New research from Richardson's 2019 Selling Challenges Research Study captures the key challenges that sales professionals face in today's market. We received responses from more than 300 participants. Their input has presented a detailed picture of what effective selling looks like in 2019 as business cycles accelerate and competition escalates.
The prevailing sentiment is that sales professionals must become agile. Possessing effective selling skills is not enough. Sales professionals need the ability to read the selling scenario and understand which skill is needed at that moment. Moreover, they need the ability to seamlessly transition from one skill to another as they engage with a variety of stakeholders, all with different leanings. This agility is what drives momentum today.
So, what are the next steps, and how can you meet those challenges to advance the sale? We've got a few ideas.
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Top Sales Challenges of 2019
1. It's more difficult than ever to build the case for change.
The Challenge: We asked sales professionals what challenges their buyers face when making a purchasing decision. The most popular response, at 22%, was "building a case for change." The customer's business often has a deep, seemingly immovable anchor in the status quo. The reason: Businesses today must work harder and faster to simply maintain the current level of performance.
Many leaders view change as a dangerous interruption to their acceleration. Those who are considering change, however, are overwhelmed by the complexity of the process. This trend explains why 21% of respondents cited "comparing their options" as another key challenge deterring customers.
The Solution: Helping the customer build the case for change starts by identifying the elements of change with the customer's business. These elements include things like the customer's strategy, the core issue, desired outcomes, solution options, and perceptions of value and risk. The sales professional must understand which of these elements support the case for change and which ones are in opposition.
Then, the salesperson must shape each of these elements in a way that advances the sale. At the same time, sales professionals can help stakeholders compare their options by influencing how the customers perceive differences between the solution and the competitor's offering. Doing so means linking the solution capabilities to nuanced business needs.
2. Gaining appointments remains a challenge when prospecting.
The Challenge: Capturing the prospect's attention is difficult. Internal priorities and shifting economic conditions compete for the stakeholder's time. As a result, 14% of survey respondents indicated that gaining appointments is the biggest challenge they face in their prospecting efforts.
The second and third highest responses of "getting to the right stakeholder" and "maintaining a consistent cadence of contact across multiple channels" illustrate the fractured nature of selling in today's market. Sales professionals not only need to get the customer's attention, but they must also organize the group and get them to focus on the solution at hand. This task often requires difficult logistical moves like aligning schedules. Each decision maker represents an individualized need and they have their own definition of the problem.
The Solution: According to an ATKearney review of more than 1,600 B2B sales professionals, "accelerated commoditization and substitution" has made it easier for customers to circumvent the sales professional. Sales professionals can work to overcome this challenge by initiating the conversation with a "hinge." A hinge is any issue that's specific to the customer's industry or company.
For example, a recent acquisition or new regulation are both examples of hinges. After identifying the hinge, sales professionals can cite a challenge associated with the event and suggest a course of action supported by the solution's capabilities. This approach culminates with a cited benefit to the customer and a request for an appointment. Using a hinge works because it is simplified messaging that's easy for a customer to absorb during a busy day.
3. An unpredictable market is driving uncertainty.
The Challenge: The sales professionals we surveyed indicated that customers have become more sensitive to risk. Some data support this sentiment, with Deutsche Bank reporting that business cycles are likely to shrink in the coming years. Additional research from ATKearney echoes this finding, which reports that "about two-thirds of companies have a strategy horizon of four years or less." As one sales professional in our study remarked, some customers have already experienced "reduced income and related budget cuts."
Another sales professional noted the difficulty of selling in 2019 given customers' fear of "potential economic slowdowns." These characteristics of the market today mean that fewer customers are willing to buy, and those who are prepared to make a purchase will only do so with the utmost attention to risk and measurable benefits.
The Solution: Sales professionals need to leverage a value proposition that addresses the risk and reward of making a change. Sales professionals shouldn't seek to eliminate all perceptions of risk among the stakeholders. Instead, they should normalize risk and remind customers that some amount of risk is necessary when engaging a solution.
What's important is that the risks are calculated, understood, and outweighed by the expected benefits. It's often helpful for sales professionals to articulate how the same solution has served other customers facing similar challenges. Doing so offers a "proof of value" that helps the customer make the leap from what seems theoretical to something that is practical and real.
The Bottom Line
Effective sales professionals in 2019 will advance the sale by leveraging the right skills at the right time. They will become agile in their approach to numerous stakeholders who represent a host of opinions and interests. The hundreds of sales professionals who participated in our survey have made it clear that succeeding in 2019 will require the skills to:
Help the customer build the case for change by understanding how factors like desired outcomes and solution options influence decisions.
Gain the appointment by expressing knowledge about the specific challenges within a customer’s industry and ways in which the solution helps.
Help the customer acclimate to a calculated level of risk that normalizes their growing sensitivity to economic fluctuations.