A good friend of mine, a senior sales executive at an enterprise software company, questions the need for field sales people. And he’s right, the outdated activities carried on by many field reps no longer have a place in this new economic environment.
The selling function has gone bipolar, but not in the sense first conjured by that word. What we’ve seen over the past few years is that the interactions that assist a prospect in completing a transaction have polarized in one of two camps – value or convenience. High touch or high efficiency. Human or automated. Face to face or the web. In person or in pajamas.
When was the last time you went to a bookstore? If you know what book you want, it takes fewer than 50 keystrokes and perhaps 2 minutes of your time to summon the book to your doorstep or inbox. On the other hand, if you want assistance in selecting a new bicycle, you’ll invest a couple of hours at your local bike shop talking with an expert about the relative merits of carbon fiber versus titanium, Campy versus Shimano, DuraAce versus Ultegra or Record versus Chorus.
You’ll still do your homework on the web prior to venturing out to your LBS. You need to show up prepared, to look smart, to avoid being bamboozled by a fast talking sales rep pushing a spiffed product on Saturday afternoon. But once you get there, you will find a rep that you like, someone you’ve decided that you trust (using the elaborate methodology outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink) and you’ll count on her to guide you through the decision making and implementation (fitting) process.
Even smart, well-informed buyers can benefit from experienced, value-adding salespeople. As a cyclist with 35 years and countless thousands of miles under my belt, I once took a vintage cyclocross frame to a local shop (Hot Tubes) to be repainted. When I asked Toby, the shop owner and builder, about painting alternatives, he pointed out that the frame was two sizes too large for me. I had mistakenly assumed that cyclocross frames fit just like road bike frames. The frame went back up on ebay and Toby built me a beautiful custom cyclocross frame, fitting me perfectly and finished in my favorite shade of blue.
As a consumer, I knew what I wanted and I thought I knew what I needed. Toby, as an expert sales person, didn’t go the easy route and accept the frame for painting. Instead, he educated me about proper fit and helped me to conduct a cost benefit analysis of refinishing my (poorly fitting) current frame versus engaging him to build a (properly fitted) new frame.
Buyers selecting sophisticated technology products or services fare no better. Many technology initiatives fail not because of the inadequacies of the product, but of the lack of preparedness of the organization. Buyers think they know what they’re getting into, but simply put, they don’t.
And many sales reps will book the order without helping the organization to understand the processes required to ensure success of the implementation. Most sales people manage to get away with this once with a particular organization; a few manage to do it twice. However, it’s the reputation of the vendor rather than the sales person that is tarnished in the process. And today few vendors can afford to book individual sales at the expense of their reputation and standing in the user community.
So What’s a Savvy Vendor to Do?
You must act now. With the economic pressures easing a bit and budgets starting to loosen somewhat, the imperative to change is lessening. In my research on organizational dynamics, I’ve found that it takes a “big bang event” to ensure the success of a strategic cultural change initiative. (It also takes role and behavior clarity, but that’s a separate conversation.)
The Sales Productivity Framework I developed at IDC incorporates five key productivity levers – people, management, methodology, sales enablement and customer intelligence. How would you assess the capabilities of your sales organization for each of those levers? Are you sending your sales people out unprepared or ill-informed? Are you forcing high value sales engagements on customers looking for simple acquisition efficiency?
Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, said that only the paranoid survive. In my experience it’s the world class sales organizations who focus most on improvement. In contrast, most of those stuck in the middle of the pack continue to hope that things will get better. We all know that hope is not a strategy, and we further know that if you’re in the middle of the pack, and not moving up, sooner or later (and probably sooner) you’ll find yourself spit out the back.
Don’t Let this Perfectly Good Crisis Go to Waste
When we come out the other end of this recession, we are not going back to what we wistfully have been referring to as “normal.” Sketchy is the new normal. Uncertain is the new normal. Tight budgets is the new normal. Discerning prospects is the new normal. CFO or CEOs signing off on small projects is the new normal.
Your customers will have less patience for game playing, for unprepared sales resources, for timewasters, for uncertain ROI, for projects that don’t deliver on their explicit promises. If your message is not crisp, if your sales teams are not professional and polished and consultative, “below quota” will be the new normal. And nobody wants to live there.
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