Customer habits are changing the way salespeople do their jobs, which means a new sales training plan is needed.

A recent and dramatic shift in customers’ buying habits has changed the sales landscape for the foreseeable future—and perhaps forever. CEB tells us that business-to-business clients today are 57 percent through their buying cycle before they even begin to engage with a salesperson. SiriusDecisions has the number as high as 70 percent.

The time salespeople have to influence their customers’ buying decisions has been truncated. As a result, many of the sales methodologies that salespeople relied on for the past 30 years are obsolete; indeed, many are hurting sales. Many sales training programs are outmoded too.

Changing landscape

Just a few years ago customers depended on salespeople to learn about their product solution options. Today they turn to the Internet, peers, and their teams before engaging with salespeople.

To mitigate risk and broaden perspective, they explore options and make decisions by consensus. Because customers and their teams are scoping out their needs and solutions on their own, they place much less value on product-driven conversations. Instead, they demand expertise, insights, and proof of value that is laser-focused on business outcomes. In short, the pendulum of power has shifted to the customer.

Forrester Research reveals that only 15 percent of customers find their conversations with salespeople valuable. Data like this tells us that it is time to change the sales conversation.

Before the conversations that salespeople have with their customers change, the internal conversations within the selling organization must change first. These critical conversations are not happening in many organizations. In your role as a learning and development professional, you are ideally positioned to initiate these conversations.

Your voice is needed. You can mobilize the multiple players in your organization and help them prioritize the challenges that must be met, define the new selling, and support its successful execution.

Challenges

As you know, internal conversations can be more challenging than those with customers. There is a variety of stakeholders—including sales leadership, line, operations, product groups, technical, and marketing—from whom support and consensus must be secured.

Just as customers expect a yield—a “value add”—if they are to invest time with a salesperson, your stakeholders are looking for insights and informed questions that let them know you understand their world.

Learn as much as you can before your meetings: What are the sales challenges? What has changed? What is the strategy? What do sales leaders see as the obstacles? What outcomes are they seeking? What has to be in place to achieve those outcomes? How is knowledge being shared? What sales tools are available to salespeople? Which are being used now? What tools are needed going forward? What support is marketing providing? What does the technical team see as the issues and opportunities? What percentage of the salesforce met their 2013 goals? What are the goals for 2014? What is the plan to achieve those goals?

Build the output of your conversations into the content of your training materials across all modalities, tools, and most importantly coaching conversations. Be prepared to listen and to make recommendations. Collaboration will help you secure the much-needed buy-in and support from sales leadership and sales managers needed to successfully execute and reinforce your sales training plan.

Clients often ask me where to start making the necessary changes to their sales curriculum. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. However, I am finding that for many organizations an important first step is to define their sales process by identifying the stages of their sale(s) mapped to the customers’ buying cycle and spelling out best practice activities, tools, and customer verifiers (actions customers must take to trigger moving to the next stage), as well as dialogue models for each stage. This is a bigger undertaking. You can make an immediate impact by focusing on some of the core content of your sales program, and therefore help salespeople change the conversations they have with their customers.

Of course no two organizations’ sales programs can be the same. Customization to markets, challenges, strategy, desired outcomes, capabilities, culture and audiences, and training modalities—as well as integration with coaching and reinforcement tools—are the markers of a successful training and development effort. But there are a few changes to parts of the core content of your sales program that will make it relevant to the new sales landscape.

Sales conversations

Insights are at the center of the changes. Insights is one of the new hot terms in sales effectiveness. They are seminal to many of the other content and model changes.

An insight is just that—a sight from within. As a marketing term, the word “insight” refers to data that is gathered about customers to predict their future needs and shape their current ones.

In a sales context, insights are shared to provide a customer with a deeper understanding and way to solve or look at a problem. The insight connects two points and triggers new thinking in the customer.

An insight isn’t the idea or solution; but rather it is a seed. One keen insight can spawn multiple ideas and solutions. For example, an insight could be that online media can help an organization meet enrollment goals, and solutions could include a variety of media and advertising ideas.

Many salespeople struggle with developing and using insights. They have a hard time articulating the insights and tend to revert to “selling.” Even when most salespeople are given an insight model or template (see sidebar below), they too quickly default to pitch mode.

For example, instead of objectively eliciting the customer’s perception or experience (step four of the model) with a questions such as, “What is your perception of using online media as a strategy to achieve enrollment goals?” they ask a closing question such as, “Will you be willing to use online media to reach your enrollment goals?” The former opens up a business challenge dialogue and the latter—asking for commitment before needs and value are clear—likely closes the conversation. The new sales conversation sounds more like two equals sharing information than a traditional sales call.

Insights are powerful because they help salespeople engage customers in business conversations and demonstrate they know the customer’s world. Sharing a relevant insight takes the conversation away from a focus on products. Insights can be used either to introduce an issue that is not on the customer’s agenda or to add a perspective to an issue that is already a customer priority. In either case, insights draw the customer’s attention to an issue the salesperson perceives as a priority business problem and causes the customer to question the status quo with a sense of urgency.

Integrating insights

There are three important modules where insights can be integrated: preparing, uncovering needs, and articulating the solution.

If you ask most salespeople, they will tell you they have these areas well covered. However, for the new order of sales, most don’t. Although I generally prefer simple, clear language, because many salespeople feel they already know these three areas cold, I have opted to use less obvious language: futuring, heat mapping, and value tracking.

Preparing: Futuring. Research by firms such as McKinsey reveals that customers no longer place a high value on hearing why one product is superior to another. Instead they seek expertise that will help them grow their businesses. Futuring helps salespeople build industry, customer, and stakeholder expertise; and leverage sales tools, social media, and the resources they need to add value to highly informed customers.

Futuring is about being meta-prepared, beyond the level of preparation required in the past or even possible before the Internet and sales tools. The goal is not only to understand their customers’ current needs, but also to anticipate emerging needs.

The payoff for futuring is the ability to bring expertise and insights to customers that create value and accelerate closing.

Probing for needs: Heat mapping. Customers’ tolerance for being asked traditional discovery questions is low. However, the problem for salespeople is the risk of making the assumption that the insight is relevant. Even with deep knowledge, well-researched insights, and personal and organizational experience, salespeople lack critical specific customer knowledge. Moreover, while customers want to be taught, they want to be a part of the lesson.

If the insight seems relevant, the salesperson still must ask questions to determine how the customer feels about the insight, what the experience is, and if there are deep-seated biases, politics, or financial issues that affect the situation. Customers don’t want to answer questions salespeople can research or should know the answers to. The solution is not to abandon questioning, but to change questioning to create a give and take.

Insights serve as a heat map. Just as a heat map uses color to make it easier and faster to understand information, insights turn up the heat and raise the visibility of a business challenge. By combining an insight with a question, a salesperson gives value and gets information at the same time, therefore solving the dilemma.

Yesterday’s need dialogue model was a discovery model (question, question, question to learn about needs). The new need dialogue model, a heat-mapping model, is a teaching and learning model in which the probing starts with insight sharing followed by questions to gain the customer’s perspective and experience and to open up a business dialogue.

Articulating the solutions: Value tracking. Finally, salespeople can articulate solutions to business problems in new ways. Instead of focusing on product superiority and customization (which was the main message of a successful solution just a short time ago), they lead by demonstrating how the solution solves the business problem—in the ideal situation one that they brought to the customer’s attention. For customers to take action, today’s solution must deliver a business outcome, reduce risk, and prove value.

Futuring, heat mapping, and value tracking are three of the changes to a sales program that provide the path forward. As vital as they are, insights are not the new selling. Salespeople must serve as enlightened teachers who collaborate with customers. In many ways, teaching is the new selling in which both salespeople and customers teach and learn together.


Insight Model

These steps should take two to three minutes maximum.

  1. Position the business challenge.
  2. Share the insight and support with data.
  3. Provide an example or success story and quantify results.
  4. Probe for customer’s perception or experience.

Continue the need dialogue to understand the business challenge, outcome, and stakeholders making the decision and affected by the decision, and then explore opportunity needs.

For more information on sales training, contact us today: http://www.eFOURlearning.com

Originally posted ASTD by Linda Richardson, the founder of Richardson, a global sales performance company. She is author of Changing the Sales Conversation.

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