Salespeople … Be Your Customers Knowledgeable, Curious Coach.

In my previous post I discussed “Five Skills that Define the Outstanding Salesperson of the Future”, one of the skills I highlighted is what I like to call “being a curious and knowledgeable business coach”. In this post I will discuss this in further detail, highlight what this means for salespeople and how you should use this to strengthen your relationships with customers.

Research tells us that modern B2B customers do not engage a salesperson until they are circa 60% of the way through the buying cycle (see the HBR article : The End of Solution Sales). Lots of information that customers use to make a purchasing decision can be collected without engaging a salesperson. Researching solutions, ranking providers, benchmarking pricing and gathering reviews can all be completed before ever talking with a salesperson. Technology and the onset of social media has enabled this power shift towards the buyer and it’s a trend that is only going to accelerate.

These days, this is old news. I think even the most doubting salespeople will agree that the buyer journey has evolved and in order to continue to be deemed valuable salespeople need to change too. With such a short window of opportunity in the new buying cycle, how do salespeople make an impact and differentiate themselves from their competition ? The good news is that the individual salesperson, if they have the skills and behave in the appropriate way, can still make a hugely valuable contribution to their customers success. What’s more the length of your sales-cycles will reduce as customers are much further through their buying cycle before they engage, that’s an added bonus !

Here are my top three tips on how to make the transition to being your customers knowledgeable, curious coach :-

  1. Cultivate strong role acumen : You need to be relevant, this means understanding your customers job in detail. Process, outcomes, measurements, challenges, competitors, winners, losers – you name it, you need to know about it. You must have a sufficiently deep understanding of your customers job that you could effectively step into their shoes. This is hard and it demands that you specialise and focus, you ought to be able go deep and still be comfortable with the conversation. This moves past having a vertical market specialisation, this is about truly understanding the challenges of a role within a vertical market, being able to genuinely empathise and then share insights on how to get to the required outcome. You will not be able to achieve this if you are unable to specialise, you must create a way of gaining a sufficiently deep understanding not a broad yet shallow one.
  2. Be an inquisitive sponge : Read, listen, study, watch, discuss, comment, learn and repeat. There is no shortage of content, insight and learning available to salespeople today. How you do it is down to individual preference and learning styles, but make no mistake, you should soak up every piece of available insight about your customers role, company, and market that could give you an edge. If you don’t feel that you have the knowledge to successfully step into your customers shoes then find ways to develop yourself until you do. Commit to the this, don’t wait for others to provide the opportunity for you to learn, be proactive, seek out ways of improving your domain expertise.
  3. Live the Values of a Coach : The definition of a coach is “someone whose job it is to teach people to improve”. I believe that a sales persons role is to teach people and therefore companies to improve by utilising whatever it is that you are selling (and sometimes by avoiding what you are selling when it doesn’t fit). Coaches first and foremost watch, listen and learn. They ask challenging, thought-provoking questions that help people simplify and break challenge’s down into manageable chunks. A coach guides and supports people on their journey to improvement and will always look at situations through the lens of “improvement”, they will not hold back or avoid giving difficult advice if it would help obtain an improved outcome. Next time you prepare for a customer meeting, take off your salesperson hat and put on your coaches hat, how does that change the way you prepare for your meeting ?

Buyers have changed, buying cycles have changed and they won’t be going back. Salespeople now have a choice, change and stay relevant to your buyers or stubbornly stick with what worked in the past. Change is never easy, it takes hard work and dedication, yet this is exactly how the top 1% of salespeople get to be a member of that exclusive club … will you choose to be one of them ?

Five Skills that Define the Outstanding Salesperson of the Future

If you have a spare minute today, do a quick search of social media and take a look at the volume of articles posted discussing the future of selling and how the role of the salesperson is changing. Headlines such as “1 million B2B Sales Jobs will Vanish by 2020” grab your attention and strike fear into many. There is no doubt that the role of a salesperson is evolving but are things really as bad as the headlines suggest ?

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that buyers have changed, the buying process has changed and the balance of power between the buyer and salesperson has radically shifted towards the buyer. Buyers are more informed, have faster, easier, access to knowledge and are well-connected to experts in their industry. All of this ensures that buyers are much farther through the buying process before they even consider engaging a salesperson and when they do, they often know exactly who they intend to engage.

In this context it’s easy to understand how the historic persona of the salesperson who is a brave, hard charging, lone wolf capable of breaking down doors to find and close the deal is no longer relevant. The days when salespeople where able to engage buyers in discussion around commodity products sold in a transactional manner are gone forever to be replaced by fast efficient technology that enable buyers to self-serve and complete the buying process without ever engaging a salesperson. If you are a seller in this type of commodity, transactional market then I’m afraid you will either change or become extinct. My advice, take steps to develop yourself and find another role soon, before the decision is made for you.

At the other end of the seller spectrum the future is very bright. I believe the need for professional salespeople who are thought leaders, able to add value throughout the buying process and take pride in helping their customers be successful will continue to grow. The traits and skills of individuals who operate successfully in this context are however very different to those that have proved successful in the past. So what are some of the traits and skills needed for future success :-

Collaborator : the successful salesperson of the future will be an outstanding collaborator, someone who thrives on working WITH their customers, in sequence with the buying process and helping enable the customer to buy. (Note: while I said working WITH customers that does not mean that you always agree with their point of view.)

Thought Leader / Educator : expertise in content marketing, an active presence on social media and a willingness to participate in networking discussions are a prerequisite for today’s salesperson. The ability to create a close partnership with colleagues in Marketing is important. The successful salesperson spends more time educating and developing their thought leadership to engage potential customers very early in their buying process, sometimes years before they have an active requirement.

Curious & Knowledgeable Business Coach : Salespeople will have a deep understanding of their customer, their customers industry and issues effecting their customers business. They will have specific domain knowledge, be curious and capable of asking insightful questions that drive their customers business forwards. A coach is someone who is accountable for helping the individual being coached develop and perform at a higher level, this is a great description of the successful salesperson of the future.

Generates Referrals & Recommendations : Salespeople of the future will pride themselves on collecting recommendations and referrals from delighted clients. Word of mouth and introductions from happy customers will be the pre-eminent method of lead generation. Traditional “Cold Calling” morphs into “Warm Calling” and proves to be far more effective.

Closing is the Natural Conclusion : Great Closing skills that manipulate a client to buy outside of their buying process are no longer deemed a strength. Salespeople of the future will close deals as the natural conclusion to the buying process where knowledge and insight has delivered value from the start and differentiated the salesperson from their competition.

The profession of selling is going through a period of radical change brought about by technology disrupting traditional processes, like many other professions. I believe that we are at the “tipping point” where selling will become regarded as true profession and the standards, skill levels and ethics of those employed in sales roles will be of the very highest level. Darwin’s “Origin of Species” quote describes the salespersons current predicament perfectly It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Who’s Responsible for Your Personal Development ?

Let me let you in on a little secret … the answer to the question is “you“.

A 2014 research survey by Bamboo HR published in Inc. magazine states that the number one reason that people leave companies is due to lack of advancement or development opportunities. I’ve no doubt that you will also be familiar with the phrase “People don’t leave companies they leave managers”, a well-worn statement that is often substantiated in HR exit interviews.

These two points are undoubtedly connected and the uncomfortable truth is that unless you work for a great leader who believes in you and consciously invests in your future, you are unlikely to be afforded the development opportunities that you crave. It’s a crying shame but that’s the reality for many of us in today’s workplace.

Now given this situation each of us have a choice to make :-

  1. Accept this unfortunate state of affairs and while frustrated with the situation, it’s outside of your control. Although you know the frustration will chip away at your confidence and reduce your motivation, there’s nothing you can do about it other than complain and moan to anyone that will listen.
  2. Accept the unfortunate state of affairs but as you’re so frustrated by the situation you decide to take things into your own hands and be accountable for your own development. You are buoyed by the fact that you have taken control and are steering your own development, you can overcome the frustration because you know where you are heading.

Again, the harsh reality is that the majority of average salespeople, either consciously or subconsciously, choose option one.

Those of you who are determined that you will be one of the few to make choice number two then read on, there are a number of simple steps that you can take to support your own development and it doesn’t have to cost the earth. Here’s three tips for those of you looking to develop yourselves on a budget :-

Develop a Reading List

Pound for pound, a book is the most valuable investment that you can make in yourself. Ensure that you consciously read (don’t speed read taking little in) and apply the teachings into your day-to-day work. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn for a few pounds and a little investment in your time. Here’s my top 5 to get your started :-

  • Drive – Daniel Pink : The secrets to human motivation (and it’s not what you think)
  • How to Lead – Jo Owen : An incredibly valuable resource for people new to Leadership, if you are a new manager get this book.
  • Perform – Keith Hatter, Chris Shambrook and Jim Constable : How to get better at what you do by obsessing over the right things.
  • Winning Teams, Winning Cultures – Larry Senn and Jim Hart : How culture impacts individual, team and operational effectiveness.
  • Switch – Chip & Dan Heath : Simple methods on “How to change things when change is hard”

Get Active on Social Media and Use Evernote

There is a huge amount of material available via Social Media Channels that can help you learn and develop knowledge of just about any subject. Spend some time searching Twitter and LinkedIn for the experts who publish material on subjects you want to learn about, follow lots of them and spend 10 minutes each morning saving articles to Evernote for you to read at a later date. This is so easy to do, simply add the Evernote Web Clipper to your web browser and a single press of the button will save the page/s for you to read at a later date. If you add the Evernote app to your Mobile Device then you can catch-up on reading during your commute each morning or evening (that is if you use the train, please don’t do this if you drive!)

Put your Headphones on. Watch, Listen and Learn

Hearing different perspectives, sharing and learning from others is a great way of developing yourself. YouTube, TED Talks and PodCasts are just three remarkably simple ways of learning from others. Again, spend a little time searching for the people with something valuable to say, follow them and then watch TV – who thought learning could be so easy !

Finally, the most important tip of all, TAKE ACTION … put some time aside every single week and block the slot/s in your diary. It’s too easy to let deadlines and the pressures of beating quota take precedent over developing yourself. But as I said at the beginning of this post, you’re responsible, so stand out from the crowd and make sure that you take control.