For decades the sales industry has been built around the symbolic (or actual) signal of a closed deal: the handshake.
“Just that little thing of a handshake,” Selling Power CEO and founder Gerhard Gschwandtner said while hosting a recent roundtable discussion with sales experts around industry trends. “How important that is to create that human bond.”
But, when COVID-19 forced many B2B sales teams – teams that typically thrive during in-person interactions – to adapt to dramatically different ways of working with lasting impacts, they then had to confront the reality that the industry was undergoing enormous and rapid change, and so must their sales strategy and sales skills.
Some teams were forced to reduce their workforce. Some dove head-first into countless exhausting Zoom calls. Others underwent massive training efforts to get their teams comfortable selling through various technology platforms.
Regardless of how each sales team tried to adapt their sales strategy, though, experts say the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions provides sales teams with a rare opportunity to focus on talent in a way that can drive phenomenal future growth.
The Selling Power roundtable, co-hosted with sales strategy platform AuctusIQ, featured nearly a dozen trusted senior sales leaders. This exclusive group of leaders identified key challenges facing sales teams and provided effective solutions for leaders who want to position their teams to thrive in a landscape that’s been turned upside-down and flipped back over again.
A different type of seller – and a different type of buyer
Not long ago, sales leaders looked for a very narrow skillset in their sellers: ambitious, persuasive, networked, competitive, and persistent. However, just like the pandemic pushed many industries to embrace work-from-home policies, chat apps, and teleconferencing years before they likely would have otherwise, it’s also led many sales leaders to reconsider which sales skills will be most valuable as the paradigm shifts.
As remote working took center stage, buyers intensified their focus – looking less for sellers who were “relationship builders” and more for sellers who serve as extensions of buyers’ own problem-solving team. For many sales leaders, that means putting a premium on sellers who are much more analytical, adaptable, and forthcoming when it comes to providing their clients with concrete solutions to real-world problems.
Top sales leaders now say they want sellers with learning agility, which allows them to more quickly solve problems during the precious few interactions with each buyer. That starts with identifying the sales skills that best connect with buyers, according to AuctusIQ CEO Troy Kanter. “It really is making sure that we know who we’re bringing into our organization.”
Kanter says the key is identifying every seller’s capabilities – from natural strengths to knowledge gaps and acumen. Tracking those metrics is the first step, whether it helps guide future hires or develop the team you already have in place. “Once you measure it, you can start managing it.”
As companies redefine what their ideal client looks like in the wake of COVID-19, a VP of field enablement says his organization is also redefining its “ideal employee profile” to make sure its team connects with this wave of new transformed buyers. One way he sees that on sales calls is a shift from giving presentations to having conversations, where the new buyer-seller relationship is “more about understanding the pain and diagnosing it” in a much more meaningful way and on a case-by-case basis.
“We are starting to make the shift from selling to really helping in our sales strategy,” one participant said.
Another VP of sales echoed that same sentiment. “During the pandemic, our sales teams had to learn more how to sell value versus being more of a transactional seller,” he said. Learning how to sell that value often means going through a strict accreditation process that teaches sellers how to adapt to a gauntlet of real-world challenges. But it’s not just checking boxes: “We measure everything here.”
One of those key measurables, according to another participant, is making sure your sales team is prepared in an increasingly technological world. “We’ve got to keep that intellectual capital of the technical people.” Too often, teams let those people leave, and “it’s such a mistake,” he went on to say. “Anybody doing that hasn’t looked at what the ramp time is,” when trying to bring new hires up to speed. “Your onboarding is going to be a problem.”
As the conversation evolved, AuctusIQ’s Kanter pointed to a clear theme among the experts’ observations. To be successful and achieve their goals, sales teams need to be not just smart or prepared, but (perhaps more than anything) they need to be adaptable. “What has dramatically shifted is this cognitive thinking and this whole concept around adaptability, agility – this sort of learning agility. It’s just an amazing predictor.”
Increased competition for more diverse talent
When it comes to a changing workforce, a senior VP points to the fact that “women outperform men in sales,” which he sees as a major missed opportunity.
Another VP of sales enablement and business development said he sees that playing out every single day. The women in sales roles at his company have stood out as “rockstars.” Many experts say increased gender diversity – especially in an industry not known for it – can bring greater communication skills and a natural attentiveness and perceptiveness to teams in dire need of those talents.
With a competitive hiring landscape and sales leaders getting increased budget approvals to rebuild their teams, talent poaching is a major concern as recruiters – facing pressure to hire – ramp up their offerings. Talent retention could start causing more problems for sales leaders, too. Coming out of the pandemic, many companies are starting to see rosier forecasts and are highly motivated to fill roles. That means many corporate talent recruiters are armed with better compensation and benefits packages than in recent memory. “People are going to start poaching” top talent, one participant said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of movement over the next three to six months.”
As top talent becomes more costly, it’s easy to imagine some companies shifting to a model that somewhat resembles a law-firm setup with teams of paralegals in supporting roles. In a sales force, one might see more occasions where a few highly-paid expert sellers with a support staff could be highly effective.
As sales leaders try to reshape their teams for the future, they’ll find they need to hire differently, work harder to retain that talent, and fine-tune their talent acquisition processes.
Embracing HR professionals to maximize talent
The human resources team at most organizations is one of the functions most under-utilized by sales leaders.
Depending on the size of your company, they may see hundreds or even thousands of applications a year, and HR professionals – many of them holding valuable certifications – often know exactly how to assess that idea of an “ideal employee profile” against your pool of candidates.
One mistake many sales leaders make is stretching themselves too thin. No leader – while juggling everything else on their plate – can spend just a couple of hours parsing cover letters and resumes, then maybe a short interview or two, and come away with an accurate, fully-formed opinion of a candidate. But the stakes are high: When a candidate might stay with the company for decades, hitting the jackpot or missing the mark can inflate the repercussions.
By simply leaning on talent professionals who have spent years honing their sales skills – experts who not only bring interview questions to the table that elicit the responses you need to make an informed decision but also have the time to dive deeper on candidates and surface the most relevant information – your success rate on new hires will undoubtedly spike.
To take it one step further, the fastest-growing companies often lean on advanced talent and sales skills assessments and software to help them identify specific traits and how they correlate to success before a position is even posted – because they’re using the same metrics to evaluate and develop the sellers they already have on a daily, weekly and quarterly basis.
Use data to evaluate sales talent
Finally, despite the abundance of data and metrics that are constantly being computed and recorded by most companies, sales leaders generally lack the right data needed to influence sales growth.
By capturing data in three key areas – their talent, competencies, and performance – sales leaders can more easily evaluate their existing talent, know what their seller is best at, and pinpoint where they need the most work. This enables leaders to ensure their reps are effectively leveraging their strengths and helping each seller fill the gaps that will prove most effective every time they are in front of a buyer. This intersection is known as the Sales Readiness Index, and puts all the crucial info at sales leaders’ fingertips. That means progress remains a trackable area of focus for every member of the team.
Once that is realized and rectified, the distractions fade away and every movement and every decision has a purpose.
That data, when combined with a robust process, can also help form a rhythm that serves as the heartbeat of your business. This adds confidence to your sales process and the sales strategy, which helps lead to proactive, deliberate decision-making about how you manage your organization – and ultimately allows you to dramatically move the needle for your company.