The Current State of Sales

By Brent Adamson and Matt Dixon

It’s an interesting time to be in sales. Prospects have access to more information than ever, carrying out most of their research before they even think about talking to a sales rep. When they finally reach out to a rep, they often feel that salespeople aren’t really listening to them or have their best interests at heart. As a result, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 38% of B2B purchase attempts ended in no decision.

Today’s buyers don’t just have to discern signals from white noise, but they also have to sort signals from signals. Forget looking for a needle in a haystack; buyers are now searching for a specific needle in a stack of needles.

So how did we get into this position? What challenges do our customers face, and how can we, as salespeople, help them overcome those obstacles?

Everyone wants to be a thought leader

Modern customers are overwhelmed and struggle to feel confident making decisions, even when they’ve departed from the status quo. This is the argument in The JOLT Effect. Buyers know they need to change, they know they need to move forward, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they know how to move forward. They lack confidence.

When The Challenger Sale was originally written over ten years ago, there was certainly an information story. Customers were already learning on their own and doing their due diligence, delaying any engagement with a sales rep, but that story back then was largely about separating signal from noise. People were figuring out what they believed, so that when they spoke to the rep they wouldn’t get tricked into believing something else.

Things look very different today. Every CEO wants to be a thought leader in their industry, demonstrating to the market that they’re different, smarter and better than the competition, so potential customers go to them first.

From around 2015, the production and deployment of content became a very deliberate marketing strategy. Fast forward to today, and both the volume and quality of content have exploded. This has resulted in a “smartness arms race”.

In the race to be a thought leader (which only gets harder as more people jump on the same train), this has become a commoditized differentiation strategy. Ironically, it’s also made it much more difficult for the customer to separate signal from noise when it’s all signal.

The whole industry is out there telling customers to zig while you’re out there telling customers to zag. You’re a challenger. Now think about it from your customer’s perspective. They’ve got data, they’ve got evidence, but now they’re overwhelmed. They’re still confused, just at a higher level. It’s daunting. You’re not necessarily doing anything wrong, but simply differentiating your message is no longer enough.

Why customers struggle to make decisions

The Challenger sales model was designed to address the problem of customers learning on their own. What do we do in a world where customers want to box you out and treat you the same as your competitors, forcing you to compete on price? We found that the best salespeople bring up the information that customers couldn’t learn on their own — they challenged the customers’ thinking.

However, once you’ve challenged the customers’ thinking, they still need to get all their colleagues on board. The Challenger Customer helped salespeople forge a consensus where, left to their own devices, buying groups will agree on the lowest common denominator.

Today’s salespeople need to shift from helping customers buy to helping them to decide.

The primary problem is information overload, and it’s only going to get worse. Customers are bombarded and overwhelmed with the amount of available information that can be used to evaluate any potential purchase decision.

The other issue is the number of options that every vendor puts in front of its customers — we call these valuation problems. Should they go for the starter package, the basic version or the premium edition? All the different variations, configurations, integrations, bells and whistles need to be considered. It’s like going to a restaurant with over 40 items on the menu, all of which look great, but you can’t figure out what in the world you should pick.

Finally, you’ll also have to deal with outcome uncertainty — the fear of making the wrong decision. Potential customers worry they might buy the wrong software or the wrong package. What if they’ve predicated their business case on an ROI that may not be delivered?

They want to know that, when the ink is dry on the contract, they’re getting the value they need out of this purchase. If they don’t, the best-case scenario is that they look like a fool. Worst case scenario, they could end up fired for wasting the company’s money and resources on an investment that didn’t pan out.

Are customers really worried about missing out?

Imagine the scene. The prospect has selected you as their chosen vendor and you’re ready to move forward. Inevitably, this is where the customer starts getting cold feet and backpedalling. So what do you do? For most salespeople, this is the point where you go back and dial up the FOMO — the fear of missing out…

“You’re going to miss out on this golden opportunity to solve this business problem.”

“You’re not going to be able to take advantage of these awesome features.”

“You must have not heard me when I told you how awesome our platform is, let me show you again.”

“If you don’t buy now, somebody else will and you’re going to have to wait forever to get your delivery.”

Our research found that most sellers use this approach, trying to tap into FOMO because they think the customer is still in the grips of the status quo. Unfortunately, this can massively backfire, actually making things worse and increasing the chance of indecision.

When customers need help deciding, they’re not worried about FOMO, but rather FOMU — the fear of messing up. They’re worried about whether they’ve done enough research, they’re worried about picking the right product and they’re worried about getting fired. With the current downturn and greater scrutiny of big purchase decisions, these fears are likely to get a lot worse over the next two years.

Out of all your possible concerns, the fear of missing out is way down the list. Ratcheting up the FOMO just comes across as tone-deaf to the customer. Instead, we need to minimise the risk of messing up, so the customer feels more comfortable and confident with their decision.

Helping customers make a decision, not a purchase.

On the consumer side, both for individuals and buying groups, it has become increasingly difficult to make a confident buying decision.

You would think that this is our moment in sales. Our customers are crying out for help, feeling overwhelmed and confused. However, when the sales rep pops up and offers to help, that’s the last person they want to see. We live in a time where our target audience is begging for our help, yet they reject our help because of how they perceive the sales profession.

For the salespeople who handle this correctly though, this is our time to shine. Customers that prefer to buy without talking to a rep are 23% more likely to regret their purchase. Even if they don’t realise it, your customers do need help making that decision.

However, if you’re a sales professional in this environment and you raise your hand and say you’ll provide that help, you better be able to follow through on your promise. If you come in and make things worse, it’s going to be bad for you, your company, your colleagues and the customer.

Even the simplest purchase decision is now complicated. You can pop on to Amazon to buy a £15 dongle for your computer and, two hours later, you’re still there reading reviews and comparing your options. So you click “Save for later” and defer the decision to another day. It’s frustrating.

Now, multiply that by a couple of orders of magnitude and you have B2B buying today.

If I’m the customer and a sales rep comes in and makes that worse, then **** you. I haven’t got time for that. Now I hate me, and I hate you for making me hate me.

On the other hand, this is also an opportunity to make the customer feel better. In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence, he discusses the idea of a value exchange, or reciprocity. In other words, if you give me something of value, I’ll want to give you something in return.

Now, something of value could be a product, service or some other kind of solution, but it could also be simply feeling better about yourself. This is how relationships work, like friendships and dating. By helping our customers feel more confident in their decisions, by helping them feel better about themselves, then everyone wins.

Ultimately, this isn’t about buying or deciding. This is a story about humans. It’s about how we are as human beings and how we interact with our world today. Our opportunity as sales professionals today is not to change the way our customers think about us, but to change the way customers think about themselves.

Brent Adamson and Matt Dixon are two of the leading experts in sales, having authored both The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer. Matt’s new book, The JOLT Effect, is out now.

Check out the full webinar with Brent and Matt to learn more about the Future of Selling.

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