In denial about sales methodology

12th December 2019 |   Ian Helps

Are we witnessing the rise of account leadership and the fall of sales methodology?

I contend that what customers really want today is so far removed from what salespeople are being told to do that we face a stark choice: replace sales methodologies with real leaders of accounts who are co-creative, deserve high trust and who encourage the agile-change buying revolution. Or face replacement by an automated bot.

Did we miss the shift?

Consider this scenario…. It’s 6.30pm on a sunny Friday evening and Emma would love to be at home with her children. But she still has a stack more work to do, to keep her data up to date on CRM, get ready for Monday’s forecast call, and show to her boss how she’s using the new sales methodology in next week’s customer meetings. She prides herself on being the good corporate citizen but she’s spending 20% of her time on CRM and forecasting preparation and yet again it looks like she’ll only hit 80% of target this year. If only she could get more high-quality time with customers. Maybe next year.

How can Emma hit 100% or more of target? Why is Emma struggling to get the customer time she wants? Just maybe, whilst the world of B2B sales was flat-out busy, myopically fixated on systems, process, methodology, two-minute videos on our latest products, on detailed reporting, we missed the shift; we didn’t notice it, or hoped it wasn’t true. The world of our customers has irreversibly transformed and we are being commanded by those customers to march to their tune, to help them to find new answers in a chaotically changing world, to meet their bosses’ demands for instant business transformation to embrace the new digital technologies that could revolutionise their customer’s business success.

Both Emma and her employer are probably yet to appreciate it’s already happened, let alone find the best ways to adapt.

Digital is destabilising our world

What happened? Why is B2B largely in denial about what’s going on, focussing on the latest sales methodology versus actually interacting with customers the way they want to when buying? Why are so many B2B sales experiences so dire? I have experienced two B2B sales cycles recently as a buyer. In one I was lied to on what was possible yet, in another similar sale, I had a great experience, led by people who really, really loved their subject and knew it inside out and were prepared to “tell it like it is”.

The key reason for the shift is that digital has completely destabilised our world as end consumers. We expect wonderful customer experience based on some B2C leviathans (eg Amazon) and also on local bespoke services from people who know us and our families and who deeply care about fitness, food or flowers – and we expect the experience to keep improving, and its pace of change to get faster.

Sales methodology is dying…. The alternative is to be replaced by AI and bots. They love repeatable methodology.

Meanwhile, at the expert end of things, I have been struck by discussions with deep domain experts in disparate fields, including medical research, software and large-scale engineering. Although they can see what’s around the corner, clearly communicate what’s possible for their own customers, they find it really hard to quickly sell these big new concepts and are hesitant to predict what will actually happen in a few years either. And all because the digital revolution keeps making totally new things possible, which society and regulation takes a strong view on before the facts can be understood.

Our collective actions as customers in both B2C and B2B are to seek instant gratification, wait when we can, and only commit to new projects and innovations in B2B when we have to. We sensibly keep the scale small and retain more options in the future, whatever that may bring. This does not sit well with sales methodologies that were developed for a different, slower world of the static, the definable, where we could sell to the customer one big solution based on our solutions, which we and marketing could demonstrate were better than the competition, the biggest solution we can persuade customers to buy.

And those same sales methodologies are the norm today. No wonder one of the most frequent reasons for us losing B2B sales is “no decision”.

Account leader

So, what does a more fitting approach to B2B sales look like? I suggest that the very words “account manager” betrays a lack of appreciation for what’s gone on. Customers don’t want to be managed, corralled into whatever the salesperson on their organisation has in store for them. In some cases, your customers – especially CIOs in IT, have started to “fire” their account manager – demanding they be replaced by someone who gets the shift.

Customers want something totally different. They want an Account Leader (AL) with the following key characteristics, notable already in some of the “A players” on our sales teams, especially the ones that have long-term client relationships amidst a lot of client change. I can think of one person, who within 12 months of joining his new company, in a new field for him, was able to sell more than an entire mid-sized country team had achieved that year for the same employer! We can discern five key characteristics that these players bring to their customers:

Firstly, they are trusted almost beyond reproach and the customer feels that the Account Leader is “on their team”. Under these circumstances the AL is allowed into the inner sanctum of knowledge, hopes and fears, given friendly access to top-level people, passes into the building, a place to work, a customer email account. I am proud to say that I have such a relationship with my top client. The AL thereby finds out key insights about the customer that others, outsiders, will never find out. And the AL does not abuse that precious position of trust, or all this is lost.

Secondly, the AL has high domain wisdom. This means that they are reflective, thoughtful, spending time on what works and why, able to connect the subtleties of their domain, the solutions they sell, the non-obvious ways in which it has helped other customers in practice, in a wise, considered way to help solve the customer’s unique challenges and opportunities. The AL knows that general platitudes of success stories “in organisations a bit like yours” are almost insultingly simplistic.

Thirdly, this wise connectedness allows them to be highly co-creative and proactively find novel solutions to customers’ organisational challenges, beyond what the customer even knew was possible. This all makes the customer look great internally, as their business finds new ways to be more successful and keeps the goodwill flowing.

Fourth, the AL is a consummate transformational account leader. They have invested in their own professional growth, they have demonstrated clear vision and stretching goals for their customers, their account, and invite others to join them. They somehow seem to have more “clout” than their colleagues, yet this has all been gained informally, not by dint of organisational position.

Fifth, they are a change orchestrator. Whilst everyone claims to want transformational results, digital transformation, and so on, they also want to avoid the pain and risk that goes with it, or at least minimise and manage it. In this VUCA1 world of big new possibilities just around the corner, the transformational leader appreciates this and knows how to help the customer navigate via the right first step, followed by a continual and connected series of agile projects and programmes that build demonstrable value-add and which can only be discovered fully when the preceding steps are worked-through.

They also know that they are there to support their customer on a journey of major internal change, so the transformational Account Leader is a facilitator of this change, working alongside their key client contacts, versed on how to drive agile organisational change.

Stop and listen to customers

Given these intersecting and highly demanding capabilities, it is evident that few organisations or Account Leaders today are equipped to be what their customers need them to be. So what’s the first step for Emma and her company? Why not take time to stop, listen to customers and reflect on the implications, to make greater sense of their transforming needs and then find an agile path to make the shift.

Sales methodology is dying; are you prepared to make the shift? The alternative is to be replaced by AI and bots. They love repeatable methodology.

1 VUCA = Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.

Director and shareholder of Consalia | + posts

Ian Helps is a director and shareholder of Consalia and is passionate about helping others reach their potential through deeply connecting their personal values to those of their business. This has led to complementary interests, including being a Practice Advisory Board member for Cranfield Business School and the Chair of the Standards in Sales Group for the Association of Professional Sales. Ian holds an MBA from Henley Business School.