What’s really happening in sales—including Account-Based Marketing—and what works now

Date: September 17, 2018
Author: Kristin Zhivago
Salespeople sitting around a table, discussing sales strategy

Traditional sales methods aren’t working anymore. We all know what’s wrong:

  • Customers have dozens of places to find answers to their questions about our products and services, including company and competitive websites; shopping sites; social platforms; and especially information provided by other customers (in reviews, “questions answered,” and discussion groups). I used to say that by the time they needed to talk to a salesperson, about 60 to 80 percent of their questions were answered. Now I’d say it’s more like 95 percent.
  • Customers have become expert at avoiding our advances. Phone calls are not answered; voicemail messages are not returned; emails are trashed and/or ignored; and even outreach via LinkedIn has gotten sufficiently crowded, rendering the channel less effective.
  • Salespeople are not great researchers or writers, and yet we continue to ask them to find new prospects and reach out to them.
  • Salespeople are not natural “nurturers.” They are reactive, always more inclined to go after the hot and immediate than the slow-simmering opportunities. And, if not supported by an incredibly ironclad system, they don’t follow up as they should. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen salespeople drop the ball, even when the customer is actually hoping the salesperson will call.

You would think, in the face of all this evidence, that sales managers would be looking for another way. But they are not. They are just doing the same things they’ve always done, while their bosses are wondering what the heck is wrong and are getting really worried.

What is working now: Successful selling strategies

The first place to start is to realize which people should be in the right jobs. We have a new client, Rainee Busby, who helps her clients become more efficient and better-managed. One of the first things she works on is the right people in the right jobs. When I was a rent-a-VP, hired to turn around marketing and sales departments, the first thing I did was to interview customers, so I could understand what we should be doing in marketing and sales. The second thing I did was to meet with each person in the department and ask them, “What do you love doing, and what do you hate doing?” I would then fashion their jobs to accommodate their preferences. Morale and departmental effectiveness always went up as a result.

Recently, I was reading one of the Entrepreneurial Operating System books (Rainee is an EOS  practitioner, and the book I was reading is “How to Be a Great Boss,” which is worth reading), and I came across a great story about a big box store that was languishing until they put in a new manager. When he took over, he asked people if they wanted to be a “box” person or a “people” person. Within a few months, that store become one of the top performers, largely due to that change.

The second thing I need to mention is Account-Based Marketing (ABM). Yes, we do it for our clients, and that’s what we call it, but frankly, as it is normally practiced, it is just “sales best practices” by another name. We are making adjustments, though, so it will work better. For starters, we recognize that salespeople are not great researchers and writers. And we move many of the “nurturing” activities out of sales and into marketing.

These are the roles that selling now consists of:

    1. Research.The needed information is all out there now; you can look up any company or individual employee and learn all kinds of things, characterizing and ranking that company and individual as a hot, warm, or cold (“don’t bother”) prospect, and understanding a lot about them before you get them on the phone. Yes, you have to pay for the tools. Yes, you should not leave this to salespeople; they are, by nature, not the researching types. Someone else, who is very good at this, should be doing the research and providing all the information the salesperson needs to reach out.
    2. Writing. And when it is time to reach out, a professional copywriter should be writing the emails, tweets, LinkedIn, and voicemail messages. Each message can be personalized, including something about the person that proves that research was done. Customers know you can look them up; they are almost insulted if you call them without doing that first. Why should they pay any attention to you, if you haven’t at least first paid attention to them?
    3. Appointment-setting.You’ve probably gathered by now that we are mostly talking about heavy- or intense-scrutiny purchases (a topic I cover thoroughly in my book) where, at some point, the customer will want to talk to a salesperson during a phone call, to discuss their particular situation and get specific questions answered. Setting appointments is still a very inefficient process, as it is still mostly done by exchanging emails until the mutually convenient appointment slot is agreed upon. Not the best use of your salesperson’s time.
    4. Answering questions. This is another area that is massively affecting the whole selling scene. Most managers are just putting their heads in the sand about it, hoping the whole mess will go away. It won’t. The “mess” is that we still think we need “closers.” The truth is, the traditional pushy closer loses more sales than he secures. When you have on your BUYER hat, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The pushy salesperson’s agenda causes all of these problems:
        1. They don’t listen in a way where they really hear what you are saying. They only listen enough to find an opportunity to begin their rant.
        2. They don’t realize that YOU, the buyer, have an agenda, and that YOU already want to buy, or you wouldn’t be taking the time to talk to them.
        3. They don’t acknowledge and respect how much research you’ve already done and listen carefully while you tell them where you are in your buying process. In fact, they often ignore this reality completely and try to move you to the beginning of your buying process, when in fact, you are almost at the end.
        4. They don’t answer the questions you ask (or are trying to ask). Instead of answering your legitimate and pressing questions, they answer the questions they know how to answer.
      1. They push to close before you’re ready. In fact, during a single call, they may push to close several times. This is irritating and insulting; no one wants to be a “mark.” Traditional selling and marketing have always treated customers as marks; the language alone is anti-humane. “We’re going to go after our target market with a rifle approach,” says the marketer. “I’m going to overcome their objections,” says the salesperson. If someone came into your house and started saying that they were going to do this to you, you’d want them to leave.
  1. Helping the customer make the right decision. The most effective “salespeople” aren’t salespeople at all. They are naturally helpful individuals who get up in the morning hoping to help as many people as they can during the day. They often end up working in customer service, but these types of people are certainly not limited to customer service. Personally, I think as more managers get a clue, we are going to find a new type of person to help customers make buying decisions. I have no idea what the title will be, but I think of the person as a Buying Decision Guide. In the absence of companies hiring these people, there are now sites carrying out this role. In the software industry, the sites are Capterra, G2Crowd, GetApp, and Trust Radius, which use customer reviews to help others buy software.

Guiding instead of selling

Imagine, if you will, the pleasure of working with someone who has a deep understanding of his own product or service, as well as those offered by the competition, and has plenty of comparative and customer-generated information to back up his knowledge. Instead of trying to sell you on his solution, he spends the entire call listening carefully to what you are trying to accomplish. He helps you think through your tradeoffs. “Yes, we can do that, but only up to 25,000 items. If you have more than 25,000 items, you probably need a different e-commerce application.”

As buyers, we love this idea. As sellers, it scares us to death. But I can tell you, from personal experience (and performance—my “closing rate” hovers around 85 – 95 percent), that this objective, helpful approach leads to more business than you can imagine.

Why? Because buying something is driven first by desire and skepticism, and then by a willingness to compromise here and there as you find something that comes close, all while being guided by someone who is super helpful. We are all eager to give our business to someone who “deserves” it, even if their solution isn’t exactly what we had in mind at the start. Or even if their solution is more expensive.

Going back to the various roles involved in selling, what does this really mean to your business? It means that you should find a way to fill those roles, so you are selling in a way that makes sense for today’s buyers. Fortunately, sometimes you can find one person to fill a couple of roles, such as the researcher also being able to write great outreach materials and make appointments. And one helpful person might be able to answer questions and help the customer make the right buying decision.

Buyers are far, far ahead of sellers these days, armed with resources that were simply not available even a few years ago. Sellers are still pretending that buyers are still living in the dark ages. If you want to get in sync with buyers—and to out-”sell” your competition—you will embrace the new reality and run with it.

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