Acumen, agility and sales archetypes

22nd May 2020 |   Journal Of Sales Transformation

Nick de Cent is in conversation with Philip Stylund, discussing sales strategy post-COVID-19 and the blended world of the future.

Philip Stylund
Philip Stylund

Philip Styrlund is CEO of The Summit Group and a recognised thought leader on business value transformation. He has served on the Board of Directors for SAMA (Strategic Account Management Association) and also leads the CEO Forum as part of the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. He is on the board of OppSource, an AI-guided sales platform developer, and a board advisor for Nanocopoeia, Fourteen Foods, and The Frauenshuh Companies. He is one of the co-founders of the International Journal of Sales Transformation.

Nick de Cent: In these times of great uncertainty, do you predict that the rush to online sales that we’re seeing will further broaden the divide between simple and complex sales in B2B? And what I mean by that is: are simple sales going to be mainly online and through different kinds of bots and that kind of thing, but are complex sales also going to go online but in a different way using teleconferencing, and so on? What’s your view and will the middle be squeezed even further?

Phil Styrlund: I think the middle will be squeezed and we can look at it in two vectors: one is the medium, and yes, more and more, I think now that people have experienced – especially for the last two months – the whole virtual marketplace, I think the concept of having to meet live all the time has just gone away. I think, as they say in the L&D world, it’s going to be more of a blended world where it will be a combination of live and virtual, but much more selling will be done virtually because it just makes sense, and now people have just embraced it and adopted it because we’ve had to.

I think it’s a given, virtual will be the new live, but it will not totally displace live.

Now, on the other vector of complex versus simple. I don’t think that changes. We’ve talked about it before that it’s the end of the middle, and I think the traditional, simple selling will go to the web; it will got to the bots; it’ll go to AI. There’s no question about that. And then the rest is strategic selling. I’ve always said back in the old days we used to have, you know, general selling skills and strategic selling skills; now there’s only one type, strategic selling. And so that’s what I see as the end of the middle, much more of a focus on strategic selling.

The world of selling has changed dramatically, and the world of sales training, especially, has not caught up with it. Sales training is still based on the traditional art of persuasion. I think for the last 20-plus years, sales training has been built on the art of persuasion, and we’re now in what I call a post-persuasion world.

NdeC: There can be tremendous cost and efficiency savings here in terms of reduced travel time, not having to spend on hotels and airlines, and all this kind of stuff. Do you think that’s going to outweigh the downturn in sales or is it going to be dwarfed by the downturn in sales; how do you think it’ll pick up over the medium term?

PS: I think the key to the whole thing is ultimately a scalable global vaccine, OK, and there won’t be a return to the old days. It’ll be a return to the new days, but any return to a societal or a marketplace normalcy, if you will, is going to be a vaccine. You know, we work a lot in healthcare and the simple truth is that’s an 18-month window. You just can’t accelerate some things. I think there’s going to be a lot of hope in some short-term things, but the truth is it’s probably 18 months. So, the reality is that we’re looking probably through 2021 to early 2022 before there’s any return to what we used to know.

Now, I think companies are going to be looking at cost per transaction. So. yes, I think there’s going to be much more scrutiny on travel. It will be selective and focused but it’s going to be much more targeted because people are seeing that, with these new platforms, you can get so much done. And, I just read yesterday, there’s going to be an enormous amount of investment from Google and other companies in investing in new platforms.

So in the North American market, for example, the core four are, of course, Webex, Zoom, Adobe, and Microsoft Teams, but then Google Hangout is kind of coming on as the fifth. I think in probably six to eight months, you’re going to see at least three to four major new platforms coming online, which will create some functionality that we can’t even imagine. That will, again, reduce the need for travel.

The inside will become the new outside; inside selling will largely be the new outside selling.

NdeC: So, for a typical multinational client of yours, I mean what kind of travel savings, and cost reductions are we looking at?

PS: Well, it would be significant. I mean if you look at just the amount of travel costs in the SG&A of a major corporation, it’s a massive number; and also the amount of lost time too, to be honest with you. So, I think it’s going to be fundamentally a new look at overall sales efficiency and effectiveness, because that number’s just a massive number. And I think those days of mass travel are probably gone.

NdeC: And do you think this translates into slightly smaller sales forces because you’ve made those efficiency gains, ie that one individual can work more efficiently, spend more hours selling, or do you just think they’re going to add more firepower by keeping the same size of salesforce but just letting them sell more?

PS: I think number one, the inside will become the new outside; inside selling will largely be the new outside selling. And then there’ll be a much smaller force called strategic selling people that, again, may still meet live, and will be used for very specific type of functions. But, generally, I think you’re going to see this whole area of sales enablement platforms infused with AI; along with inside sales that will become more of the core of selling going forward.

NdeC: Are you seeing COVID as the catalyst that’s bringing forward all of these changes to the present?

PS: Yes, I think COVID is accelerating a trend that was already in motion. I think instead of making it a three-to-five-year trend, it’s more like a three-to-five-month acceleration now – simply because crisis creates clarity.

NdeC: The next question is around potentially needing more higher-quality salespeople working on more complex sales – strategic selling. Are there enough of them? Are the skills changing? What’s your view on that?

PS: Well I think, first of all, there aren’t enough and we go back to the original London Business School research that Phil [Squire] did. It goes back to what we call the 7% research among customers. They said only 7% of who they deal with are actually business relevant. So, I think the truth is that the world of selling has changed dramatically, and the world of sales training, especially, has not caught up with it, because I think sales training is still based on the traditional art of persuasion. I think for the last 20-plus years, sales training has been built on the art of persuasion, and we’re now in what I call a post-persuasion world.

It’s not about persuasion; it’s about alignment. Sales, now, is about aligning the assets, the competencies, the capabilities of your company to the issues and the pressures of your customer. That’s selling. It’s not about persuading anymore. So, I think it’s a fundamentally new set of skills, and it goes back to our whole ethos of, you know, you’ve got to be a businessperson not a salesperson.

I spoke with an executive at one of our healthcare clients a couple of weeks ago, and she said something interesting. She said, you know, when we come out of this, we’re going to remember which companies tried to sell to us and which companies tried to help us. And I think that simple statement encapsulates what I would call the big shift of COVID. Customers do not want to be sold to right now; they want to be listened to and they want to be helped. In fact, as the research has said, they never did want to be sold to in the first place, but especially now the last thing you want to do is be the old, traditional, what I call, persuasion-based salesperson.

And this is why we’re going to be putting out a whole new series of videos on our YouTube channel around the shift from what I call business development to business continuity. Because I think, especially for the next couple of years, the question will be: what are you and your company doing to fortify your customer’s business model? That’s a word I really love because, if you look at the word, it talks about to protect and defend and strengthen. I think strategic selling is about defending, strengthening and fortifying your customer’s business model by aligning your capabilities with their issues. That, to me, is the definition of the next generation of strategic selling.

So it’s critically important, number one, that sales and the sales teams are now the great articulators of what the customers in the market are seeking. But they need to be articulators on the inside not just the outside.

NdeC: What about alignment between sales and marketing. Indeed, some of the other people I’ve talked to go further and talk about a need for greater alignment between sales, marketing, and customer service, and basically everywhere along the interface between the client and yourself. How do you see things panning out?

PS: Well, I tell you, it’s never mattered more. I’ve always said, you know, marketing is the oxygen of sales, and right now sales and marketing need to be hand in glove because it’s that docking station between the two that will create the agility for your company. Because, let’s face it, agility is the new scale. The companies that are going to survive this are the ones that can be, as one of our clients call it, in a state of permanent pivoting. The ability to pivot based on where their customers are going.

So it’s critically important, number one, that sales and the sales teams are now the great articulators of what the customers in the market are seeking. But they need to be articulators on the inside not just the outside. And then marketing needs to help sales become what I call real-time relevant, which is how do you make sure your product, services and solutions are immediately relevant in the moment.

So, there’s going to be much more synergy needed to create the agility to create that real-time relevance to create companies that can be in a state of permanent pivoting, and that’s all about the conjoining of sales and marketing.

NdeC: So let’s actually talk about agility for a minute, because obviously this is something we hear a lot about, and small, entrepreneurial organisations are good at it. But when does agility become just responding tactically, and what I mean by that is how do you preserve elements of strategy and new longer-term strategy that you’re going to need while remaining agile?

PS: Well I think what we’re seeing, you know, as we look across our client base, what the smart companies are doing now is re-segmenting and taking a really hard look at their markets, how their market segments maybe will shift in the new economy, and really taking a much more realistic view at which customers and segments they want to invest more in, and which ones they want to invest less in.

It’s really about not chasing all business but being more focused on chasing the right business. So, when we say pivoting, it’s pivoting within a framework. Because what a company can’t do is respond to everything because then everything becomes a one-off, and your margins and your R&D, it’s just not scalable. You have to understand, you know, what are your swim lanes, metaphorically, and then how do you pivot within those, and then be very, very clear on what’s good business and what’s not good business for your company.

Those who go deeper in fewer areas are going to flourish, and those who try to be too much to too many are going to flounder in the new economy. So it’s really about focus, clarity, and, as we would say, kind of pivoting within a framework, if that makes sense.

It boils down to this single thing: attracting, retaining and engaging the right talent.

NdeC: So, what do we think sales leadership will be doing? What are their worries and thoughts are at the moment? What do you think is going through the mind of the average sales leader? And, what are the best ones doing about it, and what are the worst ones doing about it?

PS: The best ones realise the simple truth: your culture is your future; everything else is a commodity and the soft stuff is the hard stuff, because the hard stuff has gone to the cloud or AI. So, the simple truth is that your ability to attract, maintain, and here’s the key word, and engage the right people has never mattered more. Because here’s the irony, the crisis of COVID really followed what I call the crisis of disengagement. One of the things we’d seen before COVID even arrived in the last few months, is a general issue globally of just what I’ll call the crisis of disengagement.

And now we’ve got this crisis of the economy and everything to follow that. What I think now, as companies reform and come back, because, you know, almost every one of our clients, the word here in the States is furloughed, and furloughed is just a euphemism to say: “We’re not sure you’re coming back.” The question is, once people are furloughed, how do you determine who you bring back? And I think, as sales leaders look at that, they’re not just going to be looking at skillset but, just as importantly, at mind-set. Does this person have the right mind-set?

The human operating system has three domains, skillset, mind-set and experience-set. And we’ve always said that mind-set matters more, and now that matters more than ever. Because you could have smart people, but the key is are they intellectually agile, and are they personally resilient? Because the smart person who’s not resilient isn’t going to do well in the new economy. It boils down to this single thing: attracting, retaining and engaging the right talent.

NdeC: Just expand for me a little bit more on the crisis of disengagement, what you mean by that.

PS: Well, I wrote a chapter for a friend who has just written a book called The Crisis of Disengagement. What we had found (in a pre-COVID world) is that people were showing up to work but they were mentally not fully engaged. An executive in HR, one of our clients, she said: “You know, my problem isn’t absenteeism. It’s presenteeism; people are physically at work, but they’re mentally not fully engaged.” Someone once said that people bring about two-thirds of their mental energy to work and they keep about one-third in reserve, and I think there’s something to that. There’s just this sense of disengagement.

One of the things I’m wondering about right now is, because so many companies have let go people, there’s this giant breach of trust in companies – because, when times get tough, companies let go of people. So, I think there’s going to be – almost going to have to be – some kind of new, emotional contract out there between companies and employees.

NdeC: Are sales leaders going to be firefighting or planning ahead? This also goes back to this idea of being strategic but agile. How do you balance these two, responding to the instant and then making sure you’re adapting to the new realities?

PS: You do that by being what I call the great framer, to bring order to chaos. Working with our clients right now, we’re unpacking the next era into four phases.

  • The first is the resolve stage; what is it right now, today, that needs resolving and resolution and fixing, so what’s the immediate?
  • The second is the resilience phase, which is how can you help your customer get back on their feet, get their people back to work, and just some of the basic functions to make them resilient to what we believe to be an 18-month to two-year window?
  • The third is return, return them to cashflow because cashflow is the oxygen of every business. And every supplier should be asking a simple question: what can I bring to help return cashflow to my customer? Because if my customer is not alive, I’m not alive, metaphorically.
  • And in the fourth stage is reimagining. How do you help your customer reimagine what they need to look like going forward?

We do a great deal of work in the automotive space right now. Think about the automotive industry in a post-COVID world and the whole area of mobility. Are people going to want to get into an Uber in the next 18 months? Are people going to want to hire cars or rent cars? Will people want to buy cars? Because there’s going to be a scarring of people on the economy, and even if you have money will you want to spend it? That’s just one example of how they’re going to have to rethink how people will consume mobility. You have to help your customer reinvent themselves because, if they don’t, then they won’t be around.

Distinguishing Competencies
Figure 1: Next-generation sales archetype.

NdeC: Is now a good opportunity to refresh salespeople’s skills, if they’re not actually that busy, and should we be instilling more of a lifelong learning attitude? And what are the skills that are changing, if any of them are changing?

PS: I’ll answer this with a visual (Figure 1). It’s an archetype that we’re using now more than ever to upgrade the “operating system” of people. So, if you think of three concentric rings, the inner ring is character, because trust is everything and it’s going to matter even more in a new economy. So, it’s not just about your intelligence; it’s are you trustable?

You’ll recall the work of Fred Kiel and his book Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win. He talked about four core character habits: integrity, responsibility, forgiveness, and compassion. What he found is people that have those four character habits produce upwards of 20% higher financial returns because they’re trustable people, and trust will be an immense currency in the new economy. So the centre ring is what we call character habits.

The second ring is what I call the four acumens: IQ, EQ, AQ, and TQ. IQ, of course, is your fixed range of intelligence; it’s baked into your DNA and it matters more than ever. You have to have a baseline of intelligence. Second is EQ; it’s your acuity for dealing with emotions and relationships and it amplifies, by the way, your IQ. We all know people that have high IQ but low EQ – EA allows you to be relevant, responsive, and influential.

It’s never mattered more than right now to de-risk the sales cycle.

The third is AQ, which is acquisition quotient, how you acquire new knowledge, how you learn and grow. It’s so important because we’re going to have to be learning so many new things, but what’s important is a person’s ability to understand how they learn. What I call their learned ability.

And the fourth acumen is TQ, technology quotient. There are two levels to this. Number one, is understanding technology at a macro level in terms of what’s the impact of technology on my customer’s business model (looking at the major technologies of AI, block chain, virtual reality, biometrics, big data, cloud, quantum nano, and 3D)? The question is what’s that going to mean to your customer’s business model? The second is how you use technology in your personal life to handle low-value functions so you can free up your time for human interaction for high-value functions. And, by the way, I think a big part of TQ is how you use virtual technologies now and project over virtual technologies.

Then the final outer ring are the four competency areas – I call them the four pillars. I won’t go into the detail of them but there are four core pillars of what we call sales competencies. The first is customer engagement and understanding your customer’s business; it’s the most important. Do you understand your customer’s business model?

The second is solution and resource alignment. Once you’ve understood your customer’s business model and their issues, do you now understand what your own company has and can bring? The third area is the ability to articulate and quantify value. So now you’ve understood your customer you know what you can bring, but here the question is: can you frame it, can you articulate the business case, and can you quantify the value? And then the fourth area of competency is the ability to drive the execution. Can you get it done? Can you align resources on the inside of your own company to deliver?

Your customers now can be your source of navigation.

NdeC: Obviously, people are going to be worried about risk. How do you qualify? What kind of issues should you be thinking about, and what do you do about motivating salespeople when they’re pursuing what they think is a good opportunity and then it gets taken away or shut down, because it’s considered to be too risky to supply them?

PS: Part of this is that for a businessperson realism is the new optimism. One of the challenges of traditional salespeople is they can be what I call dangerously optimistic; they can believe all business is good business. I think right now it’s important to be a wise businessperson, to be radically realistic and to really make sure that your customer has funding – this is an A list initiative, that you’re dealing with the right people. It’s an economy of attention right now, and so are you getting the mind share of the right people, and is this good business? We do a great deal of work around helping people discern what’s good business and what’s not good business. I think that’s never mattered more than right now to de-risk the sales cycle.

NdeC: On a slightly different note, we’re used to seeing massive kick-offs and sales conferences, that kind of thing. Do you think they’re gone for ever or will they pick up again in 18 months’ time, or are they going to be virtual? What do you think is going to happen there?

PS: I think you’re going to see a massive desire for people to come together again. And we’re hearing that from every one of our clients that are already thinking, planning and dreaming of what I call the great reunion. Because people are just hungry for personal connection. They’re tired of looking at screens, they’re tired of being on Zoom calls. None of that can displace or replace human interaction. So, I think you’re going to see a huge what I call re-humanisation, because you can’t build a culture on a Zoom call. Part of going forward is the new “blended” world: interactions will still be virtual and human, but after this COVID period, I think there’s going to be just this wonderful, delightful, magnificent time that people want to gather again. And I just dream of that day and I know you do, too.

The great leaders are the truth tellers right now, who aren’t sugar coating things, and saying ‘I don’t know’, and just being very transparent.

NdeC: So the final question. Because you’ve been, obviously, talking to your clients continuously, are there three things that you can pick out that clients have said to you relating to selling during the COVID crisis?

PS: Yes. I think number one is be a thinker not a knower, right now. Nobody knows. If somebody tells you that they know; they don’t know. Number two is strategic planning is now 90 days; right now let’s just look at the short-term. We talked about four phases earlier, and right now it’s about moving through that and getting to the reimagined phase. So, don’t get too far in front of your headlights. Number three is the most important: use your top, best and brightest customers as your source of navigation.

This is why the world of selling has never mattered more. It’s not just about revenue. It’s about focusing on your best, brightest, most crucial customers and getting and understanding their voice and listening to them, and then bringing that back inside of your own company as, in essence, the GPS system through the chaos that we are going to be facing in front of us. In other words, your customers now can be your source of navigation. And they have to be.

All of that fits under that archetype I mentioned earlier of shifting your mind-set from a BD to a BC, from business development to business continuity – keeping your customer in business to keep your company in business.

NdeC: And what sort of things are they saying to you candidly?

PS: Well, I think, first of all, this totally lacks precedent. There’s no historical basis for this. This is what I call a post-precedent moment. Number two is there’s just this malaise within cultures right now of what’s coming, so I think it’s just keeping people engaged and rounded right now. The third is that the great leaders are the truth tellers right now, who aren’t sugar coating things, and saying “I don’t know”, and just being very transparent. And those are the leaders that people are rallying behind, people who are pragmatists not theorists. People are resonating with people that make sense.

Now I might be too hopeful here, but I believe that maybe this crisis can get us, at least in the US, beyond this political polarisation that we’ve got going on here. What I’m seeing in my circle of clients, friends, and family, is people don’t care who’s a Republican or Democrat anymore. Do you know what they care about: who makes sense and who doesn’t make sense?

I’ll leave you with this. My dad, who lived through the Great Depression here in the US, had a simple phrase. He said: “There’s no political parties in a soup line.” When you’re lined up for food, people don’t affiliate with a political party. And I think that’s what a crisis does; it flushes out the trivial, and maybe I’m too much of an optimist in this area… but maybe, one of the great benefits of this crisis is it can transcend the polarisation that’s occurring – not just within our country, but especially within our country.

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