The topic of sales is loaded; everyone seems to have a strong opinion about what works and what doesn’t. Is it personality? Is it persistence? Is it knowledge of the product you’re selling? Or is it a unique combination of all three that are required to be a successful sales person?

I want to talk about how the environment in which sales operates has greatly changed in my lifetime and how COVID-19, like so many other things, is going to accelerate this evolution. I think the ability and willingness for sales resources to evolve to this new reality will continue to have a larger and larger impact on their overall effectiveness.

A salesperson used to be the exclusive way you engaged with a company in a business-to-business relationship. You had to engage with sales to learn about the products, understand the pricing, place orders, and get status. In fact, sales was the de facto intermediary between customers and the rest of the company. They were customers’ first impression of the company and their only way of conducting business with the company. I think this is where the pattern of “relationship sales” started because you were literally forced to interact with these individuals very regularly. 

So much has changed. Yet, so many sales people continue to act like nothing has changed.

It's time to face up to the fact that potential customers’ first impression of your company is most likely online. Have you thought about the investment in your company’s website given that fact? When people are looking for new vendor partners, where are they turning? Google, Google, Google—have you thought about search engine optimization (SEO) in terms of that fact? Can potential customers find you? When I say this to printers, they often say “Jennie, you just don’t get it. We don’t get our customers online, we get our customers from direct contact via our sales team.” You get what you focus on. And with the younger generation taking over, good luck on that direct calling, personal engagement front. Can you get your own children to answer their phones?

The environment in which sales takes place has radically changed. It’s time for print sales people to evolve to meet this new reality. It’s not just online vs. in-person. It’s about what you deliver in the sales process. Since you are no longer a necessary intermediary, you have to provide more value than an order taker. I like to think about sales as engaging with prospects and customers and spending their time. By “their time,” I’m talking about your customer’s time. What is your sales person delivering in exchange for the customer spending their time? It better be valuable. The individual stakeholders at your customers had two jobs when the 2008 crash happened. If they survived that, they got one or two more. Then COVID-19 hit and they picked up another one or two. Now individuals are being asked to do the job that used to be filled by four or five resources (from home with three kids, two dogs, and an in-law). They can’t do it all so they have to get outside vendors to help them. This is an opportunity.

This means you as a sales representative have to deliver value—not in price breaks, or responsiveness. I’m talking about solving the customers’ challenges (making their jobs easier). You are not an order taker; you’re a consultant. This probably comes as a shock to traditional, old school sales people. It’s a fact of life now. Customers don’t need a live body in their offices to place orders—they don’t have time for it, no matter how many doughnuts you bring. What customers want out of a sales process is solutions to their challenges. This is why sales is starting to feel more like consulting.

You might be saying to yourself, “My sales team can’t do that.” Good—you should be asking if they can because the order taking days are over. That brand of sales has actually been ineffective for years; COVID-19 is merely accelerating its obliteration. The expectation of sales is consulting. Not consulting on the intricacies of printing, but consultation on how you can solve the customer’s challenges andproduce their printed materials as part of the solution. When this goes well, it is magic. A consultative sales approach designs a program that starts way upstream of the print manufacturing which is a win-win for both parties. The customers’ lives are made easier, the printer locks themselves into the customer and cannot be displaced due to price. Rob and Jack—I’m thinking of you two here; I love witnessing the magic! This makes the sale a whole lot more complicated which further frustrates traditional sales teams. These are not new ideas; my favorite sales book of all time was published in 2011: The Challenger Sale. It is brilliant because it destroys our sentimental attachment to the “relationship sale”—it is the least effective sales approach (based on data, not emotions).