The proliferation of internet-based sales channels, that offer everything from simple items such as a toothbrush to some fairly complicated services including insurance, banking and even major items in the B2B sector means that the traditional role of product focused salespeople has changed. Sadly, some companies and quite a few salespeople continue to ignore the encroaching tsunami.
So just what has changed?
The long-time staple of selling (i.e. features and benefits) is no longer adequate. Whilst buyers still need to know what the features and benefits of a product or service are, according to California based research company Dimensional Research, an overwhelming 90 percent of buyers (business and consumers) recall initially going online to read reviews and understand what alternative products and services were available and what they offered, before either meeting with salespeople or visiting a store. Some 79% get more information about the company and its products and services from social networking than salespeople, whilst around 70% of businesses said that their enterprise purchase decisions all begin with an online search—well before calling in potential suppliers.
Salespeople who have not been trained to understand the broader dynamics of this new paradigm in business, who continue to believe that their product or service superiority is going to win support from potential buyers, are likely to find themselves standing around waiting for business that isn’t going to happen.
What can salespeople and companies do?
For starters, companies need to regroup. It is no longer good enough to think that having information makes the vendor unique or even gives a supplier an advantage. Price isn’t going to attract sustained support from buyers either, they can easily switch suppliers when convenient. Along with ease of access to information and a wide range of choice, comes a new challenge for buyers at every level – of information overload. This in turn affords an increased risk of making a poor purchase decision, because of being presented with apparently similar products and services that in reality have structural differences making one alternative a better option than the other. Salespeople who want to play in this kind of environment have to change their approach too. Instead of trying to become an expert on the product, they need to become experts on the product domain. This means that they will have to learn what alternatives—not only rival companies—are on offer and how these differ, in terms of functionality and value. Instead of knowing all of the features and benefits of a product, which buyers can (and do) easily access on the web, they should become specialists on how their offering can minimise risk and maximise efficiencies. Instead of being experts on their company and its history, they should become experts in understanding the challenges their customers have.
In the retail world it means that companies are going to have to train their salespeople to make visiting the store a delightful experience, because that is what is going to differentiate one retailer from another—not the product line. In the B2B sector it means salespeople will have to have a broader business base which includes helping their customers wade through an information overload to assess risk and value more rationally.
Salespeople need to make changes to not become obsolete, to be more aligned with 21st century buyers including having to be prepared to help customers identify new opportunities to cut costs, increase revenue, penetrate new markets and mitigate risk in ways they—the customers—have not yet recognised.
Salespeople should be prepared to win not through the quality of their products, but through the quality of the insights they deliver as part of the sales process. Sustained support from buyers in today’s competitive market space is less about what is sold and more about how things are sold.
Customers look to buy from salespeople who understand their needs better than they do. Who are specialists, if not experts in how to extract and maximise the value from the offerings their companies deliver. These salespeople help their customers find new perspectives, specifically tailored to their most pressing needs. Customer want salespeople who are prepared to challenge the status quo, and who use information, experience and insights to provide solutions that change the traditional way things were done.
When companies recognise the need to re-think the role of their salespeople they will probably start recruiting the right people, with an appropriate mindset and skills set. They’ll also find that their sales training delivers incrementally more sales and better margins, and that their sales strategies sustain the momentum that it was designed to achieve.