Five years from now, which sales strategies and tactics will matter? Will familiar terms such as “cold calling,” “individual contributor” and “lead lists” ultimately vanish, replaced by “word-of-mouth marketing,” “collaborative teams” and “integrated marketing databases”? Will viral potential and page views become the currency we use to persuade others to accept our products and ideas? Or will other yet-to-be-developed tools emerge and become dominant?
In the second part of this two-part series, I’ll show you how industry experts and scholars say social networking, social responsibility and the redistribution of information power will link to sales strategy beyond the year 2012. Read Part 1, Demographic and Financial Trends Will Change the World of Buying and Selling.
- Trend 4: Development of social networks and word-of-mouth marketing as sales tools
For marketers, the challenge of leveraging informal social networks—which have existed as long as organizations have—occupies center stage. As automated tools manage more transaction-level sales, expensive sales resources have been directed toward more profitable—and more complex—large-system and enterprise sales, which transcend organization boundaries and sometimes blur distinctions between buyers and sellers.
Early in my sales career, the prevailing theory was that meeting with a C-level executive increased the likelihood of a successful sales outcome. But there were many tenuous assumptions inherent in that idea, not the least of which was that C-level executives were influential within their organizations. Rather, when a C-level executive said, “Send me the proposal and I’ll give you our decision,” it meant that once a proposal was sent, heretofore unknown forces acted on the purchase process.
‘Will closer connections mean shorter decision cycles or longer ones?’
Then, things began to change. Rather than be misled by the deceptive pathways on organization charts, salespeople recognized the need to understand the informal and unofficial connections among individuals. The realization changed selling strategies because it meant that networks of people influenced sales and that people played different roles than their titles or hierarchical placement suggested. CRM software tools and other services such as LinkedIn and Facebook became not only available but also, for some, indispensable as aids to navigate sales processes that relied on connections as much as chronological events …
And a tsunami of new connectedness is on the way, according to Limor Schafman, an expert in the commercialization of emerging technologies and founder of Keystone Technology Group. According to Schafman, converging developments, such as IPv6—the newest version of the Internet protocol—make it possible to create unique address profiles for billions of devices, each of which can be individually linked to one or more other devices. This connectedness will change social networking—but it’s not entirely clear how. Will closer connections mean shorter decision cycles or longer ones? How will new personal connections affect assumptions about decision rights in an organization? What even constitutes an organization?
Today, the power of social networks has extended to word-of-mouth marketing, a set of methodologies that mean concomitant changes for sales strategies and tactics. No longer governed by the metrics of the past, the viral value—how likely a message is to be passed from individual to individual—of a campaign or message has now come into prominence. MPowerPlayer, a Northern Virginia-based start-up, used social networks to promote its library of trial mobile game software. According to CEO Michael Powers, through word-of-mouth and viral marketing alone, the company has delivered more than 8.5 million gaming software demos since 2006.
The challenge for marketing professionals and salespeople will be how to sell under a new set of rules that include environmentalism and corporate ethics in the sum total of product value. Twenty years ago, prospective customers never asked me whether my employer, a manufacturing company, had a renewable energy program or initiatives to reduce carbon emissions. I never discussed such issues in a sales call or included related documentation in a sales proposal. But today, Subaru North America proudly proclaims that its Indiana plant produces less waste in a year than a single newspaper its ad appears in.
This trend means re-engineering the components that provide transferable value to customers. No company will be immune.
The mass-market retailer Patagonia is a notable example of a company that has created a business by embedding environmental values into its products. “The notion of [environmental] sustainability is becoming more mainstream. . . Consumers are getting closer to the earth,” says Jerry Savage of ResearchSight. Even mid-market firms like Ikea and Wal-Mart have announced initiatives to offer organic products and ensure ethical sourcing of raw materials.
“Could you send me something about your products?” In 1990 that question most often meant placing an envelope containing printed materials in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox, or sending it FedEx, if the prospect’s need appeared imminent. Vendors—not prospects—controlled the flow of documents. My colleagues and I debated whether it was better to send full technical documentation or to parse the information to avoid overwhelming the prospect.
Those debates around the water cooler don’t occur anymore. Web 2.0, Internet search engines, e-marketplaces, blogs and easy-to-retrieve product reviews took information power from vendors and gave it to customers.
The shift of information power from vendor to consumer has profound importance for sales because it has fundamentally changed not only buying processes but also information-gathering processes. In 2006, fully 46 percent of business-to-business buyers initiated their product search via an online search engine—well before a salesperson prospected their organization, according to Redmond Channel Partner Magazine. The modern prospective customer is already very well-informed about a product or service before the first sales contact is ever made.
Beds.com has embraced the Internet’s transparency by enabling any visitor to its web site to read about its customer-service problems along with its customer accolades. The airing of the full thread of the online conversation makes it possible for Beds.com to showcase its commitment to customer satisfaction, a trend that Marcel Goldstein, senior vice president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide, expects other companies to emulate.
Which strategies will succeed is unclear. What is clear is that, as the fulcrum of information power continues to move in favor of the consumer, agile companies that adopt processes based on an empathetic view of how people ask questions for discovery, gather and manage information—and are moved to buy—are the ones who are most likely to enjoy the profits.