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Selling is changing - stop putting and start blogging

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 12, 2014
Selling to the enterprise is not what it was. Does this mark the end of "golf course relationships"? Here's how selling is changing.

"Put your putter down and start blogging" - sounds like a great tagline for my motivational blog workshops. OK, it's catchy, but is it good advice?

A few months ago at the Acumatica Partner Summit, I caught up with Brian Sommer to chat about how enterprise selling is changing. (For background, here's our "Profound changes in selling technology" video).

After the shoot, I dug into a referenced book called The Challenger Sale which was the fashion du jour a few years past. How much has sales actually changed? And what does it mean to individuals and/or teams? Those are the questions I've been pursuing.

Why enterprise selling is changing

1. Internet-savvy buyers are informed by online research (and peer reviews). During our chat, Sommer asserted that selling has to change because buying behavior is changing. Yup, this is the much-feared "informed buyer", who is already savvy to the pros and cons before a single conversation takes place. Sommer:

Selling actually starts with how buyers even find out about people and businesses. Things that they used to do before the big recession on the Internet were normally relegated [to consumer purchases]. Now, people bring that same skill set [to enterprise buying]. They bring that skill set to work.

2. Buyers have "been there, done that." They are swayed by deep know-how and fresh ideas. In the context of The Challenger Sale, Sommer sees enterprise buyers as well informed on pricing, functionality, and are jaded to receiving the same product pitch. Jolting them with new ideas is the way to break through:

Once you get that phone call from a buyer, don't get all excited - because the buyer already has an idea of what they want, how they want it, how they want it delivered, sold, and even what the price points ought to be. The point in The Challenger's Sale was that people have to change the mindsets of these buyers who've already got these preconditioned ideas of what they want, and show them some other stuff they didn't even think about.

3. If you don't develop and share expert content, an informed buyer is less likely to trust in your industry credibility. In this exchange, Sommer and I dig into the shift from charisma to subject authority:

Reed: So the days where you hire an aesthetically pleasing individual who had the gift of gab are gone. If you can't talk pricing, if you can't talk a little bit about the domain, the subject the buyer cares about, you're not selling.
Sommer: You've got to put together a bunch of thought leadership materials around the subjects people are searching Google or whatever for. All of the sudden they realize, "Oh, here's the firm that actually understands our business problem." You don't have to necessarily give them the solution, but you certainly have to impress upon them that you actually have domain knowledge in that space. What wins the day now is: people buy deep subject matter expertise, competency in the products or services being sold. They've got to believe they're going to get great value out of this - and you've go to be able to communicate that.

As for trading in your putter, I pointed out to Sommer that if you don't turn content into industry crediblity, you might miss out on the short list altogether. (In other words, before a buyer searches online, they might just ping their trusted advisor or peer. Your standing with that individual matters). Sommer's response? There's a generational shift going on, and tickets to 'ol the ball game aren't going to cut it:

Channel partners still think they're going to get a bucket load of business by having a golf club membership, or entertaining perspective clients on a boat.

Stacking against the The Challenger Sale

So how does our convo contrast with the tenets of The Challenger Sale? It's not a book that lends itself to sound bites, but the gist is that the authors' data revealed, amongst high performing salespeople, the "Challenger persona" surpassed all others in sales effectiveness, and by a wide margin (other personas included the Relationship Builder, the "lone wolf," etc.). (The "Challenger" persona worked best in the types of complex sales we see in the B2B space).

As this book summary notes, elements of the Challenger persona include:

  • Teaching for differentiation, using unique perspectives to make customer think differently, seeing new needs and possibilities.
  • Tailoring for resonance, through a sound understanding of customer economic and value drivers.
  • Taking control, including comfort in discussing money and pressuring customers.

There is plenty of criticism of The Challenger Sale online, as you would expect of any branded approach that may not speak to all situations. But how does fit in with my own views?

The Challenger Sale is widely lauded for debunking the "relationship-based" salesperson, and rightly so. Where the conversation gets thornier is how salespeople become "challengers". Given the need to arm salespeople with the proper differentiator (and the data to back it up) , that sales and marketing gap becomes even more dangerous.

Tailoring data-driven insights to customers is such an obvious recommendation it may lack value. But helping salespeople to present solutions in a less generic way is clearly a starting point. This slide from The Challenger Sale slideshare is a good indication of what the Challenger salesperson brings to the table:


Slide from The Challenger Sale slideshare

A tougher question is whether salespeople should aspire to thought leadership. I'd say yes - but such intellectual pursuits can't be forced. Bottom line, salespeople don't have to be perceived as leading the customer into the future on their own. But they do need to be perceived as relevant.

And they may need to call-in sales support of a different kind: "thought leaders" who can step in with customers and frame conversations, reinforcing how product roadmaps are in line with where the industry is headed. And yes, these so-called thought leaders would be bloggers, or content creators in some form. Ideally, they would already be known and trusted by the customer based on that content and/or speaking appearances, lending weight to the salesperson's "challenge."

That's where the "challenge the customer with fresh ideas" comes in. Some of that can be trained, but perhaps not scripted. Working off a script is less desirable than working off a comfort zone of why such innovations matter. And sure, for those who are maintaining customer relationships, time on the golf course is still in the potential playbook.

But can you "control the conversation" with an informed buyer? It's one of the big debates about the "Challenger" approach. I'd suggest it's a red herring. Most customers reject a pressurized sale, but that doesn't mean waiting for the phone to ring. If you deliver exceptional value and propose relevant new ideas, the issue of "control" will fade. They'll seek you out.

The Challenger Sale provides one lens into the challenge of the informed buyer. But there are other. Gartner has a (free) webinar on tying sales and marketing to the phases of the hype cycle.  Oracle's Ian Tickle just wrote a useful piece on diginomica, Empowering the 21st Century Salesforce, with a different take (the parts on "deep insights" and collaboration fit in well with the themes here).

So, no, salespeople don't need to blog - they probably don't have time. But someone working closely with them in a customer-facing role should be. Bad news for those trying to lower their gold handicap - less time at the putting green and more time at industry workshops IS the future.

Image credit: Door to door salesman © -

Disclosure: Brian Sommer and I attend many analyst events together, but have no business relationship. I also have no business relationship with the authors of The Challenger Sale. Oracle is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing.

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