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We Get Specialization Wrong!

by David Brock on May 25th, 2021

There’s a lot of discussion about specialization in sales. We’ve always had specialists in sales and specialization is important. But in the past 15 years, we seem to have gone off the rails with our specialization.

My earliest experience of specialization was product/solution focused specialists. When I started selling, I had the responsibility for growing a very large banking account. I focused on understanding my customer, identifying opportunities to grow, and building our value with the customers. While I had good knowledge of the customer and good knowledge of our core products, I wouldn’t have been successful without the help of specialists.

Some of them were specialists in banking and our banking solutions. For example, the industry was transforming from a traditional branch orientation, to ATMs, branch automation. In those days, checks were paper and electronic payments were very rare. So specialists in check processing helped customer re-engineer their processes. And a concept called distributed computing was emerging and I relied on bringing in those specialists to help my customer think differently about this emerging technology, and how where they might use it.

In those days, and through much of my career, the specialists were focused on helping the customers better understand solutions and how they might exploit them to achieve their business goals. As an account manager, much of my time was spent in identifying new opportunities to engage specialists to work with my customer, growing our value and share of customer.

Fast forward to today, while there still are a lot of solution and related specialists, specialization has taken a very different direction. Sales specialization has moved away from helping the customer think differently about their business to maximizing our own efficiency.

The customer has become almost irrelevant, instead, we have optimized roles for moving our customer through our sales assembly line. We have SDRs seeking to qualify a prospect (either inbound or outbound). They basically are trained to elicit the words, “I’d like to learn more….” They pass that to the next specialist and then the next and then…..

We create various specialist roles to maximize our efficiency, with little regard to whether we are being helpful to the customer in their buying journey. Not surprisingly, in our quest for efficiency, overall sales performance has plummeted. The percentage of sales people making their goals, has declined to the mid 50% range.

More importantly, customers don’t see value being created by sales people. The vast majority (83%) are saying, “We would prefer not to have sales people at all! We are shifting to other resources to help us buy!”

Actually, that might be ideal. Digital and related resources are far less expensive, far more reliable, and far more consistent than human beings–sales people. There are categories of solutions in which there are highly educated and knowledgeable buyers, or areas of lower risk to the customer. Digital buying channels can be far more effective and efficient for those types of purchases. Ironically, we continue to invest in SDRs, AEs, demo people, and other specialist roles to “help” in this transactional buying journey.

At the same time, we see our customers struggling with their buying journeys. The majority of funded buying efforts end in no decision made. Customers abandon these efforts, failing to drive changes they believed they needed to grow and improve their businesses.

Clearly, we “sales professionals,” are failing to provide the help our customers need to complete their buying journey and produce results. And, we are underserving our own companies, failing to capture revenue that would be created by being helpful to our customers.

It’s really madness, our push to specialization to maximize our efficiency isn’t producing the revenue growth we need. Our customers need help in their buying journeys, but our current methods of supporting them is driving them away. And at the same time, our customers struggle with buying because of the complicated issues they face in buying.

Imagine what would happen if we realigned our resources around helping the customers buy, rather than focusing on our efficiency (being efficient becomes meaningless if people aren’t buying through these “efficient channels.”). What if we provided specialists to help customers address and understand these issues. It may be expertise on business challenges. It may be expertise in translating how solutions address those challenges. It may be expertise in how customers mitigate the risks in their decision, helping them develop greater confidence in their decisions. It may be specialists in change management, helping the customers achieve the results they had hoped for.

Specialization is important in helping customers with their complicated decisions. We can provide deep expertise and great value based on our experience with similar areas.

Specialization is critical to our customer and our success. We just have it all wrong when our specialization focuses only on our efficiency and not how we create value with our customers. And all the numbers remind of this, painfully.

Isn’t it time we rethink this?

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