Sales Strategies Must Change to Match Customers' New Buying Habits

Buyers' purchase processes have evolved significantly over the past few years. Salespeople and their companies' sales processes need to keep pace with those changes if they are to stay competitive.

Should your customers care about the way you sell? Or should you care about the way they buy? Increasingly, successful organizations know the answer is the latter. In order to meet the changing needs of their prospects and customers, companies must adopt the customer perspective and solve the customer's problems. And that means that the sales process, along with the skills and attributes that salespeople-hunters and gatherers alike-bring to the selling process, must evolve.

"The major thing we're seeing right now is that selling is changing because buying is changing," says Jim Dickie, managing partner of CSO Insights. "If you took a look at the B2B space 10 years ago, selling and buying cycles were almost always in step." Back then, if a company wanted to buy a new product or service, they went out to vendors and asked, 'What do you have that can help me?'" Dickie says. "Salespeople had all of the information."

But a decade later, that dynamic has changed. 'Now the control has shifted to the buyer," says Debbie Qaqish, chief revenue officer and principal partner at The Pedowitz Group. Buyers in the B2B space are often doing a lot more research prior to contacting a potential seller, thanks to the Internet and social media. Today, prospects "can be deep into the sales cycle and companies don't even know it," she says. That doesn't mean that salespeople are irrelevant; it means they need to be prepared to talk about more than just product information.

"With Internet research you can find a lot of information, but still, nothing happens until someone talks to someone," says Dan McDade, president and CEO of PointClear and author of The Truth About Leads. "Good salespeople who are armed with a strategic message can impact the sale-you can't do that without a person."

Sales reps need to be prepared to discuss how their company's product or service can help a prospect solve a business problem. "That changes the dynamics of the type of person you want to hire," Dickie adds. "Now, we're looking for people who have an understanding of the problems of the people they're selling to."

Other factors are changing the buying process, too: Technology is interconnecting products and services "so, what salespeople are selling is affecting more and more people in the customer organization," says Kevin Davis, author of Slow Down, Sell Faster! Understand Your Customer's Buying Process and Maximize Your Sales. There's an increased focus on cost cutting and cost justification.

That dynamic, along with the current economy, has ended the days of the lone decision-maker-the one person a sales rep needed to contact to close the deal-in most cases. In fact, in its 2011 Sales Performance Optimization Study, CSO Insights asked, 'How many stakeholders are directly involved in making a decision to choose you versus a competitor?' According to preliminary results from 952 companies worldwide, the answer is 3.92 people. Successful sales reps need to talk to, for example, the buyer in procurement, a person in finance, the CIO, and the business unit head in order to close a deal.

These changes "are forcing salespeople to sell differently," Davis says, "and what they're selling is harder and harder to differentiate, so what forward thinking organizations are looking at is differentiating how they sell." His advice: Just caring about the customer is no longer enough. Reps "need to slow down the sales conversation, get in sync with the customer's buying process, and ask more questions along the way."

That's certainly the case at Polycom, a unified communications solutions provider. Three years ago Polycom initiated a change to a direct-touch sales model, but accelerated the process in July 2009 when CEO Andrew Miller joined the company. Its previous sales model relied more heavily on channel partners, says Heidi Melin, the company's chief marketing officer.

Moving to a direct-touch model "has allowed us to have a dialogue directly with our customers to understand what their challenges are and the business issues they're facing, so we can listen and include their input and insight into our product roadmaps," Melin says.

Melin adds that while it's easy for tech companies to focus on selling their technology and all the cool things it enables, "if you can't get to the benefit to the customer, it makes it hard to have a strong value proposition. Having the latest and great technology is foundational to what we do today, but more important is how that technology is being leveraged by our customers to solve real business challenges; that's what they care about. And solving business challenges is how we're going to get traction in the [marketplace]."

The new approach seems to be working: Melin says Polycom's North American customers have already noticed a change in the company's ability to react, respond, and partner with them on solving business issues. And she attributes "at least a portion" of the company's 27 percent third-quarter growth to being more solutions oriented and customer centric.

Another company instituting change is Xerox, which is redefining both its value proposition-it's now a services-led company-as well as its sales operations, says Doug Burgess, senior vice president of Xerox Corporate Lean Six Sigma. The company is using Lean Six Sigma, a process-improvement methodology, to help its sales force manage the transition.

"Our sales representatives aren't simply presenting product specification sheets anymore; they're responsible for demonstrating to the customer that Xerox has the solutions that will make them more productive and successful," Burgess says. "Most of our customers don't have a core competency in document management. We use Lean Six Sigma to show them how their business processes are supported by documents, and how those processes could be reengineered to be more efficient." Sales reps-who are encouraged to complete an eight-hour, Web-based training program on Lean Six Sigma-talk about the methodology with customers and explain how it will help them be more successful, which in turn helps Xerox win more business. "Lean Six Sigma becomes a critical differentiator and relationship-building tool in the hands of a sales representative." The process has helped Xerox's customers save money and helped get new sales trainees up to speed faster.

Of course, changing the sales process may also mean changing salespeople's skill sets. McDade of PointClear says that tomorrow's sales force is specialized, with successful companies placing value on the unique skills of hunters and gatherers rather than asking them to do tasks at which they don't excel. In author Davis' view, tomorrow's successful sales rep is a detective-someone who asks tons of questions, drills deep to get to a customer's goals, listens, and uncovers the additional decision-makers necessary to close a deal. Pedowitz Group's Qaqish adds that reps must become trusted advisors who "take time to understand as much as they can about the client before they pick up the phone."

Ultimately, salespeople focused on understanding prospects and customers' needs and proactively helping them to solve their business challenges will be the ones who also help their companies win in today's customer-led market.