Before you start thinking “where the heck is he going to go with this, does he want us to ditch our Sales people?”, let me reassure you – it won’t happen so I won’t try to argue in that sense. All I’ll be talking about here is that we could take the opportunity that a Social CRM Strategy can offer to change the approach we have been taking to organizing for Sales activities. In this post I will concentrate on B2B Sales as this is what I am most familiar with (see Mitch Lieberman’s “Is B2B the new B2C” for more thoughts on the subject).
To condense something that very complex, Marketing has been about getting the attention of potential customers to turn them into lead that Sales can then work with. Sales is about building a relationship with these leads and turning them into prospects and then into clients. To simplify again, Sales – especially in B2B – has come to mean an entity that is specialized in building the relationship between your company and its clients. Note here that I say “building” and not “building and maintaining”… The primary role of Sales Managers is to go out and generate revenue from these relationships. And, unless they have a stake in generating recurrent revenue, they will concentrate their efforts on building new relationships to fill their pipeline. Also, if the fish is not big enough, it may not be fed enough to grow…
So what Sales people actually do? Some cynics would say “press the flesh and cash the check”…but hey! if it was that simple, everyone would be doing it, right? In my point of view, their main role is to establish a trust relationship so that when their prospect decides to invest their time, resources, effort and money, they can be fairly sure that it will not be in vain. The Salesperson serves as a proxy or go-between between the prospect and the company and she takes ownership of that relation (and will be held accountable when things go awry) as a Trusted Advisor, and it is for this that they get their commissions.
Educating the Customer
The way I see it (at least for in the ‘traditional’ sense of Sales Management), the role is mainly about educating the customer about the benefits of the product or service that the company has to offer. Marketing activities will have generated initial curiosity and an interest to go out and obtain a better understanding to see whether the offer is likely to meet up to its promise, and that it corresponds to the Customer Job it pretends to solve. In Sales Management a there are a number of methods such as SPIN or Xerox’s Customer-Centered Selling and derivates are commonly employed to (try to?) manage the Sales Cycle. The Salesperson acts as an educator, but also as a gatekeeper to feed information and other supporting material into the prosepct’s Learning Curve according to what she believes is the right timing to do so. The Salesperson also serves as a coordinator between internal resources to come up with deliverables such as RFP responses, Presales demonstrations, references, organisation of visits to existing clients etc etc. Prospects rely heavily on the Salesperson, as she is the main touchpoint to get the understanding they need to build their purchase decision on.
The Social Customer
Then came along an itsy bitsy spider that spun its web…the ‘Social Customer’ as described by Paul Greenberg (see here for a nice writeup by Esteban Kolsky). The Social Customer will turn to her peers to exchange on what their impressions, experiences, disappointments and whatnot are. Their buying behaviour is now influenced by what what some call ‘Social Shopping’, so that rather than asking your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances, you now have access to the opinions to help you decide of a virtually unlimited number of ‘people like you’ through the use of ‘social tools’.
Just as it has been the case for consumers that now look on multiple Social Media channels (customer communities, blogs, article, WOM, twitter, shop personnel etc.) to learn about the merits of a product they wish to acquire before going out and actually doing so, your B2B clients will increasingly look to the same tools to evaluate what the value proposition is of your company and, lo-and-behold, engage with other prospects to seek the knowledge they need! These same tools could change the way companies source their suppliers.
Rather than go through their assigned Salesperson for their knowledge needs, they can now meet online and have these same conversations about the supplier’s offer. Sage’s Act! forum is a good example of giving clients a platform on which the Act! product can be discussed transparently. Good ideas as well as shortcomings are available for all to see, thus potential client can actually get a good understanding that will help them in their purchase decision-making process. Furthermore, through the integrated monitoring system (as they are managing this forum themselves, Sage has the ability to extract valuable insights), the company can feed information into the forum by encouraging its employees to partcipate, and in general facilitate the conversations and the e2.0 tools now make this possible. And once you recognize that that this has an influence on the Sales cycle, you can start getting creative by giving recognition to those that contribute to these conversations (such as through an e-reputation system with points that can be redeemed for vouchers, gifts, or even holidays). As an added benefit you maybe catching fish that would have fallen through the net initially and your employees will feel more engaged with your company…
Becoming a Facilitator
To summarize, the Salesperson has less and less control over the prospect’s learning process and has been taken an inside-out approach. Now that the prospects are starting lose their dependence on the Salesperson for their knowledge needs, her role will change in order to provide the same amount of added value. The challenge will be shift from being an Educator to a Connector/Facilitator – taking and outside-in approach, understanding what is going on in the ecosystem and feeding it with relevant knowledge on which others can build – in a transparent manner and for all to see. And the role will not only be about connecting to the prospects and customers and facilitating customer interaction, it will also be about connecting these customers to Marketing, R&D, (Consulting…), Partners and Suppliers.
By understanding that prospects now have other options for finding knowledge about what you offer (including your post-sales performance…), you should be looking at adapting your Sales methods to incorporate this shift in balance in my opinion. What are your thoughts on the subject?