Back when most people lived on farms, there were "snake oil salesmen," who came around to tell residents, one by one, about a cure-all elixir. The salesperson had to be very convincing, and sell as many people as possible in a short time, because the stuff didn't actually work. He had to be in the next town before the people in the previous town discovered the truth.
Fast forward to when people moved to the cities. Buyers saw ads, and then used any means they could to determine if a product was right for them. They would visit a store, call a salesperson, get a brochure, read an article in a "consumer reports" magazine, and so on. The salesperson, and the company's ability to get covered by the press, played a large role in the completion of the sale.
Fast forward to today, when most buyers have access to Google. Want to buy something? Have a need? Type in a phrase and you can find out what your options are. Learn what is available, who makes it, who sells it, and what kind of reputation the makers and sellers have, as revealed by actual buyers.
If you get all of your questions answered, and have read all the reviews, and are still convinced that you want it, you buy it. All without the help of any salesperson. In other words, you are able to buy – while avoiding the usually unpleasant experience of dealing with a salesperson.
If, on the other hand, you still have a couple of questions that you can't find answers to, it's time to subject yourself to the unpleasantries. You contact a salesperson, and start asking questions. You hope that the salesperson will be honest, courteous, and knowledgeable, but you aren't surprised if that doesn't happen. You've been down this road before – thousands of times.
It's important to note that, by the time you contact a salesperson, you already know what you want. You've already learned a great deal about the product or service, and you still believe that this product or service might solve your problem.
In a sense, you have already convinced yourself that this is the right product for you. You don't need to be SOLD on this product or service. But, you can be UNSOLD, if the salesperson is dishonest, discourteous, and unknowledgeable.
By the time the salesperson gets your call, it is his sale to lose.
This scenario, which has become the norm rather than the exception over the last five years or so, is now driving most interactions between buyers and sellers. And yet, sellers are still behaving – and sales managers are still managing – as if we were still living in the old snake oil salesman era.
CEOs in a variety of industries have been coming to me lately with the same lament: "What used to work before in sales isn't working anymore." As their buyers were shifting to the new buying model (which requires a new selling model), CEOs have been focused on marketing. They were making sure their websites and online marketing efforts were at least comparable to those of their competitors. They made the shift from analog marketing to digital marketing.
Meanwhile, their sales manager, whenever asked, was saying, "No problem, boss, things are going great." In truth, things weren't going "great." They were going downhill.
Declining revenues told the real story, and that story wasn't pretty. CEOs became very concerned. Now, as they are starting to pay more attention to the sales process, they are realizing that things have gotten pretty far out of hand.
In an attempt to solve the problem, CEOs are turning to "sales consultants," who charge big bucks to teach the salespeople how to sell the "old" way. They talk about "closing" the customer (who, remember, is already "closed"). They talk about call efficiency, trying to get as many calls made in any given time period, which means the salesperson will be rude. They teach salespeople how to "overcome objections," when the customer has already overcome his own objections, and just needs a few questions answered.
All of this leads me to the conclusion that "selling" – as it has been taught and practiced since the days of "Dr. Krock's Miracle Elixir" – is obsolete. It could be that companies are even hiring the wrong types of people to accept those customer calls and respond to those customer emails.
What should be happening when a customer contacts the company? Again, the "salesperson" should be able to honestly and courteously answer the customer's question. If he doesn't know the answer, he should find the answer, and get back to the customer immediately, because he who actually answers the question first will make the sale.
What does this mean for the management of sales? Who should be hired? What should they be doing?
1) Don't hire pushers. Hire facilitators. People who love the competitive, cut-throat game of "selling" don't do a great job of answering questions. They learn their script, and they stick to it. They don't want to know every detail of the product. That's someone else's job. These people are pushers, not facilitators. Facilitators understand that the customer is already "sold," and it's their job to help the customer come to a final decision. It's their job to answer any questions that the customer may have, and to make sure that the customer is satisfied with the answer. It's their job to learn everything they can about the product or service they're selling, so they can answer those complex technical questions.
2) Teach your salespeople to listen. This may be a fool's errand, because most salespeople live to talk. They listen just long enough and attentively enough to justify butting in, and, even while they're listening, they are thinking about what they are going to say. Then, they launch. I understand this phenomenon; I'm a recovering salesperson. It takes maturity and self-discipline to behave differently, to listen carefully and to speak only when the other person is done. Hire someone to teach your current salespeople how to listen, and to hire new salespeople who are more naturally good listeners.
3) Assume that the customer is already convinced. Is this a dangerous assumption? Could it lead to too-passive salespeople? Yes – and no. It depends on how you manage it. Salespeople who believe that the customer needs "convincing" will go on and on about the product and all its features, telling the customer things that he didn't even ask about – and may, during the course of the salesperson's rant, decide that he doesn't want. Salespeople who don't focus on "convincing" the customer, but who do focus on "facilitating" the sale, can learn how to take the right approach. In other words, understand the customer's need, answer all the customer's questions, and then agree with the customer on the next logical step. The customer contacted the salesperson because the customer was already interested in making a purchase. The customer had already narrowed down his choices, and was hoping you'd give him what he needed, so he could stop looking. Shopping is a pain, really – especially when you're trying to buy something that is complex.
4) Hire a Super Facilitator as your sales manager. Instead of hiring a manipulative bully, hire a "sales operations" type who can coach and motivate the salespeople to help customers make buying decisions, and who can create just-in-time information systems.
5) Pay attention to processes. You need a systematic way to know what questions customers are asking, and which answers satisfy them best. You need to answer those questions on your website, so the customer gets as many questions answered on the site as possible – taking them closer to a buying decision. The sales manager should meet with the salespeople every single day – to find out what is really happening and where they're "losing" the customer. And make sure that your salespeople are being trained, every single week, on the particulars of your products and services, from the highest "strategic" level, down to the small-but-important-to-user functions.
Selling as it has been practiced and preached, is obsolete. Google-initiated, website-facilitated buying has taken over. If you want to survive, if you want your company to be one of the winners in this new age, you need to take an entirely new approach.
The sooner the better.