You may have heard this sales tale:
At the turn of the 19th century, a British shoe manufacturer sent two salesmen to Africa to see the potential of the market. They both went for a month and did an evaluation, then went back to Britain to report their findings.
The first salesman told his boss, “There’s no potential in Africa – nobody wears shoes.”
The second salesman told the same boss, “There is enormous potential in Africa – nobody has shoes!”
In today’s sales environment, there are few markets that are untouched by technology and globalization. Information has leveled the playing field, which isn’t good news for everyone. As I wrote about in a recent PROFIT column, there’s a radical shift underway in how businesses buy things.
This shift is illustrated by a study from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB) in which 1400 B2B buyers were interviewed about their buying behavior. The results were illuminating. In recent years, buyers have begun to complete more of the buying process independently, without the involvement of specific companies or salespeople. The key statistic from the CEB study is that most buyers complete 57% of their buying process before they speak with a salesperson.
Put another way, most sales people aren’t aware of the first 57% of the purchasing processes occurring at any given time. By the time a sales person starts talking with a potential customer, that customer has already completed more than half of their purchasing journey. They’ve gained significant information about solutions available, figured out what they’re interested in, and they know how one company stacks up against its competitors.
This radical sales shift has profound implications for sales people. It used to be that the sales force held many of the cards in business negotiations – they had the information that buyers needed to make their decisions. However, the CEB study showed that buyers now prefer not to talk to sales people until later in their buying process, because they can get the information they need from other sources. They gather information on their own from a variety of sources and then they decide which vendors to approach.
What does the radical sales shift mean for your sales force?
For a large number of sales forces, this shift means they’re excluded from many selling opportunities, because their companies haven’t been identified by prospects during the early stages of their purchasing research. There are a variety of issues that cause this, including:
- The company doesn’t have a strong online presence so it doesn’t get found in Google searches
- The company’s brand doesn’t look credible to prospects so they are hesitant to contact the company, lest it makes them look bad in front of colleagues
- The company doesn’t compare favorably with competitors so it doesn’t qualify for the short list of vendors
- The company doesn’t have effective ways to encourage potential customers to connect, so it misses the opportunity to nurture leads
As a result, sales teams at these companies are essentially set up to fail.
The structure of their organization's revenue generation efforts makes the sales person’s job significantly more difficult. Without a function to take care of the first part of the purchasing process when a buyer is looking for solutions, it can be nearly impossible for a sales team to succeed in the latter stages of the purchasing process.
What’s the solution?
Is your sales team destined to fail because of this shift in how buyers buy? The sales department has traditionally been the revenue generator for B2B companies. But lately some firms have begun to predict the death of the B2B salesman. I doubt we’ll see the death of B2B sales, though. When it comes to complex B2B purchases, the sales team is absolutely essential to tailor solutions for specific customer needs and build the trust that’s necessary to negotiate contracts.
Instead, we’re witnessing a shift. In this new era of buying, the most effective revenue generation comes from the combination of strategic marketing combined with a capable sales team. Companies who put effective marketing in place (building brand presence, generating leads, supporting sales, retaining customers) and have an effective and capable sales function, are seeing the best growth results. One function alone - either sales with no marketing, or marketing with no sales - is a recipe for failure.
No one wants their sales team to fail, but if the traditional model of generating sales is misaligned with how buyers now buy, can we expect a different outcome for sales teams?
Perhaps it’s time for companies to be like the second shoe salesman in the story. Should we look at the market and see that where something hasn’t been done in the past, it’s a great opportunity to do it in the future? Rather than struggling to boost a sales team, should you add a marketing function to help your sales team succeed?