Coffee is for Learners! Once, we talked at the customer. Now, we are here to listen, learn and educate.

Sure, per Glengarry Glen Ross, Coffee maybe only for closers, but the best closers today are the best learners.

According to Training magazine’s latest full year Training Industry Report, the total US training expenditures is immense – a staggering $88 billion. And here’s what they don’t want you to know about that insane total: most is wasted, the Sirius Decisions 2018 Global Chief Sales Officer Study found that 70% of sales staff regularly, inescapably, fail to make quota. The brute fact is that there’s been very little innovation in Sales Training since Zig Ziglar founded American Salesmasters back before the Beatles conquered America – and no-one really knows how to clean up this almighty mess.

The problem is that the world has changed so much – and we didn’t notice that we needed to change not just our core business process, but rip out and replace our entire sales engine, too.

If Your Whole Business Looks Different from Five Years Back – How Come You Don’t Think Sales Enablement Should Change Too?

Too many of us still think of Sales as a relationship business, pure and simple… probably a long way from three-martini lunches, the golf course and the Nicks game seats, but not too far, right? It’s about well-established, fairly buddy-buddy relationships – usually between ‘guys’. The reality is it’s just not as much as you’d think, and especially not when it comes to something as complex as enterprise technology. While no-one probably gets fired for not buying IBM any more, the truth is even Big Blue’s salespeople have to do work way differently now. The main difference: buyers now have the free resource of the Internet to research the market. That means that well before they are willing to engage with a list of vendors, they have educated themselves, or see themselves as having done so.

So they want to get to the point real fast. That’s if they even pick up the phone or return your call anyway; McKinsey estimates at least 50% of B2B SME purchases across all classes of product happen online first, now. Customers use social media to talk to each other, they absorb a lot of industry chatter, they track trends in the trade press… and are instead, buying each other the Manhattans at trade show mixers to get the inside skinny. And you don’t fit in that picture any more.

I Don’t Have to Put the Coffee Pot Down, Actually

So, buyer behavior has changed, but so has the market. The rise of the asymmetrical competitor, globalization, tough cross-border compliance and sourcing rules in regulated industries, wrenched economies – external factors that have up-ended the traditional way goods and services get purchased. That means the sales professional of today has the following matrix of things they need to keep track of on a pretty much daily basis:

  • What’s going on with my product? Cloud computing means there’s no two-year gap between releases, which allowed you to familiarize yourself deeply with Version 3. There are no Versions now… it’s all about incremental change and improvement that you have to know about. And if you think that’s just a tech industry problem, think again – fast fashion anybody?
  • What’s going on in my sector? Whatever industry you are in, it changes on, I’d say, a quarterly basis now. China will do something that moves all the pieces round; the President will do, too; the EU will issue some big legislation that upsets multiple apple carts; brands blaze across the world like lightning but can also flicker out overnight (hello BlackBerry)
  • What’s going on with my customer? Same logic here: the business drivers your target is subject to are just the same, while internal drivers for digital transformation from the top, or what have you, can also re-set the board regularly.

As a sales person, you need to know this or come across as not a serious player at all. Yup – we’re a long way from Glengarry Glen Ross here, gang.

From Customer Buddy to Customer Challenger

Which is probably a good thing – I’d quite like some coffee, even if I’m not a Closer. The question is, what do we do about it.

Smart people have proferred answers. Matthew Dixon, Brent Adamson, and their colleagues at CEB Inc.  did some excellent thought leadership here around its Challenger Sales Model: responding to the changed landscape, the idea is that you ‘provoke’ change by pointing out realistic opportunity.

There’s a lot of sense in this, and I know the C-Suite is open to this kind of approach (which, intriguingly, still needs relationship selling, but on a different basis than the traditional model). 53% of customer loyalty is driven by the sales experience, more so than by the brand, product, service and price combined and a customer’s interaction with a rep largely dictates this experience (Gartner data points).

But to challenge effectively and convincingly, you need to be absolutely on top of change. Yes, you need to understand the changing mechanics of the sales process as briefly outlined above (and check out the McKinsey and Gartner links for sure). But what today’s sales professional needs most is not technical understanding or fantastic emotional intelligence (though, wow, they can’t hurt!), but something else… and I think it’s something that can be nurtured and targeted, with the right support:

It’s curiosity.

You Have Just as Much to Learn Here as the Prospect

You need to be curious about everything. Business itself. People. The industry you work in. And of course the product you sell.

The changes that our world and society are going through. Politics. What Millennials but also today’s K-12 want from life and career. Anthropogenic climate change and what that might mean for your customer. All that good, complex stuff. Why? Because you can’t sell any more just on speeds and feeds/functions and load times. People want to buy from brands they respect off people they trust. And they will only trust you, if they feel that you care about their issues and want to help them succeed.

That can’t happen if you come in with all the answers already. That shows a closed mind; whatever the customer question is, you have it solved already by your Shiny New Thing. Sure, maybe you do. But she won’t believe you.

What’s much more effective is to frame the conversation as a dialog – and the start of a mutual journey. ‘This is a hard problem, and whatever we do to solve it can’t come off a shelf – we have to make it work for you,’ is the message. ‘Let’s work together and make both of us a success.’

Essentially, you’re no longer Teacher: your job isn’t to translate into human speech the wonders of what the engineers have crafted in their labs. So you are a Learner, eager and ready to learn with the customer about what needs to be done. Together.

A Physical – And a Mental – Space for New Thinking

What do these seismic shifts mean for Sales Enablement – that $88 billion? I think it means there are three critical topics at the heart of any modern sales enablement program, three shifts necessary to help our fantastically important sales teams face a disruptive future:

Building a mindset shift From Pitching to Listening Once, we talked at the customer. Now, we are here to listen, learn and educate, both before and after the paper is signed.

From the Golf Course to Learning Environment Time was we rocked up to the client office and wowed them with the PPT (hoping the pre-loaded demo would work). Now, the action is in inviting the interested customer out of their busy office environment to great spaces that invite fresh thinking. Springing up all over the country, such spaces offer excellent forums for people to stretch out, de-focus on the firefighting, and for both sets of teams – possible customer, possible new partner? – to find common ground and usefully brainstorm the possible. (I’m thinking here about Autodesk’s really cool BUILD Spaces, which I use a lot, Microsoft’s customer Innovation Centers and Boeing’s highly impressive Customer Experience Centers – but these are just the start of the trend, believe me

Finally – from PowerPoint to AI The toolset that is getting constructed out there to help Sales Enablement is also getting more and more impressive. Let’s get serious about seeing what works for Sales out of customer buying pattern Big Data – what are the new patterns that could help us? What could be the role of a great Artificial Intelligence powered chatbot or other advanced support tools? What are the innovations in terms of interface, VR/AR, RPA and ML when it comes to helping us? Where are the hot start-ups in Sales Training, and what do we need to do to help them help us?

Summing up, it’s our firm belief here at The Learning Futures Group that Sales is not only the most fun, important, and creative of business activities, it’s also one that is in the white-hot middle of truly paradigm-changing times… and that we need to work together to help our colleagues stop floundering and start changing our customers’ worlds once again.

Let’s open a channel of communication if you agree, or better still if you think differently – and let’s see what we can do to help.

Chris Pirie

CEO & Founder

The Learning Futures Group