This is a guest post written by Dave Kurlan, a top rated speaker, best selling author, and sales development thought leader. His top-rated business blog, Understanding the Sales Force, is read by thousands of sales and marketing leaders.
The sales profession has come a long way -- and I'll venture to say that much of the changes have occurred as recently as the last 5 years. Technology adoption among consumers has picked up pace; marketers have changed their lead generation and engagement tactics to shift towards a less interruptive, more invitational focus; and sales professionals have had to adapt their sales methods to communicate with a consumer who has gotten better at dodging their calls. In fact, what Salesforce.com calls the Social Enterprise starts with developing a Customer Social Profile and interacting in modern ways. Let's dive into how the sales game has changed in recent years, and the tools sales professionals have used with success to adapt to this new landscape.
How the Sales Game Has Changed
So just how much has selling changed in the last five years? Everyone has their own opinion, but I would say, "A lot!" Consider the following circumstances that were infrequent or nonexistent just a few years ago, and are now a constant scourge for sales and marketing professionals.
The recent economic crisis changed the way that businesses and consumers spend money. We were embarrassed into controlling our discretionary spending, conducting more due diligence, and being more price-conscious. The result? There is considerably more resistance to what is being sold, while there is significantly less money available to spend.
The internet has made information, once only available from salespeople, accessible to everyone with an internet connect or phone. The result? Salespeople are being invited into the buying process much later, are expected to present and propose, and then wind up chasing the business. There are remedies for this, but they aren’t simple to learn, and salespeople aren’t able to put them into practice without training and coaching help.
Prospects don’t answer their phones or return calls anymore. The result? It’s more difficult than ever for salespeople to connect by phone, even when following up on inbound leads.
Tools and Technology Sales Professionals Use to Overcome These New Hurdles
That's all of the bad news. But there's good news to compensate for some of this: Sales and Marketing have started working in better alignment and finding tools to help get in contact with leads that are actually excited (or at the very least, not annoyed) to talk with them. In other words, successful salespeople have found a way to have a two-way conversation instead of a sales pitch using great new technology that has developed over the past several years. Here's how they are doing it:
1) Utilize the nuanced features of LinkedIn. If you're a B2B marketer, LinkedIn should be an invaluable source of lead generation for your business. LinkedIn has made it easier than ever to be proactive about getting introduced to new opportunities. Our clients use LinkedIn in several ways to get introduced to prospects that may be useful for you, too:
Explore who your contacts know, and ask for introductions to people who fit your target audience.
Reach out directly to 2nd- and 3rd-level contacts, referencing the 1st-level contact you have in common.
Join groups where your target audience hangs out, answering questions, and contacting people who have issues with which you can help.
Use LinkedIn Answers as a way to ask and answer questions; you'll gain visibility and credibility and be able to identify people who have problems you can help solve.
Reach out to members who have recently viewed your profiles and ask how they found you and what interested them about your profile.
Congratulate 1st-level contacts who have updated their profiles -- especially if they've changed jobs and/or companies -- to learn about new opportunities for doing business together.
Post links to your articles, blogs, events, and lead generating offers to drive site traffic and generate leads.
2) Don't ignore the less popular social tools. I've found one of the most useful social sales tools to be Reachable.com, though there are certainly others that have worked wonders (share yours in the comments). In short, Reachable shows you how to get introduced to people you don’t know. Let’s say you have a business development deal that could appeal to, say, Tim Cook at Apple, but you don’t have an introduction to him. From inside Reachable, you enter your name and Tim’s name, and Reachable will instantly render a visual map of your network, showing people in your network that are between you and Tim, as well as the best route to take to get introduced.
3) Remember that blogging isn't just for marketers. Some organizations think of business blogging as a marketing function, but if sales professionals write blog posts, they'll instantly gain more credibility to prospects. It differentiates you from most salespeople who, instead of creating educational content, are spending time on the phones -- that element of trust will help get you more call-backs. It also helps you generate better visibility; my own blog has more than 800 articles, so it becomes more and more likely, with each passing day, that one of my articles will turn up in somebody’s Google search results on queries related to my industry.
4) Leverage lead generating and lead nurturing tools. We use lead generation and nurturing tools like Hubspot's inbound marketing software to make it easier to generate quality leads -- but to do it, we stay dedicated to creating new blog content, lead gen offers, and optimized landing pages. As a result of the blogging platform and rich suite of analytical tools combined with our dedication to creating content and landing pages, our incoming leads have increased one hundred times over, going from 15 to around 500 leads per quarter. And when those leads are followed up with via email using targeted lead nurturing content, Forrester Research and Annuitas Group report that organizations can generate up to 50% more sales-ready leads at 33% lower cost -- and those leads make 47% larger purchases, too.
5) Stay organized with a CRM. CRM tools like Salesforce.com and Landslide make it easier to memorialize, track, and stay on top of opportunities in the sales pipeline. Sales professionals using tools like these stay true to their sales process -- the tool requires it -- enter more relevant notes into the system because the fields have been predefined by Sales and Marketing, have much greater success with follow-up, and management has a dashboard that provides real-time statistics on the pipeline, its balance, movement, and forecast. The reports based on that information provide statistically accurate fodder for coaching and accountability.
6) Use video as a sales assist. Video content can feel more personal than written content, and it helps sales organizations tremendously as a follow-up content asset. While you can certainly leverage your YouTube channel, there are also professional video hosting sites like Wistia that allow you to manage your videos, embed compelling messages on your web site and even in your emails, so you can more effectively tell your story. We send links to prospective clients so they can view short but powerful and professional video clips to either get them engaged or continue a conversation.
7) Track prospect engagement with email attachments. Content tracking sites like Visible Gains allow you to measure how engaged prospects are with your email attachment content -- key for sales people who rely on sending proposals and educational material that is often in PDF format. You can create personal pages for your prospects and instead of attaching files to your emails, you'll send a link to the personal page you created for them and get insight into what they view, when they view it, and how often they return to it. Applications like this let you know exactly how engaged, interested, and serious your prospects are.
Have the Changes to Professional Selling Leveled Off?
No; actually, I anticipate there is still more change to come. The biggest change in the works is the great migration to inside sales. It’s far more efficient and significantly less costly to have an inside sales force rather than an outside sales force. But this transition isn't a clean one. Certain business models generate customers that must see their salespeople on a very frequent basis. For others, being inside means they can reach 10 customers each day instead of two. For most companies then, the big challenge becomes not only whether to make this move to inside sales, but to what degree, and over what period of time. Even more important is what happens to the outside salesperson that is "moved" inside. Should that remote, outside sales person be replaced with a local, inside salesperson? Should that person simply work from their home office, or is that person relocated?
Despite a steady stream of sales professionals looking for work, there has been a recent decline in the availability of good sales talent. New strategies and tools for finding, attracting, interviewing, selecting, hiring, and on-boarding have become necessary just to fill existing openings before new positions can be constructed.
All in all, there has been tremendous change with more to come. If you manage a sales force and want to get ahead of the curve, you might be interested in attending my Annual Sales Leadership Executive Event.
Have you noticed a shift in the sales landscape, for better or for worse? Share what you've noticed and how you've coped with those changes.