The Sales Shift from Gatekeeper to Expediter

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Yes, I apologize if I am adding yet another post to the mass of content about how sales needs to shift.  But I hope you add this one to your “useful” pile and not your “I hope I never hear that again” pile.

After thinking about my post last week about respecting the buying process and the feedback I received, my mind started to go in some crazy directions.  How can sellers respect the buying process, but still meet their objectives?  Waiting for buyers to contact you, particularly if you work for a brand that is not well known, is a recipe for failure.   At the same time, contacting at the wrong time doesn’t work either.    What can you do.

I’d suggest yet another mind shift for sales is one part of the solution.  For years, and I think to a large extent it still happens today, many in sales felt that they were gatekeepers.      They sit in between the buyer and their organizations.   They want everything to go through them.   A buyer wants information, then sales wants to be the one to get it for you.  You want to talk to someone technical, it’s “not so fast,  let me make sure I can make that happen (and put a bunch of qualifiers on what I expect from you in order to make that connection).”    Gatekeepers often “extract their fee” for the act of unlocking the gate to get to what you need.

It’s the wrong way to think and act today.  It’s also a bit delusional.

First, and we’ve known this for a while, customers don’t need sales to help them with access to information.  They can find it on their own.   Furthermore, if they have started on this path and then engage with sales, and a gatekeeper type discussion ensues, it’s likely to become a dead-end–one of the memorable moments (not in a good way) where they buyer seeks never to interact with that seller again.

But it is not just information.  It connecting to people.  Let’s talk references.  I’ll be exploring references in more detail in my next post, but one of the interesting facts that came out of a recent Gartner survey on buying was that “sales arranged references calls or visits” was the lowest ranked sales activity in terms of value from a buyer perspective.  This was startling.  The high tech sales world has always been driven by references.   What is going on?   We still need to dig deeper, but my hypothesis is that there are two factors at work:

  • Due to social computing, buyers can frequently find existing customers on their own and make contact without the seller even knowing it
  • Buyers may be feeling that the ‘brokered” contacts are too scripted and controlled, they may get some useful information but they have doubt in their mind about the full authenticity of the discussion.

How should sales be behaving?

I suggest they need to think and act like expediters.   An expediters understands the client situation and goal and works to find the fastest way to achieve that goal.   They don’t make money if they don’t help the client achieve the outcome.   They don’t keep people out—they connect (and get out of the way—-other than under.   To effectively expedite, sellers should:

  • Understand the buyers process–where they are and where they want to go
  • Guide them toward information and assets that speed the process
  • Help them avoid missteps and delays

And they have to do one very important thing for themselves.   They need to use the understanding of the buyer situation to make sure it is worth their time.  There is no reason to expedite efforts if there is no value to you, the seller in the end.   Your level of effort should be commiserate with how close to that value for you the buyer is.  Your time is valuable too.

But above all, don’t think that you have the ability to hold access to information and assets as a “chip” that you can play in return for getting the buyer to do something they may not want to do.  That doesn’t work.   They have other ways to get what they want.  You don’t want to be viewed as a roadblock. You want to be the one that gets them in the fast lane.

Republished author’s permission from original post.

Hank Barnes
Hank Barnes provides research and advisory services on go-to-market strategies--particularly around marketing, positioning, and customer experience--for technology providers. Hank has more than 25 years of high-technology sales and marketing experience in both field and corporate roles, both as an individual contributor and the marketing leader for several startups. He is a long-time proponent of customer-centric marketing and the use of customer experience as a key differentiator for business success. His posts here include content from his days with Adobe, SAP, and now Gartner

19 COMMENTS

  1. Bravo, Hank! A very thoughtful perspective. I would suggest an even broader role definition than expediter–how about partner. Expediters know the system, facilitate connections, minimize or eliminate barriers, and communicate in ways that are timely, accurate and relevant. Partner adds the dimensions of trust, mentor, and collaborator. Instead of an effective go-between, partners anticipate and act in ways that are proactive. In the end, we want someone who can get things done on our behalf. But, more than that, we want someone we can rely on and who cares about our success as well as their own.

  2. ‘Expediter’ is a useful metaphor for this evolving sales role. The most effective salespeople are deeply embedded in their customer’s/client’s operations, and this gives them the perspective to walk in the account’s shoes, wear the account’s issues and opportunities, and help the account achieve its goals. As noted in the post, given that the business is there monetarily, sales can be extremely successful as a resource when the function is aligned, almost parallel, in thinking like the account rather than just making tactical sales, andor metering information.

  3. I definitely appreciate you highlighting the shift in references. Customers, future employers, and prospective employees can all reach out to others through our networked world and create connections quickly. References provided by sales are seen as less trust-worthy than before. Seeing the role as one of an expediter should shift the goal to be one of gaining that trust by, as you state here, getting out of the way. Sales has a ways to go and I’m interested in seeing your next post about references!

  4. Expediter, I like it. How about Commercial Expediter, because contacts at companies are scarce resources and they can’t be open to speak with everyone. I feel there needs to be an interest funnel that customers go through. Maybe I’m old school, but I wouldn’t let every prospect speak to my customers. I use them as proof, not to do my selling. Within existing companies, sales engineers are scarce resources, so you need to be discerning about who you expedite.

  5. Thanks for all the comments. In terms of “partner”, that is a bit worn and the “trusted advisor” tag is viewed with skepticism.

    Michael, as an expediter, you do have to make some determination (qualification) of the right times to connect resources—but recognize that those times are as much about the buyer (are they ready for it) as you (do you want to do it). But it makes no sense to expedite access to resources for buyers that aren’t really in a buying process.

    Also, remember that you no longer can control access to resources outside your company. With a little effort, I can find your customers and engage with them without you evening knowing. So you may not want to “let every prospect speak to my customers”, but they may be doing it anyway.

  6. I like Expediter, in my terminology Sales’ job is to enable the buyer. It’s not about selling, it’s about enabling buyers to address and meet their internal obligations. 60+% of the buying cycle is complete before the buyer wants to talk to sales (and many prefer to avoid that conversation), what happens in that 60% is where the deal gets won or lost.

    The short list, business case, etc. all happens before sales has that first conversation. In my experience with B2B clients, that means 4 things need to happen:

    1. stop fighting marketing and partner with them to engage these buyers and build brand preference during that 60%. Tell marketing what you need from them, be more specific than need ‘better quality leads’.
    2. understand the entire buyers’ journey (not just from point of contact to sales) and use that to shape your selling strategy. I call it a decoder ring because that’s what a journey map is (if it’s been developed correctly).
    3. build relationships first by helping. Buyers are wise to the “I’m here to help because I want you to buy from me.” They want “I’m here to help you; maybe someday you’ll buy from me or will tell your peers about me”. The second will endear a buyer way faster and motivate them to buy. Citrix does a good job of this.
    4. Stay in touch with customers (not just approved references) and find out how things are going and what they need. Referrals are the best business and social is the conduit.

    For CEOs, stop beating the crap out of sales. Enable them – the recent stats are sobering as to just how hard their job. http://www.forbes.com/sites/christinecrandell/2015/01/26/why-sales-just-cant-show-you-the-money/

  7. This is a great article and really points to why sales people need to make the shift when viewing their prospects in the 21st century. That said there are gatekeepers out there and we have all had as Hank says, ” Gatekeepers often “extract their fee” for the act of unlocking the gate to get to what you need.”. What people need to realize is there are 2 types of gatekeepers. The first is the one that has been tasked with getting the information and down selecting. The 2nd is the worst one of all they have self assigned themselves as gatekeeper and do nothing but waste your time in getting to a real sale.

  8. Interesting thoughts Hank!

    I believe that whether we call it expediter, partner or trusted advisor is unimportant as this would be an internal reference, not one we would announce to our customer or prospect. I prefer partner, although depending on what is being sold, trusted advisor might well be appropriate and preferred.

    One key that hasn’t been mentioned is the importance of differentiating. Expediting is all well and good, but if every salesperson comes to the table to expedite, everyone looks equally passive, useless and unnecessary.

    Before we go overboard to focus on what customers say they do and don’t want from salespeople, let’s acknowledge that 74% of the salespeople calling on them are completely ineffective and it’s from that group that they form their impressions and tell us what they want. They do not tire of the core competencies of the most successful and effective salespeople, who excel at listening and asking questions, selling consultatively, being the value and differentiating. I very much doubt that these top sellers are doing less of that and more of expediting.

  9. Great points all (and thanks for that key reminder on the expectations created by bad selling).

    It is interesting the discussion around the word “expediter”—I thought about it some and it seemed to work. But you are right about diffeerentiation, value, etc. Why expedite if your solution does not fit (expedite yourself out of the consideration set so you don’t waster your time or the buyers time)? You expedite for well qualified opportunities (has to make sense for your business and the buyer).

    But the key is the other side too—sellers don’t control the buying process and efforts to do so will be usually be met with resistance or avoidance.

  10. I guess I am a bit of a contrarian here, but I don’t like the connotation the word expediter leaves as the description of a sales executive. I also believe that a quality sales executive will help a prospect (give them time) even if it appears that it is not going to end up putting money in the sales executives pocket.
    The notion that buyers self-educate is true, but not to the extent that pundits would have you believe (if I read one more time that the buyer is 70% of the way through the buying cycle before sales needs to get involved I will scream). In the late 90’s sales executives became “bus drivers” (drove their SE’s and other support people to the client to do the real work the sales executive could not do). Today, buyers don’t want to talk to a sales executive that can’t add value to the process. So, no more bus drivers – and I don’t think the term “expediter” does a professional sales executive justice.
    Lastly, given the average tenure of executives in companies, I would rather invest time in the relationship even without reward figuring that if I can’t see the buyer today, I will be called in to sell them at their next gig. But, that’s just me.

  11. Hank – I read this blog early this morning, and ruminated on it as I was snarled in DC traffic. While snarled, I listened to a call-in radio show and heard a lively debate about whether Uber is better defined as an IT platform, or as a personal transportation service. Which brought me back to your blog.

    Listening to the Uber debate, I began to think, ‘does this matter?’ – and came to the same conclusion about whether salespeople should be considered expeditors. One negative outcome of naming or defining anything is pigeonholing it. OK, Uber is an IT platform. Now what? In particular, this is a dangerous problem for salespeople. ‘Sales’ was deemed too pejorative, so many companies erased ‘sales’ from the title and replaced it with a mushier, anodyne title, ‘Consultant.’ ‘Associate’ became popular, too, for a time. I think it still is. ‘Advisor’, ‘Trusted Advisor,’ ‘Customer Success Representative’, ‘Bus Driver’ (new one, Dan), and now ‘Expeditor.’ The list goes on. Once again, we’re still left struggling to define the noble profession of selling. And, criminy! When all the definitions and dust settle, that’s still what it is – selling!

    The reason all this has occurred, I believe, is that salespeople provide many services for clients. Some ARE information conduits. Some get plugged into buying processes super-early and function more as collaborators. Some get plugged in late, hopping on opportunities that are triggered by events – they are order takers and pricing providers. These are not value statements about salespeople. My only purpose is to represent the many situations and scenarios in which salespeople ‘engage’ with clients, and that defining their role across the board (can we really equate a real-estate salesperson with an ERP salesperson with an industrial pumps salesperson?) These environments are so disparate that they defy defining any role. Even if we could propose a functional definition, would there be any purpose served?

  12. I really appreciate all of the discussion. Let me try to clarify something. The title seems to have struck a cord, but I am not suggesting the label of “expediter” for sales (if I had to pick a label, my choice is “guide”).

    I am suggesting that sales should think like an quality expediter—-help buyers get things that matter to them done faster and easier. That can involve a range of things.

    But the other half is just as important. If anyone in sales thinks they have the ability to control (often through gatekeeping)the buying process, I have strong doubts about their ability to be consistently successful.

    Keep the discussion going…

  13. I have enjoyed following the discussion and how everyone is open to new views. I wonder if anyone asked themselves what would happen if a doctor was an expediter? Imagine my Doctor saying “what’s wrong.” I say “Well, I was bitten by a mosquito, and according to the symptoms, Web-MD recommends that I need 20mg of penicillin.” Should I expect the Doctor to expedite my order and whip out his prescription pad? No, I believe he should challenge my faulty buying vision. I think it’s the same with salespeople. I know the market has changed, but for complex products, I don’t think customers have the time or expertise to be expedited to where they want to go, because they are not capable of forming an accurate buying vision on their own. They need a smart rep to guide ( Hank I like this word more) them. We all know, for instance, we should eat right and exercise, and yet 2/3rds of us are very overweight. We don’t just need someone to expedite us to where we want to go (hmm Ice Cream) because we sometimes need a guide to motivate us to do what we should do. I think if you expedite the customer where they want to go, the salesman will often end up going down the road of commoditization & discounting and the buyer will end up with a sub-optimal solution. I think we need either an online self-serve model for simple products, and really awesome salespeople/guides for complex products.

  14. Hank, this is an outstanding post, with very thoughtful comments. A few ideas–possibly a little contrarian.

    1. I think we get into trouble when we try to describe anything that is very complex with one word like expeditor. As good as expeditor is, it doesn’t cover everything a sales person should be doing to maximize value creation, growth in their territory, etc.
    2. I’ve started looking at things as a collection of competencies the sales person must have: First all the advanced selling skills, whether you call it consultative, solution, customer focused, Insight, provocative, challenger — all these become table stakes. You don’t get to begin to think about being a top performer (for your customer and company) without mastery of those. Add in a bunch of others: Business acumen, problem solving, critical thinking, collaboration, project management, resource management. In terms of coordinating activities, resources, helping facilitate the customer buying cycle, challenging their assumptions, getting them to think differently, etc, etc etc–traditional sales skills don’t hack it (A lot of the terms I’ve used overlap with yours.
    3. Perhaps, overlapping with Expeditor, I like the concept of resource manager. Increasingly, the sales person has to get the right resources together at the right time, doing the right things.
    4. I also like the entrepreneurial aspect of sales people. They are the CEO of their territories, responsible for maximizing share, growth, profitability, satisfaction. As any CEO, they leverage multiple capabilities and activities inside and outside the organization to achieve these goals.

    I’ll stop here. A thought came to me. One of my favorite articles of all time from anyone is your Squishy Buying Cycle. It might be interesting to map competencies, roles, skills, activities to that cycle to describe not only the sales shift, but also the marketing shift.

    In any case, great article! Great discussion! Thanks for starting it Hank!

  15. Here is a link to the post Dave mentions, it is a summary of research that I did (available to Gartner clients).

    http://blogs.gartner.com/hank-barnes/2013/06/30/teams-streams-and-provider-dreams/

    And flows well with Dave’s (and everyone else’s comments).

    Other tidbits:

    1. I am not a fan of helping customer get to what they want–if it is not the best thing for them. Guiding toward a better option is a great thing.

    2. Dan, love your comment on the X% complete metrics. A couple ideas there.

    * Dave Brock and I have talked about that for a while and Dave has excellent posts on this. Check them out.

    * And I would ask, if a buying process is, let’s say 65% complete, and you challenge them with insights that make them consider a new direction, then it’s likely they are back in the early stages (overall) of the total buying decision…so that process is now nowhere near 65% complete.

    * We have new data for technology buying (that I’ll be writing about soon for clients and touching on in blogs) that shows a willingness from buyers to engage early in their process–with an expectation of value. I posted a little about this last week ( http://blogs.gartner.com/hank-barnes/2015/01/20/tech-buyers-want-vendors-to-respect-their-buying-process/ ) . Not sure of all the reasons, but one factor I believe is that early contact is part of the process buyers use to start evaluating (and building) a trust foundation.

    3. As Dave says, this is not just about sales (although my title certainly seems to have provoked a discussion). When marketing gates assets to extract “leads”, many buyers either make up contact info or simply abandon–feeling they can find the information elsewhere or go to a provider that will help them accelerate (expedite?) their research.

    Really, really appreciate the discussion here.

  16. I think we can all agree that sales is shifting from gatekeeper.

    But to what, exactly?

    Expediter might describe the sales job in certain situation. I can certainly remember times when my job was to “make it happen” for a key customer. So expediter could work there.

    But in other cases the sales job is completely different. Stimulating interest. “Challenging” prospects with new insights. Even order taking and information delivery.

    That’s what makes the sales profession so interesting. It’s hard to pin down. No training, methodology or CRM tool can tell a rep exactly what to do in every situation, or what role to play.

    Hey, maybe there’s a role for people is sales for a while longer?!

    Thanks to all for a great discussion, to Hank for an intriguing post.

  17. Hank, a great article that has – as you no doubt hoped – stimulated some illuminating discussions. At the end of the day, there’s probably no one single label that fully describes how a modern B2B sales person needs to behave if they are to succeed. But terms like “expediter”, “guide” and facilitator” certainly help to convey part of the story.

    As BobT points out, there’s no one model that can tell a sales person exactly what to do in any given situation. But having the right mindset – and the right experience can certainly help. It’s not what we call ourselves, but how we behave, that matters most.

    The key threads that I’ve been observing in recent client engagements – which seem to support the thrust of the discussion to date – include:

    – If you don’t understand the prospect’s buying process, you have no chance of facilitating it. And although there are a number of useful models of the typical stages through which a buying decision evolves, there is no substitute for developing a specific understanding of how it is likely to pan out in each specific opportunity. Even then, you’ll probably miss some subtlety. But you’re going to be in far better shape than a competitor who doesn’t understand it at all.

    – Curiosity is an essential precursor to adding value. It doesn’t matter much that I have an encyclopiedic knowledge of my products or their applications if I haven’t understood what’s really going on in the prospect organisation. It’s hard to teach curiosity to sales people whose natural temperament is to rely on confidence in their own position (to always be closing). No curiosity, no sale (or a much harder one)

    – What the sales person knows as an individual is less powerful that what their organisation has learned collectively. Informed buyers need informed sales organisations that have effective ways of sharing the lessons learned and in doing so creating uniquely tailored value

  18. Love the continued discussion.

    Bob A. couldn’t agree more on the need to understand buying process—and the challenge is everyone is different (for every client and for every purchase). But there is a way–ask them (http://blogs.gartner.com/hank-barnes/2014/04/08/want-to-understand-your-customers-buying-cycle-just-ask-them/ ) , usually they’ll tell you (in varying levels of detail).

    Then the trick is to find the commonalities across customers create that org effect you mention—standardize process for common areas, train on adapting (and thinking) for unique ones.

    Again, I really appreciate the spirited discussion.

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