Unconventional Wisdom: Thought Leaders Share their Perspectives on Virtual Selling and Inside Sales

The smart money has long understood that how you sell can be just as important as what you sell. As the rise of virtual selling demonstrates, this maxim is now truer than ever. 

Just consider some of the perspectives that emerged at the annual Leadership Summit for the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP), which occurred last week in Chicago. While innovative firms brought the exhibition floor to life, thought leaders sketched out a coming transformation in the world of sales.

Indeed, employment data suggests inside sales is growing 300% faster than field sales. Companies are recognizing clear benefits in terms of cost of sales, expanded market coverage, and even quality of life through inside sales work. 

However, virtual selling – the practice of using communication, data, and social media technology to remotely engage buyers –  is now available to everyone in the sales profession. The key issue is how actively it will be applied — and by whom.

One factor driving this shift toward virtual selling may be the profusion of new technologies that facilitate increasingly vivid, visual and knowledge-rich interactions. Combine these interaction technologies with other applications that provide targeted sales intelligence and facilitate social selling and you have a powerful toolkit for personalized outreach. 

Companies are spending $2300 per employee, on average, to enable their virtual sellers with today’s latest “sales acceleration” technologies, according to a recent study by InsideSales.com. (It’s more than $7500 per sales person in the software industry.) Even as field salespeople struggle to get through airport security, expect a growing number of sales professionals to have three-screen setups that resemble Wall Street trading desks.   

That said, the bigger trend to watch may be the merger of inside and outside. In his keynote, MobileDay CEO Howard Diamond said he’d like to see the distinctions (and all the baggage associated with them) disappear. ”Sales is sales,” as he put it. Diamond explained that his companies sold billions of dollars of software over the years employing  a compensation model in which inside and outside sales professionals in small, self-managing teams equally split their commissions. 

While the issue of “team compensation” remains controversial, the rising status of professionals engaged in virtual selling is not. The real question is how far the shift will go in the next few years.

Speakers from recognized companies such as ADP, IBM, Oracle, Xerox, SAP, and Thomson Reuters discussed their active investments in inside sales at the show. And it was noted several times that SalesForce.com, the pioneer in cloud-based customer relationship management solutions, built its business on the “inside sales model.” No surprise that top venture capitalists now insist their portfolio companies commit themselves to this approach.

And yet, some experts in the field note that most large companies have tended to put severe restrictions on the territories and compensation arrangements (and thus, career opportunities) associated with inside sales. Such restrictions may be an issue of increasing interest in the coming years if rival firms prove they can compete more vigorously and profitably by giving virtual sellers a freer hand.

Watch for it. As the death of distance relentlessly approaches, complacent sales executives and the companies they lead may find themselves increasingly vulnerable to disruption.

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Surmount the Trust Barrier with Executive Briefings

Trust is essential to successful selling, particularly when the stakes are high.

But here’s the problem. Trust is now trading at a higher premium than ever. Why is that? Well, look around. Economic uncertainty is extraordinarily high and threatens to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Unpleasant factors that once were cyclical seem to have to have become structural.
  
Call it the trust barrier.Trust Barrier
  
These days, decisions are made at higher levels than ever – and with the participation of more parties than ever. In most cases, prospective buyers would  rather not buy what sellers are selling. They’d rather not even take a call or get entangled. They’d rather remain wedded to the status quo – however unsatisfying that is. They just don’t want to take a chance. The pain of failure (decision theorists call it “loss aversion”) weighs much more heavily on them than the promise of gain.
 
Constrained budgets are at stake…and careers…and reputations.  
  
And that’s why the trust barrier has risen to new heights – and why new strategies are necessary to surmount it.
 
Unsurprisingly, I hear more and more people making the case that face-to-face meetings are now critical. How else will you build trust? Of course, you are free to use your body as a prospecting tool, as
Sharon Drew Morgen, author of Dirty Little Secrets, cleverly puts it. That may even make sense if the economics of the deal (or the proximity of your buyers) are right.  

But I wonder. Maybe there are better ways to cross the trust barrier.
 
Take the first meeting. Why should that meeting be in person? Our clients have found that you can sell higher and reach more senior decision makers if you don’t lock them into a face-to-face meeting initially. In fact, plenty of research suggests these meetings are a big disappointment anyway.
 
IDC found in its research on the customer experience that more than 50% of sales people were showing up to meetings unprepared. And Forrester Research found that just 15% of executives believe sales meetings meet their expectations.
 
Why in the world – if the odds suggest the sales meeting will be a drag – would a prospective customer actually want to invite an unproven sales person into his or her office and risk getting tied up for an hour? Well, they probably don’t. And they probably shouldn’t.  
 
That’s why you might want to start with a 20-minute executive briefing (not a product demo) that you give from a distance via WebEx, GoToMeeting, Join.Me (or whatever tool you choose). It’s a chance for you establish an initial level of trust and credibility without asking too much from someone who is already (justifiably) wary and skeptical.
 
Trust is earned. Step by step. Conversation by conversation.
 
Fortunately, new tools enable you to powerfully stage and sequence your interactions without sacrificing the human touch. Few get this right, however. They either spend all their time trying to get in front of their prospects. Or they spend all their time trying to give them product demos at the outset.
 
What you can do, instead, is engage prospects with business-focused presentations – executive briefings – that provide compelling, often unexpected, insights and perspectives that are valuable to your prospects. You can share findings that reflect what their peers are experiencing and the actions they are taking. That’s particularly interesting to them because you talk to many more of their peers than they do. You have a wider, richer perspective in many respects.

Your briefing should be heavy on the potential problem and relatively light on the solution. You can determine if the prospect is truly experiencing pain you can address – and find out if the scope and magnitude of that pain justifies the challenge of change and cost of a solution.

Indeed, you can do all this virtually. Here’s what I recommend: Make a Skype-like personal appearance at the beginning of your conversation. Then provide some insightful slides as a backdrop to your conversation – as a visual explanation of the breakdown you’ve seen companies like your prospect’s experience and the breakthrough you’ve provided. Make sure you leave time for plenty of discovery questions and open discussion. And share a success story or two. Then, if you wish, reappear on the screen to complete the conversation.
 
Show them that you are a professional – and that you have valuable insights to share.
 
And keep it to 20 minutes (unless the prospect requests more).
 
You can convey much more about your insights into the possible problem and the value of a potential solution – in a shorter period of time and from a greater (physical) distance – by taking this approach.
 
You’ll establish yourself as a trusted authority – and someone who’s actually taken the time to examine your prospect’s situation.
 
Whether future meetings occur in virtual space or the prospect’s office, you will have taken the essential steps to build trust. You’ll have made appropriate investments in each other. And, if it makes sense to proceed, you’ll begin exploring a deal in earnest.
 
Through a process of mutual discovery, the walls will fall. 

 ***

What to learn more about executive briefings and how they can help you productively acquire more customers? Contact me at 512-415-7936 or email me at Britton@VisibleImpact.com.

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Targeting and Enabling Your Decision Advocate

It’s often suggested that what you want to do is identify all the personas of all your potential buyers and create messaging that addresses their individual needs. But the reality is that your greatest success will come not from concentrating on the demographics and psychographics of your prospects, but rather, by locking on to their shared concerns, problems and pain points.

Specifically, you want to identify and target someone who can become your decision advocate. This individual has both the authority and motivation to address the problems you solve.

To successfully message to this advocate, you want clarity around their role and responsibilities, their key objectives and performance metrics, and the dynamics of their team decision. Most importantly, you want clarity on this person’s likely hot buttons and pain points — factors that will motivate them to move.Eanabling the Decision Advocate

We use the term “decision advocate” because this is the person who will champion your program, product or solution — someone with something meaningful to gain from your solution and something significant to lose in its absence. Your objective should be to turn this person into a hero.

That requires you to arm them with a powerful and compelling message – a shareable story that vividly shows contrast between the current state they are experiencing and future state they can obtain.

Just remember this individual is part of a buying decision team. No one makes a decision on a complex, high impact solution unilaterally. But you won’t win by trying to the message and market to each member of the decision team individually. As Corporate Executive Board’s Patrick Spenner argues in Forbes:

All of the vendors and gurus out there telling you to personalize your content to the individual pain points and objectives of individual stakeholder personas.  That means, at best, your content and messaging is doing nothing to help a group of disparate individuals actually find common ground.  Moreover, at worst, it likely cements the individual’s own mental model around his own pain points and objectives.  It entrenches those individuals, in a way, making it harder for them to find common ground in the messy stew of group dynamics they inevitably have to navigate if the group is to reach any kind of consensus on the nature of the problem and solution.

You don’t win by personalizing your marketing. You win by supporting your decision advocate in their efforts to  influence, persuade and build the confidence of other decision team members.

In this case, you are the decision advisor. You want to facilitate and support the decision. You want to provide reliable guidance and ask facilitative questions. You want to help direct the decision process. The decision team needs clarity over all to make a successful decision and achieve successful results.

So how will you accomplish this goal? You’ll need messaging and assets that address the core concerns of the decision team. As many of our clients have discovered, you can arm your advocate with a decision enablement kit — tools that help your champion sell your ideas in your absence.

You can’t be part of all the conversations and discussions that will happen. But you can influence the decision by providing messages, tools and assets that bring conversations to life and make ideas go viral within the buyer’s decision environment.

By arming and enabling your decision advocate, you take a critical step toward making your solutions attractive and actionable. You build sales momentum, resulting in faster decisions and higher revenue performance.

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Fast-Growth Firms Embrace Virtual Selling

What if you could crush your sales quota while cutting your sales expenses by more than half? As a growing number of fast-growth and forward looking companies are now discovering, you can.

This impressive performance is tied to a trend known as “virtual selling” or “inside sales.” The field of inside sales is now growing at 5% annually in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and InsideSales.com. In fact, the number of inside sales reps is expected to reach 2.5 million in 2015. That’s three times faster than the growth of the field sales profession (which now has an estimated 8 million members).

What explains this astounding growth? One factor is clearly the superior return on investment many firms realize through their reliance on virtual selling models and approaches. While budgeting for inside reps remains 62% lower than for outside reps, an expanding number of companies are banking on the virtual selling model.VI Chart_US Total Growth of Inside Sales

It’s also clear that many professional salespeople value the opportunity to meet their targets without having to spend a great deal of time in transit. That’s enabling companies to attract talented and experienced sales people who are capable of closing increasingly large deals at a distance.  

Finally, a series of “sales acceleration” technologies are in play. According to the 2014 Sales Acceleration Study by InsideSales.com, companies are even starting to spend slightly more on inside sales in terms of technology than they are on field reps. With research suggesting that aggressive technology investments in virtual selling are resulting in bigger deals, faster deals, and higher close rates, it seems likely that the commitment to inside sales will only become more pronounced over time.

Yet another marker of this trend is the membership growth of the American Association of Inside Sales Professionals (AA-ISP), which holds its annual Leadership Summit next week in Chicago. Founded in 2008, the association now boasts 7,500 members worldwide with a  compound annual growth rate of 100%.

Bob Perkins, president of the AA-ISP, contends that virtual selling thrives in an environment where buyers are more informed than ever. Indeed, it’s no longer necessary to have as many face-to-face meetings when sellers and buyers are able to establish trust without a face to face meeting.

The advancement of the inside sales profession, adds Perkins, can be linked to enhanced training and support, as well as technology that facilitates customer research, call completion, and even screen sharing in the midst of a virtual meeting.

Given the striking performance of inside sales teams in recent years, Perkins notes that one big trend organizations now face is “the struggle to hire and onboard quality talent.”

Oracle, an active AA-ISP member, is one organization feeling that pressure. “The challenge facing inside sales leaders around finding qualified talent is staggering,” says Paul Macura, vice president of Oracle Direct. “In essence, today’s inside sales person has to not only have phone, email, and Internet competencies, but also the ‘chops’ once seen in the very best field sales people.”   

Perkins contends that what is needed now is a new leadership model for inside sales. This model, as he sees it, has three main dimensions.

  • People focused. Expert at sourcing, hiring, training, and career development.

  • Process proficient. Advanced in the management of sales process, measures, and tools.

  • Professionally minded. Acting as a thought leader and advocate for the profession.  

Successful leaders, he says, will “embrace the change ahead.” They will negotiate an environment in which demand is high and supply of skilled inside sales reps is low. “The ceiling is rising from a career standpoint,” he adds. “The demands in terms of skills and competencies are growing.”

Of course, some sales leaders continue to resist this shift. “[M]any sales leaders have a personal bias toward deploying outside salespeople over inside sales,” writes Steve W. Martin, a sales specialist associated with the USC Marshall School of Business. “In some cases, this inclination was based on their own experience from many years ago when they were in field sales.”

Nevertheless, Martin’s research suggests that companies in high technology and business services have been particularly quick to adopt virtual selling. Asked to rank the most influential factors behind their investments, they pointed to:

  • Increasing pressure on business performance and profitability (60%)

  • Technology advancements (54%)

  • Buyers more readily accept the remote selling process (47%)

Interestingly, 84% of respondents stated that inside sales models allow them to onboard new salespeople and share best practices more easily, while 79% stated that the model would enable their sales organizations to scale faster.

“Today, there is a changing perception among sales leaders about the strategic role inside sales performs,” contends Martin. “This change is due to the benefits that sales leaders believe the inside model provides in terms of scaling activity, growing the organization, and attacking specific markets.”

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Essentialism at SXSW

You’re challenged to focus. But you’re distracted.

And so is your buyer.

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You can only cut through the cacophony if you keep your message clear, concise and on point.

What are the three key issues you want to address?

Or…

What are the three problems your prospect may be experiencing in the absence of your solution?

Lock onto them and stay locked.

As Essentialism author Greg McKeown argued at SXSW this past week, you succeed through “the disciplined pursuit of less.”

SXSW-Interactive

Another speaker, Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week and The Four Hour Chef, made the case for “accelerated learning” — requiring you to learn only what is necessary in order to become proficient and skillful. No need for overkill. Be selective in what you study.

That’s true for your prospective buyers, too. Be selective in what you teach and the ideas you share.

By being an essentialist, you can accelerate their comprehension — and increase their enthusiasm for your offering.

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