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Sales Innovation in a changing world

We identify 12 challenges the changing sales world throws before business leaders who want to use innovations to drive organic growth.

  1. Shiny toys

There are some really exciting things going on out there. We recently attended the Sales Innovation Show in London’s ExCel. There were some stands where we could see immediate application or were already engaged. Many others seemed unimpressive.

Other toys are not nearly so shiny in themselves but are being pushed in a very shiny way! I have to confess to being persuaded to buy a few shiny sales toys that turned out to be not so shiny! When it comes to sales innovation the old adage is true: “all that glitters is not gold”.

2. 21st Century Luddites

The reverse problem is to be a 21st century Luddite. Of course it’s true some things don’t change. It’s true that “people buy from people”.

I understand the frustration of some experienced sales managers who want their Millennials to stop texting and emailing and just get on and speak to their prospects. But while it may be true that some aspects of selling have not changed, many have and tying yourself and your team to sales methodologies from the 1980s (good though some of them were) and outdated technology is to fight your competition with one hand tied behind the back. Sales is changing.

The tools that have served you well in the past may well not be the tools you need to be successful tomorrow.

3. Where do I start?

A third challenge is to figure out where to start. Many businesses look at their CRM and recognise it has not achieved what they hoped it would and certainly has not delivered the required return on investment. They see tools that could enhance their CRM but are no longer confident to pour “good money after bad” or feel that the CRM they have invested in “should” be able to deliver everything they need. It’s really important to understand whether the sales innovation you are looking at can integrate with what you have in place or if it genuinely demands a fresh start.

Sometimes embarking on sales innovation feels daunting. I draw comfort from this story told about Napoleon Bonaparte. It is said he gathered his engineers and told them he wanted the roads of the empire to be planted with trees so his armies could march in the shade. “But my Emperor” came the response, “to do this will take a generation!”. Napoleon replied “Then we must start today!”

Although sales innovation appears a time-consuming and all-embracing task, one has to start somewhere and in a changing landscape it is important to start now!

4. Innovate and hope?

One of the problems of innovation is it is not always possible to predict where innovation will lead. I recently heard a BBC Radio 4 programme on happy scientific accidents explaining the drug that became Viagra started off as a programme to innovate the way heart conditions were treated. The drug didn’t work for its originally intended purpose but it certainly produced significant benefits!

Innovation often produces unexpected positive benefits.

It is also hard to look for transformative innovations from existing paradigms. It is said that Henry Ford was asked what innovations he thought travellers would have looked for in the very early days of Ford Motor Company and he allegedly answered “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ”faster horses”.

5. Managing complexity

One of the challenges faced by today’s selling organisations is complexity. Buyers speak about “never ending, open-ended learning loops to get the point of taking a decision”. Research from CEB suggests that the number of decision-makers in a buying decision in a 500 person company has risen from 5.4 in 2014 to 6.8 in 2016.

A recent piece of Showpad research indicates that buyers spend more than 40 hours researching potential suppliers before meeting a salesperson to explore a >£100k project.

A recent Salesforce survey of over 3,000 companies suggested that while 68% of sales professionals say it is absolutely critical or very important to have a single view of the customer across all parts of the selling organisation, only 17% of sales teams rated their single view of the customer capability as outstanding. In this complex world sales needs to adapt and refine its approach.

Selling in this complex world needs a changed approach. The old approaches will simply be ineffective. It’s not that the sales approach itself needs to be made complicated but it does need to navigate complex buying systems.

6. Who does it help?

A further challenge is to ensure that sales enablement tools are serving the right people. Broadly speaking, CRM systems are there to serve management.

When working well they provide useful data for the business and can help with more accurate forecasting and pipeline management. They rarely seem useful to sellers themselves and usually the effort of inputting is greater than the benefits of the outputs. Depending which survey you choose to believe, between 25% and 60% of CRM solutions are deemed to fail.

If it takes time and effort to enter data into a CRM and if it can’t be done at the point of activity then few salespeople will be motivated to make it work. One large consultancy we worked with were adamant that “if you can’t do it on the move, when it’s needed then it just won’t get done.” If it takes effort then the payback needs to be greater to compensate, yet few salespeople feel that their CRMs really help them win more business, more quickly and easily and at better margins.

So businesses turn instead to carrot and stick. The carrot might be a financial reward for keeping the system up to date. Finance directors rightly ask “why are we paying these people to simply do their job?”

Others turn to the “stick” approach, reducing commission for those who don’t comply or (as one bank we worked with did) saying that if a deal was not in the CRM then the Relationship Manager would get no recognition for it because there was no evidence they had made a contribution to the deal!

The answer is not punishment or reward but to make the technology serve the seller. Apps like i-snapshot save sellers time and by reducing admin hours increase time available to sell.

Systems like Introhive are seen by the users as easy to work with and make selling easier and more effective Sales technology must help the user. In an ideal world the technology will also help the customer. It will improve the buying experience, making it easier more enjoyable and more efficient.

Tools like Showpad seem to work for both the business, the seller and the customer. This has to be a key way to overcome the challenge of “whom does it help?”.

7. Data or insight?

A few days before writing this piece I had a really interesting afternoon with a data specialist. He works for a multi-million pound distribution business and we were trying to establish where they had got payback from a recent pilot project we had run with them.

I was impressed by the way that he had gathered huge amounts of data about multiple product lines and customers across a range of locations and individual salespeople. When he explained the quantity of data involved I understood why they talk about “Big Data”.

What was even more impressive was the way he turned this information into insight. He cut the data in different ways that would be useful to different people in the business – regional managers, pricing specialists, HR, senior management. He did not stop there but, moving from programme to programme he used visualisation techniques to present the information graphically in a series of dashboards and infographics. This individual and the team around him are responding to the challenge of making sales data relevant and useful.

8. The death of gut-feel?

One of the fears many people have as we move towards a world of sales AI is that we will lose the benefits of human warmth and human intuition. This is a genuine risk.

So what is the answer? We believe several things need to be in place. First there will be an inexorable refocus of human talent to those sales situations where humans provide the most value. Simpler transactions can probably be best executed using technology. AI can be highly effective at filtering the enquiries that need the human touch.

Some of the lead assessment tools becoming available show significant capability in allocating the right prospect to the right salesperson at the right time. It is possible to match buyer and seller to increase the chance of a good buying experience and a better outcome all round. It is possible to respond quickly to every enquiry, to nurture those not ready to buy and to ensure that those who are ready to buy receive the right level of attention.

If digital is done effectively then ”gut-feel” is there when it is needed. The best sellers are supported in the more mundane aspects of the selling job and the customer will benefit. But this is not easy. Those who are building the tools need to take into account the lessons that Malcom Gladwell presents in “ Blink” or Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow”.

Tools like Showpad can ensure that sellers have the right collateral to present to different buying personae but that depends on the people populating the tool to be sensitive to both the content and the buyer personae. The challenge is to ensure that humanity comes into play in the most appropriate way in the most appropriate situations.

9. Governance: who is in control?

One of the most interesting trends to note is that the kinds of software that contribute to sales enablement are moving away from the dominance of IT to be increasingly controlled by Sales & Marketing. This has many benefits for sales leaders however they should manage the considerable risks of trying to create an infrastructure independent of the wider business systems and structure.

10. When to adopt?

Our tenth challenge is to decide when to introduce process and innovative approaches. Early adoption can give you first mover advantage and can demonstrate to your market you are on the front foot.

Some prefer to be “leading edge but not bleeding edge”, others will wait for solutions to become mainstream and others will leave everything for as long as possible. Much will depend on the capabilities you have in the business but carrying out a review of the sales tools in use and available could save considerable pain and competitive pressure.

11. How to integrate

The challenges of integration should not be under-estimated. For example one professional services firm is currently working to integrate leads that come via Lead Forensics with lead nurturing via CRM also handling pipeline management. This in turn needs to be integrated with ClickUp project management tool. The firm also uses Slack for communications and Zoom for remote sales calls so there is even more to integrate!

While integration tools such as Zapier can help with integration, this is not a simple task and it can take considerable time and money (or both!) With many tools available on a SaaS basis, there are fewer entry barriers to trying out and adopting sales enablement tools. But it is more challenging to make sure everything works together and that people do not feel overwhelmed.

12. How much will it cost?

ROI and business case calculations are critical. SaaS allows one to pilot more without major upfront costs. Payback is likely to come from one or more sources:

  1. Saved field sales time. i-snapshot increases numbers of calls by 21% over a 12 week period, in large part by reducing admin time.
  2. Saved sales support time.
  3. Improved conversion ratios and shortened sales cycles.

All of these can be measured and the ROI calculated. There are less tangible benefits – mainly in motivation of the sales team.

On the cost side there seem to be two areas to watch for.:

  1. The disproportionate amounts that have been spent on CRM systems and their tailoring to specific customer requirements.
  2. The “creep” of SaaS licences that look low on an individual monthly basis but on examination can turn into surprisingly large spend figures.

Conclusions on challenges

Any change brings challenge. These 12 challenges are those we see most frequently. The temptation when faced with such challenges is to do nothing but in a rapidly changing sales world to do nothing is to expose the business to great risk.

To explore possible responses to these challenges and understand how Saleslevers can help you navigate the exciting world of sales innovation contact us:

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