The Sales Force of the Future: A Source of Business Advantage for You and Your Customers


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Today, customers are not saying, “I need a solution!” They know they can get comparable solutions from credible sources. Instead, they are saying, “I need help…”

“I need help in managing multiple decisions around this purchase.”

“I need help in quantifying the business impact and making sure it is the best use of my resources.”

“I need help in getting my organization to align around the implementation and make any changes required to optimize the value of your solutions.”

“I need help to show measurable results.”

“I need a business advisor to help me sort it out.”

Customers’ problems and how we connect our solutions to them are becoming increasingly complex, and much of this complexity is emerging from the changing nature of business itself.

…salespeople are finding it increasingly difficult to understand and navigate their customers’ companies and, simultaneously, customers themselves cannot define or even understand their own decision processes.

In many cases, decentralized and lean organizational structures have replaced fixed, hierarchical infrastructures. In the process, decision making powers have often migrated from the technical, clinical and operational levels to purchasing departments and professional managers who frequently consider buying decisions from only the vital, but nonetheless limited, financial perspective of acquisition cost.

Approval levels are also migrating higher in the organization, and now, more than ever, the ability to gain access, engage and interact with executives is not optional. As a result, salespeople are finding it increasingly difficult to understand and navigate their customers’ companies and, simultaneously, customers themselves cannot define or even understand their own decision processes.

For example, a client providing automated circuit board assembly machines traditionally called on and sold their machines directly to production engineers, but a newly introduced machine was floundering in the market. Production engineers reported that the machine was impressive, but they did not have the budgets for new capital equipment and, as a result, potential sales of the machine were halted.

At the same time, the sales function within the production engineer’s company was turning down orders because of the lack of a manufacturing capability that this new machine actually offered. There was obviously a business impact happening here and sales management were ultimately the only ones who could help quantify what that was. When our client began the decision process by contacting sales management, and then senior management, to determine the financial impact of the declined business, budgets were re-allocated and production engineers where directed to evaluate and purchase the new machines.

These complex decision processes are extending up and down the supply chain. At the same time, buyers are demanding more attention and a closer relationship with those suppliers whom they choose to give their business. They are drastically reducing their supply bases and asking the remaining suppliers to take a more active role in their business processes. Customers want business partners who can create value on both sides of the relationship. They are also asking their suppliers to add value at much deeper levels than has typically been delivered, and to prove it by tracking progress, measuring the value delivered and quantifying the results.

Take the Rolls Royce Jet Engine Division: In an effort to add measurable value for their customers, they transitioned to providing aircraft engines on a full service basis. To emphasize their accountability for enhancing customer value, they now charge a flat fee per hour the engine is operating, versus offering parts and services independently. The greatest value their customers could receive is predictable costs vs. a standard fixed-plus variable costs approach, and they realized that and took action.

If your customers are tightening up their supply chains, there will be fewer sales opportunities. The marketplace is increasingly becoming an environment in which the winners of deals take a substantial share, if not all of the market, and the losers are left out in the cold.

Is your sales force equipped to help customers who are pressured to make quality buying decisions?

A powerful sales force provides incontrovertible evidence of the risks customers face without their solutions. The new sales force must be capable of concisely diagnosing their customers’ situations, finding evidence of the absence of the value they could deliver, quantifying the financial impact of that missing value, and developing the proper business acumen in order to connect the value impact of their solutions to the performance metrics of their customers…and the customers they serve. This includes understanding the complex situations their customers face, configuring the complex solutions offered by their companies, and managing the complex relationships that are required to bring it all together.

This will be an escalating requirement for future sales forces, yet most businesses today are still applying sales strategies, processes, and skills designed for a world that no longer exists. Too many companies continue to make smoke-and-mirrors claims, present outmoded value propositions and simply re-label a collection of their products as solutions, when in reality the customer can’t connect those solutions to their business.

Too many companies continue to make smoke-and-mirrors claims, present outmoded value propositions and simply re-label a collection of their products as solutions.

On the other side of the spectrum is US Oncology. They provide powerful diagnostic services to potential customers in order to determine their business and clinical requirements, and then they back up their recommendations and implementations by being compensated via an agreed percentage of the customers’ increase in measured value. This strategy is beneficial to both US Oncology as well as to their customers, which is why they’ve enjoyed such success.

Businesses need to stop just selling their products and services and instead, like US Oncology and Rolls Royce, build strategies, processes and business development skills that will support a powerful sales force. This may be a daunting task, but by doing so, your company can become an indispensable source of business advantage now and as you move forward into the future.

And remember, selling doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Every department, from R&D to marketing to customer service, must work in unison with sales to create measurable value for you and your customers—a winning combination that is extremely difficult for your competitors to defeat.

Jeff Thull
Jeff Thull, author of the bestselling Mastering the Complex Sale, is a leading-edge strategist and advisor for executive teams of major companies. As president and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies like Shell Global Solutions, 3M and Microsoft.


  1. Jeff
    You are absolutely correct that a fundamental shift in selling strategies has already occurred. For decades techniques for directing the customer to their pain was a sure fire way to a sale. Or were they? In the practical world and with practical people, blurting our features and benefits simply didn’t work most of the time.

    Today it is all about company-wide tactical selling ‘processes’ aimed at uncovering contacts and convincing them that that they are on the right path. Otherwise,your organization will miss the most valuable opportunity of the interaction: a convincing relationship versus product education.

  2. Jeff: Great article! In order to create the paradigm shift you describe, companies will need to ask and answer two questions:
    1. What is the value our company provides to our customers and supply chain partners (as you describe with Rolls Royce and US Oncology)?
    2. What is the value our sales force must bring to our organization?

    When we examine what creates friction between providers and customers, misunderstanding the answers to these two questions are the root cause. Companies that take a product-centric, features/capabilities/benefits approach to their offerings, and that look at revenue alone as what the sales force is “tasked” to bring to the company create a cascading array of selling problems. Your article puts in perspective that the next generation salesperson must develop abilities beyond a “sales personality” and “street smarts,” and that companies must continually refresh their understanding of how sales forces provide value to buyers.

    A related blog I wrote on this topic: Will the Next Sales Achiever Need an MBA?


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