Death of the Hard Sell: Stop Closing and Start Empowering

The sales “closer” has an almost mythical reputation in the annals of business. Movies like Tin Men, Boiler Room, Door to Door and Wall Street show how the most successful at the craft of selling are also the most devious. A review of Elmer Gantry, produced in 1960, stated, “Elmer is a traveling Salesman, a con man, drunkard and a bum, but this guy could sell a ticket to the slaughterhouse to a suckling pig, make that a season’s pass, he was that good.” And anyone who has seen Glengarry Glen Ross remembers the famous Alec Baldwin scene where he tells the character played by Jack Lemmon, “Put that coffee down. Coffee’s for closers only.”

Sam Mallikarjunan, who works at HubSpot and writes for ThinkGrowth.org, wrote a really good article about this subject titled The Closer Is Dead. Long Live The Listener. There is a lot of good advice to be found in Sam’s article, but I can give you the gist in one quote: “The sales rep that doesn’t try to ‘control the process’ but instead functions as the objective trusted adviser to the prospect’s process is the sales rep that wins deals.”

While the hard-sell approach works in the movies, and perhaps in a bygone era, the days of the high-pressure closer are numbered. As HubSpot’s analysis shows, all the things we used to associate with being a great sales rep — such as being a convincing “closer” — actually hurt your chances of hitting quota long term. If you actually did what hard-selling proponents urge, your reps and company will make less money and have a much harder time holding onto customers.

As I said in my December 6 post, your focus should be on the buying process. Universal access to information and the amount of competition in almost every industry have empowered buyers much more than in the past. The fact is that most people like to buy, but very few of us like to be sold. So why not change your paradigm from “selling people stuff” to “helping people buy”? This might sound like a subtle distinction, but I assure you, it is not.

To make this clearer, here are some words that define how the new and effective sales rep approaches the B2B sales function:

  • Assist
  • Coach
  • Educate
  • Enable
  • Guide
  • Help
  • Listen
  • Nurture
  • Suggest
  • Teach

By contrast, here are some words that describe the mindset of the ineffective B2B sales rep – the high-pressure closer:

  • Close          High Pressure Sales
  • Command
  • Drive
  • Effort
  • Force
  • Pressure
  • Push
  • Talk
  • Tell

How Marketing can Support the New Sales Model

A key question for the marketing types who are reading this post is: What can we do to support a sales model that is based on guidance, coaching and education, and less on mastering high-pressure sales techniques? Here are five suggestions:

  1. Give prospects what they want – not what you think they need. Potential buyers do a lot of their research online and if you don’t supply the right information (product specs, reviews, use cases, pricing, etc.) at the right place in their buying journey, they will move on to your competitors’ websites. Holding back is usually counterproductive.
  2. Give sales reps what they want. When sales reps tell you that they want more or less of X, Y or Z, try to give them the benefit of the doubt. Their commission checks and even continuing employment, depends on making sales – they take this quite seriously.
  3. Make sure your messaging is crystal clear. Sales reps that represent companies with poor messaging face a tough burden. If the prospect doesn’t quickly (instantly) grasp that you are at least a potential solution, they won’t stick around to figure out what you do and how it benefits them. We see too many elevator pitches and brand statements that are totally ambiguous – don’t let this be true about yours.
  4. Establish a firm set of expectations with your sales counterparts. To do this, create a service-level agreement (SLA) that outlines exactly who is going to do what at every stage of the process.
  5. Revisit your lead-to-revenue (L2R) model. Don’t be afraid to challenge assumptions about how your company has been marketing and selling. While consistency is important, watch out for “we’ve always done it this way” syndrome. Read my 2015 article on this subject titled, Does Your B2B Sales Model Need an Overhaul or a Tune-up?

The “helping prospects buy” culture is not only easier on all concerned, it is also a better mindset to generate revenue and repeat customers. Make it a key part of your 2017 planning process.

Don’t Break the NEW Rules of B2B Sales and Marketing

Sales and Marketing RulesThose of us who have worked in B2B sales and marketing for some time agree that the rules have changed. But what exactly are the new rules and how do they differ from the traditional way of doing things?

Rule 1: Selling is not just “Telling”.  As a marketing professional, I always made it a point to understand what my company’s sales staff was learning – so I have attended several internal sales training programs where reps were taught how to identify, engage, nurture and close prospects. Sometimes, this is taught from a linear perspective – First you take step A, then B, etc., until you close the business. But smart sales reps know that the answer is not to find someone who will listen to you, then pitch, demo, re-pitch and so forth.  In last year’s B2B sales and marketing trends report, I talked about the “fuzzy funnel” and how prospects enter and exit the sales process in many different ways. You need to prepare for every scenario.

Rule 2: Your focus should be on the buying process.  Universal access to information and the amount of competition in almost every industry have empowered buyers much more than in the past. The fact is that most people like to buy but very few of us like to be sold. So why not change your paradigm from “selling people stuff” to “helping people buy”? This might sound like a subtle distinction but I assure you it is not.

Rule 3: Your website should do a lot of the heavy lifting. You can find a ton of information online regarding how much time prospects spend online researching products/solutions before engaging with a sales rep. Of course this depends on the industry but it can range from a low of 10-20 percent to as high as 90 percent. Regardless, this is a number that is going to increase over time so get your cyber act in order. Create and publish content that educates prospects and brings them closer to engagement.

Rule 4: Hiding your information is counterproductive. B2B companies are reluctant to share too much information for two primary reasons: 1. Competitors will steal it.  2. Prospects will use the information to build their own solution. But the fact is, there is a lot of information about your topic area in cyberspace and if prospects don’t find it from you, they will do so from your competitor, and even worse, buy from the competitor. Just remember the mantra, “The more you share, the more you receive.  The less you share, the less you receive.”

Rule 5: Nurturing is as important as selling.  Our client research has shown that among inbound inquiries, there are usually as many prospects who will buy in the future (e.g. after six months or more) as will purchase in the short-term (e.g. 30-90 days). In other words, the ability to stay in touch and feed suspects relevant information on a periodic basis can be just as lucrative as the ability to sell your current hot prospects today.

Rule 6: Prepare for disruption. Lots of companies have had their products and/or marketing and sales models disrupted. Sometimes the impact is minor or moderate (e.g. moving some part of sales to the web) and other times it is massive (Uber, AirBnB, self-driving cars). But as the book title suggests, you need to Disrupt Yourself before someone else disrupts your business. You do this by testing your hypotheses, processes, pricing, and so forth, before you are forced to do so.

Of course, these rules are suggested guidelines and not meant to be sacrosanct. As Richard Branson said, “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

B2B Sales and Marketing Transformation

Sales and MarketingI just viewed a great online video that deserves its own blog post. The speaker is Barry Trailer, Chief Research Officer of CSO Insights (now a division of MHI Global) and the topic was the CSO 2016 Sales Best Practices Study Results. Barry and his colleague, Jim Dickie, have been following and reporting on the best practices and outcomes from sales organizations for over a decade. The information is always interesting and informative and as I will share below, it can help transform both the marketing and sales organizations.

As a B2B marketing professional, I make it a point to follow and understand what my clients (B2B sales organizations) are doing and thinking. This is important for you, as well. You may think of your customers as being the end users of your products or services, but in fact, if the sales team isn’t happy with you, life can be very unpleasant.

So what did Barry say that was so interesting?  You can see for yourself, but here are four key takeaways that stood out for me:

1. 94% of world-class companies indicate that sales and marketing are aligned (vs. 34% of all respondents). To be sure, sales and marketing alignment is somewhat subjective; there are no hard and fast metrics that prove or disprove alignment. However, if you don’t have it, you know it, and it is definitely costing you revenue and productivity.

2. 84% of world-class companies have specific criteria as to what constitutes an acceptable prospect. This has been a recurring theme with CSO and Trailer. The lack of well-defined criteria causes many problems, including:

  • Lost opportunity as reps forgo qualified prospects because they spend so much time chasing unqualified prospects.
  • Missed quotas due to reps spending time on potential deals that are actually undoable.
  • Discouragement and burnout from what would otherwise be effective reps.
  • Failure to accurately forecast revenue, leading to all types of problems with the C-suite, partners, customers, analysts, etc. (especially for public companies).

Many marketing departments are great at the “quantity” aspects of their jobs. If the sales department says it needs X number of leads to make its number, marketing salutes and delivers X number of leads. However, if our colleagues who carry business cards with a “sales” title believe that what we are giving them is a bunch of non-qualified, uninterested and non-relevant tire kickers, it makes for an unproductive and tense relationship.

Granted, the sales folks may not know exactly what they want or may have unreasonable expectations – but it is better to be upfront and address the issue early than pretend it is going to work out downstream.

3. Life gets really good when you move up the value chain. When you can move the perception of how your clients see you from a vendor to that of a consultant, contributor or trusted advisor/partner, everything changes in your favor. The image below (sorry for the poor quality) shows the differences in how sales reps approach the account and what they bring to the table.

Sales Value Chain

It requires a lot of mental energy and elbow grease to move up the value spectrum, but the rewards are great in terms of referrals, access, repeat business, trust and credibility. Equally important is what you will get less of: competition, sales cycle, price sensitivity and the importance of any particular feature.

Let’s use the last point as an example. If you are a trusted advisor/partner, contributor or consultant, it is great to not have the specter of your competitors coming out with a new feature that could cause your clients/customers to abandon you. Your higher-value relationship is a barrier that can prevent other companies from taking your revenue.

4. How you sell is more of a competitive differentiation than what you sell. You’ve probably heard this familiar refrain from salespeople and marketers alike: “Our product isn’t good enough to sell in this market,” or something like this. But the real problem may be that you are selling at the lower end of the value chain and being perceived as a commodity supplier, where sales cycles are long and price pressure is greatest. As Barry put in, the CSO definition of selling is “Establishing and elevating relationships over time.” Just remember the formula Elevated Relationships = More Revenue and More Profit.

In the spirit of not providing information without some practical application, let’s talk about what you and I should do as a result of these three takeaways:

  • Get aligned. If you want to be a world-class company, you need to do what 94% of them do: gain alignment between the marketing and sales organizations. For some relevant info on how to do this, read my article about marketing and sales alignment. Interestingly, this post was published four years ago and has an Olympic theme.
  • Get specific. While alignment is somewhat of a qualitative attribute (you know it when you experience it), you have to be very quantitative when it comes to establishing lead criteria. You need to create a service level agreement (SLA) that is specific about lead quantity + attributes.
  • Get close. By this, I mean that you should modify your marketing and selling processes to intentionally move up the value chain and get closer to your clients/customers. You may not be able to leapfrog levels – customers that now view you as a vendor may not instantly accept you as a contributor or partner – but you can begin the journey right now.

Any one of these three strategic actions can have a strong positive impact on your revenue and effectiveness. Combining all three can be transformational.

How to Sell More by Selling Less

Sell more by selling less

My friend (and very smart marketer) Debbie Breemeersch recently shared a great article on LinkedIn: The Secret To Sales Success: Stop Selling!  The author is Atchison Frazer, CMO of Xangati. Frazer talked about his last two years at Cisco, when the company implemented go-to-market strategies that essentially flipped the “good selling” moniker on its head: “Stop selling –and start informing.”

Two great points made by Frazer have huge impact on B2B companies when they embrace them both as strategies and practices:

  • Digitally market-enable your solutions so that customers can sell to themselves.
  • Self-driven search trumps all other traditional categories of influence

I’ve written a fair amount on this subject and also always encourage our Fusion Marketing Partners’ clients to adopt the “sell more by selling less” mantra. The answer to creating a successful lead-to-revenue (L2R) machine is usually not to just throw more sales resources at the problem, but rather to create an environment where sales people are more efficient because they are dealing with prospects who are already at least partially motivated.

So how do you go from a company that is focused on trying to sell more to one that is focused on selling less, while increasing revenue and profits? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. As I said in a 2015 blog post, For B2B Companies, Selling Better is Not the Answer, your first goal needs to be: Make your company easy to discover.
  2. Make sure every prospect that visits your website (and they all do) has the information needed to educate and qualify themselves. The more information you can supply, the better — not only to educate your prospects, but also to satisfy the various search engine algorithms that will either put you in a good position to be found or consign you to a place hidden from all but the most persistent searchers.
  3. Use technology (CRM and marketing automation) to separate the prospects that are at the initial review stage from those that are ready to engage. Treat each of these disparate groups accordingly.
  4. Have the right resources (people, technology and content) available to work with the prospect at the right stage of the buyer journey.
  5. Speaking of the buyer journey, make sure you map this out, including items like: buyer stakeholders, marketing and sales touchpoints, team roles/responsibilities and content/messaging.

We sometimes run into situations where the B2B sales and marketing functions are led by an executive who believes in the hard-sell, “always be closing” approach. Some of these individuals are professionals who are really good at what they do. But in a sense, they are practicing strategies better suited to the past, where prospects were less informed and had fewer digital options to peruse prior to engaging with you.

How to Get Invited to the B2B Sales Dance

Why Market Awareness Often Trumps Sales Skills

Invited to Sales DanceMy friend and client, Richard Hoffmann, just published a really great white paper on behalf of his company, Trade Only Design Library (www.TODL.com). The purpose of the paper was to tell manufacturers how to grow their market awareness among the architecture and professional design community. I was intrigued by the first two paragraphs of the paper:

Have you ever heard your VP of Sales say something to the effect of, “When we get invited to the dance, we can beat our competitors, but too often, we just don’t get invited because our prospects don’t know who we are”?

It can be frustrating when other manufacturers get the business not because they have better products, but because they were only better in another respect: name recognition. The marketplace leaders get invited because potential prospects know who they are, but they did not know your company, let alone the quality or suitability of your products. Even if your sales force is just as talented, you can only win if you have the opportunity to compete. So the first order of business when it comes to building a strong sales channel is to create enough market awareness to get your products onto the consideration list – to get invited to the dance!

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Can You Really Use Marketing to Shrink the B2B Sales Cycle?

new-sales-model-thumbnailIt seems at least once a week that I talk to a B2B company about how to shrink their sales cycle. Sales executives and CEOs get especially frustrated because their quarterly sales forecasts become much harder to predict when the sales cycle timing is all over the map. For example, we have one technology client where it seems half their deals close in days or weeks, while the other half can take six months or more. So what is going on and what can us B2B marketing types do about it?

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Top 6 Ways that Marketing Supports B2B Sales and Revenue

B2B Sales and MarketingSince the early days of B2B marketing and sales, marketing VPs have been asking that puzzling but oh-so-important question: “What in the heck does sales want from us anyway?”  And the problem is, the sales department sometimes doesn’t know what it wants — or it changes what it asks for on some seemingly random basis. One day it’s, “We need a lot more leads.”  Another day it’s, “We need more qualified leads,” or “We need more marketplace awareness.”  Some days, they want all three.  And there are myriad other requests like sales collateral, website changes, event support, press releases, and targeted campaigns. The list can be endless.

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Does Your B2B Sales Model Need an Overhaul or a Tune-up?

When designing a new, or optimizing an existing, sales model, you will be faced with some tough but extremely important decisions. The lifeblood of your business is not only in creating valued products and services, but also the ability to acquire new customers at a low cost relative to the average transaction amount. When you can do this, you get positive attention from the CEO and investors.B2B Sales Models

The adjacent graphic shows the major B2B sales models and how they relate on two important criteria: the cost per transaction and the amount of personal interaction required. When you include hybrids that combine elements from more than one model, there are dozens of possibilities.

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8 Reasons Why We Fail to Make the B2B Sale

b2b sale

I mostly write about B2B marketing issues, but am often asked by my clients to consult on issues related to sales performance. One of my key mantras is that you must have your B2B marketing and sales plans and processes fully aligned. It is not unusual to find a circumstance where both the marketing and sales departments are fully optimized individually, yet are not working together in a cohesive and effective manner. A metaphor for this is two very fast runners who can win races on their own, but haven’t learned how to hand off the baton in the relay race.

But let’s suppose the marketing department is doing its job and there is a fast and efficient handoff of a qualified lead to the sales department. What can then prevent the direct rep or sales rep from achieving the sale? Here are some of the key barriers:

  1. The prospect doesn’t know you and/or trust you. People, whether buying for themselves or on behalf of their companies, like to purchase from a known entity. Moreover, they want to buy from an organization or individual they trust. This is why the first objective of B2B marketing is to increase awareness among your target audience.
  2. You haven’t sold the value. Even though a prospect knows you, they aren’t going to buy anything until they see the value. In a business environment, this means that the prospect can clearly see that what you offer solves a current challenge or moves their business forward in a positive way.
  3. The risks outweigh the benefits. The other side of the value scale is the risk factor. You must show the prospect that his risks (in terms of time, money, etc.) are insignificant compared to the great value to be received. And you have to show the prospect that not only the risk to their company but also their personal risk (e.g. loss of face, perception of having made a poor decision, job loss) is minimized. You can do this with a rock-solid guarantee, trial offer, solid references, etc.
  4. There is a hidden objection. This is a tough factor to overcome because you just don’t know why the sale isn’t happening. It might be a financial issue, lack of authority issue, or something else that is totally outside your control. This is where patience and good listening skills are paramount.
  5. The quality of your product, promotion, sales pitch or website is poor. This is another area where the sales rep has little control. If your company is smart and committed to success, it will remove any of these obstacles that prevent you from achieving good sales metrics.
  6. They are loyal to your competitor. Another tough barrier to overcome. My recommendation is that you not take a hard-sell approach with a prospect who is loyal to your competitor. After all, you want the same dedication from your own customers. Rather, you can make your best offer and keep in touch. Take the long view and you might get the future business.
  7. You neglect to ask for the order. Sometimes, prospects are willing to buy, but are waiting for you to ask them. While I don’t counsel high aggressiveness, the timid end of the spectrum is worse. Ask pleasantly, but definitely ask.
  8. You fail to follow up. My company, Fusion Marketing Partners, has conducted extensive research on short- and long-term B2B buying patterns. One of the most striking conclusions is that the number of qualified prospects that will buy short-term is matched by an equal number who will buy, either from you or a competitor, downstream. This is why nurturing your prospect database is such a valuable activity.

I hope this information helps you and your company achieve a better level of sales success.