The ninth sales trend from our 12 Sales Trends Report for 2017 explores how salespeople can navigate the difficult situation of being in a complex sales environment and the need to simplify things for their clients.
Salespeople traditionally find themselves in conflicting spaces. A classic situation is the challenge of bringing the diverging interests of clients (e.g. lower prices, discounts) and the organisations these salespeople are representing (higher prices, better margins) together. In that capacity, they have to be skilled as mediators, translators, and problem solvers.
Currently, a very different polarity is demanding attention from salespeople, as well as sales managers and L&D specialists supporting them. It’s the tension between the growing complexity of our sales environment and the demand from clients to simplify things for them.
If a salesperson’s approach to selling is that of a discerned solution sales consultant, they’re dealing with a multitude of product and service options, market influences and client expectations that require the ability to create and deal with complex solutions to add relevant and distinctive value to their client’s needs.
On top of this, these factors are constantly changing. Whilst this is certainly not new, in recent years it has seemed to reach a level that presses the human mind to a limit in respect to the ability to juggle and sort all the information available — as well as identify opportunities and create solutions from the given information. It also significantly increases the desire for simpler ways and solutions to help deal with this information, both on the part of the salesperson and the buyer.
Simple solutions — the world seems to be longing for them. But what will not work in politics, social groups, communication and technology won’t help in selling or in professional development either.
Nonetheless, many customers are in a similar situation to salespeople. They too are looking for ways to reduce the complexity of their situation, whether in their business context or personally, or both. Thus they have a clear expectation from salespeople to help them gain control of the buying process and decision. The customers’ key expectations are:
• Information sorting and sifting. Salespeople should be able to help them identify the relevant information in the abundance of data available, particularly online, and also help them differentiate between facts and mere opinion;
• Consistency: Salespeople should create an environment and process that is reliable, sustainable and trustworthy, to reduce surprises and the need to re-orientate all the time; and
• Feeling safe: Technical resources can’t help us with the emotional challenges that come with complex decision making processes, the risks associated with them and the stress often related to dealing with many other people. Salespeople are expected to create an environment that, for the given purpose, eliminates these factors and makes customers feel safe.
To create such an environment for their customers, salespeople need to be able to deal with complex situations. Additionally, they also need to be capable of translating relevant aspects thereof for customers to make the buying process as simple as possible, omitting all unnecessary aspects and structuring the remaining information in a way that is meaningful to the customer and creates value at their end.
The sales team
This situation requires a new form of learning agility at the sales teams’ end. Learning is not a task that can be boxed up into a training event maybe once or twice a year, where new products, a sales trend (!) or some alternative sales techniques are discussed. Learning has to be a continuous part of the workflow, and it has to deal with much subtler topics, challenges, and changes.
The salesperson needs to consistently review their performance and situation to quickly identify development or improvement areas for themselves. They need to be able to find solutions and proactively initiate whatever measures come with this. They can’t rely on an L&D department or solely on their sales managers to take care of the team’s “Annual Learning and Development Plan” because even on that scale it could be too static and inflexible.
Sales teams need process and structure for that, not as scripted approaches, but to be able to create a visible, tangible framework that gives them and their buyers’ orientation and direction.
Sales managers have to accept their share of helping with that task. They can support their teams in a variety of ways:
• Market research to help identify trends, especially slow and long term changes which might not be recognisable in the day-to-day business;
• Information sorting and sifting or providing relevant resources;
• Translating management expectations into executable activities;
• Providing the salespeople with information, not making them earn it;
• Creating and supporting processes (sales processes) to create a framework of clarity and structure to help salespeople move swiftly;
• Helping with forecasting and filling the sales pipeline (not just providing names and data from marketing or other resources, but meaningful support to help identify clients and prospects of value and potential); and
• Timely reporting, and coaching support. Organisations need to increase their training investment into managers, as described in previous trends.
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Sales trainers are more often asked for “simpler ways of selling”. Their challenge would be not to try and provide those, tempting as it may seem, but to take it upon themselves to find ways to teach salespeople how to deal with growing and overwhelming complexity by:
• Using consultative skills to reduce the scope of topics and challenges presented by the customers and channel them into viable solutions;
• Helping them develop reliable self-reflection skills; and
• Showing salespeople how to not fear the gap between client expectations or requirements and their own (perceived) means and limitations.
Whilst organisations should help create and support learning agility, the key to this trend is the ownership of the individual salesperson for this trait. In the same way they would do their market research and find and analyse opportunities, they need to be on the lookout for learning opportunities by:
• Doing their share of networking, market research and planned learning using their own initiative and not waiting for others to get them going — they’d risk lagging behind;
• Proactively liaising with sales managers to ensure efficient efforts are made to be up to date with any trends and learning areas relevant for the team;
• Helping to make learning part of the joint team efforts. Creating an environment where learning becomes accepted, expected, and valued not only for the individual, but as a way of supporting each other. Actively working on leveraging team experiences and synergy potential in that space;
• Asking customers for feedback for individual performance and their observations of the market, competition, and any changes and relevant developments they perceive;
• Making sure to feed their insights and needs to L&D (e.g. via their manager) to enable L&D to deliver timely support and relevant solutions; and
• Managing internal relationships to recognise new opportunities and challenges.
Remember everybody lives by selling something.