The more things change, the more they remain the same. That certainly can be said about the evolving world of sales. Without a doubt, daily advances in technology are altering how successful salespeople do business.
Powerful new websites like Salesforce.com offer, for a nominal fee, access to sophisticated software that enables even small companies to target, manage and track sales. Advanced, affordable online sales training programs are only a mouse-click away.
Customers as well are becoming more empowered as Internet tools make them better-informed and more sophisticated buyers with countless new choices at their fingertips.
The real estate market is one case in point. Today, many realtors are introduced to new customers through home listings on the Internet. Those customers in all likelihood have already done extensive research on the market and on what competing real estate firms have to offer. That forces the realtor herself to be better trained and even more well-informed about her services and the local housing market.
While technology may have created the lead, it will be the realtor that closes the sale. So it is in many industries.
How Can We Help?
At companies that encourage customers to buy direct online, the role of the salesperson is morphing into more of a customer service consultant.
At GE Capital Fleet Services, Information Week Online reports that customers are encouraged to order new cars by completing their transactions online at the company website, Youroffice@ fleet. The salesforce shows the customer how to use the website tools to cut costs. The company hopes the high level of service will be rewarded with customer loyalty.
The same is true for firms that sell the old-fashioned way - in person. At car manufacturer Saturn, company officials estimate that two-thirds of customers walking into a dealership have already compared prices online. "The sales consultant of the future is going to have to do a lot more homework to be up to speed," Saturn director of retail strategies Marty Raymond told Information Week.
Others foresee even more dramatic change for tomorrow's salesforce.
Old Ways Don't Work . . .
Research psychologist Neil Rackham spent 12 years with a team of experts studying 35,000 sales calls, reports Selling Power magazine. His findings showed that traditional selling methods could actually hinder major account sales. The old selling formula - find a buying motive, answer objections and close, close, close - should give way to a more collaborative approach.
As Rackham sees it, "successful companies start with a customer, work backwards and fit their product to its needs. The unique thing that a salesforce provides, which you can't get any other way, is a real understanding of what's happening inside that customer.
"That involves seeing your customer as someone who's undergoing change. Next . . . see your own company as part of that change. A competitor who understands that better than you do will always beat you. So you're selling the future more than you're selling the product.
"If you were to take a survey . . . you would probably find that 80 percent [of sales professionals] say, 'Our focus is meeting the needs of our customers.' They're defining those as the needs at 10 this morning. But if you look at the people who have been phenomenally successful in this new world, they're the ones who say, 'I'm there to meet the future needs of the customer. Because if I'm meeting the future needs, then I'm safe from competition.' "
. . . Or Do They?
Before abandoning traditional sales approaches, however, consider the experience of publisher Primedia. The company recently decided to put its Apartment Guide on the Internet.
As reported in Sales & Marketing Management magazine, the company "really thought we were going to need a more technologically savvy salesforce to make this work," said Gary Austin, chief operating officer of the company's newly created interactive division.
"But when we hired new people, they had trouble connecting with our traditional customers. Much to our dismay the customers didn't trust them and so the new salespeople didn't get very far."
Then the company decided to let its traditional salesforce have a crack at it. Within five months, the team recorded $3 million in sales. In the end, it was the traditional salesforce's tried and true skill at identifying and meeting the needs of the customer that paid off.
Of course, the salesforce had much to learn about the new online product. Acquiring product knowledge was paramount, sales consultant Robert Hall told Sales & Marketing. "Customers want to know what they're getting and reps have to be able to explain it."
Which is hardly a new axiom in the world of sales where "know your product" is age-old advice. In the case of Primedia, it was the product rather than the approach that changed.
Sales consultant James Champy, writing in another section of Sales & Marketing, hit on the underlying truth. "Always remember that relationships cannot yet be developed through technology. Maybe someday systems and logistics will work so well that a customer can get to know you electronically, but few companies have achieved that level of technological sophistication."
He points out that the powerful new tools and technology now available will by itself "only create moderate improvements in efficiency." He urges salesforces to focus technology efforts on improvements in service.
He believes that different customers react to technology in different ways. "Some will demand that the Internet become the channel through which you do business. Others will be even more sophisticated and want . . . billing and payment to be electronic. Others will still want to call or fax in an order. Many will want to see a salesperson face-to-face."
Which may explain why sales careers aren't going away anytime soon. While some companies have reduced the size of their sales team, Selling Power recently identified 100 companies with sales-forces that recently grew 20 percent or more.
Rather than replacing sales representatives, smart companies are employing technology to empower their salesforce. Salespeople at Watlow Electric Manufacturing in St. Louis are now able to monitor the manufacturing of a customer's heating system online, saving the firm's 100 sales representatives countless hours each week, according to Information Week.
The software, however, does more than save time - it helps the salesforce better serve the customer by making promises they can keep.
Sales technology manager Mike Butts cites that time-tested mantra of every sales manager: "Selling comes down to relationships."
Which brings us back to where we started. The more things change, the more they remain the same.