On a recent trip to Pennsylvania, PA, I ticked off a bucket list item and stayed on an Amish dairy farm.The learnings were incredible. How a community still maintains ‘the old ways of doing things’, yet adapts enough to be part of the greater community, especially from an economical perspective, was such an eye opener. Of course, those who refuse to adapt even slightly, are still very much alive and well, just diminishing in numbers. Very much like the sales profession.
On my return home, I was asked to prepare for an interview and one of the questions was whether I had seen any changes over the past few years in the B2B sales space and if so, what were those changes? Well, without too much thought I came up with ten major changes that I personally have experienced as a salesperson in my own agency, as well as what I have noticed whilst working with B2B sales leaders and teams globally, and changes with which many are still struggling.
Although I’m not sure selling, per se, has changed! I mean to sell something is still about having something of value that someone else needs and/or wants for both logical and/or emotional reasons, that they are prepared to pay for in whatever currency you both agree on.
What has changed though is what we are selling, and how we now go to market.
In the past it was relatively easy for us to sell our products – it was almost a paint by numbers. But today, what we are really selling is change and that takes more than us just knowing our product specs, our pricing and our place in the market – the lines have blurred.
It means we have to position ourselves more strategically, increase our business acumen, continue to stay agile in order to cope with the changes, shift the way we think about ourselves, our role and our outcomes and still live a life that makes us feel fulfilled.
So here are ten of the changes I have noticed and they are in no particular order:
- Competition in the past was contained to local or domestic vendors, in local cities and at margins that were typically healthy however with the introduction of technology, we have now become more of a global village. The transfer of information is sent and received in a nanosecond, the cost of goods can be sourced more competitively and being able to produce goods at half the cost means being able to sell it for less, and therefore increase our market share, but that impacts our revenue. Holding margin, due to globalization and commoditization, is becoming more and more difficult for many salespeople and unfortunately the affect on a rep’s commission today has well and truly had a negative impact.
- Technology was limited, so we, as salespeople, had more control around educating our clients and winning the business so long as our activity levels and product knowledge was on point. Today though, our buyers know more than us in many cases, and they now come to the table holding the cards. Being able to have conversations that are not about our products is a huge shift that many salespeople from a few years ago are finding difficult to adapt, and therefore finding themselves completely out of sync and also relevance.
- Contact was relatively simple. Prospects and customers either answered the phone (or pager) or their PA did. There was no email, voicemail, texting, social or InMail. In some lucky instances when we door knocked, they might even come out from their ivory tower to reception to see us, or we might even sweet talk the receptionist to get our foot in the door. We were able to actually ‘see’ what existing products they had and could uncover information more easily, in some cases, than we can today and brochures were our friend.
- Roles weren’t as sophisticated as they are today. You could call on a business manager whose role was fairly simple and straightforward – it was finance and function focused. The business manager was a decision maker in his or her own right and their sign-off was for a fairly healthy dollar figure. Today the business manager and the purchasing manager’s roles have been elevated and are considered pivotal senior management roles. Besides many today have their own gatekeepers. Whilst that same role today is no longer seen as purely ‘clerical’ in nature and needs business experience, education and acumen more than ever, many still do not have the power of sign off that their predecessor had.
- It was expected that you build a relationship and schmooze prospects with lunches, networking events, in-house days and free giveaways, whereas today so many more people are involved in the decision making process. From 4 people in 2013 according to CSO Insights to an average of 7 people in 2016 according to the Gartner Group. Risk aversion, political correctness and the fear of ‘being bought’ has driven a component of the changing behaviour of the buyer, making selling so much more complex.
- Terms of purchase have changed. What used to be key in getting payment upfront ie a capital expense investment (capex) or locking someone into a long term lease or rental has now changed because more and more businesses need to stretch their spending and do more with less. With technology also changing so quickly, the new normal now sees operating expenses (opex) being the financial model with a pay as you go, monthly value proposition. This has been a huge change for vendors having to share the risk, impacting cash flow.
- I remember when I first started out in sales some thirty years ago we had a small department of two women whose role was telemarketing. That role was not calling someone at dinner time and selling, rather it was qualifying prospects as to size, contact details et to update the database with any opportunities that arose and then delegating to the rep. That division disappeared and that function became the responsibility of the rep. But the old ‘telemarketing’ is coming back full force under the banner of ‘Inside Sales’ and bringing with it more responsibility and lead generation focus, and as a result replacing field reps in many cases, due to increased coverage and positive impact on the bottom line.
- Good talent used to be found anywhere if you found someone who could talk the talk and so many hopeful’s resumes were tucked away and sandbagged in top drawers by sales managers ready to be called upon at any given time to replace their bottom performers. But the drawer is empty today. According to Manpower, the role of a salesperson is in the top five hardest jobs to fill every year and in 2014, it was second hardest role worldwide. With the average tenure of sales roles being only eighteen months, according to The Bridge Group, it is so important to assess and evaluate the right incoming talent, onboard them faster and more effectively than the average four months and have them hit the ground running, and then… keep them, and keep them willing to perform.
- Online retailing has been (and will continue to be) such a disruptive sales model that it has seen a huge chunk of the market ripped from B2B salespeople causing downsizing in many cases and the beginning of salespeople’s roles being swallowed up. And this is happening in large enterprise customer bases and not just retail outlets. Customers are researching, they are testing, they are trialing and they are paying for products from behind a keyboard with very minimal sales interaction.
- Marketing has also impacted the sales landscape. Remember the days where magazines, newspapers, flyers and print advertising were generating a ton of interest and incoming leads. Where expos and dem days and trade shows were rampant and there was almost one salesperson to one lead… OK, a bit of an exaggeration but technology has definitely allowed our buyers to see and hear and get a feel for what we do through YouTube videos, websites, trial online demos, mobile ads, online reviews and content marketing that costs next to nothing to produce and negates the need for many of those pavement pounding, bush rustling salespeople of old, all the while allowing revenues to continue to grow.
As for future changes for the B2B salesperson and sales profession? Well that’s for another day, suffice to say there are more than 2,000 ways of being an Amish according to Professor Donald Kraybill from the Young Centre, just as I’m sure there are more than 2,000 ways to being a salesperson. It’s choosing the most effective, profitable and fulfilling way for you and choosing to adapt or not.
Be Bold and Brilliant
Bernadette McClelland is a Keynote and Sales Kick-Off Speaker, Executive Sales Leadership Coach, and published author. CEO of 3 Red Folders she ensures her clients create double digit revenue growth and marketplace differentiation through unique programs based on ‘The NeuroScience of Sales Leadership and Sales Process’.
Image Courtesy of My Camera