By Jess Iandiorio
Growing up, I always looked forward to shopping trips. I say “trip” because it was a minimum of 1.5 hours in the car to the nearest mall. But the experience of back-to-school shopping with so many stores and choices was a real luxury. We would even occasionally travel 2.5 hours to Montreal to get the “European flare” of clothing. I now know that was more about the US to Canadian dollar conversion, but back then all I knew was I was having an experience.
Going into our small town for the basics was one part necessity, one part social visit with all of the storeowners. With very few stores, the options were limited, and the relationships were key to getting a special item you wanted.
And then I grew up.
The internet was born and access completely changed. Today, I rarely set foot in a store. What’s more important: I don’t want to. What used to be a luxury is now an overwhelming burden. Just try stepping foot in Bed, Bath, and Beyond during the holiday season without a gameplan, with floor to ceiling products, and not have a panic attack. Too many options; too many choices.
I just want to plug in a simple search term, one click checkout, and get back to life. If I show up at a store, it’s because I already know what I want, and I’m required to show up to get it.
And I’m not just a buyer of consumer products. When purchasing products for business, it’s the same thing. I want to do research myself without someone’s influence, find a way to verify a product is good (from someone I trust), and throw my credit card down.
I’m savvy, I know what I want, and I don’t want to be sold to.
I’m every buyer.
What follows is an in-depth review of how buying has changed, how selling has changed, and how sales professionals need to change. As demonstrated by 20-year sales veterans from internet-based businesses, we also showcase the four areas change has been forced: Process, Tools, Skills, and Measurement.
My story is not unique; today’s buyer has access to the majority of information they need before they even talk to your sales team (if they need to at all).
Paco Underhill, famed shopping scientist and author of Why We Buy (published in 1999!), said in that book:
“Few websites will permit you to see if a particular item is in stock in a store near you, order it, pay for it, and then go in person to retrieve it. In other words, a hybrid cyberphysical transaction.”
Well Paco, you called it. And now it’s table stakes, and called “Site to store,” although hybrid cyberphysical transaction sounds far more futuristic.
This digital catering to the consumer that knows exactly what they want is the norm.
Steven Power, President of Yodle Brand Networks, has spent 20 years selling at companies like Shell, ReachLocal, and Bigcommerce. He very clearly articulated the change in today’s buyer:
“I think we’re in one of the most exciting and simultaneously challenging periods for the way in which buyers have changed in the last 20 years. The change is profound. 1) Buyers have phenomenal information. They really understand their markets, products, services, features, pricing, and alternatives better than they ever have. We’re dealing with highly educated and informed buyers that are really in control of their purchasing decision. 2) Decision-making cycles have become must faster, more sophisticated, and more horizontally integrated through social networks and mobile communications. People can find out formally and informally through their networks if a company and product is good or bad to deal with, and if they deliver, instantaneously. 3) I don’t think customers are sold to any more; I think they buy. It’s much more about truly understanding a customer’s problems and needs, if you’re relevant and appropriate, and then helping them uncover, discover, and develop the solution on their terms. We’ve become guides, facilitators, and success coaches; we’re not sales professionals anymore.“
For internet businesses, the sales dynamics have changed significantly, especially with the advent of freemium business models.
Acquia, the leading cloud platform for building, delivering, and optimizing digital experiences, operates with a free version of their Acquia Cloud product. Tim Bertrand, their Chief Revenue Officer, said:
“Buyers are a lot more educated when you as a seller come to the table. A buyer 20 years ago may have picked up a pamphlet or white paper at a conference, or found you through an analyst or word of mouth, but there was a lot less research they were able to do. Today, buyers have typically done their own research, played with the product, talked to others who use the product, and gone out and done analyst research before you even discover them.”
The ability to ‘try before they buy’ has become the norm for buyers across both consumer and business products. Especially in software where buyers not only have more access to information, but have been burned in the past by false promises.
Understanding in a demo that a product can conceptually meet a customer’s needs is not enough before a purchase is signed. They need to touch it, and maybe even customize it, before they’re willing to part with money. But this does come with an advantage: Faster sales. Tim continues:
“We’ve done enterprise deals in under 60 days. It’s because the buyer already has our product, and they’re already in a deep decision-making cycle by the time we speak with them. That’s dramatically changed the game for the length of the sales cycle.”
Forrester Research recently published a complex graphic showcasing the B2B Buyers Journey, which is how the highly-educated and experienced buyer comes to be:
Today’s education process uses all devices and all vehicles possible. Print is almost non-existent as an influential force (goodbye, print advertising!). Peers and social proof have emerged as a critical part of the entire buyer’s journey. What’s promising for sales pros is they still play a critical role across the awareness, research, and comparison process, not just the transaction. They just have to play it differently.
There’s one element in this image that is hard to quantify, but has become essential: Trust. Adam Zais, Former head of Sales and Marketing at Wistia and Chief Revenue Officer at Robin, has been selling over over 20 years and identified the 800 lb gorilla of today’s sales cycle:
“Sales used to be more about manipulation than anything. Now there are no manipulation points. There are emotional points that become levers, but they’re not about information. There’s much more focus on trust. It’s not about likability, it’s about trustworthiness. That’s the emotional base sales rests on. Trust is about honesty and integrity. Differentiation is coming down to service and trustworthiness, rather than product features.”
The manipulation of the past lead directly to buyer skepticism that exists today. Mark Rudolph, Chief Revenue Officer at Ghostery, said:
“Traditionally a lot of buyers would spend millions of dollars on software and it’d become shelfware and they’d never use it. Even SaaS originally, people would be willing to buy an annual or two year contract because the cost was so much lower, but they still didn’t end up fully using it.”
This lead to skepticism and overall lack of trust, creating a tough environment for reps to build trusting relationships with buyers.
So there we have it: Today’s buyer is highly educated and experienced. They’ve researched your products and your competitors down to the feature level, and is likely in a trial. They’ve also backchannel referenced your company through analysts, colleagues, and friends. They are not out to be sold to, they’ve shown up to buy and they’re figuring out if they can trust you. One would think that’s like shooting fish in a barrel, but it isn’t. Adam said he’s always coached his sales teams with a simple phrase:
“We don’t sell things, we just help people buy.”
But, what’s the best way to help the right person, at the right time, in the right channel?
“One of the worst things to happen to sales was the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.”
For decades prior eCommerce and the dawn of Software-as-a-Service with Salesforce, ‘Hard tactics’ were lauded as the way to sell. “A. B. C. Always be closing” is the infamous line Alec Baldwin spoke in Glengarry Glen Ross to show hard tactics. To counter this, Tim Hurson and Tim Dunne published Never Be Closing. Hurson and Dunne explain that selling isn’t about manipulation. Instead, today’s successful sales professionals are driven by helping their customers.
Zig Zigler, may he rest in peace with 24 books to his name, is credited by many for training sales reps in hard tactics such as the presumptive close. His most famous books are Selling 101: What Every Successful Sales Professional Needs to Know, and Secrets of Closing the Sale. In Secrets of Closing the Sale, Zig states:
“The prospect is persuaded more by the depth of your conviction than he is by the height of your logic.”
This is no longer the case. Steven Power talked about the changing nature of the Sales person’s knowledge and skills in order to close a deal, and that it’s no longer about hiring ‘a big hammer with a lot of conviction and determination’:
“The best sales reps today have high self-awareness and are tech savvy. You need people who enjoy serving and helping solve problems, even more than they want to close deals. They need to be able to help people see and understand your solution, how it’ll work for them, and why doing business with you is fundamentally better. They need to be thought leaders, evangelist, and technically adept in order to convince today’s buyer.”
Salesforce.com not only created the new SaaS world, but they also used what they learned and told sales professionals how they should operate in it. Aaron Ross (Formerly Salesforce.com, now founder of Predictable Revenue, Inc.), and Marylou Tyler (CEO of Strategic Pipeline) published Predictable Revenue: Turn Your Business Into A Sales Machine With The $100 Million Best Practices Of Salesforce.com in 2008. Every single person I interviewed for this book referenced it as essential reading for salespeople today.
I had the opportunity to interview Will Anastas, SVP Enterprise Corporate Sales at Salesforce.com, to learn how selling at Salesforce has evolved even beyond the lessons in Predictable Revenue:
“Today salespeople need to differentiate themselves at that initial point of contact, not so much by product or company reputation, but by what real business problem they can solve. One thing we’re really focused on is how we can create authentic experiences, based on building an understanding of our customer’s customer. We’re training our sales team to experience what it’s like to be a customer of our prospect before we walk in the door. Last week a sales rep was preparing to pitch a high end women’s retail brand, so he went to the store, bought a blouse, and returned it. He did the same thing online. He was able to come to the meeting with real-world examples of their customer experience, and how we can improve it. Next week I’m visiting a Gas company. Before the meeting, I’m riding with a gas reader, someone else is going on a sales call, and another person is going on a ride-along with a customer service provider. We’re not going to know how we can help their business unless we understand their customers experience.”
Building buyer empathy is becoming an extremely key ingredient, especially to Enterprise SaaS Sales.
Let’s look at how the change in sales is occurring across Sales Process, Sales Tools, Skills, and Measurement.
Thanks to our friends at Sales Benchmark Index, here’s a typical lead funnel chart:
What’s changed? Demand Generation, The Marketing Captured Lead, and the Marketing Qualified Lead. Freemium models now introduce the new funnel: Product Qualified Leads (PQLs). In this world, marketing typically executes an Inbound Marketing approach using content to raise an organization’s visibility, and converts prospects to a free trial account. This is all still considered top of the funnel activity for marketers. But people downloading white papers are no longer considered marketing qualified leads, and no longer passed directly to sales. This reduces the amount of leads coming in, but what the sales team gets in return is higher qualified leads. The middle of the funnel is now where all the action is, and sales reps needs to get comfortable onboarding and activating free trialers so they can become product-qualified leads.
“There’s no arguing that the MQL, and the broader sales and marketing funnel, transformed marketing. It forced alignment, requiring sales and marketing to agree on the traits and actions that made a good lead. It required a good content strategy to guide prospects through the complex B2B buying journey. It drove a consistent set of lead management processes that made it easy to measure conversions at key points. And maybe most importantly, it let marketing prove our contribution to revenue.
I loved the MQL. I owe my marketing career to it. But now I’m over it. I’ve learned that more isn’t always better, and I think the MQL treadmill is slowly starting to suck the life out of marketing.
Enter the PQL.
I first heard of the concept of a PQL — or product qualified lead — via Christopher O’Donnell of HubSpot via a post on the excellent OpenView Medium publication. The basic idea is to combine freemium/open source product distribution with an inside-sales model to increase deal velocity. Users qualify themselves by using the product and inside sales exists to support them through the journey and set the stage for a long term relationship with the customer.”
The material impact on the sales process is it no longer needs to involve cold calling our outbound marketing, if you’re doing it right. It’s less about opening up your daily lead funnel and sending out tons of emails and calling people, and more about reaching out to help trialers get started and be genuinely helpful.
What this requires is extensive knowledge of the solution, what it can do, all of the features, and how they work. PQL cycles can take two paths to conversion:
Self-service is for buyers who know they want or have to pay for your product to keep using it, and online offerings meet their needs. It’s as simple as using their credit card.
The Sales-facilitated conversion also has process changes. Not only are you contacting someone only after they’ve already been at least intrigued, if not sold on the value promise, but your main job is now to get them to see that the product delivers on its promise from a functional and value-based perspective.
Chris Anderson, famed author of Free: The Future of A Radical Price, The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More, and most recently Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, had the foresight to know not all free customers are created equal back in 2009:
“It turns out not all free customers are alike, and what they’re worth to you depends on when they arrive. In the early stages of a company or product, when it’s trying to get traction, free is the best marketing.”
So it becomes sales job to differentiate one free customer from another to figure out who to spend time with. Additionally – the type of freemium model drives different prospect behaviors:
“The Problem with (time-limited) free trials is they discourage full participation during the trial period: Why spend a lot of time learning to use something when there’s a chance that when the time comes to pay you may not feel it’s worth it? Indeed, why start using it at all?”
So sales needs to figure out not only who to spend time with, but also how to get them to invest in the time-limited free program to get the product-qualified.
In addition to time-limited, Anderson presents three other freemium models which all pose their own strengths and challenges: Feature-limited, Seat-limited, and customer type limited (big or small, etc.)
Phil Harrell, Leader of SiriusDecisions Chief Sales Officer Strategies practice, talks about the nuances of qualification within the freemium model:
“I grew up B2B sales when the salesperson had more opportunity to qualify via human interaction. Now there’s a lot more digital interaction. The buyer is doing a lot more online without talking to someone. Organizations need to set up digital qualification criteria that reads a free users digital body language, and decide what indicates propensity to buy. Companies and salespeople need to find ways to see when a prospect is raising their hand, without them raising their hand.”
This is a massive process change for sales reps to get a handle on. It also can’t be done successfully without harnessing new & emerging sales tools.
While new sales tools are emerging daily to help the modern sales rep, the good news is most are free(mium)!
Today, you can find free CRM tools, email finders, and you can can even get rich prospect profile data with pulls together social & company information on your buyers. It’s never been easier to find people, and find out more about them.
But there’s been a new category of free sales tools cropping up that really help a rep shift from selling to serving. Here’s the top 4 service-oriented sales tools that help you better connect with and drive value for a prospect:
Jill Rowley, employee #13 at Eloqua who built the marketing automation space and now is the foremost expert on social selling, recently contributed to a Mikago blog Sales Trends in 2015 – Predictions by 14 industry experts. She said:
“I am hopeful for a mindset shift from selling to serving. Sales professionals need to move from using LinkedIn as their online resume, to managing their digital reputation. Instead of optimizing for the recruiter; optimize for the buyer.
Social Selling training for your Sales team is NOT OPTIONAL because a fool with a tool is still a fool. Oh, and if you suck offline; you’ll suck MORE online. #Don’tSuck.”
Tom Murdock, AVP of Sales at Fuze, has been scaling inside sales teams his whole career, and has made significant investments in social selling tools and measurement:
“We’ve implemented a social selling index at Fuze. I think it’s really important that reps be seen, in the earliest days of the sales process, as a thought leader beyond your products. We know that sharing helpful content about our market in our networks is well-received by the buyer because it shows we’re in-tune. We’re assessing our reps on how well they’re connected to buyers that could influence opportunities, and how good they are at selling and influencing in channels beyond phone and email.”
These service-oriented sales tools help sales reps help prospects in an extremely valuable, real-time, and contextual way.
The way I researched the change in sales skills was to asked everyone I interviewed:
“What do you look for when hiring a sales professional today?”
Unanimously, SVPs & CROs do not look for length of experience and an extensive “rolodex.” They don’t even look to hire from competitors anymore. The new criteria are simultaneously soft and hard:
“We hire people that are intellectually curious, passionate, want to work hard, and smart. Those traits far outweigh someone that has a rolodex.” -Tim Bertrand
“I always look for the intangibles. I don’t care if they come from the industry. I don’t care where they went to college. What I care about is: Are they smart? Are they driven? Do they have the right work ethic? You can’t teach that stuff. I can teach you how to sell, and I can teach you about the product, but I can’t teach you to be totally psyched to get up every day and go out and make money. Work ethic, desire, grit, scrappiness, genuine curiosity and the ability to get creative I value a lot more than if they went to an Ivy League School” -Will Anastas
“We hire people with high self-awareness.” -Steven Power
“I hire people who want to help people. At Wistia instead of sales their title is ‘Customer Happiness.’ Instead of writing champion letters, they’re helping people with the free product. Some may say that’s not a sales activity, I say it is. Everything you do today is about earning the right to have that customer tomorrow.” – Adam Zais
“I’m looking for someone that can demonstrate a willingness to self-invest. That might be the person that put themselves through school, is taking night classes, or did something to improve themselves. I think that sales and the marketplace is constantly changing, and you want someone that’s willing to evolve with the market. Not only is the sales model changing but the product is constantly being innovated and iterated on, so you need that person who’s not only curious but interested and invested in learning.” – Mark Rudolph
“We hire people who are tech savvy. People that come from a service/technical background often make the best sales guys because they know what they’re actually selling.” – Steven Power
“The most successful sales guys are tech savvy and completely up to speed on the product and able to go toe-to-toe with any prospect, without needing pre-sales or solution architects in the room to answer questions.” – Tim Bertrand
It’s clear: High EQ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), tech savvy, and desire to help, combined with the classic work ethic, are required today.
But there’s one word that didn’t come up that I know they all would have said “Yes!” to, and it’s debatable if this is a personality trait or a skill: Empathy.
When asked what books he’d recommend new sales reps to read, or not to read, to succeed in sales today. Will said “There’s one book that transformed my thinking about how we can understand our customer’s customers. Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, is actually perfect for sales today. You have to be vulnerable and put yourself out there to understand your customer’s customer and establish empathy.”
Understanding buyer psychology is not necessarily new, but looking at your own psychological behaviors and how they can impact sales process can be groundbreaking in enterprise sales today.
With the sales role transforming, measurement also takes on a new life. It’s no longer black and white. It used to be “You made your number or you didn’t.” But there are new (added) measurements:
And a highly qualitative measurement of whether a salesperson is able to build trust.
It’s a whole new world for a salesperson today operating at an internet business. Hard tactics, rolodexes, and extensive experience with enterprise sales cycles are no longer valued. Those who bring tech savvy, emotional intelligence, and a genuine desire to help people will be handsomely rewarded.
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