By Garrett Sheridan and Donncha Carroll

Forrester has reported that “although it varies greatly with product complexity and market maturity, today’s (B2B) buyers might be anywhere from two-thirds to 90% of the way through their journey before they reach out to the vendor. For many product categories, buyers now put off talking with salespeople until they are ready for price quotes.”This trend has some people asking, “Are salespeople still relevant?” We think the answer is unequivocally “yes.” But we are equally convinced that the roles and capabilities within the salesforce must keep pace with the changing behaviors of B2B buyers.The three most important shifts sales leaders and their sales teams should make to remain relevant:

  1. From Persuasion to Education
    Influencing and persuading customers still has its place but genuine education represents the new “table stakes.” Chances are most potential buyers know the ins and outs of your products or solutions, and your competitors’, before you show up for the first meeting.How to Respond: Plan for meetings by learning about a prospect’s business inside and out. Prepare high value questions and observations that indicate your deep understanding of their business and how your product or solution can advance their key business priorities. Spend less time on features and benefits and a lot more time asking questions and listening.
  2. From Pitcher to Quarterback
    Baseball pitchers can exert a significant level of personal influence over games by applying their unique personal expertise and skill. In the past, many sales people derived their energy and passion from personal success and spent time honing their own selling skills. However, for complex products or solutions that can significantly impact a customer’s business, a “quarterback mentality” is needed instead of a “pitcher mentality.”How to Respond: Like a quarterback, sales leaders and account executives need to know how to put the sales team in the best position to win. That means getting the right players on the field (inside or outside sales people, sales engineers with deep product expertise, the CEO with credibility and authority or reference clients who can lend assurance). Winning may require calling an audible when necessary (negotiating a discount, revising contract terms, or responding to a competitor’s challenge). Just as a quarterback surveys the entire field before executing a play, the sales professional needs to assess each stakeholder involved in the buying decision. The players on the opposing defense have different strengths and tendencies. Similarly, a prospective customer’s COO, CFO and functional leader may have different opinions, interests and needs.
  3. From Persistence to Prominence
    Persistence, discipline and follow-through are still important, but salespeople need to rethink how they win. As lead generation and selling activities continue to be further bifurcated in many industries, building and maintaining quality relationships matters even more. In fact, the bar has been raised on what it means to build a relationship to enable sales.How to Respond: Bring something of value to the table in the first meeting (e.g., an insight, valuable ideas that are not necessarily related to your specific product or solution.) Also, and we can’t overstate this—be patient. The old Rule of Seven marketing adage still applies (although some say the number is twice that). What is certain today is that it takes multiple touches (calls, emails, relevant forwarded articles or thought leadership) to get a meeting. Yes, that requires persistence, but the goal is to achieve prominence—being top of mind at the prospect’s moment of need makes it more likely that you get the call. In-person networking, LinkedIn messages, attending relevant industry forums, snail mail and e-mail are all paths to prominence if executed strategically.

The result of these changes is that many companies are rethinking how they define the different sales roles and specifically how different types of roles should interact with each other across the sales process, all the way from lead generation to qualification to solution definition and closing the deal. Almost 2 million sales and related positions will be added to the U.S. workforce by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. If your company is part of that trend, clarity about various sales roles and capabilities is essential. In the article “Attract, Deploy and Retain the Right Sales Talent Through Partnerships,” we outline five concrete steps companies can take to build a sales force that can succeed in this changing world.

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