12 sales trends for 2017: Sales Trend 5 – Salespeople at risk of becoming obsolete

This is the fifth sales trend from our 12 Sales Trends for 2017 report.

The proliferation of internet-based sales channels that offer everything, from simple items such as a toothbrush to some fairly complicated services including insurance, banking and even major items in the business-to-business (B2B) sector, means the traditional role of product focused salespeople has changed.

Sadly, some companies and quite a few salespeople continue to ignore the encroaching tsunami.

So just what has changed?

Probably the single most important change (or lack thereof) in sales, with the most dramatic impact, is the fact that those companies that continue to push their products and have, for whatever reason, failed to train their salespeople to understand the concepts of value and risk management (and to identify how their offerings address these concepts), will not evolve from ordinary to extraordinary; instead, they are likely to be the first casualties.

This sales trend highlights the fact that as buyers (consumers and businesses) look for ways to acquire products, services and solutions faster and at a lower cost, the playing field has changed.

Buyers, smarter than ever with access to a plethora of information, don’t need salespeople to show them their product portfolio, or even to discuss the evident features and benefits. What buyers are looking for is salespeople who are prepared to invest time, effort and energy in understanding their challenges, and who are then prepared to work with them to find a uniquely developed or tailored solution that will satisfy their expectations with the least risk possible at a price they can afford.

The long-time staple of selling (i.e. features and benefits) is no longer adequate. While buyers still need to know what the features and benefits of a product or service are, according to California based research company Dimensional Research, an overwhelming 90% of buyers recall initially going online to read reviews and understand what alternative products and services were available and what they offered, before either meeting with salespeople or visiting a store. Some 79% get more information about the company and its products and services from social networking than salespeople, while around 70% of businesses said their enterprise purchase decisions all begin with an online search — well before calling in potential suppliers.

Salespeople who have not been trained to understand the broader dynamics of this new paradigm in business, who continue to believe that their product or service superiority is going to win support from potential buyers, are likely to find themselves standing around waiting for business that isn’t going to happen.

What can salespeople and companies do?

For starters, companies need to regroup. It is no longer good enough to think that having information makes the vendor unique or even gives a supplier an advantage. Price isn’t going to attract sustained support from buyers either; they can easily switch suppliers when convenient. Buyers now have new challenges and companies need to rethink how they solve the problem.

Along with ease of access to information and a wide range of choice comes a new challenge for buyers at every level: information overload. This in turn affords an increased risk of making a poor purchase decision, because they are presented with apparently similar products and services that in reality have structural differences making one alternative a better option than the other.

Salespeople who want to play in this kind of environment have to change their approach too. Instead of trying to become an expert on the product, they need to become experts on the product domain. This means that they will have to learn what alternatives — not only rival companies — are on offer and how these differ, in terms of functionality and value. Instead of knowing all of the features and benefits of a product — which buyers can (and do) easily access on the web — they should become specialists on how their offering can minimise risk and maximise efficiencies. Instead of being experts on their company and its history, they should become experts in understanding the challenges their customers have.

In the retail world it means companies are going to have to train their salespeople to make visiting the store a delightful experience, because that is what is going to differentiate one retailer from another — not the product line. In the B2B sector it means salespeople will have to have a broader business base, which includes helping their customers wade through an information overload to assess risk and value more rationally.

Seen from the new buyer’s perspective, salespeople who traditionally relied on their products/services and spent a greater deal of their time honing their product knowledge have missed the boat. To not become obsolete, salespeople need to make changes to be more aligned with 21st century buyers including having to be prepared to help customers identify new opportunities to cut costs, increase revenue, penetrate new markets and mitigate risk in ways they (the customers) have not yet recognised.

Customers want to work with and buy from companies that can clearly differentiate themselves from the pack in some meaningful way. They are looking for salespeople from companies who can explain why they’re more valuable than others. Salespeople should be prepared to win not through the quality of their products, but through the quality of the insights they deliver as part of the sales process. Sustained support from buyers in today’s competitive market space is less about what is sold and more about how things are sold.

Customers look to buy from salespeople who understand their needs better than they do. Who are specialists, if not experts, in how to extract and maximise the value from the offerings their companies deliver. These salespeople help their customers find new perspectives, specifically tailored to their most pressing needs. Customer want salespeople who are prepared to challenge the status quo, and who use information, experience and insights to provide solutions that change the traditional way things were done.

When companies recognise the need to re-think the role of their salespeople they will probably start recruiting the right people, with an appropriate mindset and skills set. They’ll also find that their sales training delivers incrementally more sales and better margins, and that their sales strategies sustain the momentum that it was designed to achieve.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

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