We don’t ask much of sales reps. We just want them to rack up a few million in annual sales while managing internal projects, studying the ins and outs of a dozen different industries, learning 40 or 50 solution sets and how they apply to each prospect’s specific needs and communicating that to the prospect.
There’s not much exaggeration in that scenario: Sales cycles are growing longer and more complex, and the customer is in the driver’s seat to a degree never seen before. Using the Internet, buyers are arming themselves with product and company information once funneled through sales reps. No longer satisfied with generic sales presentations, they’re increasingly favoring companies who are able to present value propositions tailored to different individuals within their buying process. Salespeople need to be armed with way more information to close deals than they can possibly digest or manage on their own.
This stark reality has served to suck up nearly two-thirds of a sales rep’s selling time in an average week, and the consequences of these changes in the selling environment are being felt throughout the B2B marketplace. Sales cycles in complex selling environments have increased 30 percent from 2001 to 2004. On average, sales reps are spending less than a third of their time in customer-facing activity, and the balance is spent on administrative efforts in support of customer-facing activity or on internal non-customer-facing activity. Perhaps most ominously, the number of reps making their quota decreased from more than 70 percent in the 1990s to less than 50 percent in 2004, in large part because of the above changes.
Technology, in the form of Internet-accessible information, contributed to this problem, but it is also a large part of the solution, through a growing class of sales effectiveness tools that leverage sales knowledge systems and which are rooted in the concept of one-to-one, personalized communication.
In effect, sales knowledge tools can deliver the long-awaited “how to” manual that can guide a sales rep€”or marketing person, for that matter—to make the promise of selling methodologies like customer-centric selling and strategic selling a reality. Sales knowledge systems turn static content into dynamically personalized information; they turn one-size-fits-all documents into customized value propositions; and they allow all your sales reps to operate like your best reps. But, possibly most importantly, they turn sales reps into trusted advisors.
Sales professionals have to accept that they’re less in control of the sales process than ever. Insofar as they could ever impose a decision on a customer, they certainly can’t, anymore. Their new role is as a Sherpa guide through the sales process. When a mountain climber hires a Sherpa, he or she has already identified the goal: to climb Mount Everest. The climber needs the Sherpa to point out the best path. In the same vein, a customer doesn’t need a salesperson to identify the goal; the customer has already done that. The salesperson has to be there to tell the customer which paths are faster and safer.
Boilerplate presentations, fill-in-the-blank proposals, generic sales collateral and standardized letters don’t cut it in this new selling environment. To sell themselves as trusted advisors, salespeople must be able to easily provide a variety of influencers and decision-makers with personalized information at the right time in the buying process.
Minneapolis-based Carlson Marketing Group, the largest marketing agency in the United States, implemented a sales knowledge system in 2003 and saw almost immediate improvements in its sales productivity. Carlson proposal/sales teams that used the system cut between 60.1 and 74.8 percent from the time needed to reply to an RFP, at a cost savings of $10,000 to $27,000 per response. Carlson credits that improvement with helping make the company a finalist in 85 percent of the deals it pitched, and contributing to a 52-percent sales rate.
Building on that success, Carlson extended the use of the sales knowledge system to its marketing function and is now using the system in a “marketing on demand” mode to generate marketing collateral, including presentations, sales letters, case studies, white papers and other literature that is dynamically customized for the specific client.
This is just one example of the gains that are possible when you transform sales and even marketing teams, taking a buyer-focused approach to the sales cycle. Effective sales knowledge systems will increasingly encompass “directive technologies” that guide users not only in the selection and assembly of information but also in figuring out what type of information should be created and when that knowledge should be delivered in the buying process. Ultimately, these systems will help sales and marketing teams across the lead-to-sales spectrum€”defining just the right message for a target audience, delivering personalized information tailored to a buyer’s interests and knowing exactly at what point that information will deliver the most value—to buyers and customers, alike.