Do We Really Want Our Sales People To Be Value Creators?

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In complex B2B buying, it’s popular to talk about being consultative and/or creating value with our customers. We talk about sales people as problem solvers, working with our customers to identify and help solve their problems.

Despite giving lip service to these concepts, it seems our actions are focused on the opposite. Too many organizations seem so focused on their own efficiency, mechanizing our process, and transactionalizing our engagement strategies. We are creating massive sales assembly lines optimizing the order taking process.

More than 10 years ago, CEB (now Gartner) highlighted data about how customers were not getting sales people involved in their buying process until they were about 53% through that process. At the time, many of us were alarmed with that statistic. “How do we help the customer learn, how do we offer leadership or create value, how do we influence our customers’ thinking by getting involved so late in the process?”

Fast forward to today, research shows customers have a preference for minimizing sales involvement in their buying journeys. Now, getting engaged when they are 53% through the process seems like “early involvement,” with much data showing customers are more than 80% through this process when they get sales people involved.

Rather than becoming value creators, we are becoming order takers. We differentiate our offerings through nuances of product differences, hoping we can make one feature/function important to the customer, but mostly we win through pricing.

In some ways, sales leaders revel in this. Moving from value creation to order taking makes our jobs so much easier. We no longer have to do the heavy lifting in helping customers recognize the need to change, in helping them understand the issues they face and the opportunity to improve. We no longer have to help them in figuring out what they want to do. We don’t have to help them manage their buying process, helping them align the various people involved and their agendas. We don’t have to help them think differently about what they are doing, we don’t have to help them think about the risks and alternatives.

Since we are leaving all this to the customer, we don’t have to build skills around business acumen or problem solving, instead we focus on product skills and creating closing presentations focused on how great we and our products are, asking for the order.

This is so much simpler and more efficient for us. We design our organizations, optimizing around our efficiency and costs. We don’t have to invest in building skills on complex problem solving, business acumen, and value creation. We can “dumb down” the sales engagement, literally putting words in the mouths of our sales people, saying the same things over and over.

We win our fair share of orders, we make our numbers (if we make them) through a sheer focus on volume.

We are, silently, elated by the customer digital buying journey. We’ve shifted the heavy lifting, again, to the customer, to search, to learn independently. We nurture them until they have done much of the work, then we engage them running them through our sales assembly line of qualifying, demoing, pitching, proposing, closing. We revel in the predictability of our order taking process, seldom questioning whether we can do better.

At the same time, we see data that is alarming. We’ve known, for years, the majority of customer buying journeys end in No Decision Made, customers get lost in the buying process and abandon the effort. We, also, know customers have high remorse with the buying decisions they make. So our coveted retention/renewal aspirations are threatened.

And this is only those customers who have recognized a need to change and have initiated a search and started a buying journey. The majority don’t even recognize the opportunity to change, grow, and improve. They are too busy struggling with their day to day jobs, the rapid changes/disruptions in their markets and skyrocketing complexity.

Our customers are struggling! They need help! Concepts like sensemaking and decision confidence become critical to their success.

It’s the perfect storm, it creates the opportunity for us to create huge value with our customers. It’s the opportunity to be genuinely helpful and to transition our relationships from being the lowest cost vendor to trusted advisors. It’s the opportunity to create long term relationships, driving higher levels of customer satisfaction, engagement, renewal, and retention.

But this requires changing everything we do in how we engage our customers.

The cynical would say, “Why do this, we are making our numbers by becoming order takers? Why change, we are winning our fair share?”

But think about it, backtrack through this article and the “crumbs” I’ve dropped on the way. The reality is we are dramatically underperforming the potential!! We are underperforming for our customers, we are underperforming our own companies (I hope a few CEOs, CFOs, Board Members get to see this article!).

We could do so much more with our customers driving huge improvements for them and us!

Let’s look at some of these areas of opportunity:

  1. By moving to order taking and transactionalizing our selling process, the customers are choosing what they buy and we compete for that order. We usually win on pricing. It’s not uncommon, particularly in software, to see discounts greater than 30%. One organization commonly discounted 50-80%–their pricing was really meaningless, they did everything they could to get an order. This is irresponsible! We are leaving a lot of margin on the table, but we can only defend that margin through creating and defending the value we create with the customer.
  2. What about those buying efforts that are abandoned? The data shows over 50% of buying journeys end in no decision made. Customers get confused, lost, they shift priorities. These are customers who have committed to a change and to buying something! Yet they fail to complete the project. This is a huge lost opportunity! Customers are failing to implement the changes they had committed to, they are failing to realize the improvements they expected, they are missing out on opportunities to grow and improve. It’s a huge loss for our own organizations. If we could have helped our customers, if we helped them navigate their buying journey to a successful outcome, they would have succeeded rather than failing, and we will have won that opportunity. From a purely crass revenue generation point of view, by accepting a buying failure rate of over 50%, we are leaving too much money on the table! For our customers, for our own organizations.
  3. As if this isn’t enough, what about those customers that should be engaging in a change initiative and buying journey, but aren’t? They aren’t because they are unaware or oblivious. They don’t know they can/should change, as a result they aren’t searching. And if they aren’t searching, none of our digital marketing has an impact. The opportunity in this segment dwarfs the opportunity in (1) and (2) combined. We will never convert all of it into buying, but we can incite a large number of people to change and start a buying journey–with us helping them learn and navigate the process.

I’ll stop here, though if you re-read carefully, I’ve left a lot of other “opportunity crumbs” in this article. But the point is, there is so much more opportunity to capture than we, collectively are. But we will never be able to address this as long as we are committed to mechanizing our selling process and building organizations of order takers.

Capturing any of this opportunity requires us to change. To become true partners, driven by helping our customer discover and achieve success. It requires us to be partners in creating value with our customers.

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