century customer expectations and company practices. For example, when asked who is responsible for customer experience at their suppliers—marketing, sales, service, or billing—most buyers respond “all of them.” But at the seller, billing is typically evaluated on receivables, service on case resolution, marketing on lead generation, and so on. Sales then becomes the de facto systems integrator, because it’s the rep who made the sale who usually gets called when the buyer has a request or complaint and who must then get other functions to respond. The survey indicated that, on average, sales reps spend only 36% of their time connecting with clients or prospects (either in-person or virtually) and nearly two-thirds of their time (64%) on non-selling activities such as service, internal meetings, and administrative tasks.
The rewards of getting this right are significant. High-performing sales organizations are 2.4 times more likely than underperformers to work from a single view of the customer and utilize digital technologies to provide this view and free-up time for prospecting and selling. Pandora, the music streaming service with 81 million users, sells media on its stations to local advertisers, mom-and-pop businesses, and corporations. Its 500+ sales people are in 35 cities in the U.S. and, like many companies, organized in terms of customer size: an inside sales team for small clients and inbound marketing efforts, field sales teams in each city for smaller agencies and local business prospects, and national account teams for large clients and agencies. Core to Pandora’s success has been a seamless flow from prospecting thru closing to billing and post-sale service—a process that crosses multiple functions as well as hand-offs from Marketing to different Pandora sales groups.
In most companies, this is a recipe for silo’d selling behaviors and customer confusion. But David Rogers, Pandora’s Director of Business Operations, notes that “Every internal system for sales is integrated, so reps don’t have to step outside [the system] to pitch or run a campaign for a client. All lead and pipeline information is captured in the system, as is updated content from Marketing, interactions between Sales teams and Legal and Finance, as well as commission payouts and billing information.” The last item is noteworthy. In the media business, orders must be custom built to run at selected times and stations in the future; billing (and sales commission) only happens when the ad is delivered. Pandora’s system increases buyer and seller trust in the process, freeing-up time for selling rather than (as in many companies) checking that client service and incentive pay-out have occurred accurately. As Roger explains, the single view provides other, cascading benefits throughout the sales process: “Reps spend less time researching answers to questions about campaigns. Onboarding has become easier, and the time in which they can ramp and start selling productively has shortened.”
Channel Management. Collaborative selling also means working effectively with partners who are influential during the buying journey. The business press—perhaps overly influenced by its own recent history—typically frames channel issues as online or brick-and-mortar retailer, buy direct or indirect. But this is a false dichotomy for most businesses: multi-channel marketing is now the required norm. Driven by technology and choice, customers are unbundling traditional channel arrangements along their journey from shopping to purchasing. A different channel can be used for each activity.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the surveys found that customers (especially millennials) are very willing to share data for personalized offers, discounts, and product recommendations. But customers across all demographics can now monitor their experience with mobile devices, will switch brands if they encounter difficulty in purchasing or checkout, and expect their suppliers to integrate this experience across multiple channels and devices. Conversely, the surveys indicated that the majority of firms fail to capitalize on customers’ willingness to exchange data for personalization.
A classic collaboration barrier is tracking and apportioning credit across channels. At Pandora, as Roger notes, “If a client hits a certain threshold, they’re funneled up to sales teams and client-support groups that can handle more complex campaigns. We can track this, keep it visible, and reward the originating channel with post-pass credit. For example, if a client decides to increase spend during a campaign thanks to insights provided by the post-sale client services group, the services team is then rewarded on top of their standard compensation, ensuring that sales and service work together and avoid typical channel noise.” At Brooksource, an IT staffing company, President John Causa notes that “Our customers want new ideas and approaches to perennial problems. Having partners that complement our services allows for true solutions.” Sales reps work with channel partners across an array of human capital issues through systems that make the interaction productive within the short time frames relevant in the staffing business. Causa emphasizes that “Nobody does cartwheels for software. The payoff comes in the form of collaboration. We had no way to share ideas and track this across our 20+ offices and multiple partners. Now we can. It’s meant a 30% increase in call volume and productive leveraging of the tribal knowledge in this ecosystem.”
Sales enablement tools exist, in increasing abundance, and the research indicates that high-performing companies indeed use these tools. But without the foundational elements cited here, those tools are likely to be stranded assets in the changing sales landscape.