Sales has changed. Thanks to the transparency and wealth of information the internet provides, prospects are more knowledgeable than ever. They research trends, compare vendors, learn what questions to ask, hear what to be heedful of, back-channel references, and uncover so much more before they accept our reach-out for that first meeting. According to CEB, the typical B2B buyer is already 57% through the purchase process before reaching out to sales.
This makes B2B sales, particularly complex enterprise sales, very challenging. For us to build rapport, influence strategies, requirements, budget and evaluation criteria, getting in early is crucial. Most of us have smartened up and adjusted our selling strategies to this fundamental shift. But I often see sales professionals in this cat-and-mouse game where they come up with smart ways to get in front of prospects, while prospects do everything to avoid just that. A new perspective is required to break this silly game that the customer always wins.
What we’ve been trying to do is to transform sales reps into domain experts. Which at face value makes sense – the last thing a prospect wants, is to get a meeting with a sales rep who starts the meeting with “So, tell me about your problems…”.
Prospects have no time for sales reps who only ask questions and need to call in the troops to go deep and share relevant insights. If prospects haven’t learnt anything from you in your first meeting, they’re not going to respond to you chasing them for that second one. Today, domain expertise is the currency in sales.
To meet that expectation, we’ve tightened the collaboration between sales and marketing. Great marketing content has allowed sales to be seen as thought leaders who keep prospects interested with a constant stream of insights. But having great white papers, webinars, case studies, and industry events will not turn the sales rep (or even the organisation for that matter) into thought leaders. The sales rep needs to speak the prospects language, understand the technology ecosystem, be able to articulate examples, refer to what other clients have done, and always be able to add value. Merely referring to the marketing content, however great it is, doesn’t turn the rep into a domain expert. It just makes the prospect leverage that content while still trying to keep the rep out of the conversation.
So we have gone further – we’ve trained the reps to be more consultative. We changed our sales processes to create value for prospects in the early stages of the buying cycle. Rather than waiting for the prospect to define their needs and counter with a solution, methodologies like the Challenger Sale and Insight Selling have positioned reps to get in early to teach and tailor. But it takes time to develop the credibility and confidence of a rep to bust open doors based on his or her domain knowledge. Lots of time – depending on your industry, buyer, or solution, this could easily be a two-year journey, as reps in Analytics, Security, Marketing Automation, CX and AI (to name a few) will attest.
So, what to do?
I believe there is merit in exploring this challenge the other way around. Rather than transforming sales reps into domain experts, we should transform domain experts into sales reps. Rather than taking commercial acumen as the foundation to build domain expertise onto, we need that domain expertise to be the starting point. We should look into our organisation and leverage the Solution Consultants (SCs), the Client Success Managers (CSMs), even the Professional Services (PS) or Delivery professionals and see how we can expand their skillset into sales. They have a credibility that easily gets them that first meeting, and the knowledge and experience that reps yearn for to be seen as a trusted advisor.
The problem of course is that SCs, CSMs, and PS professionals are typically not skilled up to be reps. And they sometimes think they can’t deal with the pressure, anxiety and rejection that comes with the sales job. While I always assumed that the skill and mindset gap would be too much of an uphill battle, several people have proved me wrong in the last few years. I have seen SC-turned-rep’s get their first meeting way quicker than sales reps. I’ve seen CSM-turned-rep’s develop deep relationships that traditional reps can only dream of. I have seen them close deals faster than traditional reps. Most of all, I have seen them get more satisfaction from their job, precisely because their domain expertise is valued so much, and is the springboard to develop a whole set of new skills.
Naturally, to successfully turn SC, CSMs, and PS professionals into sales reps, they need to learn sales skills like account planning, presenting, negotiating, etc. They need to develop commercial acumen, they need to learn to independently set a course and make tough decisions on qualification, win strategy, pricing etc. They need to learn to say no. Most of all, they need to learn how to deal with rejection and develop their resilience. I’ve been in sales myself long enough to know that that’s not a small feat, and I know that not everyone will be cut out for sales. But depending on your industry and product, exploring this option could be easier to accomplish than the other way around.
Even if you’re not willing to try to move people from these roles into sales, I suggest you leverage them more in your sales process. Get them to work closer with the reps, particularly in the early stages of the sales process. Because that domain expertise is what prospects want. That’s the currency. People with domain expertise don’t need to chase prospects for that second meeting. The prospect will be chasing them.