From Flatlining to Thriving

For the past several years, the focus for business management has been on finding ways to cut costs. There has been no shortage of highly skilled individuals with a significant level of expertise and experience in cutting every possible penny of expense from business operations.

Now, senior leadership is realizing there is little left to cut. Top-line revenue is becoming the primary focus. Companies are turning to their sales organizations in an effort to find ways in which to differentiate their offerings and drive profitable sales growth. As a result, "sales transformation" has become the catchphrase for many executives in the C-suite.

Unfortunately, if you ask 10 different executives what sales transformation means, you may get 10 different answers. As a result, few companies, if any, have successfully transformed. Sales are still flat, margins continue to erode, and sales force turnover remains high.

Traditionally, increasing sales has meant finding ways in which companies differentiate products and service. Being faster, better, and more feature-rich and cost-effective are differences that drive product strategies, R&D efforts, marketing and advertising campaigns, sales approaches, and collateral materials.

But, oh, how things have changed.

"It doesn't matter what products you buy. Most products are now good enough to serve the majority of users most of the time," says Simon Hayward, vice president and Gartner fellow.

Most products, especially those from the technology sector, do more than the average customer could ever need them to. Product manuals are inches thick. Just the number of features and functions, in some cases, makes them too overwhelming to consider.

In other words, increasing sales isn't dependent on a company's ability to produce differentiated products and services, but on how they engage and interact with customers to become the best partner possible. That is sales transformation.

That's right. It's not about introducing the "next big thing." We can't all be Apple. In order to gain market share and protect/grow existing customer relationships, organizations must effect a shift in perception among their prospects and customers. They must move from being perceived as an "Approved Vendor" to being viewed as a "Trusted Advisor/Partner."

CSO Insights (, a research firm that surveys thousands of chief sales officers representing a broad spectrum of businesses, defines Approved Vendor as "a company seen by the majority of customers as a legitimate provider of the products or services offered, but [which is] not recognized for having any significant sustainable, competitive edge over alternative offerings." A Trusted Partner is defined by CSO as "a company seen as a long-term partner whose contributions (products, insights, processes, etc.) are viewed as key to clients' long-term success."

Data from CSO Insights Sales Performance Optimization Report shows that while sales performance improved in many areas last year, less than one-third of the organizations surveyed had reached "Trusted Partner" status. For companies achieving it, the rewards were plentiful. Nearly two-thirds of their reps met or exceeded quota, and 90 percent met company plan while experiencing the lowest sales force turnover rate.

So what's the key to transitioning from flatlining to thriving? You have to be an asset. That means your entire sales organization, from field to senior management, has to find ways to become indispensable to your customers. You have to bring more value in your interactions with them, finding ways in which you interpret the power of your products and services into measurable, strategic value to what they are trying to accomplish with their business. Here are a few examples:

1. Invest in a formal sales process for your entire sales organization. Seventy-one percent of companies not yet attaining "Trusted Partner" status with their customers in CSO's survey used random or informal sales processes with their customers. The majority of the 29 percent reaping benefit identified and utilized formal processes or dynamically altered their formal process in response to changes in market conditions, competitive landscape, and/or shifts in the economy. The process itself has to be focused on bringing more value to customers.

2. Change the conversation. For an organization to reach "Trusted Partner" status, it has to be seen as a long-term partner whose contributions are key to clients' long-term success. That means the conversation with your customers has to shift from product/features/functions to the customer's business. It has to shift from IT and purchasing departments to a broad spectrum of people throughout your customer's organization.

Forget about your products and services. In most situations, the only true differentiator will be the amount of measurable impact you have on what your customers are trying to accomplish as a business. If you don't know their vision, goals, plans, etc., you end up being just another "Approved Vendor" peddling the same products and services as others in your category. As a result, customers can perceive there are little, if any, significant differences in your offering. In those cases, if they make a decision to buy, price becomes the determining factor. Salespeople who have business conversations and understand how customers measure success before talking products and services become the "Trusted Partner."

3. Senior managers must be actively involved. A real commitment to transformation is evidenced not only by management acknowledging the requirement to change, but actually experiencing the change with the rest of the organization. True sales transformation doesn't happen when one individual on a team assumes the role of a Trusted Partner. It happens when your entire company assumes that role. A company cannot assume the role unless representatives at the most senior levels understand the formal sales process, set the example, and hold everyone in the organization accountable for transformation.

In conclusion, sales transformation requires changing the behaviors of the people in your organization. All processes—each interaction with customers, every program, everything you do—have to be focused on better understanding your customer's business and finding ways in which you are the best partner possible. The only way to rise above your competition and thrive is to stop focusing on your end results, and begin focusing on your customer's.

Bob Nicols Jr. has 34 years of experience in sales, sales management, executive management, and sales force development. He founded Burton Training Group, now AXIOM Sales Force Development, in 1990. He is the author of The Journey to Sales Transformation: Twenty-Five Axioms for Becoming a Trusted Partner to your Customers.


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