Meet the New Consultative Salesperson

 "A—always! B—be! C—closing! Always be closing!" Salespeople and movie buffs alike recognize Alec Baldwin's memorable line from the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, and it captured the classic "brute force" method of selling: Literally, get your foot in that door, and don't get out until the sale is complete.

Sales methodologies eventually evolved to a kinder, gentler consultative approach—although one wherein the balance of power still lies with sales. The salesperson learns his prospect's needs and then suggests the product or service (typically his own) that will meet their needs. Mind you, this isn't a particularly new concept—in fact, it dates back to the mid-1960s and the Sandler Sales method—but the tried-and-true approach was linear: need identified, solution suggested, haggling conducted, contract signed, sale complete—and maybe a call or visit around the holidays, over drinks.

The overarching message: We, the salespeople, know what you need, and you are going to take our advice and buy it. Selling is an asymmetrical process—heavily tipped in our favor. Buy it. You know you want it, because I know more about you than you do.

Wow, kind of creepy, right? And then came the Internet—and along with everything else it changed, it equalized the balance of power. Customers now had access to many of the same tools as sales forces—as well as the ability to search social channels, read reviews, and further educate themselves.

And that's exactly what they did: According to a recent Forrester Research report, nearly three fourths of buyers are conducting online research before engaging with sales, and sales organizations need to adapt.

So the consultative process has changed—salespeople actually need to listen to their customers.

With all this information available, is the salesman (or saleswoman) dead as we knew them—or a glorified order taker? No—but smart companies and good salespeople have recognized the change and are adapting.

Selling is no longer linear—the sales cycle is ongoing, particularly in technology, as offerings move from discrete, one-time implementations to recurring, ongoing services. Along with that, the buyer is likely to know as much as the seller—about their own business, about their needs, and about the seller's product or service. And it's the salesperson's job to listen to these needs and design solutions that meet them.

It's time for the modern sales organization to adapt, mixing technology with classic elements of good selling: strong relationships, trust, and, above all, engagement.

Admittedly, engagement is a very trendy word right now—companies want to engage with their employers by offering them the best places to work, brands want to engage with their customers outside of the supermarket aisle—but in this case, I mean four things: the creation of genuine, ongoing relationships with multiple individuals; an active interest in and understanding of the customer's business; the ability to crisply articulate how one's products and services can create value; and a sense of the overall health of an account.

Engagement has traditionally fallen under the auspices of marketing—but now marketing and sales must partner to show they care through engagement. And the higher up the food chain salespeople can engage with power contacts, the greater influence they can have throughout the process.

To navigate the changing sales landscape, I recommend a few steps:

Broaden your footprint. Consultative salespeople build a wide sphere of influence with the key players in each deal. They map out gaps in their relationships and make sure they cover enough ground and develop contacts throughout important parts of the organization.

Communicate often, in a style to which your customer is receptive. Consultative sellers are effective communicators who get their customers talking more by inspecting the words and phrases they use for clues about their criteria, goals, and competitive threats.

If you see something, do something. Consultative sellers pay attention to negative signals in the deal. Waning engagement could mean a competitor is in the process of usurping your relationship. Many sales reps miss these clues because the customer may keep a glimmer of hope alive to maintain pricing pressure on the new vendor—if you sense a relationship is growing frosty or distant, it probably is.

There are emerging CRM technologies that provide real-time relationship intelligence—something I like to call "CRM for Humans." And earlier this year, Nucleus Research included "CRM becomes predictive" as one of its forecasts for the coming year. These technological advances will help level a playing field that, for the first time, favors the buyer over the seller.

Ultimately, it comes down to adaptation—from linear processes to ongoing relationships, where "Always be closing" becomes "Always be listening"—literally, to conversations, and through the recognition of trends and patterns through new CRM technologies.

And I think these are approaches that even Sheldon "The Machine" Levene could appreciate.

Gordon Burnes is CMO at CRM provider Bullhorn, Inc. He served previous stints in marketing and strategy leadership with IBM and OpenPages. You can follow him on Twitter at @gordonburnes. He can be reached at gburnes@bullhorn.com.

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