I was reading through the report, “Why Digital Will Become the Primary Channel for B2B Engagement” from CloudCraze (registration required), and it made me very curious about the way the sales role is changing – and changing fast.
In its survey of 400 B2B companies including consumer packaged goods, manufacturing and software decision makers across the US and Europe, 89% attribute expected business growth to the success of digital commerce.
The report noted that B2C has set new expectations for self-service, faster response times and personalized interactions. This is not the first time we’d heard that B2C online experiences are influencing B2B, but remember that there is still a strong desire for in person, brick and mortar B2C experiences, along with the growth of digital commerce. The same will apply to B2B – person to person (Sales to Customer) is still necessary, but it is also true that in many cases, B2B selling is moving online.
What does this growth of online sales mean for the Sales rep?
Digital is redefining the customer and sales relationship. According to the report, this digital commerce growth is not reducing the number of Sales reps, but it is changing the sales role:
- 42% said Sales is becoming a strategic trusted advisor
- 39% are shifting sales reps efforts to marketing and other departments
- 13% are refocusing sales reps on high-volume customers
It’s the strategic advisor role that fascinates me. In a period where customers are doing much of their own research, talking to other customers and making the decision to buy long before they talk to someone, how can Sales become a trusted advisor – and what does that mean anyway?
There is no better person to talk to about the challenges Sales face than Byron Matthews, CEO of Miller Heiman Group. Matthews walked me through the evolution of the Sales model at a high level. The traditional model was that you met a customer and talked about your company’s products and features. In the late 70’s to 80’s, sales reps realized that they needed to understand their customers needs first and put your products into the context of their needs. Matthews said it has been this way for decades. He noted that sellers are not necessarily good at this sales model, but it has been the goal.
What has been disruptive to this approach, Matthews said, is technology and the number of resources available to customers to understand and learn things. This is forcing an evolution in solution selling”
It’s not good enough to show up and ask questions anymore. You have to show up, understand their business and understand what they are trying to get done, yes. But you also have to provide value. You have to change their thinking, provide them content and insights that differentiate you from anyone else.
Matthews said you need to challenge their thinking to get them inspired to continue working with you and make them curious about what you can offer. That shift, Matthews said, is very difficult and it’s leading to a lot of change in selling organizations – how do they add value; provide insights.
Sales and Marketing 2.0
This change to how you sell is also driving the change in Sales and Marketing alignment. Typically, the alignment is at the messaging level with key messages, value propositions and how the business is represented. Now, Matthews said, the alignment is more granular, down to the rep level, and it’s turning sales reps into content marketers.
Sales reps need to provide content and insights specific to a client’s situation. Matthews indicated that innovation in technology on the seller side is enabling this ability to provide this content:
Buyers are getting much better at buying faster than sellers are getting better at selling,” Matthews said. “What’s driving that is the buyer’s availability of content, data, and education about what they are trying to solve – they don’t need the seller for that anymore.
Now, sellers are getting in late in the buying process and without content, data and insights, they are having trouble differentiating themselves.
This leads to the question of who is producing this content? Is Marketing producing it? Or is it the responsibility of Sales? Matthews said that is one of the pieces Sales organizations are trying to figure out – enabling the creation of that content. One big trend in B2B selling is the creation of Sales Enablement functions in selling orgs.
This includes the set up of people and programs dedicated to enabling sellers to be more sophisticated. Matthews said that the best sales enablement functions doing this by working with Marketing. So they are leveraging Marketing to help with the content, data and segment and other things needed to provide the client, specific their situation.
Matthews also talked about technology like content management systems that are delivering the content needed to sales reps in real-time. But he said the best orgs have Marketing fill those systems. He sees organizations struggle when they try to invent this themselves.
Content alignment is hard
This alignment is very hard to do, Matthews said. But he’s seen success in the organizations that are making it work. He said the struggle is how to create a framework to deliver that content. You need to figure out how to take a traditional piece of marketing content, data or other material (or take the content Sales requested), break it down into a piece and know when to provide it to the Sales rep.
There are systems today that let you provide content to a Sales rep by stage. So you know what the buyer’s journey looks like and you know what content they look for at each stage. Once you understand this, you can tag content in a CMS that connects content items to a particular stage and sends the content to the Sales rep when they hit this stage with a client. But that’s really hard to do, said Matthews. It’s hard to get it organized correctly, and when you get it wrong, sales reps get content that is irrelevant, and they start ignoring it and turning it off.
Really finding the way to align content to specific individual needs, that actually provide value – that’s the challenge. When you get it right, Sales reps rely on it. But when you get it wrong, they ignore it. That causes the gap in their ability to add value to a buyer.
Fostering collaboration is critical
The only way marketing can deliver on the promise of putting content and enabling content marketers at the rep level is for them to get a lot of help and insights from salespeople. Sales provided data helps marketers define the buyer’s journey and develop appropriate content. Once this is done, it’s mapped to the selling process and then across buyer’s journey and selling process, the content gets mapped point by point so that sales reps can decide when and what type of content they want to provide the client to change the selling game.
The collaboration required to make this successful is tighter than anything we’ve seen or talked about before and Matthews said it needs to be driven by the selling organization.
A note on the type of content buyers want
People want content, and much of what they want is product data. But it’s not exactly product data in the way you might think about it – datasheets, etc.. Matthews said they are looking for product data in the context of how that product would impact their organization.
He talked about the content that offers qualitative data – features, benefits, how the product works, case studies of how it worked for others as interesting, but not the important part. What you need to offer is content that helps them see how the product impacts their business. The buyer can then use that content to help get buy-in and funding.
Now show me based on all your experiences: in my industry, in others, in situations of my size, now tell me specifically how this is going to impact my business, what is your perspective on that?
This means a lot of data and the ability to understand a client’s needs so well that you can provide unique content specific to their situation.
My conversation with Matthews was enlightening on many levels. I understood the role of Sales was changing. It is natural for roles and responsibilities to adjust as the way buyers make decisions evolves. Marketing has faced the same transformation challenges, and many are figuring it out.
But how Sales organizations need to adapt has been confusing, because there’s been a lot of talk about how they need to provide more content, and then be there when the customer is ready to talk. It’s not enough for sales reps to simply supply more “abstract” content that requires customers to translate things into their situation. Sales need to create that unique content, so the buyer doesn’t have to – that is the trusted advisor role.
To do that requires a lot of data and understanding of the customer and their requirements. But it also requires the development of content that can be broken down into pieces that can be mixed and matched and changed to suit a specific client or situation – and that, as Matthews pointed out – is so hard to do. But it’s not impossible.
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