Selling in an Uncertain Age

NEW YORK—It's not technology that's changing the sales profession today. It's how customers are reacting to the uncertainty that results from it. "One of the psychological consequences of being in a state of uncertainty is a reluctance to act," Bob Cialdini, an author and professor at Arizona State University, told the crowd gathered at the Thought Leadership on the Sales Profession Conference here this week. The question sales leaders need to ask, according to Cialdini, is "How do we move them off the fence in the way we present the value proposition we have to offer?"

As some salespeople move from face-to-face meetings to email, phone, or social networks to conduct business, they often have to rework how they interact. That's where Cialdini's principles of social influence come in. One way to influence people is to make them like you, unsurprisingly. Over email, that impact can actually be quantified. He cited a study in which people were asked to come to an agreement to a negotiation over email. A full 30 percent failed. Then they were asked to start by sharing personal information with each other, such as their interests, family composition, and hobbies, and were able to come to an agreement in all but 6 percent of negotiations. Even when using new technology platforms, old-fashioned principles such as reciprocity, increased interest when something is scarce, or being able to communicate authority and trustworthiness pay off for salespeople.

Many of the academics at the conference work at quantifying the impact of different sales methods. Sunil Singh, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri, presented the preliminary findings of "Email Negotiations in B2B Selling." Younger professionals often prefer to work via email, and the cost-effective channel has made it a choice for many companies targeting smaller deals. He looked at the language of emails for a sales team, for characteristics such as ingratiating language, information about the product, and number of emails. He found that being friendly doesn't actually pay off, but minimizing the amount of description about the product and being assertive does. "If you want to be friendly with your customers, only do so if you can also be assertive with them at times. Otherwise you won't win contracts," Singh advised.

Many B2C companies have loyalty programs, but Professor Manfred Krafft of the Univeristy of Munster in Germany believes he has conducted the first analysis of a B2B loyalty program. A company producing chemicals for the agriculture industry created a loyalty program for farmers, who were heavily located in the Bavaria region of Germany. In order for a loyalty program to succeed, it must "spread fast and have a deep penetration," Krafft said. He tried to analyze the program, which was a success, to find out what factors contributed to adoption. During analysis, researchers were able to view the program spread spatially through social contagion, as farmers told others near them about the program. He was also able to see that some regions were very receptive to the program, while others were reluctant in their adoption.

The program also had tiers. Premium "platinum" members were "strong drivers of adoption for nonmembers of the program." Since those premium members turned into program advocates, he advised that companies consider tiers when creating loyalty programs. Furthermore, the company created its tiers based on a "share of wallet" estimate, a calculation of how much pesticide they would use based on farm size. That enabled farms of all sizes to receive the high-tier status.

The conference also provided insight into the state of CRM. During a discussion after a talk about how CRM systems have the potential to improve alignment between sales and marketing, many attendees talked about the broken state of their own or others' CRM systems. Scott Sims, a partner at ZS Associates, often hears that companies have a CRM system, but dismiss its usefulness because the data is bad. "Then the question is, why do they have it?" he said. Tina Reese of AquatixElite, who had presided over a number of CRM projects, said, "What I see over and over is that it's not fully optimized. If you're using forty to fifty percent of capability, it's just a tracking tool. It doesn't help you run your business until it's fully optimized." She also said that management is often to blame for not using the system themselves or mandating that their sales rep use it.

While actually fixing a CRM deployment, may be difficult, the prescription is often the same. "You've got to link to the process," Sims advised. "Find out what the sales process is you expect people to follow, and align your tools. You have to think about how you want the salesperson to sell, and how those tools will allow them to sell better."

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