Most sales training and advice is based on a fundamental premise: the seller is in control.
Think about it: a lot of what's taught focuses on what sellers should be doing to persuade, convince, and drive buyers toward closing a sale. The seller is responsible for bringing the deal to a close. Therefore the seller must be in control.
The problem is, things have changed.
Sellers aren’t in control anymore. Buyers are.
This doesn't mean that sellers are relegated to passive accommodation of the whims of the buyer. Rather, it's when sellers understand how buyers buy, they can influence their decisions most effectively.
In the last several years I've observed significant changes in buyers and their behavior. If you're out there selling, pay close attention to the following new ingredients in the buying mix.
It's a buyer's market.
As the economic downturn continues (most recently in Brazil and China), companies are keeping a tight leash on costs. "Lean" is no longer an initiative. It's the norm.
Buyers who run successful organizations are aware of the relative power they hold. Sellers need to get used to the idea that the more powerful the buyer, the higher the competition.
Advice for sellers: Develop opportunities proactively through selling with new ideas and perspectives. Move from a demand-driven approach to demand driving. Get out of the "red ocean" of competition by developing a strong, differentiated value proposition.
We've moved from information asymmetry to information parity.
"Imagine a world not of information asymmetry, but of something closer to information parity, where buyers and sellers have roughly equal access to relevant information. Actually, stop imagining that world. You're living in it."
- Daniel Pink, To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth about Persuading, Convincing, and Influencing Others
Information is easy to find. Just ask Google. Researching potential partners is easier than ever before, and the pool is larger (especially in an increasingly globalized world).
But it also means that buyers are better informed, and involve sellers later in the process. When they do enter the game, sellers aren't expected to "sell," but to consult with the buyer, who has often already "defined the problem" and sketched out scenarios to address it.
Advice for sellers: Ramp up the research and prep you perform on your buyers, their situation, industry, and challenges. You need to come across as informed and intelligent when they ask the tough questions. Stop focusing so much on selling. Instead, focus on collaborating with your buyer to develop a solution. Move from diagnosing needs to understanding needs.
The bar has risen (for sellers).
Today's buyers expect a lot from sellers, especially those selling high-end B2B products and services. Sellers need to be fluent in all aspects of the sale, from industry trends and knowledge of the buyer's process, to a strong grasp of their products and services vs. the competition.
But even that's not enough. Buyers expect today's sellers to act more like high-end management consultants than "traditional salespeople."
Key skills to develop include logic and critical thinking, as the problems and solutions you're working on are more complex than ever. You need to know how to influence high-level executives without holding formal authority. Plus, it's crucial to stay on top of the latest technological and social developments across relevant fields.
Advice for sellers: Hone your critical thinking skills, rather than your sales skills. Become a sparring partner for your clients. Act like a trusted advisor. Help them identify the pitfalls in their approach. Reduce complexity by conducting critical analysis and suggesting options. Make it easy to do business with you.
Buyers are teaming up.
The buyer decision process used to be cut and dry. If you were speaking to a senior executive, you could be reasonably sure he or she had the power to pull the trigger on the decision. No more.
Today, buyer decisions have three new elements at play that put them in the driver's seat throughout the sales process: empowerment, collaboration, and risk avoidance.
Empowerment: Most likely, all of the people you come in contact with at the buying company are both decision makers and constituents. The lines are no longer finely drawn in the sand. 20-somethings hold budget authority and have the ear of the CEO, while that same CEO will ask for input from a broad base of constituents inside the organization.
Collaboration: Group sales are now the norm. Decision makers, influencers, key stakeholders, technical experts, and procurement are likely to be involved at various stages of the sale, often together.
Risk avoidance: Individual players are no longer willing to take the brunt of blame for a failed initiative. They are looking to minimize risk on a singular level as well as overall.
Advice for sellers: Expect to be selling to multiple individuals, and expect sales cycles to be longer. Adopt a collaborative process from the start, and be inclusive of additional players rather than seeing them as a hindrance. Bring up the notion of risk proactively, and demonstrate how you’ll help manage and mitigate it.
There's more competition than ever.
In my first two points, I addressed how reduced direct corporate investment and the move towards information parity, respectively, have increased the number of direct competitors for each opportunity.
But forget about direct competition: what about indirect?
Every single day, new business models arise that provide attractive alternatives to your products and services. Executive search firms, for example, face competition not just from other search firms but also from job aggregators, alumni referral networks, boutique LD firms, and "all-around" HR services firms.
The rise of technology coupled with the advance of new business models means more competition from both traditional players as well as "upstarts." There is constant movement in the market, both up (e.g. new premium offers) and down (e.g. lower-cost, semi-automated services).
Advice for sellers: When evaluating your competition, don't just consider the "usual suspects." Chances are, your buyers see valuable alternatives you don't even know exist. Be sure to ask buyers not just about who they see as your direct competitors, but also what alternatives are out there (including "doing nothing").
These are only five of the reasons why many sellers are finding themselves in the backseat of the sale, traditional techniques no longer working.
Within every challenge lies an opportunity. Today's successful sellers are smart. They cultivate a deep knowledge of the market their buyers operate in, and use it to guide buyers through the sales process to the win.