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Oct 5 17

AI/Machine Language Will Manager 85% Of Customer Interactions

by David Brock

“According to Harvard Business Review, by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their interactions with an organization without interacting with a human.”  If it’s in HBR, it must be right.

Through other data, we know customers are self educating on the web, depending on who you read, it’s up to 90% of customers are letting their fingers walk through Google.

The implication that many try to make with this data is usually something around the death of sales.   Usually the authors try to use this information as a causal effect around the declining need for sales people.

Certainly, there is a lot of wishful thinking about getting rid of sales people (a surprising amount from people in sales).

But people using this data don’t really understand what is happening in sales.  They haven’t tracked how things have been changing in sales, for at least several decades.  We are missing the real opportunity automation, the web, and upcoming developments in AI/Machine Language provide both buyers and sellers.

The value of sales people has never been in the “transactional” aspects of buying/selling.  Sales people did these things, because there was no alternative for both the customers and them.

We spent lots of time doing the endless mundane things that are parts of buying/selling.  Getting the customers information they need, researching details about products/capabilities, getting specs, understanding inventory/lead times, getting contracts, getting credit reports, researching referrals, arranging meetings with product specialists, entering orders, confirming shipping…..

As we prospected, we spent endless amounts of time, simply searching for customers, finding addresses, phone numbers, identifying people in the companies we were trying to sell to.

Customers were doing many similar, transactional, things on their side, searching for suppliers, finding addresses, phone numbers, asking for product information, trying to find the right people in companies to talk to—all while still trying to do their day jobs.

But little of this was “value added” in the buying/selling process.  They were simply things we and our customers had to do, because there was no alternative to getting them done more effectively and efficiently.

Because so much of our time was taken with doing these transactional/mundane things, many people started thinking these were the things critical to sales people doing the job–they became the job of sellers.

Because so much time was taken in doing these things, on both the buying/selling side, it often diverted us from the most important aspects of buying and selling–helping the customer solve their problems, helping them think about their businesses differently, helping them organize themselves to buy, helping them to achieve their goals and dreams.

Things like EDI, and electronic ordering have been around for decades, offloading/simplifying the transaction of placing orders–both on the customer and sales sides (too many people confuse this single transaction as the sum total of buying/selling).  Web based tools, enable sales people and buyers to conduct many of these mundane transactional aspects of buying and selling much more efficiently, or offloading them completely from our work.

The web and the abundance of information have made it far easier for sales people to share relevant information more accurately and quickly.  It has made it far easier for customers to educate themselves about products, solutions, alternatives.

In short, much of what’s happened in buying and selling over the past decades have freed up time on the part of customers and sellers.  They’ve offloaded buyers/sellers many of the mundane, transactional parts of buying/selling.  The things that added no value to the process, but had to be done because there was no other alternative.

At the risk of repeating myself, those sellers that defined their jobs as doing these things are dinosaurs.  They are no longer necessary because they add no value to the process.

But this shouldn’t be new news.

What all this automation and the abundance of information on both the buying and selling side has done is freed us up to focus on the aspects of buying and selling that create real value.  Helping our customers discover new opportunities, helping them understand and solve their problems, helping them organize to solve their problems/buy, helping them achieve their goals and dreams.

This is where we create value, this is where we have the greatest impact on our buyers.  This is where the human to human interaction cannot, currently or in the short term–if ever, be replaced.  It is situational, it is unique to each individual, it changes over time, it is neither consistent, nor rational.  This is where sales time needs to be spent and where the most value is created.  Those that can’t navigate the business/human side of buying/selling will not survive.

The transformation with automation and other technologies has freed everyone to focus on the things that cannot be automated and require that people to people interaction.  These capabilities give us and our customers the time to invest in those parts of buying/selling that are most critical and cannot be done without interaction/active engagement/shared discovery/empathy.

The key challenge for sales people is, Are we focusing our time on doing those things?  Are we using the time to engage the customer in really understanding them (as people, their functions, and their organizations), are we helping them think differently about their businesses, are we helping them identify and address opportunities or problems?

The promise of AI/Machine Learning is that it further frees up time to focus on things really important to creating value with the customer.  It further informs and prepares us to make the best use of that time we do spend.

The key issue is:  Are we prepared to spend that time well?


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Oct 3 17

When Will We Stop Thinking Our Customers Are Stupid?

by David Brock

I’m beginning to think far too many sales and marketing people think customers are stupid.  What else could it be?

As an example, recently I participated in a discussion on LinkedIn.  The author proudly declared victory for social selling with the statement:   “LinkedIn empirically proves that 51% + of revenue is now influenced by social across some key industries.”  Accompanying the statement was a chart displaying research data looking at the % of revenue influenced by social selling across various industry/marketing groups.

But when I looked at the research, all sorts of questions started popping up.  For example, the companies researched were limited to companies that had made a major commitment to social selling and that had been implementing social selling approaches for at least 6 months.  Then, somehow the revenue resulting from a large percentage of their deals was attributable to the use of LinkedIn Sales Navigator.

To illustrate how preposterous this is, I could pose the question, “Are Left Handers smarter than Right Handers?” (I’m clearly biased because I have the good fortune of being left handed).  I could conduct “research” by surveying only Left Handers.   Any guess what the response might be?

I could go further.  I could narrow my research to only top performing Left Handed sales people, then make the statement, “Because they are left handed, they are top performers!”

You get my point about the silliness of this data and analysis.  If this survey were the exception, we could clearly set it aside, unfortunately, we an our customers are pummeled with poorly conceived and presented research—fake news, fake data!

The problem with all of this, is customers get it.  Customers are smart, they ask reasonable questions, like, “What are the underlying assumptions?”  They tend to challenge the data, as they should, trying to understand it and what it might mean to them.

(Not long ago, we actually conducted a research study on this issue.  You may be surprised by the results:  92% of Top Performers Do This)

When we present such obviously bad analysis, it’s really an indicator of how we hold our customers.  It shows we think they are gullible enough to accept it at face value and not question it or try to understand it.

But our implicit attitudes about our customers doesn’t stop with this horribly poor and manipulative research.

Our attitudes, what we think and how we hold our customers is displayed in so much of our marketing and selling.

We don’t take the time to research, we don’t take the time to target and segment our approaches to prospects, we don’t take the time to make sure what we present is relevant and meaningful to customers.  Instead, we pummel them with 10’s of thousands of meaningless, poorly constructed emails, messages, and calls.

Clearly, we think so little of our customers and their time, that we don’t put in the effort to create relevant and impactful communications and engagement.

I could go on, I could cite horrific and manipulative sales approaches, any number of poorly designed marketing programs, customer success programs that focus more on our success than the customers’ success.

Implicit in the design and execution of these programs is how we think about and hold our customers.

But customers are smart!  They get it!  They act in resounding ways—mostly by ignoring us, or doing everything they can to avoid us.

They constantly tell us:

  • You don’t understand me and my business.
  • You waste my time.
  • You can’t present the value of your solutions in meaningful ways.
  • You are more concerned with your success than ours.

They tell us that we produce no value by looking every where else for insight and education.

They let us know that our approaches don’t work by spamming our emails, by not answering the phone.

It’s clear to see that much of what we do now fails–but rather than trying to do what our customers ask us to  do, we end up pumping up the volume of stuff that isn’t producing results and isn’t engaging customers.  We play the “numbers game,” yet the numbers are no longer working.  Why else would the percent of people making plan and percent of companies making plan continue to decline.

Our customers aren’t stupid, yet we persist in treating them as stupid, by our approaches.

Perhaps it’s really us that are behaving stupidly.


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Oct 2 17

Automating Sales Coaching

by David Brock

The sales automation suppliers are catching onto the idea of leveraging technology for sales coaching.  I’m not a complete dinosaur, I think there is a huge place to leverage technology to complement coaching by managers.

However, I worry about some of the approaches being promoted displacing the person to person interaction and the real value of coaching.

The power of effective coaching is the power of the learning conversation.  The ability to explore, in real-time, the ability to leverage the situation and context to help the sales person think, learn, and grow.

In some sense, it’s the power of open-ended questions versus close ended questions.

A lot of these tools tout, Role play, pitch, demo recording with the accompanying scoring and feedback.  This reduces coaching to a “checking the boxes exercise.”  “Yes, it was well structured, Yes, it was customer focused, Needs improvement on value positioning (with a link to an elearning module on value positioning.”

This coaching approach tends to a directive coaching approach, rather than a non directive approach.  These approaches miss the engagement, the “why did you choose this,”  “what if you tried that,” “how might you have accomplished more?” They miss the collaborative back and forth where both the sales person and the manager learn and grow.

One of the most important aspects of coaching is to help improve performance and the ability to achieve goals.  Most of the tools seem to focus on what has happened and how well was it executed, completely missing the discussion and exploration of what next.  Issues like, “what can we do to improve our odds of winning,” “what can we do to better demonstrate our value,”  “how do we improve the quality and velocity in the pipeline.”  “how do we more effectively reach and engage prospects,” “how do we grow our share of account?”

These are conversations, interchanges, sharing of ideas, exploring possibilities, creating a dynamic action plan.  Each conversation is unique to the situation, the sales person, and a point in time.  No “check the box,” “rate and rank,” even with accompanying comments (which we know time poor managers won’t do) can provide that capability.

A lot of these systems focus on providing feedback–and there is some merit do the occasional one way comment, but again, feedback is most effective in a conversation.

Perhaps, one of the concerns I have about the coaching capabilities many of these tools offer is less about the capabilities of the tools but more how those capabilities will actually be implemented by sales managers.  Rather than complementing and increasing the power of the coaching conversations, I fear they may be used as a substitute for those conversations.

We only have to look at the painful history of CRM–originally focused on helping sales people become more effective and more productive in selling, but when implemented become “big brother/sister watching,” and endless time spent on data entry.  Again, the issue is less the tool itself, but how people ultimately use the tools.

We know managers aren’t doing the coaching they should.  We know they often don’t know how to coach.  We know they are pressed for time in coaching–and usually choose anything but coaching because of their discomfort with coaching.  I worry these tools will just provide excuses to displace that coaching.

To me, the most important tools are those that facilitate and sharply focus the coaching discussions managers have–not displace them.  Tools that can help better understand where we are with deals, the quality of our pipelines, the quality of our conversations with customers, the quality of our prospecting.  Tools that can reduce the amount of time it takes both the sales person or manager to identify critical performance gaps, and facilitate those discussions on how to close those performance gaps.

The other categories of tools have less to do with facilitating the discussions, but simply free up time for managers and sales people to have those discussions.  But that only works if you have managers committed to and measured on the quality of those coaching discussions.

Where do you think sales automation can be applied to improve the coaching conversations managers have with their teams?


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Oct 1 17

The Faces Of Our Customers

by David Brock

Recently, I’ve been trying something new when I meet with clients.  I ask, “When was the last time you visited your customers–in a non sales situation?  When did you actually see what they do, how they use your solutions?  What have you done to get to know them better?

Unfortunately, the responses aren’t surprising.  Many have never actually visited a customer.  If course they’ve met them at trade shows and industry events, they may have spoken to them on the phone.  They’ve had email or social exchanges with customers.

But too often, the “customer” has become an abstraction.  The customer has been reduced to a persona, a set of buying characteristics, a data point in a collection of data points, a member of a market or industry.

When we talk of customers, our charts show brands, logos, enterprises.

It’s amazing to me (and to most sales people) that we have lost, or perhaps never seen, the faces of our customers.  The number of product managers, marketing, even SDRs, Inside Sales, Sales Ops, Sales Enablement, Customer Experience, and senior executives that have never visited a customer, or at least not within the last year is astounding.

It’s impossible for us to have empathy with an enterprise or organization.  It’s impossible to understand really who are customers are, what they face, their fears/dreams until we put faces to our customers.

Some years ago, I visited a the corporate headquarters of a client.  They had done something remarkable.  In each conference room, in the halls on the way to their cafeteria, they had place pictures of their customers.  People, not logos.  Accompanying each picture was a small card with their story.  The stories weren’t testimonials about my client’s products, but THEIR stories, what they did, what they accomplished.  Every few months, they would rotate new pictures in.

Talking to the CEO about this, he said that he wanted everyone in the organization, even those distant from day to day interaction with customers, to know who their customers are.  He wanted to surround them with the faces of customers, so they could associate what they did with customers, every day.

It is too easy to think of our customers as abstractions.  When we do so, we lose them.  We lose our ability to understand and empathize with them.

Perhaps it’s time for your company to start displaying the faces of your customers.  Fill the walls of your offices with their pictures and stories.

If you are a marketing person, a product manager, even a SDR, Inside Sales, Sales Ops or Sales Enablement person, make the time to go visit a customer.  Not a phone call or a video call, but a visit.  Don’t talk about your product, talk about them, learn who they are, what they do.

When you get back to your office, share their stories with everyone else.


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