The sales ‘machine’ has long seemed to have a very clear shape and role. But we have commented before that the role of sales teams is changing. So what effect does this have on the sales ‘machine’?

The machine is stalling

A well-performing sales ‘machine’ used to be key to sales. Companies used defined processes to ensure that sales followed what had always worked in the past. But there has been a change in customer behaviour. Sales performance has got more erratic, even for the best performers. In other words, the sales machine is stalling. But there is good news. We have commented previously on sales reps as ‘ideas magnets’, it is time to embrace a more flexible approach to sales, driven by the judgement and insight of sales reps.

The basic premise behind this shift is that sales reps are no longer the only ones with information. Customers are increasingly knowledgeable and have done their own research before speaking to the sales rep. This leaves the rep without much to distinguish them and their product except price, an area of competition that rapidly leads to reductions in quality.

Judgement-oriented selling

CEB’s research suggests that there are three key differences between the new world of ‘judgement-oriented’ selling and the old ‘process-oriented’ selling. These are qualification criteria, stakeholder selection, and the nature of the conversation. In the old days, the customer would express a defined need; now, they are uncertain of their need. A sales rep used to identify and target the person with the ability to agree the spend. Now, they identify someone who is open to change, and who can influence the decision-makers. But the biggest change may be in the nature of the conversation. Before, it was about demonstrating the value of the sales rep’s offering compared to competitors. Now, sales reps need to disrupt the customer’s thinking and assumptions about their business. This is obviously going to be very difficult unless the sales rep already has an ongoing relationship, and a reputation as some kind of thought leader! It’s also vital that the sales rep’s approach is flexible, not process-based, as the right way to deliver the right insight will vary hugely.

This means that the environment in a B2B company also needs to change. Instead of being process-driven, and metrics-focused, CEB’s research suggests that it needs to focus on the judgement of individual reps, with management guiding and supporting, not directing. Effectively, the sales rep needs to become an expert on their customers, rather than on their products.

Changing the sales culture

There are several key changes that needed to be made to promote judgement-oriented selling. First, the focus in judgement-oriented selling is on creating demand, not responding to it, which makes it a much slower process than price-focused selling. So metrics demanding speedy sales will work against judgement-oriented selling. Secondly, management processes need to focus on outcomes, not on the sales process. Reps need to be able to exercise their judgement about how they achieve sales. Finally, reps need to be encouraged to develop a sense of business ownership.

These changes also need new metrics and ways of reporting on sales activities. Some companies are turning to more customer-focused metrics, for example, to look at whether customers have acknowledged that change is necessary, and management processes that focus on helping the customer to make the necessary realisation that change is both vital and affordable. The best managers use a team approach to facilitate problem-solving: their sales teams think together about how and whether to manage a prospect to a sale, drawing on the network and knowledge of each team member. Information flows all around the team and organisation, and in all directions, both informally and formally. Every conversation matters. These managers also focus on the long term, and not on short-term measures of success.

What does this mean for recruitment?

All this has a huge impact on the business of hiring sales reps. The days of focus on a ‘competitive, fast paced environment’ and maximising revenue are gone. Instead, ads for sales reps should read ‘Wanted: critical thinkers looking for an opportunity to exercise their judgement and assume significant responsibility for business growth’. Companies need to find the right people, give them the right incentives, and then step away, and allow them to exercise their judgement. It’s a hard ask for everyone, but essential for success.

Image credit: Shipwreck by Luca Bertonati

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