Closing or not losing sales?

I had a lightbulb moment a few years back and developed a hypothesis that challenges conventional sales thinking.

In today's transformed marketing landscape, marked by information abundance and scarce attention, the skills of sales have become less relevant for businesses.  The focus has shifted from the traditional task of closing sales to the crucial role of not losing them. 

In a world where a significant portion of the customer's buying journey happens before direct contact, great order takers—those who listen, question, and efficiently provide the necessary information—may outperform traditional salespeople.  The need today is not to sell but to efficiently identify and service the best prospects effectively and then maintain consistent communication until they are ready to place an order. 

It’s selling Jim but not as we know it

One of my favourite speakers is Grant Leboff whose subject matter is how the role of marketing has changed dramatically over the last thirty years as we’ve moved from a world where information was scarce and attention was (relatively) easy to gain to an era when attention (time) scarce and attention difficult to gain.

Grant’s thinking links closely to the whole arena of content marketing/inbound marketing or sales enablement, where for those of you not familiar with the jargon, the idea that the best form of marketing in today’s world is to be visible offering valuable content such that when someone wants what you have to offer they voluntarily come to you.  You don’t invest time and money in trying to reach them. A model that intuitively seems right, and which clearly works for Google, Facebook and eBay, but one that many ‘normal’ SME’s find it hard to achieve.

I was thinking about this in a board meeting recently where we were discussing the extent to which we wanted our ‘customer services’ team to be salespeople and the extent to which they were there to respond quickly, effectively and accurately to enquiries. The discussion moved on to us recognising that if someone was in contact with us, they clearly had the need, and that we were not in the sort of business where we could economically contact proactively through sales techniques or even direct marketing the relatively small number of consumers who had a need for our product today. So all we could do was respond positively to enquiries that resulted from our marketing.

And that led me to realise that a many (not all) of the tools traditionally used in sales are no longer valid or valuable in many businesses. Cold calling, getting past gatekeepers, establishing needs and demonstrating benefits were pretty much irrelevant to someone who is already convinced to buy … from some supplier.  And then I moved on to what feels to me to be quite an important realisation.

The job of the team on the phone is NOT LOSING SALES.  

Quite a different emphasis to the traditional job of WINNING SALES!  The fact that a customer has enquired and in many cases asked for a quote, meant that they were in the right place emotionally to buy from someone.  Whilst certainly a good element of traditional sales skills are needed to gently draw attention to the differences that make our product better and worth a higher price, I felt the biggest differentiator between a successful order taker and a poor one was likely to be whether they do anything to lose the sale rather than whether they do anything to win the sale.

Immediately, one of the other directors at that board meeting concurred and shared a story of how just that day he’d chosen to buy from his (originally) less preferred supplier because of the way his originally intended supplier handled him when he rang up to sort out an order.

And since then I've read numerous articles (some of dubious heritage I admit) on how 80% of the customer's buying journey is completed before they even contact you. But it's intuitively what I see happening. So my hypothesis, using language designed to provoke the many passionate sales people I know, is that in today’s world:

Great order takers will outplay great sales people!

I.e. The person that records the best revenues is today likely to be the one that listens to and questions most carefully the prospect, then efficiently, effectively and quickly provides the right prospects with the information they need to order and then gently, appropriately and consistently keeps in touch until they are ready to place the order. I feel that for many businesses they will easily outplay the apparently persuasive person who is less skilled at identifying and servicing effectively the best prospects.

I can’t prove my thoughts, but I’ve spoken to a few people since and for many it seems to ring bells and provide a way of explaining something they intuitively felt.