How to survive the sales apocalypse

12th Aug 2015

SAP’s latest research report, entitled ‘The Future of Sales’, has certainly caused a stir. While the study sought to uncover how sales could better understand the evolving relationship between vendor and today’s modern ‘empowered’ buyers to help them better connect with the customer and secure sales, it revealed a very disgruntled customer base. In fact, the underlying message is that the sales profession as a whole needs to fundamentally change in order to keep pace with an evolving market.

The survey, which sampled senior business budget holders from organisations across ten countries in multiple industries, showed that customers today are more knowledgeable, expect a first rate customer experience, are sick of pushy salespeople and simply will not waste time on anyone that doesn’t make the grade. With 91% of buyers having higher expectations than even two years ago, it’s going to be an uphill struggle for those organisations stuck in a selling rut.

So what has caused this shift in the balance of power in favour of the buyer? “The results weren’t a complete shock,” says James Reid, head of the SAP customer experience and commerce business in the UK and Ireland. “It just reinforced what we’ve been trying to achieve ourselves at SAP.”

And Reid certainly knows his onions. With experience on both sides of the fence, heading up international sales teams across multiple industries as well as helping and advising organisations on how they can use technology to become more efficient in this increasingly competitive selling landscape, he knows better than anyone why sales needs to take a long hard look at itself.

“Access to information is so much easier now and companies are far better at representing themselves on the web. But more importantly, the market has opened both locally and globally giving buyers their pick of what’s out there,” he says.

Reid is referring to the 80% of consumers who research their market before approaching a company and know exactly what they want from a vendor. Today’s B2B buyers have done more than two-thirds of their decision-making research before they engage with a vendor; 75% start the process with an online search; and 76% leverage their personal and professional networks for guidance and advice.

“If you think about how customers classically engaged with vendors, they’d do a bit of market research, go to the experts, like Gartner, but they didn’t have a huge amount of intelligence about what companies were doing. It was a time-consuming process to get essentially rudimentary information. This may have worked to sales’ advantage in the past, but it’s totally changed now. Today’s modern buyers are essentially ‘secret shoppers’ who are forming independent opinions about your company, your products and services.”

Three little words: experience, trust and insight

What makes the job tougher yet is that the three key themes the research threw up are ‘experience’, ‘trust’ and ‘insight’.

“A term that we use at SAP is 'market to an audience of one.’ That means really thinking about the experience for that individual,” explains Reid. “Take Amazon - it does a great job of ensuring that every time you access them, the information is there. It knows you as an individual and makes recommendations for you going forward. Compare that to a traditional retail environment; they don’t know your history, your trends, what you like to buy, so how do you bring those two things together?

“Whether that is a typical retailer or online, information is power. You really need to think about that insight and how every touchpoint you have has that background information available to a sales person.”

This attention to detail, coupled with a sense that the sales person ‘has got their back’ by bringing them relevant, insightful information to help them achieve their goals and really understand their organisation, is a sure way of creating the cornerstones of a strong relationship.

“The thing that has changed for me is that a depth of nurturing that is now required. It’s that point in time when a person is expressing an interest in your company but they’re not ready to buy. Instead, you nurture that relationship with interesting titbits of information, things that you can do to help them in their day to job, how to solve problems, adding value to them as an individual. It’s at that point when value and trust has been delivered, that a sale will come. It’s all about building a trusting, ongoing relationship – not a one-off transaction where you do your job and then just disappear.”

The new brand of sales person

Providing a personalised, efficient purchase experience is at the core of what the buyer wants. In fact, 88% of the report’s respondents want a more adaptable and responsive approach from the seller and are turned off by ‘old-fashioned, lowest-common-denominator approaches from under-prepared, over-enthusiastic sales people’. This suggests that the attributes that make a good salesperson have fundamentally changed.

“If you think back to the old world, you would be armed by your organisation with lots of stats about your product set and your expertise and value as a salesperson came from that product knowledge. That was a relatively easy thing to teach somebody; learn about the products, go into the market, talk to people and immediately have credibility.

“Today, that is often not the case. The customer’s done the research and knows the specific area they are interested in; in fact, they could well know more than the salesperson about that particular product - how do you establish credibility? The bottom line is that the days of sales being ‘pure content’ experts are long gone.”

Reid suggests the value now comes from far more intangible items; discussions about how others are leveraging the products, gleaning insights that can’t be read online or in the product manual and delivering thought-leadership pieces that show you are a expert in your field.

“Sales has become far more consultative now – as individuals, they need to understand the implications of what they are selling more than ever before. Buyers want to know how product X is used in their industry, where it’s fixed problems, the lessons learnt, the pitfalls…it doesn’t matter what you are selling, the customer wants to know what it can do for them. The biggest challenge today for sellers is they are going to have to be able to deal with these questions.”

Get your tech on

Of course, Reid himself is working within one of the fastest moving industries. He understands that all this nurturing, trust-building and insight-dispensing is time consuming, and sales are one profession that are often time-poor. Here is where technology becomes pertinent, breaking down information silos and allowing data streams to become accessible to sales people.

“Suddenly you arm your team with this valuable data, presented in a consumerable way. Having this single customer view is a real gift. If you have the right technology set, to truly understand the touch-points that the person you are engaging with has had with your organisation – that can completely transform the conversation and relationship with them.”

For all the new skills that sales needs to develop in order to engage with the modern and demanding customer, the good news is human-interaction still rates the most important means of communication with 39% of respondents saying they would much rather deal face-to-face with a live person, than rely on technology as their preferred channel. Buyers aren’t looking to cut out the sales altogether, quite the contrary, assures Reid, the report showed that for most (90%) creating a mutual beneficial relationship where they both ‘win’ is paramount.

“If organisations don’t adapt to this world, they will not survive. The market is open, customers can buy from wherever they want and it’s highly competitive, people rely on customer recommendations so sales needs to go on this epic journey and really ask themselves ‘how can I make myself more efficient to my customers?’ If you can achieve that, you’ll be in with a good chance of surviving.”

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