Friday, January 14, 2011

Sales Shift: From Pitch to Value Exchange


This is the second in a series of posts exploring how the field of B2B sales is changing.



In my last post, I explored the forces at work that are changing the field of sales, including access to information, lower startup costs, intolerance for interruption, organizational complexity, and the expansion of loose-tie networks. At one time, people expected to be "pitched." Now, there is greater resistance.

Knowledge and Networks

From PR to venture capital investment, the methods and effectiveness of pitching are changing. With greater access to information and less tolerance for interruption, the buyer, influencer, publisher, or investor wields more control. If you are sending an email or making a cold call, you must be able to offer some form of value that extends beyond the set of solutions you are selling.

If you only possess product knowledge, sell sheets, white papers, or conference calls with smart people in your company, the buyer can already find these resources at their leisure. So, the chances of you finding a receptive audience depend solely on your ability to beg or be winsome, both which are decreasingly effective.

If the business problems you can solve are limited to the scope of the products and services you are representing, you will not be able to get wide or high into an organization unless there is a perfect fit. But even more importantly, you will not be able to maintain the trust of your network beyond the tenure of your current company.

The value exchange means that equal currency passes between buyer and seller. This is not "product for money." It could look like this:

Buyer offers organizational knowledge : Seller offers help with challenges

What value can the seller offer? In some cases, it may be the company's solution he/she is representing. But more often, it transpires in providing knowledge or network access.

Knowledge may include resources, organizations, stories, tools, recommendations - all of these stem from a seller's ability to understand the issues facing a buyer. Network access means the seller is willing to suggest people who may be able to help with a problem or challenge - not just potential employees, vendors, or consultants, but problem-solvers who are willing to have an email exchange or spend an hour on the phone.

How can Sales align?

From a management perspective, organizations should look for people who have broad knowledge, not just horizontally or vertically focused.

Does she understand different levels of the organization and the challenges therein?
Does he understand how the marketplace and multiple industries are changing?

The strength of the network is usually based on the person's ability to ask for and offer help. The best networks are not created by the schmoozers, they grow for the people who are routinely involved in giving and receiving assistance.

I find it helpful to ask interview questions such as, "Who would you call if . . . ?" Repeat this a few times with a few different scenarios, and ask, "Why would you call him/her?" This will give you insight into the person's ability to bring value.

For the salesperson, this means making an effort to go wider and deeper with people and information. The "contacts" you rely on will only get you so far. Ask people routinely, "What can I help you with?" And devote yourself to learning outside of your comfort zones.

The best sellers I know have a reservoir of value that they nurture and share.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sales Shift: What is Changing?

This is the first in a series of posts exploring how the field of B2B sales is changing.

Daniel Pink argues in his book A Whole New Mind that outsourcing, automation, and abundance are raising the value of conceptual work. As much as we still feel the modern pull towards specialization ("I must find the one thing that is my domain"), it is the creative, empathetic, and relational generalists that will be needed, and lead us from the mechanistic information age into the future.

The value of product salespeople may be diminishing, but at the same time, the value of solution-oriented sales professionals will likely increase. Here's the catch : we are undergoing some monumental cultural and business shifts that are impacting the current and future landscape of sales.

What is impacting sales?

1. Abundance of information through the Internet - Reviews, recommendations, competitive information, industry analyses, and access to millions of potential advisors.
2. Free and low cost trials and services, more competitors - Costs are lower to start or run a business in most sectors due to open sourcing, lower material costs, and availability of knowledge.
3. Intolerance for interruption - Workers at lean companies have less time, plus people have grown accustomed to technology offering more control (fast forward the DVR, delete the email).
4. Decision-making complexity - Committees, vendor management, more inclusiveness, intricate risk mitigation, decline in authoritarianism, and fear of making the wrong decision in a tough economy.
5. Loose tie relationships expanding - Anyone can more easily research, find, and become connected to a wider range of people through the Internet

Conceptualizing, Connecting, Communicating

Automated sales does not work in this environment (though I've seen companies try). Technology cannot effectively assimilate ideas and customize them for a particular purpose. Having worked for companies with algorithmic approaches to processing data, I have seen the limitations. But more than that, a computer cannot emote or empathize. People connect with one another - technology is just a medium for these connections.

I heard a story recently from an employee at a leading technology company that is renowned for making data-driven decisions. He had scheduled time a scholarly analytical guru, paid a visit, and brought his gigabytes of data with the question, "How do I make sense of all this?"

The guru replied, "You print them out, tape them together, and post them on the wall. Your brain will find the patterns. You will stumble upon insights." Solving a business problem takes a lot more than data. There is a bright future for B2B sales professionals who can see the big picture, patterns in the chaos, and who can connect the people and ideas to solve problems.

Over the coming weeks, I will look more closely at how these changes are effecting the field of sales.

How should hiring practices within sales be adjusted?
What should salespeople be doing to increase their value?
What is the future of sales management?









Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Survive or Thrive


I heard again this week from the owner of a startup business: "We are all just trying to survive."


The survival mentality is not just an epidemic of doubt. It is based on real incomes, real balance sheets, and real losses of lifestyle, savings, relationships, and an era that has now passed.


I know survival well. I know the focus it can bring, as well as the anxiety. We can blame it on the banks, the regulators, the politicians, or our culture. But we all share responsibility for what has been done and left undone.


The truth is, we can't go back to the way it was. It is like a relationship outgrown, a pair of pants that does not fit. Our spending, our irresponsibility, our dependence on the "dependable" – we were all collectively agreeing to live within a delusion. Now, people and buyers are evaluating purchases differently, not just based on ROI or return-on-enjoyment.


So, for marketers to think right now that the problem is only consumer or business spending is naïve. The economy has changed, but the world has changed with it. The old techniques may not work in the future as they did in the past.


Your books may not be thriving, but this is a time for thrivability to emerge. For business, this starts with evaluating your relationships with employees and customers, and with the local and global community. You may not offer a 10% raise this year, but you can counter the survival energy by focusing on people and questioning everything you have been doing.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Adaptive Branding

My interview posted with Liz Strauss last week got me thinking about the branding exercises I've been through over the past 10 years with companies large and small. It's often a painful process, taking months and costing thousands of dollars. The dialogue is always provoking because identity is at stake – who we work for reflects who we are. The process of deciding what a brand represents calls forth all sorts of tangled conflicts and opinions.

Personal branding is no different. While historically we have decided to "show a face" based on what is expected or needed, with greater availability of information there is a natural pull towards transparency and authenticity. Brands cannot manufacture an identity. People cannot as easily pretend to be something they are not. It is what it is.

There are a few insights I have gained from Liz that extend to corporate branding:

1. Customers, not marketers, determine your brand's identity

Liz encourages individuals to, "Ask people what they see when they are looking at you." This is listening in a nutshell. Whether you're a B2B organization or B2C, you have to continue to both passively collect insights – eavesdropping – and actively ask your customers, "Who are we?" "What do we do for you?" The willingness to be open to what's being said is no longer a position of weakness, but rather a position of adaptive strength.

2. Test and continually be willing to adapt your brand

Avoid the temptation to "be whatever the largest group wants you to be." There are limits, and being part of the dialogue requires a willingness to "put yourself out there," as Liz says. Beth Kanter and Allison Fine refer to the ability to adjust and experiment in real time as "micro-planning." There are many marketers who would rather invest in the concrete effort of determining a brand's identity. The fluidity of a changing market – it is people! – makes these investments not only more costly, but the story can quickly become obsolete. The ongoing attention of listening and micro-planning requires a commitment and rethinking traditional marketing strategies.

3. Care about something outside of profits

Every brand intersects in some way with culture. This may be complex when we're talking about international brands, but part of "putting a stake in the ground" and "telling your story" is determining how you can add value to the culture(s) in which you are embedded. For a local restaurant, this may be giving food to the local pantry. For a publisher, this may mean donating books. I love the work that GlobalGiving is doing with brands in this regard, helping them determine where they may most authentically contribute to global needs and causes. This is not only the right thing to do, it wins and retains customers.



Thursday, July 23, 2009

Sales Shift: Danger on the Horizon

Casey the car salesmanImage by misterbisson via Flickr

If you are selling products, start looking for a new job or maybe a new career. Let's think about this . . .

I did a consulting project quite a few years ago for World Book Encyclopedia. The question being, "How do we compete with Encarta?" (This was pre-Wikipedia). What has happened to the encyclopedia salesperson? The vacuum salesperson? The Avon lady?

Avon, Amway, and the other MLM's still are doing ok, but it's partly because the independent representatives have embraced the Internet, either as direct channels or for lead generation. Relationships and technology allow these businesses to grow.

But there are limitations to the relationship when a salesperson is providing a product or category of products. In the past, the value of this relationship was based on the buyer having direct access to the best information and price. The salesperson was the purveyor of industry knowledge, product-related data, and an advocate in negotiating costs.

Now, buyers in retail or B2B can increasingly get this information online – either through portals, conversation forums, reviews, and vendor sites. We all know how prevalent RFP's and RFQ's have become. "Vendor management" continues its online expansion through facilitating education, bidding, and communication to take place directly with the manufacturer or distributor. The value of the B2B salesperson's job will continue to erode as analysts and product managers provide the needed information directly to prospects or through a site.

If you're looking to buy a car, who are you going to trust? Your online peers or a guy on the lot? The Internet offers more information, both in quantity and reliability, in order to make decisions. This has been true in the B2C arena for a few years. Now, it's becoming more commonplace in B2B as well.

How could World Book compete with Encarta? Relationships were the primary conclusion. But if there's limited time or basis for a relationship, you're going to be paid less or nothing.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mark My Words

Koenig's 1814 steam-powered printing pressImage via Wikipedia









My professional roots are in publishing. Much of my life has been spent around ink, paper, and the printing press. I am anchored by words. Though I may someday be a Kindlefan, I will always defend the beauty of fingering pages, of dog ears, and of discovering what's on the next page, even when I have not searched for it.

Many of my heroes are journalists and writers. So, it is painful to watch the unraveling of an industry that has been essential to not only my personal growth, but the growth and protection of democracy and freedom. I don't know what's going to happen, but if I had to guess, these themes will continue to be important:

1. Independent writers vs. Network writers vs. Employed writers

Who will make the money? Who will be free to write from their own point of view? If you think the line between blogger and journalist is blurring, wait until we have hundreds of talented people competing for attention apart from their mastheads.

2. Micropayments

We can continue to believe the advertising/subscription mix is the only model until a solid third option emerges. I place my bet on micropayments, not in the form of readers paying dollars to authors, but in aggregated currency exchanges. We're not ready yet, but it's coming.

3. The Value of Research, Contacts, and Eloquence

Content and writing are not the same. Information comes cheap. Thoughtful, exclusive, and/or well-crafted pieces will demand something more. Let's hope.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Socializing the Web

I hate cliches, and jargon, and any expression that loses meaning in its frequency of use, or alienates certain people who are not "in the know." "Social Media" and the "Social Web" fall into this category. I like what iCrossing Social Media Analyst, Alisa Leonard-Hansen writes, "Social media" is not a "space" or "there" or "channel." There is simply the Web which has evolved and which has intrinsic social qualities to it."

We can simply talk about the web. Why is the web becoming socialized?

Markets form around key three principles, according to authors Alan Moore and Tomi T Ahonen

  • Knowledge or information exchange
  • Commerce
  • Entertainment

If you take these three principles and add a fourth, Connection, these are the reasons people spend time online. People connect, learn, shop, and are entertained.

A misconception about Social Media is that the cultural and business transformations are limited primarily to the "Connection" principle. While Facebook, LinkedIn, and social networking tools do allow people to connect with peers and brands where there is an affiliation, the social extent of the web continues to creep beyond social networking.

The socialized web increasingly encompasses all principles of market formation.

Knowledge Exchange

For example, I am a user of ChaCha, a service which allows me to voice or text any question. The question is then routed to a knowledgeable Guide in that subject area or geography. Rather than being patient with the mobile web, I can get an answer from a credible human being in less than a minute. I've used ChaCha to find a breakfast spot in Stevensville, Michigan, confirm that rabbits are nocturnal (they're not, they're crepuscular), and settle countless arguments in bars and automobiles. Social bookmarking, wikis, and forums such as Wikipedia, Yahoo! Answers, Delicious, Edmunds.com, and Beer Advocate all perform the same function. I am trusting people – whether it be a crowd or a "local" – to provide the knowledge I need.

This represents a cultural shift from trust in a few authoritative sources, to trust in thousands of peers. Search engines reflect this shift, as they continue to adjust their algorithms to incorporate recency, recommendations, and user generated content rather than focusing on the most authoritative sites.

Commerce

The social nature of brick-and-mortar shopping continues to pervade the web. Live chat and ratings and reviews were the first mainstream social additions to online shopping. Now, retailers are recognizing that there is more to the shopping experience than usability, availability of information, and efficiency.

Communities connected to transactional sites have slowly become more commonplace, giving buyers the chance to dynamically discuss products and services, share favorites and best practices, and connect around professional and lifestyle issues. A Networked Insights client, Netshops, has recently added a community and shared browsing to some of its 230+ stores.

As users become more comfortable with tools such as Me.dium, Browzmi, or Skabble, and eTailers become more at ease with community interactions, the web will become a virtual shopping mall where people shop with friends and discuss products as they are looking at them. The technology for meeting people, getting quick feedback, sharing opinions, and spending time with friends and colleagues while making buying decisions is already there.

Entertainment

In September, more people saw the Saturday Night Live skit of Tina Fey as Sarah Palin online than watched on TV. No one doubts the success of music, video, gaming, and pornography as online entertainment. Viewership and membership increase, while the social elements make the entertainment more communal and less isolated.

Adding HTML markup to YouTube videos allowed for sharing. Mashups, comments, and video responses make online video a unique form of discourse. Gaming sites such as Dress Up Challenge and I'm in Like with You are equally social and competitive. Last.fm is as much about discovering people as it is music.

At midnight as a restless twelve year old, my choices were to listen to Depeche Mode on cassette, watch MTV, or call a friend. Now, anyone can connect at any time with someone else who shares the same interests.

What does this mean for companies?

Corporate marketing and advertising has been about control: controlling the information (marketing communications), controlling the transaction (merchandising & operations), controlling the experience (branding), and controlling the relationships (customer service). With the socialized web, the power structures have shifted.

People can and will find ways to connect with one another – in gathering knowledge, in shopping, and in seeking entertainment. It is very difficult for companies to not only allow, but to promote these activities within the context of their brand. PR execs, merchants, marketers, and customer support representatives become listeners and matchmakers rather than mouthpieces.

On a weekly basis, I listen to companies express fear at the notion of opening up their closed sites. Brands that "get" social media are not only opening their doors and windows to fresh air, but have little choice but to accept the bugs, stench of garbage in the alley, and gusts of wind. As a marketer, wouldn't you rather know what people are actually saying? Customers recognize that companies are comprised of human beings that have personalities. They don't expect perfection. They are becoming less satisfied with the hyper-sterilized, unnatural gleam of the controlled experience. They want to roam, explore, and look under the rug. They want to connect with people. Those who feel comfortable will tell their friends, and be back again and again. Losing control can mean gaining loyal customers.

The web has evolved. And the social qualities of this evolution have the potential to help consumer and company alike.

Do you want your experience with companies to be humanized?

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