By Eric Gombrich
I was recently honored to be asked to serve on a panel at The Thought Leadership on the Sales Profession conference hosted at Stanford University. If you are like me, you were unaware of this conference, likely because it is relatively new, and I believe long overdue (but that’s another topic).
This conference brings together global academics that are now – finally – teaching sales and sales management in their business programs. Far beyond the old days of a 10-minute mention in marketing class that “a sales person should make X calls per day,” there is now real research and evidence going into the profession of sales.
The conference also brings together invited industry executives, so the theoretical meets the practical. Together we listened to the latest research and their findings, and discussed its applicability to the day-in and day-out role of selling, or managing a sales team.
From my perspective, it was an exciting and thought-provoking day and half. We listened to research focused on remuneration programs, the biochemistry of the brain during conversations and sales presentations, and fallacies that are still used as staple concepts in negotiating. There was also work presented regarding structuring and defining a sales team, how to compensate, monitor, and how to train them. And then some panel discussions on things like how technology is changing the profession of sales. What I particularly appreciated was that this was all based in data, with rigorous research behind it.
As I say, I felt honored to be invited, and humbled by the wisdom, knowledge, and experience in the room. And I learned a lot.
But one recurring thought I had was that all of the research and conclusions failed to recognize that the buying process (vs the selling process) was assumed to be substantially similar across industries and solution types. The old adage “A good salesperson can sell anything” seemed to be alive and well. But I contend that’s not true. And as I discussed it with my esteemed colleagues, there seemed to be general agreement with what I was saying.
In my view there are some critical, basic skills that transcend products and industries such as listening skills, communications skills, and basic business skills. But those skills required to sell a $100million of toilet paper to a national restaurant chain are vastly different than the skills required to sell a $100 million ERP (computer) system that will serve as the foundation of a multi-billion $ business. Furthermore, the skills required to sell that $100 million ERP system are vastly different than what’s required to sell a $100 million EMR to a healthcare organization.
The skill differences link right back to something our esteemed keynote speaker Mark Hurd (CEO, Oracle) referenced; “The future of sales is and will be in bringing value to the customer, at every interaction.”
If we buy into this premise (and I certainly do), we need to look at what and how a salesperson can bring value to the buyer. It’s no longer in providing product specifications and price-quotes, or even in after the sale service. A buyer can get everything from products specifications to pricing to reviews online, and then AI to support them after the sale. So what role does the sales person play?
I contend the value generally converges into 3 areas:
- Domain Education. Helping the buyer understand what is happening outside her own organization and how the product(s) can positively impact their specific organization.
- Organizational Education. In today’s organizations, particularly when the $ and impact of failure are high, buying is typically by committee. But often times individuals involved in the purchase are unfamiliar with, or unaware of their committee colleagues and their goals, objectives, constraints, and risks. The salesperson helping each participant understand these aspects of their organization can be incredibly valuable.
- Defining the Buying Process. With the exception of commodities that are routinely purchased often-times via the purchasing department, large strategic purchases are infrequent and invariably very specific in who they affect. As such each of them will likely have a unique set of stakeholders (i.e., committee members), each with a unique role. It is quite common that the buying organization tries to ‘figure it out as they go’ through the process. This is often why these purchases are so lengthy, have frequent starts and stops, and can end in ‘no decision.’ An adept salesperson who has established a trusting relationship with stakeholders can provide value in helping the organization define an efficient and effective buying process to both organization’s benefit.
There are other ways value can be added, of course. But I believe its these 3 areas of value that will separate the future “Eagles” from the rest.
When you look at these 3 value-services you can easily see that to deliver them will require particular knowledge, experience, and insights within the customer’s industry and business. For example, I can’t possibly speak to how other customers have benefited from my solution unless I understand those users’ challenges, constraints, and how they’ve used the solution. Sure, my marketing team might create a fantastic case study on this, and I can deliver that to my prospect. But this is where the new technologies such as “bots,” AI, and the internet come into play; does my prospect or my company actually need me to deliver that Case Study? Or is my value really in translating or applying that case study to my prospect’s business and showing them how a similar outcome will specifically impact their business?
Similarly, I can’t help my prospect navigate their own organization and/or provide insights on the buying process unless I understand their organization, and its many stakeholders. Sure, I can confidently infer that a Networking Architect for a bank has a similar role to a Networking Architect at a hospital. But what do I do if that Networking Architect starts asking me about how my company or solution support HIPAA and ISO 13485 (both healthcare related privacy and quality standards) if I don’t have this domain knowledge? Will I be unable to respond if I lack this expertise? Yes, I can grab a SME or product specialist from within my organization. But in so doing am I not demonstrating my inability to add value to the sales process? If the SME is answering these questions, what role am I playing?
This is why I contend that the old adage “A good salesperson can sell anything” is waning in this internet-enabled, ultra-connected world. I believe now, and even more-so in the future, a good salesperson will be required to have specific domain knowledge and expertise in order to add value to the process, and to the buyer’s benefit.
As I raised this point at the conference with researchers and colleagues, there seemed to be general agreement with this premise. Several of the researchers went so far as to suggest this afforded another level of interesting and valuable research. I’d love to hear what you think, and am hoping I’m afforded the opportunity to see some of this research in the future, if it comes to pass.