About two years ago, I bumped into an old friend, Jeff, at an Orlando Magic basketball game. We met in the 1990s while selling copiers on the same sales team. Jeff and I spent many hours talking over lunches and happy hours about the challenges facing us during those first few years of professional selling. Over 20 years later, our conversation quickly shifted to our common bond: sales.
Throughout our discussion, Jeff kept referring to the negative changes he has seen over the past several years. Paraphrasing, Jeff went on to explain: “No one answers the phone; relationships don’t matter; it’s all about price; my boss thinks I should be on social media all day; everything is online for our customers to see, etc.”
Have you noticed any of these changes? Of course, you have. In the last dozen or so years, the dynamics listed above, and many others, have slowly wedged a gap between our customers and us. Today, we mostly have “don’t call us, we’ll call you” relationships. There is no doubt about it: our world of selling has changed drastically.
So, what do we do?
The first thing we need to do is accept that Atlas hasn’t shrugged because the sales process has changed. The major change that’s punched us in the face is the transformation of the buying process. Companies buy differently today. Don’t worry about how others are selling – none of your competitors really know what they’re doing anyway. Keep your eye on the ball … the buying process. Some of the major shifts over the past decade in the way companies buy:
- Information is gathered online. Remember when potential customers used to ask us “So, what’s happening out there?” When’s the last time you heard that question?
- No one takes calls, visits, or emails from salespeople today. Why would they? When they need something, they’ll do a Google search and call you for a price.
- When you get an audience with a potential customer, everyone is distracted and barely engaged in your presentation.
- Decisions are made by committees, not individuals. Today, decisions are made by people you may never meet in six to eight weeks from your last interaction with the account.
- Customer loyalty isn’t as common as it used to be. Since committees will challenge managers, personal relationships don’t overlook poor quality, bad service, or higher prices anymore. A salesperson must be the best to win every time.
While your competition may be sitting at the coffee shop telling stories about the good ol’ days, hopefully you recognize that these changes have opened the door for hungry, creative, and competent sales professionals. If you stay focused on the new buying behavior, then you’ll be able to create and follow a successful sales process.
Below are eight best practices that we have found lead successful selling in today’s marketplace.
1. Become a subject matter expert (or at least very competent).
Twenty years ago, our customers’ primary source of information was their salesperson. Today, they have immediate access to all the information they need. Becoming an expert is the best way to influence your customers and prospects to call you instead of searching for answers online. Here’s the secret: most customers don’t want to search for things online – they want to call their “guy”. The traditional way of selling and entertaining doesn’t earn “guy” status anymore – you’ve got to be competent. (For the record, “guy” is considered multi-gender for the purposed of this article.)
2. Become a content machine on social media.
Now that you’re an expert, the market needs to know. With a healthy following, an individual salesperson can become a perceived expert by curating meaningful content, writing intelligent teasers, and contributing to relevant discussions. Since we know the specific needs of our customers and prospects, we can tailor our content and comments to capture immediate attention from our targeted market.
3. The primary objective of outbound calls is to prove your competence.
I get a lot of pushback on this one. While scheduling appointments is still an objective of making outbound calls – phone calls, personal visits, emails, social media DM’s – it’s no longer the primary objective. Today, the most important outcome of outbound calls is to prove your competence.
You may be thinking: “Who cares if they think I’m competent if I don’t get an appointment?” Here’s the scenario today: if you schedule an appointment with a prospect who doesn’t view you as a subject matter expert, then you’re either meeting with someone who is only interested in a price or you’re meeting with someone who has no influence on the decision. Either way, you’re meeting with the wrong person.
When you send an email, include a relevant case study. If you stop by their facility, drop off an article. When you leave a voicemail, remind them to check for the link you sent them to a blog post they’d find interesting. Don’t be the salesperson that calls every other week with “Hi, I’ll be in your area and I’d like to stop by to introduce myself and learn more about your security needs.” That worked when they needed salespeople for information. It doesn’t work anymore. Use outbound calls to slowly prove your competence and they’ll call you for your expertise when they need it.
4. “You never know” activities should take less than five minutes.
Free information benefits salespeople, too. With all the information and data that you have at your fingertips, you should never invest time on activities that aren’t part of your strategy. There are too many stories being told about the salesperson who randomly pulled off the interstate and cold called a distribution facility to eventually win their company’s largest deal. That story usually ended with “You never know.” Whether that happened or not is irrelevant because today, the great ones always know.
If a random activity takes your more than five minutes, don’t do it. If you can walk across the street to ask for the name of the facilities manager, great. However, don’t set aside a half day of random cold calling before researching and preparing.
5. Embrace the new objective of networking.
Remember when you left a networking event or a trade show with a pocket full of business cards and felt like you conquered the world? Well, those days are over. The phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” isn’t as accurate as it used to be. Since customers don’t think they need salespeople, today the mantra of networking should be “it’s what you know, and who knows you know it.”
Meeting as many people as possible is no longer the main objective of networking. Today, your networking objective should be to maximize the number of people that consider you a subject matter expert. Don’t just attend events - speak at events. Don’t just shake hands and collect business cards - follow-up with pertinent articles or white papers. It’s good if a lot of people like you. It’s great if a lot of people think you’re smart!
6. Deliver interactive presentations.
PowerPoint, Prezi, and Keynote have become snooze instruments. Seriously, when is the last time you saw a speaker click to slide two and inspire you to do anything but daydream? In today’s world of immediate feedback, notification beeps, and immediate access to anyone, we must inspire our audience, or we’ll lose them. We must shift their attention from their current thoughts to our presentation and keep them engaged. A slide deck doesn’t do that.
When presenting or demonstrating a product, you must have continual interaction throughout the presentation. Confirm needs by writing them on a flipchart, ask survey questions that can be answered by your audience using their phones (sli.do is a good tool for this), break the audience into groups to conduct exercises, etc. Yes, you should do these things during a sales presentation. If you win 40% engagement from the decision-making committee and your competition only gets 10%, guess who wins the sale?
7. Make it easy.
Many of us were trained to hold our prospects hostage: “Don’t drop off the brochure. Wait until they give you an appointment.” That was good advice in 1994. Today, our customers will just find the brochure online. Text them articles. Email them case studies. Share a discussion with them on LinkedIn. Make it easy for your prospects and customers to see that you’re a proven expert in this space.
8. Don’t buy into the hype - hard work, persistence, and relationships still matter.
There are many messages about the new paradigm of buying and selling. Much of it presents a world where fundamental qualities of the past are no longer valid. Don’t’ believe it. Buying has changed. The way you approach customers must change. However, the core elements of hard work, persistence and relationships still matter … and they always will.
Chris Peterson is an Orlando-based security sales and marketing consultant.