You don’t need to go far to see how different the 00s are from the 90s, just take a look at selling.
Ahh, the 90s, lots of people in sales tell me you didn’t make sales calls in the 90s, it was more like making appointments to take orders. Gurus of selling like Jim Dickie of CSO Insights, reported that, for a while, the percentage of sales representatives who made quota was in the neighborhood of 65 percent a few years ago, then came the nuclear winter. Although the number of people invited to presidents’ clubs declined precipitously in the early years of this decade, it has been recovering recently, but it still has not revisited the earlier heights.
Aligning With the Customer
Despite the improving numbers of people making quota, there is a pronounced difference between selling today and selling back in the day. We’ve been over this ground before so I will be brief. Selling today takes more effort because of a single word — alignment. What most people I talk to mean when they use it is understanding the world of the customer — needs, biases, motivations, their buying processes and a lot more, and then demonstrating to the customer that you understand.
Alignment is spawning a cottage industry between marketing and sales and whether you call it alignment or something else, there are lots of emerging software companies working the angle, trying to improve a sales process that has been so well scrutinized that there might not be much room left to improve it further.
Frankly, I like a lot of what alignment is about for several reasons. First, in concept, it goes beyond the sales process, per se, because it requires the seller and the selling organization to invest in something more than simply buying a list of likely suspects. You know what happens to those lists — too often they just bounce off spam filters or contribute to the unread mail pile. Fundamentally, alignment turns the sales process into something that also respects the customer buying process.
Improving the Customer
What I most like about the idea of alignment, though, is that it happens somewhere above the sales funnel and it contributes to improving the customer. I bet you’ve never thought of it that way — improving the customer, I mean — but from a pure process perspective that’s a good way to look at it. If the sales process really has been refined as much as I say it has, then one logical and somewhat disheartening consequence is that in many situations, execution by the vendor organization can’t get much better. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns.
If you want to improve a process — any process — you can either do it by scrutinizing and modifying the steps of the process or you can improve the inputs to the process. Ideally you do some of each. The wisdom of improving the inputs is summarized in the maxim “garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO). But how do you improve the customer?
One of the reasons we’ve preferentially relied on improving the way we sell is that it’s been nearly impossible to improve the key input — the customer — but modern techniques and computers have changed the game. This is the point where we cross over from hunting to farming.
In fact, we can’t improve all of our potential customers any more than we can schedule a sunrise, but we don’t have to. We only need to improve the customer that comes into the sales process, but this is not the same thing as improving qualification. Let me explain.
Teach a Man to Fish
Improving the way we qualify will surely increase the number of good leads and improve close rates but not indefinitely. Better spears and bows will improve your hunting technique but they will only hasten the decline of prey herds. To summarize this is really about the difference between getting a bigger slice of a static pie and growing the chart. For years we have been doing the former, and it’s time to do the latter.
Various ideas like capturing the voice of the customer, improving alignment, and nurturing customers in a marketing pipeline that is separate and distinct from the sales pipeline contribute to growing the pie. To many people familiar with the ways of hunting, the idea of farming is not only foreign, but they may treat it with hostility. Nevertheless, a shift from hunting to farming is underway. As marketing guru Jack Trout has observed, there is a “tyranny of choice” — so many vendors and so many available products that customers may be stymied by their options.
The way around the problem is to improve the customer who enters the sales funnel, to educate him or her to understand differences and options and that takes an upfront investment mostly in time. Savvy new software companies are seeing this and orienting their offerings to address this emerging market need and that should surprise no one. How often do we visit a Web site to gather information about a potential purchase? They say a car buyer starts shopping the Web as much as six months before entering the show room. This is a learned habit that is rapidly pervading all other areas of the market and the driving force for ideas like alignment.
Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing, and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected]