Selling Has Changed. Have You?

Recently, I was asked to lead a day-long focus group discussion with technology buyers from Fortune 100 companies. There were two senior executives from each participating company. The topic we explored was how they felt about sales and sales professionals and what might be the ideal buying experience.

It comes as no surprise that buyers and sellers often have dysfunctional relationships. Both parties might keep information from one another, mislead, prevent discussion and fail to listen - behaviors that would seem odd for people working together on something important. I expected buyers to speak poorly of sellers, and not only was I right, but it was much worse than I anticipated. After some salesperson-bashing, one of the executives said, “I’ll tell you what we need from salespeople: We need them to get out of the way faster. I want to talk to the people who can help us decide what to do, not a salesperson.”

The room fell silent for a moment, and then others began to pile on, adding that there is no reason for an executive to have a relationship with a salesperson, as they add no value and have little authority. “Can this be true?” I thought. It mustn’t be. So I dug a little deeper.

First, I asked the executives to describe what “good” is. Their response? A peak-performing salesperson should have:

  • A deep understanding of the customer’s business and industry
  • A deep understanding of their own company’s solutions, products, services and capabilities (in other words, a salesperson who’s also an expert)
  • The ability to quickly navigate inside their company and get decisions made and resources allocated

Then, I asked what percentage of salespeople meet these criteria. The executives discussed this question as a group and decided one, or maybe two, percent of so-called sales professionals make the grade.

At first, this seemed hard to believe. Thinking more, it may not be as surprising. Most companies allocate fewer than 10 days per year to training, and many are in the two-or three-day range. How in the world could anyone become an expert in anything with just a few days invested each year?

Buyers’ expectations of sales professionals have changed. The days of salespeople asking a laundry list of questions and then controlling access to information and resources are over. It’s not that buyers want to be difficult or mysterious; they are happy to answer our questions after we earn the right to ask them. Buyers expect insight, expert advice and guidance and want to work with sales professionals who can help them succeed.

What can learning and development professionals do to address this gap and help develop successful salespeople? Here are five ideas to consider.

  1. First, and most important - Help people adopt a new mindset. This is especially true of senior executives whose experience may be rooted in old-school selling. Times have changed, and so has the definition of what makes a successful sales professional. Ask the sales leadership team to talk with your customers so they can hear directly what buyers are expecting. Once the old guard see the light, they will be more open to allocating budget and time.
  2. Design your development schedule to include weekly learning. Include both formal, structured learning and informal discussions and coaching. Make learning a habit - something that occurs routinely - not an event.
  3. Expect sales professionals to lead the sessions. The best way to learn something is to teach it. Consider using HR and L&D resources to help sales team members design and deliver valuable sessions.
  4. Ensure that all training sessions are applied sessions. Consider using actual customer situations and stories in each one. And don’t be afraid to invite your customers to be guest speakers. You might be surprised how many will accept.
  5. Develop a holistic program design. Be sure to include market, product and competitive analysis, as well as sales skills. I see many designs that are not well balanced. Typically, they are internally focused on products and services, but clients want more focus on their specific needs.

Invest in your sales team members. Help them become experts. You will be rewarded with intense customer loyalty, market leading growth and higher profits.

About The Author

Randy Illig is the global leader of FranklinCovey’s Sales Performance Practice, which helps to train, consult and coach clients on how to win more profitable business. He is co-author of “Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play – Transforming the Buyer/Seller Relationship.” A go-to-professional, uncanny listener and avid reader in the sales space, Randy is constantly challenging his own ideas and those of others. Content from this article is based on FranklinCovey’s award-winning Helping Clients Succeed methodology.

Image Credit: Batman v Superman movie, 2016 - Warner Bros