I’m sorry if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but I’m getting tired of this statement! Yes, lots of surveys show that customers are engaging sales people later and later in their buying process. There are tremendous resources on the web that provide much information to the customer, enabling them to self educate, get opinions of others, and to narrow their alternatives to a short list.
The web, social business, active communities of users can offer tremendous convenience and value to customers. It also displaces much of the traditional role of the sales person in teaching their customers about products and solutions. And, while we don’t like to admit it, customers tend not to want to see sales people — largely due to bad salesmanship. Self education becomes a value alternative to avoid sales people.
But along with these statements, too many sales people seem to sigh in resignation, accepting this. Some terribly mistaken souls actually revel in this saying, “it really shortens my sales cycle!”
While I don’t dispute the data, what makes me sick and tired is this resignation and acceptance on the part of too many sales people. Why do we have to accept this? Is it the right thing to do–for the customer, for ourselves?
I think this trend is terribly dangerous for both–not the fact that customers are self educating, but that sales people aren’t redefining their role and the value they can create by engaging much earlier in the buying process.
Our job is no longer focused on educating customers about our product feature, functions, feeds and speeds. If the only value we create is to be walking, speaking data sheets, then by all means, the customer should engage us as late in the buying cycle as possible.
But that’s not what great sales professionals do. Great sales professionals operate on an entirely different plain.
Great sales professionals don’t wait until the customer recognizes a problem and decides to do something about it. They create visibility and awareness of the opportunities the customer might be missing. They create a vision for growth, improvement, and achievement. They engage the customer in thinking about how to perform at higher levels and how to grow. Whatever you call it–consultative, solution, provocative, insight based, or challenger selling; great sales people are agitators (in the best sense of the word), evangelizing and getting customers to own the need to change and improve.
If the customer already has an initiative identified and is initiating a buying process, great sales people don’t wait for the customer to determine the needs and requirements. At least in complex B2B sales, great sales people recognize the customer may not know how to buy. They recognize the customer may not know the right questions to be asking, the things they should be looking at. They recognize the customer may need help in aligning the different agendas within their own organization and drive a disciplined buying process. They recognize the customer may struggle with the business case or not recognize they have to sell the change within their own companies–to their management, to the people who will be impacted by the changes they are driving.
Great sales people help the customer identify, crystallize and manage these issues, making themselves advisors and facilitators to the entire customer buying process, not merely respondents to the last 30%.
Great sales people help the customer with the “last mile problem.” No amount of web research and self education can answer the question, “how do we make it work in our organization?” Great sales people help customers bridge the gap of more general information from the web, to understanding the specific implications for them and their organization.
Things our customers are trying to achieve are too important for them to leave them alone in their buying process. Customers recognize this, as well. They welcome sales professionals that can creat value in the process. They recognize these professionals can make their jobs easier.
Customers have the capability of completing much of their buying process without sales people, as long as the only value the sales person offers is to be a walking, talking data sheet and price book. We have too many examples of the web replacing a 100% of that function, enabling customers to complete 100% of their buying process without sales engagement.
If we don’t change–we deserve this. It’s far more efficient and effective for the customer. But if we are really interested in our customers’ success, as well as our own, we will change, engaging the customer in different ways and creating value that is not easily supplied through the web and self education.
Are you willing to be relegated to the last 30% or are you going to change what you do to earn the right to participate in the entire buying process?
Bob Apollo says
Spot on Dave. There’s been a lot of lazy misinterpretation of this particular statistic – and there’s certainly no need, as you point out, to simply accept the finding as a necessary and unavoidable consequence of today’s buying climate.
I believe that answer has to lie in better collaboration between marketing and sales to give prospects a reason to engage earlier. It certainly involves shaping the prospect’s agenda rather than responding to it. And it means equipping sales people with the confidence, skills and nous to reshape a prospect’s view of the world when you do stumble across a late stage deal.
Oh, and it also involves the discipline to decline to qualify out if you arrive late in an opportunity where the prospect’s unshakeable view of what they want is at odds with the things you can do best.
David Brock says
Bob, thanks for taking the time to comment. I absolutely agree with you! I think it’s a matter of thoughtfully redefining the entire customer engagement process. Challenger has done a good job at focusing on the very start–and making the point that we have to engage the customer before they recognize the need to change. But that’s probably the first 10%, we have to reclaim the other 90% by redefining how we engage and how we create value at through the process.
I think roles change tremendously, marketing and sales need to collaborate to define how and who should be engaging the customer with what through the remainder of the process. Needs analysis and understanding requirements are still important, but how we do it and what we focus on changes.
Vicious disqualification at every phase of the process is critical. It takes discipline and some courage.
Thanks so much Bob!
Jon Kostyzak says
Do you see a balance between self-qualifying and being sold on something? I work in an organization that is working to put a high level of emphasis on “the funnel” and let allow propects to self-qualify and move through the sales process without the support of the saleperson. While I agree that there is value to this, I’m not convinced that our SaaS product value proposition is adquately represented without personal interaction.
Thanks for your thoughts on this.
David Brock says
Jon, it’s good to hear from you. Thanks for the question. My response is an unequivocal “It Depends.” 😉
There are a great many SaaS providers that have a “self qualify, self buy” strategy. Usually, they start with a freemium, getting people to start immediately using the product, later “upgrading” them to paying versions—additional features, capabilities, etc. These people pay a lot of attention to SEO, the website design and tend to have a very simple, few pages interaction. They also “start” with individuals, later growing to enterprises — but may have a sales organization focused on the enterprise business.
On the other hand, there are very complex SaaS products that require sales engagement.
Take a look at the “grand-daddy” of SaaS sites, Salesforce.com. They have an enterprise sales organization that is going after large enterprise sales. It is possible to self qualify, enrolling for a 30 day free trial. But that is accompanied by a rich email program and calls from their telesales guys.
So it will really depend. I’d start by talking to your target customers and looking at how they buy. Then design the selling experience to complement their preferences for buying.
Great question! Thanks for posing it.
Paul Lanigan says
Could agree more Dave. There is a whole industry build around soundbites. Soundbite analysis just perpetuates lazy thinking.
Keep kicking up the sand!
Paul Lanigan says
Of course that should have said *** couldn’t agree more ***
David Brock says
Paul, thanks so much—understood what you meant first time 😉
Jim Berryhill says
Well said David. Your statement “if we don’t change–we deserve this” couldn’t be more appropriate.
There is nothing new about aligning to the customer, bringing value, being creative, challenging and provocative, etc…except that those attributes are becoming necessary to be in the profession.
The characteristics you describe of the great sales person are becoming “table stakes” attributes for the 21st century sales rep.
David Brock says
What a great observation Jim–I wish I had expressed it as well! You are absolutely right, none of this is new, but where it was practiced by the best, by high performers, it’s now table stakes. The sales person won’t survive if they can play at this level.
Thanks for the great insight!