Order Taker, Meet Undertaker: What Sales Pros Must Do to Survive

Within a few years, 1 million B2B sales roles will be eliminated, according to a recent Forrester Research report. That’s 20 percent of them gone, thanks to the evolution of technologies like self-service and customers’ increasing desire to avoid the hassle of speaking to sales reps.

Personally, I think that’s a bit overstated — or rather, a mischaracterization of an ongoing trend. Those sales reps who have devolved into order takers are becoming extinct, but that’s been the case for a long time. Their spot on the food chain is being taken by a new kind of sales rep. If you fear that you may be part of Forrester’s ill-fated 20 percent, you should evolve, starting now.

Evolve into what, you ask? The next-generation sales rep.

Knowledge Is Sales Power

Much was said about this new species at last week’s CallidusCloud Connections (C3) conference.

The future belongs to companies that create knowledge experts who pass that knowledge on to potential customers, said Gartner’s Tad Travis.

That means that sales personnel need to evolve into subject matter experts — people well-versed in their fields who can augment and expand on the information already available to the customer.

Sales reps need to be more involved in the lives of their customers in order to deliver the level of expertise those customers demand, said Paul Greenberg of the 56 Group. They don’t need to be “involved” in a personal sense, but they should have empathy, along with the ability to sense customer needs and to use sales intelligence to truly understand what each customer needs from that sales rep.

Become more expert and more empathetic: This is the only practical solution to the pressure sales reps face in a Sales 2.0 universe, where customers have unprecedented access not only to online research, but also to peer advice and assessments — a scenario that can leave the sales rep knowing less about what he’s selling than the customer. When that happens, the sales rep is back to being an order taker — or, more often, an order loser.

Are subject matter experts born or made? The answer is yes. There’s a bit of each involved, and sales managers have to understand that as they prepare their sales force for a more demanding audience.

It all starts with hiring. Hopefully, your sales force is filled with inquisitive people who like to learn — about the things they sell, and about the customers they sell to. Without this trait, everything else is moot; sales reps who lack it tend to sell the same way all the time, embodying the metaphor about having only a hammer and thus seeing everything as a nail. The percentage of sales pros we’ll lose in the near future will largely be made up of those people.

That’s the “born” part of the equation. When it comes to specific domain knowledge, sales managers can help make smarter and more expert sales reps if they pay attention to training. Sales reps get a heavy dose of training early on, but once they’re on-boarded, training tends to go out the window. It’s seen as a waste of selling time — and sales reps feel like it takes money out of their pockets. They need to get over it.

Clarion Call to Marketers

In reality, ongoing training — about sales tactics, about product, and about the general concepts that help sell the product — is vital for keeping reps useful to the people they sell to. This does not have to be traditional, sit-down classroom learning. Modern technology can deliver training via mobile devices, through pop-ups in sales software, and in other manners that feel like part of the sales process and not like an interruption of the sales rep’s day.

Managers also need to beat the drum for training with their reps and drive home the idea that the only sales rep who adds value to the selling process is one who can provide valuable information to the prospect. Being aware of the customers’ needs is the only way to convey the right content and expertise.

This also requires a coherent, well-organized sales enablement system. You may have heard the saw that smart people don’t know everything, but they know where to look everything up. Increasingly, that holds true for sales.

This is not all the sales manager’s responsibility. Sales reps need to take personal responsibility for their own ongoing education, digging into their industries and learning more about customer trends. Customers change faster than ever, so smart sales pros are already doing this. If you don’t devote part of your day to research, you’re simply falling behind.

In this era, nothing sales does should happen without it being reflected in marketing. Marketers need the same focus on expertise as sales; without the same drive to become subject matter experts, marketers can’t identify leads’ needs and problems, nor can they create content that speaks to those problems in an authoritative way.

Any training sales is getting that isn’t targeted at selling techniques also should be mandatory viewing for marketers.

Sales reps must add value to the selling process. If they add value, they gain confidence and trust, and if they gain trust they are much more likely to earn the deal — and avoid the fate of the order takers.

CRM Buyer columnist Chris Bucholtz is content marketing manager for CallidusCloud and a speaker, writer and consultant on topics surrounding buyer-seller relationships. He has been a technology journalist for 17 years, focusing on CRM since 2006. When he's not wearing his business and technology geek hat, he's wearing his airplane geek hat; he's written three books on World War II aviation.

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