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B2B Sales: We’ve Come a Long Way Baby...Not

January 10, 2011 | By Jim Ninivaggi

The arrival of a new year understandably compels people to think about starting anew. For me, the advent of 2011 meant sudden motivation to remove the clutter from my home office. First challenge: Wrestle with the mounds of files and papers that permeated the space. 

The arrival of a new year understandably compels people to think about starting anew. For me, the advent of 2011 meant sudden motivation to remove the clutter from my home office. First challenge: Wrestle with the mounds of files and papers that permeated the space. 

As I began deciding what to keep and what to toss, I came across a binder of material from 1991. The binder contained all the material from my new-hire training as a rep for a sales training company: things like company positioning, product overviews, prospecting scripts, call templates and draft presentations that we’d re-create using flip charts (pre-dating PowerPoint). These were a few of the key sales issues our training looked to address 20 years ago:

  • Too many salespeople are product-centric and need to become more “solutions oriented”
  • Salespeople must evolve from “professional visitor” to “problem solver” to “needs satisfier” to, ultimately, “trusted advisor”
  • The days of manipulative selling are over; the new salesperson is consultative
  • Research shows that too many salespeople talk about product features instead of first determining customer needs through effective questioning and listening, and then linking those needs to the company’s relevant offerings
  • The customer is in control, and the salesperson must learn to be the “navigator”

Hmmm. Sound familiar? To quote that “famous philosopher” and baseball Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again. Aren’t many of these the same issues we still see today? Then another obvious question popped into my head: After 20 years, why aren’t salespeople getting better? Here are some reasons why, as I see them:

  • Sales is still treated as a craft, not a profession. How many high school students do you know who want to go into sales as a career? Few colleges offer majors or minors in sales despite the fact that, according to some estimates, 40 percent to 50 percent of graduates with marketing degrees go into sales. Until viewed as a profession (e.g. accounting, finance, marketing) with a college curriculum that leads to a degree and a clear understanding of what it means to be a “professional salesperson,” sales will continue to be a “learn as you go” occupation without a career roadmap beyond making your number and hopefully moving into management.

  • Old stereotypes die hard. This is somewhat connected to the bullet above. Ask the average person what it takes to be a good salesperson and you’re likely to hear “likable” or “outgoing.” Not “knowledgeable” or “a good listener.” I was a pretty good salesperson, but would genuinely get offended when someone would compliment me by saying that I “could sell ice to an Eskimo” — implying I could convince someone to buy something they neither needed nor wanted. Yet this is still the perception of successful sellers today. Even within companies we work with, it’s common to hear folks outside of sales refer to reps as “undisciplined” and doing most of their work “on the golf course.” It’s important that people outside the sales organization understand that selling requires a combination of competencies beyond just having a dynamic personality and the ability to hit nice tee shots. It’s time for sales organizations to identify and map these specific competencies, and then make them a formal part of the hiring and training process.

  • Companies say one thing, then do another. You can’t become solution-centric if all your product training focuses on pushing your allegedly superior features and whiz-bang technology. You can’t expect reps to become trusted advisors and look to develop long-term relationships when your comp plan promotes a short-term approach and a “make the numbers at all cost” mentality at the end of each quarter. And, you can’t change the behavior of your salespeople without the support of the entire marketing and sales organization, which obviously includes the unwavering commitment of marketing and sales leaders.

But the ultimate reason may simply be the human condition. Getting back to the pep in our step we feel at the start of a new year, we may make resolutions to lose weight or start exercising, yet more than half are broken within the first six months. Instead, we still search for that magic elixir that will actually enable us to eat all we want – while somehow also losing weight. Maybe sales organizations are no different; perhaps they hope to find their own “magic elixirs” among the latest sales enablement tools or selling philosophy (provocative selling anyone?). But the reality is that hiring, training and developing salespeople to become those trusted advisors we all aspire our reps to be takes hard work.

Just like an individual whose resolution is to get organized or live a healthier life, organizations seeking to change their sales habits for the better need to understand that the hoped-for results will not happen without a long-term commitment, ongoing efforts to make and maintain positive change, and constant reassessment of your progress. Otherwise, the most optimistic resolutions will soon yield to the usual approach of “just you stick with what you know, the tried and true, hope for the best and you’ll get around to further developing your salespeople if and when you can.”

After all, there’s always next year.

Jim Ninivaggi

Jim Ninivaggi is Service Director, Sales Enablement Strategies, at SiriusDecisions. Jim’s focus is on helping to deliver data, knowledge and insight that our clients need to improve sales performance and drive ROI. Follow Jim on Twitter @jninivaggi.

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