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The Internet’s Impact on the Sales Process

The Internet’s Impact on the Sales Process


I blend high-touch with high-tech. I teach what I call Rapport Selling, which is about being truly customer-focussed and engaging at a very personal level. But I also embrace the use of high-tech, with video, podcasts, blogs, Flickr slide shows, and more.

I think that’s really important, because organisations and their leaders just can’t ignore the impact of technology and the Internet in the entire sales process. It’s not just for tech companies; it’s for everybody. That’s why I wanted to share with you how the Internet has changed selling.

So join me now as I’m being interviewed about my insights in this area.

What else, apart from the Internet, have you noticed has changed about the way people buy?

I would say there are 4 changes in the way people buy and these are not directly related to the internet.

The first is technology in general which has improved immeasurably to encourage more communication whilst mobile. Yes the internet allows for the social media revolution but the devices had to be there in the first place. This enables consumers to buy on the move, truly mobile.

The second change is globalisation – a rather grand word but it means for consumers that they have vastly more choice than a few years’ ago and can buy from the new economies of the Far East and South America. In fact consumers demand more choice now and expect it.

Thirdly, buyers are much more demanding than ever before. By this I’m not just referring to product and services and their suitability but the service levels that surround them. Consumers want better customer service and can now voice their opinions and be heard.

Finally I think buyers are far more in control of their buying than ever before. Yes the internet has allowed this, but it is also the better education and access to information that we have never had before. And this brings the outcome that buyers will no longer endure being sold to. Yes they like buying, but will not be sold to anymore, those days are long gone.

What about the impact of the Internet? What does that mean for sales leaders and their teams?

The internet has caused enormous changes to the way buyers consume products and services. It’s game changing and sales teams ought to get with the changes or wither on the vine. And to be fair, many have, but some are still dragging their heels refusing to move away from their 1980’s sales processes.

How has the internet impacted? Let me look at three major impacts.

Firstly the sales process has undergone a seismic shift in the last 5 to 7 years since the internet has really taken off. This shift is a result of the internet becoming a truly shared experience with consumers contributing content rather than just the big wig web page developers who created web pages in the period up to about 2004. Known as Web 2.0.

Imagine the earth shifting on its axis, just a couple of degrees. The impact on the environment, the weather would be catastrophic and Hollywood has made a number of disaster movies on this event.

The buying process has shifted and is no longer in line with our traditional sales process.

In the old days customers would realise they have a need for something and head towards the legions of salespeople by foot, by phone, and engage with the sellers. They would find the salespeople via advertising, in the High Street or they would ask their friends for a recommendation. Sellers would ask questions about their needs and promote the most appropriate product, which they knew a lot about, and if they were good at closing, would secure the sale. It worked.

The second impact is that buyers now have more control within the sales process.

Now consumers realise they have a need, the urge to buy hasn’t changed but this time they do one of three things. They’ll fix the need themselves by accessing the internet, Google, YouTube. Or they’ll ask their friends for a recommendation but this process is multiplied because we all have so many more friends online in our social networks, we’ll even solicit advice on reputable salespeople from strangers because we believe these people more than the advertising that still intrudes our lives.

But the most common way to satisfy our need, the itch is to seek a solution or scratch from the internet. We’ll Google the need and research thoroughly on the internet, seeking recommendations as we go. Much is available to us to buy there and then; I’ll talk about commoditisation shortly. If they’re seeking the services of a company to satisfy their need, they’ll research the competition along with you, and in some situations end up learning more about your company than you could possibly know.

Consumers have become expert at researching and using the internet to find out what they need.

The point is though, that by the time we reluctantly call a salesperson or visit a company that sells the product, we’ve already made up our mind as to the solution. We know what colour we want, what spec and how much is the cheapest possible price for the service. Salespeople have become order takers and can’t use their charm and persuasive abilities to change our minds.

Consumers enter the salesperson’s sales process half way through – at the negotiation of price stage – which removes the need for a salesperson entirely – a robot could do it if the product is simple and commoditised.

The third major impact of the internet is commoditisation, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times before. This means that many products and services have been stripped of their “bells and whistles” and have been whittled down to their bare components and sold at the cheapest price possible. This has been driven by consumer demand and the internet. If the internet can commoditise your product or service, then it will. It’s like a floodplain, the water will come, and you can’t stop it.

Take my main industry sector – financial services – here in the UK this sector has gone through some major changes recently, become more complex and costly to access. But still the products are slowly being commoditised and sold online or by phone. Car insurance, home insurance, medical insurance and now life assurance can all be bought cheaply and online. The bastions of face to face financial advice are now being hit hard by online models that have even commoditised financial advice. One site promotes that they have we have a diverse team of fully qualified financial advisers who can offer free answers to your personal finance questions within 60 minutes.

My profession, training and speaking is currently being commoditised right now and this will change the way corporations but training and development in the future. This morning I was speaking to a client from a major building society and he explained that they’re moving to an online training model as face to face training in a classroom is prohibitively expensive. I currently deliver more training via video than I do face to face.

Another trend is automated buying software called procurement purchasing packages which allows companies to procure all their services and goods via automated means securing the best possible deal and never coming face to face with a salesperson.

Creepy. But the result of commoditisation.

You work in diverse organisations in many countries. Do you think most organisations “get it”?

I believe that most organisations “dig” the changes and the impact. Some have gone a little bit too far into social media but we’ll talk about that later. There are still legions of salespeople who are being trained as talking brochures and not true problem solvers but this is changing slowly.

There are clients of mine who have radically modernised their value proposition to be more in line with post commoditisation but again, this is slow to take off. Pre-emptive selling is gaining ground with the correct use of social media to engage early with clients who have itches. I’ll talk more about these later.

Generally they’re getting there, particularly in the UK and USA but some countries are behind the curve as the internet begins its swallowing of their consumers. Take India for example, the internet is being consumed via mobile technology now as is Africa so this will change the patterns of consumers, although the infrastructure is different in these continents.

I’m interested in your opinion about the different roles of sales and marketing now. What do you think?

The roles are blurring. Traditionally marketing would attract customers and the salesperson would then pop them onto their sales process and close. There are four aspects here.

Firstly, because customers come to us, having found us on the internet, usually via websites and social media – YouTube, blogs, Facebook et al – marketing’s job is to keep them warm until they’re ready to buy. Don’t send them to the sales teams as leads because the customer isn’t ready and that’ll cause frustration in the sales team. Instead marketing must incubate them, keep them warm until the customer is ready to move forward.

The second point is that this incubator process requires the customer to be kept warm with information and useful media to help them in their quest for a solution. This noise has to be created and posted to the internet for the consumers to devour. Noise is the food for the incubator. And this noise has to be created by salespeople who need to become intimate with the problems and challenges of their targeted market. Salespeople need to develop incredible knowledge not of their products but on the issues their customer face and they need to start creating videos, blogs, podcasts, articles, forum posts, discussion contributions on the solutions to their customer’s problems. This has to be done by the salespeople not marketing.

My third topic is that advertising to the masses doesn’t work anymore so marketing need to stop. Yes you have targeted adverts on webpages, blogs, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and the like and for the most part, consumers tolerate this. I’m thinking with the increased use of mobile devices to consume this information, we will become less charitable of advertising springing up and annoying us. I know how annoyed I get when an advert interrupts my YouTube video and a pop up blocks my phone screen.

The future for marketing is about individualised advertising that provides value and doesn’t shout about the product in an old fashioned way.

It’s known as SOLOMO – social, local and mobile. Utilising social networks, ensuring the advertising is local to you (within 1 metre of where you’re walking using GPS signals from your phone) and mobile because it’s received on your Smartphone.

Finally marketing need to consider sales aids for the sales forces and move away from features and benefits of products and services. Salespeople can get their own education on these, after all their customers will. Now salespeople need to know the market the product serves and the problems it solves and how it can be tailored or adapted to suit their target market.

One of your main themes, Paul, is “Rapport Selling”, person-to-person interaction. How does that work in an online world?

If anything the internet has made this easier but only where customers want it. Communication technology has made it easier and quicker to forge a personal relationship with customers. Take my example financial services website from earlier. On the page is a button with a phone number or a request for a call back facility which starts the relationship. One talking the company can then offer a Skype video call or a Face time moment with the customer. We all have this technology now – most Smartphones have cameras front and rear which allow for video calls with no expensive technology needed.

In the business to business world, we can research our client intimately now using social media tools and find out so much about them before we meet. This accelerates the rapport building process enormously… unless we start getting creepy on this. We can check people out, their credentials, who they know, what they do for leisure. Last week I was researching a potential client before phoning them and noticed they were a rugby union coach for a youth team. Now that’s exactly what I am too, so for the first 15 minutes of the phone call, all we talked about was rugby… naturally.

In a lengthy sales process, other parties can be bought into the relationship using Skype technology rather than driving for miles in the car. This demonstrates a bigger team to solve problems but brings in the human element at an early stage.

Not far away are holographic files bringing the ability to appear in the client’s Boardroom as a three dimensional image. Think Star Trek, Star Wars. The technology is there, but just hugely expensive and a massive drain on bandwidth. But it’ll come.

What do you think business leaders need to do to enable sales departments to thrive?

OK we’re into solutions now.

In the Boardroom there needs to be a number of key changes to strategy.

First everyone needs to be placed on the sales process and have a role to play in the future sales of the business. Senior leaders need to endorse this and make everyone accountable. Everyone from the cleaner to the Finance Director.

Next, they need to develop the firm’s value proposition and be crystal clear as to the markets they serve and the customers they can help and how they can assist their customers solve their challenges and needs. This value proposition needs to come from the top as strategy and filter down to the sales managers and teams.

The sales process needs to be amended at the top. In the B2B world, the Board needs to promote pre-emptive selling and this stage has to be on the sales process. Pre-emptive selling engages with business customer’s way before they’ve even discovered they have a need. It involves salespeople using social media such as Twitter and LinkedIn, Google Alerts and search engine capacity to discover their customer’s needs before they’ve spotted them. These are known as trigger points – internal and external changes that create problems and challenges for the corporate client which need solving.

Like a pre-emptive nuclear strike from my youth in the 1970’s. So long as we launched before the enemy could react, we’d be successful. In a similar vein, if the salespeople can engage with the customers during this early phase we can influence the decision processes and research that they would normally do in isolation.

The Board has to determine how they are going to target and measure this activity and perhaps a rethink of KPIs and metrics so that they right behaviour is targeted and rewarded with bonus and commission. Remember what gets measured gets done and if the sales force is measured against pre-emptive selling, they’ll do it.

The final intervention for the board has to be enhancement of company resources towards the two new elements of the sales process. At the beginning is the “noise” creation and at the end is customer service. More resources need to go into customer service e so that we start giving what I call “wow” customer care. This keeps customer’s being engaged with us continuously and when their needs reappear, we’re in the frame as they begin to research a solution.

Let’s look at sales managers. What do you recommend for them?

For the sales manager, I think there are three main focus areas for them. Initially they’ll want to examine their recruitment processes. No longer do we need salesey salespeople, we need intelligent technical experts who can relate to their market and the customers within and who can think through problems and have the insight to solve them for customers. We need natural consultative types who are good at probing and asking questions. The old fashioned “mouth on a stick” the walking brochure is not needed anymore. Move existing people from the technical areas into sales and train them to close.

Next comes training. Salespeople need different training to cope with the new bazaar. They need to be trained on:

  • How their customers work, how companies operate – report and accounts, metrics, return on investment.
  • The industry they serve.
  • How to solve problems and be creative – consultation techniques
  • How procurement works in the companies they call upon because they will encounter them more than you think.

Coaching comes in at the rear. Make sure the revised sales process is coached regularly. Some salespeople will want help and guidance with the new way of working and coaching can help them get there.

Finally measurement. Distil the Boards measurements down to KPIs and other metrics that encourage the behaviour you want now. Measure them against content creation – videos, podcasts, articles and blogs. Measure them on their problem solving skills, their social selling skills, online prospecting.

Finally, the sales professionals themselves: are there additional things they can do?

Adopt social selling concepts. Learn how to use social media for their own benefit – Twitter, Linked In are the major ones, using Inside view, their cloud based CRM system. Social selling is about using the vast resources of your potential customer’s social profiles to embed your expertise and to elicit trigger points to help you pre-emptively sell. Social selling involves the salesperson instilling their expertise into the social media that their customers read and indulge in.

Salespeople can research their potential customers so much more nowadays and this can save time when they do meet. In fact, they are required to do so. No longer can you get away with the question “Tell me about your business?”

They will want to become comfortable with content creation. Writing and blogging about their expertise and how this solves customer problems. They need to constantly increase this expertise, going beyond what their product does and to find new innovative ways of providing additional value to their customers and solving their problems. They need to constantly be researching their customer’s issues setting up Google Alerts, Google searching and the use of Social Selling to achieve this.

Getting referrals from customers has always been a profitable way of prospecting for new business and this hasn’t changed, except we now have LinkedIn which can be used extensively to harvest new business. Seek referrals from existing clients using this media; it’s a lot quicker and more efficient. Move away from treating LinkedIn as just a CV online – it’s so much more.

I know one of the objections to all of this is that it takes too much time. How do you do it?

For me creating high quality content is a sales metric, a KPI that I measure myself against. My goals are to write 2,500 words each week, produce one sales video, create two podcasts, post 2 blog entries. These are targets for me and I then have to get the self-discipline to create the content.

I do this using a couple of strategies. Firstly I leverage the same content and put it out in various ways. For example, this White Paper will find its way into 4 or 5 blog posts, a short video, a number of podcasts and probably a chapter in my next book. That way I’m just repackaging the content to suit different people.

I never waste a moment in my working day. I have my netbook with me all the time so I can write articles on the train, plane, the waiting room, even waiting for my daughter to come out of her choir practice in a warm car. When an idea comes to me I capture this in a voice recording, upload to the cloud and this reminds me of an article later when in the office.

I outsource much of the techy stuff and grunt work. For example rendering videos, uploading them to YouTube and Vimeo, adding music to podcasts and such. My 17 year old is employed by me whilst he does his A Level exams and I use oDesk for other work.

I’m quite active on all social media platforms using these as a way of pushing out my expertise and value and providing free information and value to anyone that wants it. I automate posts to push out new articles and podcasts etc. as well as personal entries where needed.

I use my content to incubate my potential customers, some of them indulge in this content for many months even years before they are in a purchasing position and that’s OK with me, when they want to they know where I am.