Are Salespeople Relevant to the Modern Buyer?

If you are following my sales enablement research, you know that I’m hammering home the vision that sales enablement as a discipline has to engage, equip and empower salespeople to become and remain relevant, valuable and differentiating in every interaction with prospects and customers, along their entire customer’s path. That’s ambitious, I know. However, it’s not an option; it’s essential to make this ambition a reality. And here is why:

At CSO Insights, we just published our first, global 2018 Buyer Preferences Study. We wanted to know firsthand from today’s buyers if, how and when they engage with salespeople – what they like, what they don’t like, and what other resources they rely on to master their business challenges.

Looking at the top of the iceberg, it looks rather positive: 65.2% of our study respondents said that they found value in discussing their issues with salespeople. About one-third (32.2%) reported mixed feelings about their discussions with sellers: “Some are useful and some are a waste of time.” The good news is that only 2.6% said that they “can’t wait until I can buy B2B online and never work with sellers again.”

Let’s dive one level deeper. We also asked whether sellers were meeting, exceeding, or falling short of buyer expectations. Buyers were twice as likely (61.8%) to say that salespeople meet their expectations rather than exceed them (31.8%).

For those of you who are not very familiar with customer experience, this finding may sound positive. Unfortunately it is not. Our own research on customer experience shows that just meeting customer expectations is not enough, because it doesn’t drive loyalty. Only if you exceed your customers’ expectations, you can impact loyalty positively. Having almost two-thirds of buyers in this neutral and indifferent stage, they are more likely to abandon relationships, and that is not a good position for sales forces that usually have ambitious goals!

As 61.8% of buyers report that salespeople meet but not exceed their expectations, we have a challenge to master. Because this somewhat neutral and indifferent position doesn’t drive loyalty, which means that these buyers wouldn’t even miss salespeople if they would go away.

Let’s again dive one level deeper and see how relevant salespeople are for buyers when they have a business problem to solve or need ideas and inspiration for how to best approach the challenge.

The majority of buyers prefer other resources when it comes to solving a business problem.

Salespeople came in at position number 9 (!). Only 23% of our study participants selected salespeople as a top three resource to solve business problems.

What does this mean? It means that buyers turn to the resources they consider to be more relevant and more valuable to them.

It means that buyers clarify their needs and requirements, evaluate different ways to tackle the problem, gather ideas about solutions, and sometimes even design a solution with more valued resources, which as the data shows, may be SMEs, third parties, vendor websites, industry events, peers, colleagues, social networks industry publications, or web searches.

In fact, only 29.8% of buyers engage with salespeople to clarify their needs, whereas 70.2% only engage with salespeople when they have fully identified their needs. And another 44.2% even identify solutions first before they engage with salespeople, and one fifth prefer to only lock down the details with salespeople. What does it mean?

The later salespeople are engaged, they more they have to catch up, and the more they start to look alike in the eyes of the buyers. Differentiation at a later stage is much more difficult than early on, because there is less time and space to inspire with creativity.

For sales enablement leaders, there are a couple of challenges to consider and to be incorporated in the design of their, hopefully integrated training, content and coaching services.

  • Buying situations matter:
    What exactly are the buying situations in which buyers actually engage earlier with salespeople? (We’ll look at this data point next week!)
  • The customer’s path matters:
    Engaging early along the customer’s path requires a different engagement approach compared to coming in when the RFP has already been released. And that requires different skills, messages, and content.
  • Value messaging matters a lot:
    We see it in our study, and also in other studies that are out in the market: Being relevant, valuable in differentiating in every buyer interaction is THE challenge. And the key to success is NOT to push products (ideally never!) in the early stages of the customer’s path, but to inspire with ideas about how to solve the issue at hand. It’s different in the actual buying phase, and it’s also different in the implementation phase, when salespeople want to generate new leads.
  • Only integrated enablement approaches ensure consistency and effectiveness:
    Enablement has to ensure that salespeople have tailored value messages for each phase of the customer’s path, for the relevant buyer roles and industries.

Stay tuned, next week, we will talk about the specific buying situations that lead to an earlier engagement with salespeople, and how to engage, equip and empower your sales force to sell effectively to modern buyers.

Have a look at our new book Sales Enablement – A Master Framework to Engage, Equip and Empower a World-Class Sales Force. Lots of “how to” information to address the challenges mentioned here.

Questions for you:

  • Do you know how your customers perceive your salespeople, their relevance, the value they create and if they differentiate themselves from competitors?
  • How do you ensure that your salespeople are perceived as relevant and valuable resources when it comes to solving challenges and discussing business strategies?


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  • Iain Swanston
    Posted at 05:59h, 21 June

    First and foremost great research and thanks to Miller Heiman, Tamara Schenk & CSO Insights for sharing.

    For me if you can encourage your sales people to the invest the time to become subject matter experts the pay off is huge. Sales people who are subject matter experts get more referrals, ask better questions, and differentiate themselves in the eyes of the buyer. Furthermore when the customer is already well down a particular path they then have the credibility to challenge that path, and suggest an alternative if needs be.

    Furthermore In some cases the customer goes to market with an RFP when they or others have misdiagnosed the business problem. Until you truly understand the business problem any potential solution is just guess work. This leads to stalled or unfinished projects and dissatisfied customers.

  • Tamara Schenk
    Posted at 09:27h, 26 June

    Thanks, Iain, for your feedback! Indeed, subject matter expertise is essential, especially if the expertise covers both, product and business, to have the right conversations with a mixed team of buyers. And you are right on the money with the RFP challenge you described. Glad that you find our research valuable and relevant!

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