Modern Sales Teams Need to Be Agile to Survive

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David Meerman Scott
David Meerman Scott




Today, buyers are in charge. Mystery in the sales process is over. We research someone online before agreeing to a first date -- is he a creep? We fire up LinkedIn an hour before an initial business meeting -- does she have anyone I know in her network? We watch on-demand movie trailers before deciding which film to see that night at the theater. We check out restaurant reviews and browse menus before booking a reservation.

We’re in a new world. But you know that because you’re living in this new world every day.

Even though sales managers understand the role of web content in the buying process, many still run their teams the same way they did 20 years ago. Intellectually, we all know what’s happening, because we all use the web and social networks to research products and services.

Many sales directors I’ve met go online regularly to purchase expensive products without talking to a salesperson -- a set of golf clubs, for instance -- then tell me their market is different and insist their salespeople use the cold-calling, hard-sell approach to sales they learned in the 1980s.

It’s amazing that vice presidents of sales will go to the mailroom and systematically throw all of what they call “junk mail” into the bin without reading it, and a moment later march down the hall and insist that the marketing department create a “direct mail campaign.”

I don’t understand why these sales leaders don’t recognize the hypocrisy at work here -- they themselves don’t respond to traditional sales techniques, yet they insist that the salespeople who work for them practice the same outdated strategies.

There’s a huge disconnect between the sales strategies and tactics that worked last century and what works today. And just as buyers operate in real time today, sales strategies must become more responsive and agile as well.

Just because you rely on salespeople to interface with buyers doesn’t mean you need to stick to the same old strategies and tactics. Rather than a one-size-fits-all sales strategy, evidence suggests that an agile sales approach works best today.

“Agile” refers to both the individual as well as the entire sales team, both of whom should be focused on being hyper-responsive to buyers. Instead of forcing buyers into the company’s sales process, an agile company follows up with individual buyers based on what they are doing and how they are interacting.

As an example, the buyer locates the top six vendors for a purchase decision. She researches what their products do. She looks at their price books. Sometimes she can try their product for free. And oftentimes, she can even buy it right on the website.

However, the salespeople need to bring more value to the buying process than just basic information found on a website. And that value is being able to transform the website’s generic messaging into specific information tailored to the needs of a particular buyer. Today the most successful salespeople play a role much like a consultant.

When a particular buyer has done as much self-education as possible and is ready to have a conversation about his or her particular needs, the agile sales component comes into play. The buyer has read content on the company’s site, followed its blog and Twitter feeds, and perhaps has participated in a webinar. The buyer is ready to discuss details. 

The Decisive Advantage: Speed

With buyers having access to much more information than ever before, salespeople now enter the buying process later, at a moment of enormous opportunity. When a buyer raises her hand, it’s very likely she has already educated herself based on the content on your site and elsewhere. She knows the basics and wants more. She’s indicating that she wants to speak with you about something specific.

But this also poses a challenge. Not only do buyers need a salesperson with more knowledge than what appears on your company’s site and blog, but they also expect a much quicker interaction.

When buyers express interest, they expect contact right away. Now. Not tomorrow. Not this afternoon. Now!

It’s easy to tell people to respond in real time. But it’s not easy to actually implement this strategy.

The best organizations use a combination of humans and technology, much like an air traffic control system. Technology can take you only so far; eventually, you’ll need someone to make a decision about each inquiry that comes in. And just like that air traffic controller, it must be done instantly or there might be a crash.

If your marketing team does an excellent job creating content for your buyer personas, it’s also likely that the number of inquiries will grow quickly. Over time, you can start to use technology to do a first pass on lead qualification in real time; however, it’s important to monitor the filters carefully when they are first instituted to make sure the parameters are properly defined.

It is best to use an algorithm when dealing with high-volume responses because the clock is ticking, but implement this only with constant human monitoring, and quickly adjust and make changes as required.

Editor's note: This post is an excerpt from "The New Rules of Sales and Service: How to Use Agile Selling, Real-Time Customer Engagement, Big Data, Content, and Storytelling to Grow Your Business" and is republished here with permission.

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