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During the 1930s, the Dust Bowl devastated the four corners area of Texas and Oklahoma. For decades, wheat was a mainstay crop, and in the Texas panhandle land was there for the taking and the price of wheat was artificially propped up to insure adequate food when the country was at war.  

Speculators came by the train load to claim their land to convert prairie grass into gold. But when the price of wheat plummeted — combined with a major drought — farmers doubled down. New plowing technology allowed them to try and plant even more. The end result? The land become fallow and dust storms made the area an environmental disaster, which cost the farmers not only their land, but in some cases their very lives.

Strangely enough, sales is in a similar situation right now. Our customers are the soil, and, honestly, they aren’t responding to our usual tactics any more. But we’re still “plowing” the same way. In some parts of the market, we’re pretty close to no harvest.

After talking to more than 1,000 companies over the past four years, only a few are doing sales any differently than they have in the past. Many organizations continue to pour more and more resources into trying to get the same results. For the majority of sales teams, we are heading into our own Dust Bowl era.

The good news? There are ways to avoid it.

Realize the need for change.

At a recent sales conference, I asked the audience, “How many of you answered your phones five years ago?” Most people raised their hand. Then I asked, “How many of you answer your phone now?” Only about 5% raised their hands.

At this point, we’re all behaviorally modified. We don’t want to pick up that phone unless we know exactly who it is. Same goes for email and how easy it is for a customer to recognize a pitch and just hit “delete.” Customers don’t have time to look at your emails or answer the calls. They simply don’t respond positively to a lot of the old-school methodology of, “Hey, let me interrupt you and try to engage you in a message.”

Now, don’t get me wrong — at the end of the day, those methods still pay off. That’s why they’re still used. However, we need to realize the systemic change happening with customers and adapt our approach and engagement with them. Increasing the sales volume isn’t going to work in the long run; in fact, it is the same as the farmers who doubled down. We need to understand our new environment and develop appropriate strategies to communicate value to our customers.

Cultivate your network.

Salespeople who are successful today are the trusted advisors, those who know their industry and how to use the people in their networks to help build relationships. It’s not about plowing more fields. It’s about developing situational awareness of the customer’s journey and then using the appropriate message and modes of communication to provide value to our customers.        

Networking has always worked and it’s a powerful strategy. But it needs to happen on all levels — from the sales rep to the CEO. If you treat people well and have established trust, they will respond positively when you call them up with something of value. They will also fondly remember when you made an introduction or connection that helped them learn more or solve a problem.

Networking must be generous. It’s not just how many people you can connect with; it’s how you help to make the connections with others. Asking and making recommendations provides much more value and opens the door, as opposed to barraging the customer.

Change the information flow.

It goes without saying that sales is not the first stop for information any more. Customers are finding data on their own, and they’re okay buying without assistance. Companies are increasing their digital presence so customers can become better informed — whether it’s through the website, content, or social media.

When sales organizations are aware of the critical customer journey points, they are better equipped to deploy the appropriate message needed to assist the buyer’s journey. One such situation is when a customer is ill-informed or not getting the message. That’s where we still need salespeople to perform the function of clarifying misinformation or addressing a lack of information and then helping prospects see value that they’re not finding in digital formats. Sales needs to adjust how it informs customers because they probably already know about you before you even have first contact. If you can inform the client about the value of your company’s innovation, they’re always going to appreciate the engagement.

Find courage.

It takes courage to say, well, if it isn’t working, then I have to reinvent things. That means breaking away from the idea of creating just for the sake of creating. If the market is shrinking, simply increasing your efforts isn’t going to expand the market.

Think about the often-used tactic of expanding a sales team. There are a lot of ramp-ups that don’t make sense. For example, I could sit down with an executive who says, “We’re going to increase the number of people we have by 50 percent next year.” Why? “Because my competitors are at that level.” Okay, why? “We assume we’re under market because we did a benchmark and we have fewer people out there than everybody else.”

This kind of perception challenge shouldn’t become the dominant factor in determining a sales strategy. And it’s not just the bottom line of the company at stake. We’re asking salespeople to put their careers on the line to do things that aren’t working — and we keep hiring even more of them. When overhiring means missed sales goals, layoffs are inevitable. This is where leadership must be brave and say, “I’m not going to do this anymore. I’m going to transition, I’m going to do it better, and it’s going to cost less.”

At the end of the day, the solution to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s was to adopt tactics that would be successful in the face of a transformed environment. The same goes for sales. When you give the customer value, instead of just blitzing them with interactions and activities, they provide the harvest.

If you treat people well and have established trust, they will respond positively when you call them up with something of value.”

Dr. Howard Dover | Director, Center for Professional Sales, University of Texas at Dallas

Learn More

The 7 Sales Skills That CAN’T Be Taught By Dan Ross,
Sr AVP, Commercial Sales, Salesforce
Why It’s Now or Never for Social Selling with LinkedIn’s Mike Derezin Interviewed by Laura Fagan,
Product Marketer, Sales Cloud, Salesforce
Making the Tricky Transition from Sales Peer to Sales Manager By Keith Rosen,
Author of "Coaching Salespeople into Sales Champions"



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