B2B sales is undergoing radical changes to adjust to new buyer expectations. This is being pushed partly by the economy. Rather than take a chance based on a good pitch, buyers today want proof that your product or service is going to make a difference and lead to a good ROI.
The ease and availability of information is also changing buyer behaviour. Today’s customers better informed than ever. A Forrester survey of B2B buyers found that 74% of business buyers conduct over half their research online before making a purchase. This information, however, makes buyers’ purchase decisions increasingly complex.
According to Salesforce, ‘Rather than just sell, salespeople now need to be able to filter the information consumers already have on their product.’ Acting as a customer’s personal advisor is a skill more sales reps must develop to rise above the competition.
Today’s highly informed, risk adverse type of buyer also means sales people have to be more subtle in their approach to communications. Psychology, empathy, and emotional intelligence are important in order to build trust, skills which aren’t associated with stereotypical aggressive sales tactics.
B2B buyers also increasingly expect to be provided with the tailored solutions and customer experiences that they experience as a consumer. High-performing modern sales teams get ahead by using customer data and technology to both personalise and evaluate the quality of leads.
How to Future-Proof Your Sales Skills
The skills identified here are focused on addressing the changes in buyer behaviour and expectations. Many of these skills relate to developing a deep understanding of customer problems. However, as today’s sales tactics are shifting from persuasion to an advisory role focused on achieving customer success, sales people also need to develop to a new approach to communication.
Top 10 Sales Skills to stay ahead
- The ability to conduct and use customer research
Keeping today’s buyers engaged requires showing you care enough to learn about and understand their business needs. Researching the company, industry and competitors and asking questions are necessary to develop this knowledge, which can then be used to compile customer profiles.
Though this may seem time consuming initially, customer profiles increase your chances of success. The information allows you to tailor your message to address the buyer’s needs and highlight the product features that matter to them the most.
Research also makes targeting potential customers more effective. Customer profiles can be used to identifying the qualities your best customers have. These can then be used to create an ideal customer checklist to quickly qualify and rank sales leads by applying it to the opportunities in the pipeline. High-potential, winnable leads can then be easily prioritised, allowing reps to focus on leads with the highest chance of success.
- Using data and technology effectively
Whereas intuition was once the primary basis for sales planning, today’s most effective teams are using data analytics technology to take the guesswork out of preparing their approach.
High-performing sales teams are using machine learning to survey large numbers of individual customer interactions such as emails, meetings, and phone calls. This shows them which sales rep interactions were most effective in boosting customer satisfaction and closing deals.
Research by McKinsey suggests these insights also ‘help sales leaders to coach their sales force in a way that will drive both top-and bottom-line growth’ and ‘help managers identify skills that need upgrading’.
Data analysis also takes the guesswork out of identifying which prospects have the most potential to convert. The modern salesperson has a nearly endless amount of information about their prospects available to them through the CRM. By learning to identify the actions that highly converting customers typically take, sales reps can use this to decide who they’ll target. For example, data analysis may show that your win rate is 30% higher for prospects who attended an in-person event versus email interaction.
- Meeting Customer Expectations
As consumers we have come to expect personalized experiences and this is becoming increasingly popular in B2B sales. According to Econsultancy, 80% of companies see a lift in sales after implementing personalisation.
Today’s buyers expect you to know them sufficiently to provide information and experiences such as events or webinars which are relevant to their needs. The good news is that CRM software provides the tools to collect customer data and convert it to insights into customer preferences.
Although personalising customer experiences can seem like extra work, it can produce dividends by reducing the often lengthy B2B buying cycle. According to Forbes, this is due to customers receiving only ‘hyper-relevant content’, for example, product recommendations and reviews that focus solely on their specific business problems and buying process.
- Understanding Customer Problems
In 13 Vital Skills Every Salesperson Should Build To Close More Deals, Tom Pisello, of Forbes Business Development Council stressed how essential it is for today’s sales person to understand customer needs.
‘To convert leads and close deals in a tightened economy, a good seller needs to focus on two elements: customer challenges and solutions. Uncover and address high priority customer challenges and prove your proposed solution can make a quantifiable business impact.’
In addition to researching prospects, becoming a highly-skilled customer problem solver in B2B sales requires developing knowledge of the pain points experienced by customers. For example, a business may have financial restraints which make it difficult for them to pay outright for a product or service, or require after-sales support to help them train staff to use a technology product.
Being able to solve B2B customer problems also requires sales reps to develop a reasonable level of business acumen. When salespeople can demonstrate this type of knowledge and expertise and apply it to customer problems it improves each interaction with a prospect.
- Building customer trust
Trust is increasingly important in today’s B2B sales environment. Tighter budgets have made customers increasingly cautious of where they spend them. As a result, sales teams are finding customers demand more than just a persuasive pitch.
Today’s buyers are looking to build relationships with companies they have faith in. Whilst positive reviews and good customer service enhance B2B relationships, sales reps can play their part by being transparent. Prior to a sale, many promises are made such as deadlines for meetings and information and timely responses to customer questions. The sales reps’ ability to keep these promises shapes the customer’s perception of the brand.
Being realistic about the service you can actually provide builds trust more effectively than over-promising or exaggeration. An exaggerated pitch may lead to short-term gain but being honest and building trust is more effective in forging long-term buyer-sales relationships.
7. Developing emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence is another useful skill to develop in order to make long-term connections with prospects. Although advances in technology have reduced face-to-face contact with sales, emotional intelligence can make video or telephone call interactions more successful by enabling reps to read how to approach a conversation.
Being more subtle and adding warmth to cold calls can lead to higher conversion rates. Rather than working from a script, reps should take time to read the customer’s mood rather than jumping straight in. Thinking of the call as a two-way conversation rather than a pitch helps achieve this. Common ground can be established by discussing industry news or events or asking about challenges the customer may be experiencing.
Rather than sticking to a pitch and discouraging questions, reps should develop their listening skills. In addition to building a two way relationship with the customer, which develops trust, it can also provide vital insights. Alexander Divinsky of RMG Media recently commented in Forbes, ‘Prospects often tell you what they need and provide ample opportunities for upsells and cross-sells if you're willing to listen and engage with tact.’
As today’s buyers are overwhelmed by information, salespeople must learn new ways to capture customers interest in order to break through this noise.
Used frequently in marketing and advertising, storytelling is a skill not often mentioned when training sales teams, but it can set a sales pitch apart from rest. A recent article in Forbes explained why storytelling is ‘a powerful skill’ for reps to develop.
‘The ability to weave a story that helps others envision a brighter future is game-changing. Listen to your buyer’s challenges and enable them to see a better outcome and a better version of themselves’ FORBES
Forbes recommend taking where the customer’s business is now as a starting point and creating a vision of what it could be in the future with the support of your product. This can make it easier for the customer to see the value you are offering them.
10. Focusing on helping, not closing
The role of the sales person is shifting. Traditional selling skills are losing their relevance in today’s environment. Today’s sales person is becoming less focused on closing and instead is required to perform an advisory role and display an in-depth knowledge of the client’s business.
A recent article by Gartner sums up this shift.
Buyers don’t want to be closed; they want to be helped. That’s why “always be helping” is the new “always be closing.”
The lines between today’s sales person and the relatively new and rapidly increasing role of Customer Success Manager is becoming increasingly blurred. Not to be confused with Customer Support, the CSM role demands a skill set combining sales, business, strategy, empathy, communication, and technology.
One of the main drivers of this skill set is the correlation between forging long-term B2B customer relationships and reducing costs. LinkedIn research points out that ‘acquiring a new customer can cost five times more than retaining an existing customer’ and that, ‘the success rate of selling to a customer you already have is 60-70%, while the success rate to selling to an existing customer is 5-20%.’
A traditional sales approach, being sales rather than customer focused, is no longer useful in this environment. Retention requires focusing on customer understanding and nurturing.