What does the term "innovation" mean to you?

That sounds like a question you’d hear at a low-rent sales seminar — something that the speaker would ask the crowd and assure everyone that there are "no wrong answers."

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So, you raise your hand and the speaker picks you. Then, you give what you think is a thoughtful answer. After you're done, all they do is stare at you blankly before saying "okay then," and asking the crowd if anyone else had a "real answer." And then, everyone laughs at you.

Sorry, if I got too into that. That’s actually a recurring nightmare of mine, but I think the point behind all of it is worth exploring. It’s hard to define what qualifies innovation, especially in sales. Innovation doesn’t always have to move mountains — sometimes it just means changing how you and your business operate.

Sales Innovation

The term "sales innovation" has a broad array of potential applications. Innovation can come in several forms to different degrees. It could be a new strategy that your business is reluctant to implement. Or, it could be a way to revamp how you currently approach a familiar medium.

Though the concept’s definition varies from person to person and situation to situation, there’s a consistent thread through every understanding of it — progress. Innovation means moving forward. It means trying something different to do something better.

Innovation doesn’t have to mean thinking a thought that no one else has ever had before. It doesn’t have to be some bold new invention, unveiled in an auditorium and live-streamed to thousands of people. It doesn’t have to occur on a massive scale with equally massive implications. Innovation can always be impactful — no matter the form it takes.

Here are some potential sales innovation ideas — of varying size and novelty — worth keeping in mind.

1. Build relationships via social media.

At this point, telling a business to leverage social media to improve its sales efforts is like telling a junior in high school to read Catcher in the Rye to get above a B- in their English class. It’s obvious. It’s old news, and it’s out of touch to think otherwise.

That being said, there’s a solid number of high schoolers who choose to gloss over Catcher’s SparkNotes page the night before the test instead of wading through its 200 pages of pure, unadulterated teenage angst. A lot of businesses take the same approach with social media. They don’t approach it with the effort and enthusiasm necessary to do it right.

Take the time and allocate the resources necessary to maintain an active social media presence. Engage with your prospects. Use forums like LinkedIn and Twitter to answer questions they might have about topics relevant to your industry. Establish yourself as a thought leader and a helpful presence in your space.

Don’t treat social media as a medium for brand promotion exclusively. It’s a powerful tool for building individual relationships and trust with your prospects. Maintaining an active, engaged, in-touch social media presence is a great way to garner interest from potential customers and translate that interest into hard sales.

2. Embed yourself in local communities.

Even with the tide of digital transformation rising, in-person networking opportunities are still invaluable assets. Seek them out and see how you can get involved. Sponsor local events potential leads may be interested in — that could be anything from a golf tournament to a local fun-run to a charity auction to some kind of professional mixer.

If there’s a nearby conference relevant to your industry, do what you can to land a booth there. Ideally, you’ll be able to spend as much face time as possible with potential leads. Including an interpersonal element in your lead generation can help you better gauge your prospects’ interest and keep you on their minds.

Ultimately, your goal here is the same as the one for you’re pursuing with your social media efforts: building trust and relationships with prospects. Show you have a stake in their interests and them as people — not just as sources of potential revenue.

On a fundamental level, selling is a personal process. You, as a salesperson, are convincing an individual prospect to make an important financial decision — either for themselves or on behalf of the company they work for.

There can be a lot at stake for a customer in an individual sale — money, a piece of their professional reputation, the success of whatever it is your product or service is designed to help with. It can only help your case to have them know you personally and trust you on that basis.

3. Try a customer loyalty program.

Customer loyalty programs are a great way to drive customer referrals — which are essentially free leads. Word of mouth is the single most trusted method of advertising. A customer loyalty program gets your customers talking, and if you do it right, they’ll only have good things to say.

A well-constructed customer loyalty program will bring in high-quality leads. Those potential customers will come in with a kind of openness and intrigue toward your product or service that can only come from referrals from friends and family. Trust has been a recurring theme through this list, and this particular case is no exception.

If you can create a successful customer loyalty program — whether it be something as small as a punch card system or as significant as a full-scale partnership with a complementary business — you’re putting yourself in a great position to retain the customers you have and consistently acquire new ones.

For more on how to develop an effective customer loyalty program, check out this article.

4. Use customer-centric sales techniques

The concept of customer-centric sales rests on prioritizing empathy for the customer above all else. That means understanding where they’re coming from and the specific situations they might be dealing with. It’s about listening, getting a feel for the problems they’re facing, working out a potential solution, and showing how your product or service fits that solution.

Don’t sell your product or service by focusing on its features. It’s easy to tout its bells and whistles without demonstrating how it specifically suits your prospect’s needs.

When employing this methodology in the context of B2B sales, you’ll want to target decision-makers at companies as opposed to individual users. Their problems tend to have the most substantial implications. Therefore, they’re more likely to be more receptive to the personal, demonstrative component of this brand of sales.

Ultimately, customer-centric selling revolves around the idea that empowering customers is more important than convincing them. This type of sales can be frustrating. It happens on your customers’ terms.

You’re going to be operating according to their needs, intimately involved in their problems, and working on their timeline. Still, customer-centric selling is an innovative brand of sales that can have substantial pay-offs if done right.

5. Try a sales liaison

Sales and marketing are inherently connected. Salespeople rely on their marketing departments to feed them qualified leads, and marketers need to know what their sales teams expect in terms of the personas they’re appealing to and the channels through which they’re reaching prospects and customers.

Despite that, many marketing and sales departments are siloed — operating on their own with minimal communication between one another. A sales liaison is an intermediary who relays information on a sales team’s efforts, preferences, and needs to its marketing department.

Sales liaisons can help foster cohesion within a company and ensure that its sales and marketing efforts complement each other as effectively as possible. The role lends itself to seamless understanding throughout a business and better-constructed sales and marketing initiatives.

"Sales innovation" is a term without a perfectly defined meaning or a concrete list of tips and tricks specific to the idea. That being said, every definition of it entails taking new steps to move forward — either within your current sales framework or well beyond it. The advice on this list is designed to help with both.

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Originally published Feb 18, 2020 8:00:00 AM, updated February 18 2020

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Sales Trends