07/05/2014

By Steve Gilory, CEO of Vistage

Over the last two decades the internet has transformed the way people buy – everything from low-value household commodities to high-value business services. The new web-savvy customers gather most of the information before they engage with sales representatives of the selected companies. As a result the power balance between the buyer and the seller has fundamentally changed.

The local and global marketplaces have become transparent – for both buyers, who search for information, and sellers, who wish to communicate with them. This transparency and accessibility of information has changed the ‘rules of engagement’, making the buyer much more powerful. Sellers no longer control the factors that influence buyers, turning the sales process into a true dialogue.

In this new, information-rich marketplace, trust is more important than ever, as personal recommendations, reviews and opinions are widely available online and are used frequently as buyers search for products and services. That’s why it is so important that companies provide value-added information, such as white papers, guides, blogs and videos, to demonstrate to potential buyers their expertise and credibility. This creates trust in the brand and the company and defines its leadership in the given sector.

This transformation of the marketplace has profoundly affected the role of sales staff. Salespeople have traditionally been ‘hunters’, but, in the new environment, the successful ones are farmers – cultivating knowledge and long-term relationships. The traditional sales process relied on the interaction between an informed seller and a less informed buyer, but more recently it became a conversation between perceived equals. Now that buyers are in control of the sales process, it will proceed according to their own rules and timing – not as before according to the sales force’s script and schedule.

This means that sales teams must learn new skills to be able to engage with their buyers in the best way and at the right time.

Some ten years ago, a new concept was developed that reflects how the modern salesforce needs to interact with today’s buyers. Called Sales 2.0, it describes how the company should equip its sales team with insights from online technologies so they can engage successfully with the new buyer. Another term that has also emerged is ‘social selling: using social media to create leads and develop them into sales relationships, particularly by using it to access networks, establish rapport and leverage existing relationships. It is one part of the new sales approach.

However, it should be remembered that Sales 2.0 is much, much more than having a LinkedIn account and broadcasting the company’s material through social media.

In this new and socially connected world, with interactive websites and constantly captured data, organisations and their activities become more transparent. However, also businesses have much greater insights into buyers’ behaviours, tastes, and what they say and do online. Modern salespeople need to learn how to capture this information and apply it to the sales process.

They also need to assess what stage in the decision-making process a buyer has reached, identify their needs, and respond with value-added insights that will create a bond of trust. The new toolkit of a salesperson includes the adept use of social media as well as a variety of online tools that capture data and bring it straight to their CRM.

The salesperson should start preparing their offer before the formal sales process begins. It should include things that might once have been seen as marketing collateral, rather than part of the sales process, such as webinars and white papers. They have to be able to give buyers a new and compelling insight – the ‘Aha!’ moment to gain credibility in customers’ eyes.

This means that both the profile and role of a salesperson have to change considerably. The new salespeople should be much more analytical and new media savvy. They should not only understand their industry sector but think like a businessperson: able to go beyond the problem and challenge the client.

Sales 2.0 is not about using Facebook and Linkedln as sales channels, although it does involve recognising that social media is now an intrinsic part of selling. The new toolkit of a modern salesperson includes a variety of online tools with which they must become proficient in order to gain insights into buyer behaviour from the diverse sources of information that are now available. Analytical skills are also vital if this data is to be used effectively.

In this new information-rich world, the traditional distinction between sales and marketing is gradually changing. Both functions will be gathering data about buyers’ preferences and behaviour, helping nurture the company’s relationship with them. In fact, almost every department will contribute to this process, particularly the customer-facing ones.

This change will require a fundamental restructuring of organisations and re-education of employees – not only the marketing and sales staff – about the vital role they play in gathering insights about buyers and developing a relationship with them.

The good news is that every business – whether the self-employed, an SME or an international corporation – can master Sales 2.0 and sell proficiently to the new and better-informed buyers that are making their mark in all markets.

Vistage is the world’s leading organisation for CEOs, and provides “peer-to-peer” advisory groups (ie business owners advising fellow business owners) for the MDs, CEOs and owners of Britain’s mid-market businesses. It has over 800 members throughout the UK and 17,000 members worldwide. Its UK members in total employ 100,000 people (on average 125 each) and produce annual revenues of nearly £9 billion.