There comes a time in every sales career when change happens — whether your company diversifies by offering products to new audiences and verticals or you find the next great opportunity in a completely different sector. Having spent my career in many verticals — from manufacturing to retail and now nonprofits and education — I’ve discovered some key ways to retool and hit the ground running.

It’s all about staying curious with the industry, your customers, the business process, and what success really means to your organization. As you enter a new vertical, the following "curious tactics" can help you find a quick path to success.

It’s important to see any new sector from a macro perspective. Take the time to try and understand a global view of the industry — its challenges, progress, limitations, regulations, and potential. Attend conferences and read every related periodical you can get your hands on. Thankfully, gone are the days of having to spend hour upon hour in the library for research. It’s online and at your fingertips; there’s no excuse not to do it.

At the same time, it’s not enough to just research and ask questions: You need to listen. Being truly curious is about listening to different people within the organizations you call on. Taking the time to listen to the perspectives coming from different levels and departments, and being truly interested in everything they have to say, will make a huge difference in your understanding. Only then can you synthesize your findings with what is happening in their world.

From this educated point of view, you can dig deeper into how a particular industry’s state of affairs is affecting your customer’s business. At one point in my career, I moved to Detroit and entered technology sales for the automotive industry. On a macro level, I needed to learn about the sensitivity in Detroit around manufacturing in the United States as well as the competitive threat from Japanese companies moving heavily into the industry at that time. Selling to the auto industry also taught me the importance of knowing a company’s business processes. I took as many plant tours as possible and went deep into how each organization worked; I listened to industry leaders talk about their problems.

By getting in-depth perspectives into both the current state of the auto industry and various auto businesses, I had much more productive conversations with both senior executives and plant managers about their problems. In turn, I was better able to explain how the technology I was selling could help them do their jobs better and run their plants more efficiently. If they talked about “cycle time” on the plant floor, I knew how I could help with that. If I hadn’t been curious, I wouldn’t have made this connection.

All of this curiosity and information-gathering can also be applied on a more granular level — and I’ve used it over and over again as my career moved to new sectors. Now that I’m working with nonprofits at Salesforce.org, I still use all of the same “curious tactics” to discover and unravel their challenges, concerns, needs, and personal motivators. But there’s one more key “curiosity” you need to pursue: Become a customer.

For nonprofits, I will sign up to be a donor and see whether they reach out to me. Do they send me personalized emails or do I start to get spam? Do they have a mobile application that makes it easy for me to see the effect their organization is having in their nonprofit sector? It helps me get a glimpse of where there might be gaps and how I can ask more beneficial questions during my conversations with them.

The same holds true on the commercial side. Retail is one of the easiest examples. Purchase an item online and maybe even try to return it. What’s the process like? In other industries, you can call customer service and see what the experience is like. Do they have online help? Or does another site provide better answers to your questions about a particular product than the company itself? Maybe submit a question online and see what the response is (or if you receive one at all). In your meetings, you can share these perspectives and suggest ways to make the customer experience better.

While becoming a customer may be a bit harder if you’re working with a direct manufacturer or an energy company, there are still ways to perform the research online and parse as much information as possible. Overall, it’s not just about the company and its numbers (although that’s incredibly important). It’s also about determining the insights that will contribute to a valuable conversation about increasing those numbers or decreasing operating costs. Then you can begin to move the needle for both your customer and your sales.

When you stay curious through empathy and an open ear for your customer, you help to grow your knowledge and your career, and create strong, long-lasting relationships — even if it’s a whole new world for you.

It’s all about staying curious with the industry, your customers, the business process, and what success really means to your organization.”

Allyson Fryhoff | SVP of Sales, Chief Customer Officer @ Salesforce.org
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