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When I started in sales, my boss told me, "Your job is to get to know your customer and build a relationship. Nothing is more important than building a relationship.” The second most important thing was to make sure that the customer always won when we played golf.

While the relationship game still matters, it’s just table stakes compared to the other challenges now faced by modern salespeople. Among the biggest changes is that customers don't want to talk to us, meaning they now involve salespeople much later in the sales cycle. And by then, they are much more educated on what they're doing and what they're asking.

I’ve certainly experienced this as a consumer. Fifteen years ago, if I needed to buy a new dishwasher for my home, I would just head to my nearest appliance store, look at the dishwashers, and choose between the low-, medium-, or high-priced one. It was a pretty simple process.

Now I start with internet research and become an expert on dishwashers that I don't even care about. By the time it's all done, I know more than I ever needed to know for this one-time disposable transaction. While I am a more informed buyer, there’s less relationship selling, and it definitely slows down the sales cycle. In fact, B2B sales cycles have increased by over 20% in the last five years.

At the same time, there’s been a reduction in the number of salespeople needed. Forrester estimates that by 2020, 1 million B2B sellers in the U.S. are going to lose their jobs. Among the roles impacted are order takers. After all, we’ve got e-commerce to help us with that now. And we’re losing explainers. We’ve got great marketing departments to provide tools that do the explaining for us. And think about what YouTube has done for the consumer when it comes to product training.

This is not all bad news. These changes mean sales leaders can prioritize what should be most important: helping their modern sales teams focus on being consultative sellers.

Think like a marketer.

The first example of thinking like a marketer that always comes to mind for me is the traditional purchasing funnel: Awareness -> Familiarity -> Consideration -> Purchase -> Loyalty. But nobody ever goes through the buying process this cleanly. The real funnel is messy, and people bounce up and down all the time. It’s created that age-old tension between sales and marketing.

Salespeople have traditionally consumed what marketing has created for them. But I think the best salespeople of the future are going to both act more like marketers and partner more with marketing. We need to have a better lead handoff, where sales accepts leads earlier and works to nurture them over time. Leads are too important to just automatically send back up into the marketing funnel if they aren’t ready to buy.

It's not going to happen with a traditional, relationship-focused salesperson who just tells marketing "get me more leads." This is a new part of the job description for sales, and I think we will soon be seeing a segment of microtools that are used by selling teams to do some of their own marketing and nurturing. It will be up to sales leadership to figure out how to get these into the hands of their salespeople.

I’ve already seen demand for these from companies that I’ve worked with. While sales leaders don’t want their sales reps writing marketing campaigns, they do want them to own parts of such a campaign as they take and nurture their prospects through the middle function of the sales cycle.

Be consumers of data science.

Another important key to becoming a consultative seller is to consume data science. I remember early in my sales management career I asked my boss for an analyst to help me understand my business and why close rates were going down. My boss replied, "Tony, you are your analyst. You need to learn this so that when an analyst comes to you and says they're up or down, you already know the cause."

If you're a sales leader like me, you probably have some science in you. You've got to. But I think we also have to help push that down into our sales teams. There's at least two ways to do that. The first is with the tools that we put in front of our sales teams. It’s not just about giving them more product. It needs to be something they can use.

What we typically tell our reps is "you have to learn about your accounts before you go meet with them. There's a boatload of tools. Go figure it out. Go on LinkedIn. Go set up your Google alerts. Look at email. Look at Salesforce. Look at all these other apps." I watch reps struggling with how to do that when they have so many things on their plate.

We need to make it easier for reps by having them focus on answering questions like this: What accounts should I work on next? What calls should I make next? What piece of research should I put in front of my client next through these nurture campaigns and other things that we do? Build a point of view with your sales team and do it quickly.

The other piece of advice I have for you is to have your sales team think more like data scientists. This also doesn’t have to be complicated, especially in the beginning. Obviously many people who are moving into sales aren’t analytic. Start with teaching them how to build a discount or calculate a return on investment (ROI) for a prospect in a spreadsheet.

Own the entire customer experience.

The third piece to becoming a consultative seller is that we have to own the entire customer experience. I know great salespeople have done that for generations, but that's going to be even more critical as we go into the future. This concept of trusted advisor is going to matter more than ever before. It's the most fun part of sales, but it's also the hardest part to teach people how to do.

We've all been at a point in our career where we've talked to a customer and the customer will say, "The only time I hear from your sales rep is at the end of the month or the end of the quarter when they're trying to sell me something." And we create that unintentionally as sales leaders because of these things like quotas and commissions. And while those are important, we also have to teach the behavior that transcends them.

We know that if we can get a salesperson who owns the whole sales cycle and customer relationship, it's good for our customers. They have a better experience with us, and we happen to sell more. The best reps leverage all the assets they have to do this. They quarterback their opportunities. They use resources inside and outside the organization. These are the things that we collectively need to get better at building a playbook for.

I want to share this because I hear a lot of companies talking about it, but I don't see a lot of companies acting on it. You can't as leaders tell your teams, "I want you to be a trusted advisor. Now get 20 transactions done by the last day of the month." You have to teach them the balance of what it means, and how the less they focus on their quota and the stress of their quota this month, and the more they focus on their customer being successful, the more the quota will take care of itself.

We all know sales is changing fast, from longer buying cycles to loss of jobs. But it’s not all doom and gloom. The opportunity to become a highly valued consultative seller and trusted advisor is great. Thinking like a marketer, minoring in data science, and owning the customer experience is how a modern salesperson can successfully adapt. Good luck in your journey.

These changes mean sales leaders can prioritize what should be most important: helping their modern sales teams focus on being consultative sellers.”

Tony Rodoni | EVP, Commercial Sales and Market Readiness, Salesforce

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