Most of us work in an era where our customers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and empowered. Empowered customers possess the information to identify what they need and the range of options available to them, they possess personnel skilled in cost and (project) risk management, and many implement networked decision making. Any combination of these dynamics makes selling to empowered customers more complex and challenging. In this evolving selling environment many organizations still remain fixed on their old selling process and performance management approach; prioritizing compliance to the explicit steps of the sales process, and rewarding timing (ie. forecast accuracy) and volume (ie. deal size, number of deals). In the event your competitive set has more than 1 sophisticated competitor with scale, then you are at risk of either being commoditized by price competition or marginalized as you maintain your “high-ground”; neither of which is a path to profitable growth.

Driving these dynamics is the quickening speed of technological diffusion, decreasing economic life spans of capital investments and the growing ease to independently access information. Since we cannot fight these macro trends, we must adapt the business of selling to them. There has been much research into this area in recent years, and to tackle these challenges a new paradigm is emerging about the need to shift selling emphasis:

  • Sales-Process Discipline
  • Compartmentalized, Hierarchical Authorities
  • Close Governance & Rules Management
  • Discovery & Framing Creativity
  • Judgment & Decision Quality
  • Communication, Facilitation & Guidance

Rather than focusing on transforming your sales talent profile, which can be slow, disruptive and painful, we recommend making the following 5 shifts to adapt your sales organization to the empowered customer environment:

  1. Retool the Sales Funnel to match how the customer generates “enthusiasm to make a change”
    Rather than measuring progress along a sales controlled series of explicit steps (ie. customer trial, proposal submission, etc), monitor the customer cues that signal their journey to purchase (ie. state of uncertainty / dissatisfaction, receptivity to insight, willingness to collaborate, etc.). Then set your “Hunters” lose on finding dissatisfaction and building front-end pipeline volume versus pushing pipeline velocity. A focus on pipeline velocity and close-rates unnecessarily increases pressure, which can cause concessions (ie. price) for expediency. The greater the front end quantity of dissatisfied customers, the greater the options to build accretive priced sales.
  2. Hardwire Teams to the “Entire Selling Cycle”
    As the nature of the conversation changes from features and benefits to discovery and framing the need for broad capabilities of investigation, challenge assessment, problem solving and collaboration become critical. Said another way, early in the engagement process there is a need to focus on the customer’s behaviours and effectively disrupt their thinking and assumptions about their business. In complex solution oriented sales it is difficult to create “individuals” that are so adept that they can do this alone; don’t wait to put teams behind a project, formally build teams within your sales organization that harness a varied collective intelligence (ie. sales, engineering, project management or finance) and put them to work as early as the prospect phase of the sales cycle.
  3. Focus Rewards on “Long-term Value Delivery”
    If the impact of decisions made within your sales cycle can reach far into your future, than there is a need to reward for the long-term. Nothing can create seemingly good short-term decisions with long-term negative consequences like efforts to hit a forecast. Get clear on where your organizational throughput needs to be for optimal performance, and incent your selling efforts to achieve / maintain those activity levels. Next prioritize aggregate profit over revenue, at a level that the team can impact directly (ie. deal, project, customer, etc.).
  4. Require Sales Management to “Consult before Prescribe”
    Effective sales professionals and selling teams need to develop sound judgment and critical thinking in order to provide high caliber decision quality and customer responsiveness. This means sales managers need to provide clarity on broad “areas of freedom” within which selling teams can operate, and then monitor and mentor rather than control and direct. There is more potential in a pipeline review then verifying check points, real value can be unlocked by collaborating and coaching to elicit the next stage of customer buying behaviours.
  5. Contract with, and “Manage Expectations of Sr. Management”
    This approach may be viewed as unorthodox and a significant departure from traditional ways of managing sales organizations; as such your senior team needs to understand, buy-in, and sponsor the changes. This is primarily due to the fact that what you’ll be advocating is a value on building long term profitable sales momentum over the myopia of quarter close; without the entire senior team on board you may not have the effective freedom to pursue this agenda.

If the delta between your selling approach and how your customer’s buy is large but you are sufficiently compelled to take action, try a test-and-learn approach. Pilot the approach in an area of the business and endeavor to identify the upside potential, business disruption risk, mitigating contingencies, and depth of change appropriate for your market and business model. Once you have institutionalized this learning then you are ready to scale the transformation. Selling to empowered customers is an iterative, complicated process but over the long term very rewarding when done well.

(*Reference: Dismantling the Sales Machine, HBR November 2013)

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