26th November 2021 | Journal Of Sales Transformation
Mark Davies, Founder, Segment Pulse Limited, Visiting Fellow, Centre for Strategic Marketing and Sales, Cranfield School of Management, and The Advanced Services Group, Aston Business School; Dr Mark Hollyoake, Director, Customer Attuned and Associate Lecturer, University of the West of England; Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy Officer, Corporate Visions; Dr Philip Squire, CEO, Consalia; Philip Styrlund, CEO, The Summit Group
Introductory thoughts from Mark Davies
Following insights gathered from recent conversations with Cranfield KAM Forum Strategy Group members (team meeting) as well as individual discussions with members and private consulting clients, there is a general feeling that things are not back to normal.
Some organisations can see customers “face to face” but it is patchy and there can still be trepidation. The result is that meetings with senior people can occur, but with an allocated 30-minute Zoom slot you must be very precise, develop pre-read and have a good reason to be seen. This has always been the case, but post-Covid, suppliers can find it difficult to get airtime.
Additionally, whilst relationships that were formed pre-Covid (before 2019) can still be robust, if these executives in key posts have changed, it is hard to form new relationships without meeting people (not impossible but it is more challenging). Generally, suppliers are keen to see a return to normal but fully accept that the use of technology (Zoom) is here to stay – a positive but also an adaptation is required in order to form relationships.
Q: What will be the top-three agenda items for sales leaders as businesses emerge from the pandemic?
MD: 1) Gaining a common understanding with large complex global customers is a challenge. With access to customers being more complicated (due to restrictions meeting customers) it can be difficult to have a holistic view that is validated by the customer. Increasingly, customers do not have this clarity themselves anyway (quite often they can find themselves firefighting as supply chains remain fractured by post-Covid challenges.
2) Collaborative innovation was a trend before Covid. It is still an urgent requirement, but forming teams with customers and establishing conversations around new innovative collaborations can be difficult. KAM is shifting into this area of partnering and working to respond to changing competitive environments. The intent to do this is considered important and an opportunity by both parties, but with limited time working together it can be a challenge to progress.
3) Environmental (Carbon Neutral) supply positions is becoming more essential that an add-on request. This is a different shift in perspective, not necessarily related to Covid. Key account managers are the bridge between suppliers and customers; they need to have environmental aspects built into customer value propositions.
4) Maybe something that is unique to KAM, but some of the information that is offered by platforms providing critical business information is out of sync with what is required. KAM planning templates are often unique (for each organisation) – standard CRM systems quite often do not align. This is a challenge that has been around for a while and is not linked to Covid.
TR: 1) Enabling their teams to deliver more effective virtual, digital, inside selling conversations and presentations. 2) Moving from “technology-optional” to “technology-essential”, especially engagement tools that ensure consistency and persistency across the customer journey. 3) Driving more deliberate integration with marketing and customer success for a singular commercial process that optimizes the customer experience.
PSq: 1) Building trusted relationships with customers – connected versus connecting. 2) Coaching sales teams. 3) Rebounding and scaling sales activity.
PSt: 1) Without question, the top issue that we’ve observed that has emerged as a result of Covid (and will also remain as a result of Covid) is talent attraction and retention. The simple truth is this: people no longer need to move locations to move jobs. So now it is much easier than ever to recruit and move people. So, it will be increasingly important to proactively attract and retain talent in ways that have never been focused upon before. This includes focusing on both soft currency and hard currency. It’s not just about money; it’s about companies that provide meaning, purpose and respect.
2) The second issue is around the shifting customer engagement models and coverage models. As the world shifts to a more blended/virtual-selling model it’s now been shown that people don’t always need to be face to face.
3) The third issue is to have meaningful and relevant interaction.
What are the new skills required? It is simple… to be relevant. What hasn’t changed from before Covid (whether an interaction is live or virtual) is, if you’re not relevant, you’re not going to make a difference for your customer.
The next skillset is around your own company. The key will not so much be the customer, but how sales professionals can keep and increase the agility of their own company’s responsiveness to customers’ needs. Companies that continue to remain product-focused instead of market and customer-focused will flounder. Companies that listen, that innovate, and then adapt will be the winners in the future period. So, it has never been more important that sales professionals elevate their skills of structured storytelling in conveying the voice of their customer to the minds of their senior leadership of their own company.
Your values are now ultimately your value proposition. So, the culture and character of your company is now ultimately the value that you bring to your customer.
Q: Are these the same three agenda items that appear every year?
TR: These are emerging trends that instantly became necessary in transformation, and will soon become the operating norm. Sales leaders will find they are not in control of this shift. It is happening to them with customers realizing there are better ways to engage, buy and re-buy. The pandemic forced everyone to reckon with the digitization of selling versus the holdout and stiff-arm position many sales leaders had assumed.
Q: If so, what are the top-three new agenda items that sales leaders will be thinking about for 2022?
MD: 1) Environmental issues take centre stage. 2) Managing fragile supply chains (helping and advising customers across the entire supply chain. 3) Developing relationships via a mix of communication channels (digital and direct). 4) The need for KAM (and building a single view of complex customers) is seen as very important – especially developing this single view in a complex/shifting environment.
TR: We are working with companies running field trials trying to answer questions for them like: “Can we move from local, branch field offices to inside sales? Can we move from indirect, channel to inside sales? Can we penetrate new markets with inside sales versus adding expensive field sales resources.” The purpose being to validate the new inside sales motion by testing and certifying a play that can be applied to a transformational investment in non-field selling strategies.
PSq: 1) Leading with purpose. 2) Attrition rates and recruitment of salespeople. 3) Data- driven sales operations. 4) “Emocracy”.
Q: How persistent will changes such as hybrid working be for sales organisations post-pandemic?
MD: We see that hybrid working is here to stay. It can be efficient, and you can access global customers easily. There is also a growing strong desire to have face-to-face meetings, conferences and gatherings with a level of safety. (Some organisations have customers that are still hesitant to operate outside the digital on-line methods of communication.)
TR: The lowest estimate I’ve seen is that 75% of customer interactions will be virtual. These changes are absolutely persistent. (See my response above about the kinds of tests we are running with organizations… These are companies looking to shift billions of dollars in sales from outside options to inside options.).
PSq: Pre-pandemic working from home was somewhat frowned upon. During the pandemic it was proven that we can operate productively from home. Now we’re seeing a greater flexibility which employees expect from their employers. The hybrid way of working may change the use of the office of the future.
PSt: We believe that the future will be a hybrid blended model, roughly two-thirds virtual, one-third live depending upon industry. It is key to have live interactions to establish relationships and then use virtual interactions to sustain relationships.
The real opportunity lies in the reality that times of adversity are often the best times to build relationships. This is an opportunity to align senior leadership of your company and your customers, and to sit down in a collaborative manner.
Q: How are supply-chain issues affecting sales organisations?
MD: Supply-chain Issues are critical (worse in some industries than others). With inflation starting to creep into the economic picture, there can be pressure placed on suppliers to absorb these price increases (that are often outside their control). Handling and advising on inflation as either temporary or more permanent in the supply chain is something key account managers are having to discuss with customers.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Whilst fragile supply chains and resulting economic issues are challenges, they also present huge opportunities for KAMs. If they can work with customers and provide solutions to these issues, they have a reason to be listened to. As always, good salespeople will get a seat at the customer’s table if they are willing to find value-based solutions to critical problems. A good recession and economic shock can be good for business!
PSq: Our customers are feeling the effects of supply-chain issues. Costs are increasing; lead-times are increasing; transportation of goods/logistics are affecting the propensity to purchase.
PSt: Hugely. Many salespeople are now in a state of permanent apology mode, constantly apologizing for delivery delays and dysfunction within the supply chain. However, the real opportunity lies in the reality that times of adversity are often the best times to build relationships. This is an opportunity to align senior leadership of your company and your customers, and to sit down in a collaborative manner. Determine what can be done to improve supply-chain issues. One of the most valuable questions that salespeople can ask customers is, what are other suppliers doing?
Q: What are the top-three technology trends that will be on sales leaders’ agendas for 2023?
MD: 1) CRM systems aligned to KAM. 2) Using technology in the value proposition (especially as part of servitisation offers. 3) Value-capture technology.
PSq: Predictive analytics for operations and technology that can help measure the relationship structure and relationship quality.
Q: What’s the current situation with respect to AI in sales?
PSq: Currently, I would say its embryonic but sense we are at a cusp where AI will be begin to play a bigger role in low-end transactional sales processes.
Q: What are the key talent issues for sales leaders post-pandemic: recruitment, development, retention?
MD: This is an area that we see increasing in importance. With the pace of change being so rapid, attracting the right level of person to operate at strategic/key levels is vital. This has been the case for several years, since organisations are seeing a greater saturation of business opportunity in a smaller footprint of customers.
Attracting, developing, and retaining this talent is crucial (and very difficult). I have no data or insights whether this has become more complicated post-Covid. My gut feeling is that the need to innovate and respond to severe challenges has increased, and this puts a strain on suppliers to have talented people who can form and implement a response. Never easy, and probably more intense now.
PSq: There is significant challenge to recruit good talent at the moment – supply is behind demand. We will see the growth of sales apprenticeships as a means of properly training and retaining sales teams.
Q: Have you noticed a change in the skill sets required for salespeople, since the onset of the pandemic?
TR: 1) Digital interaction first mindset; need to get excellent at virtual interactions both synchronous and asynchronous. 2) Harnessing technology to improve digital engagement; where it was once an option to use it is now the core of selling activity. 3) Understanding data that can be used to prioritize and more effectively engage, as well as using data to provide benchmark-type insights to prospects and customers.
PSq: 1) Reflective practice. 2) Emotional intelligence with their customers. 3) Agility and responsiveness to customer needs.
PSt: 1) Clearly, we have shifted from a level of strategic selling at layer one, to trusted advisor at layer two, to now trusted strategist. This involves the ability to provide strategic direction and insight to your customer. This is the highest form of value creation and co-creation. It involves transcending product, and now providing direction as the ultimate form of value, which pulls through products and solutions.
Dr Mark Hollyoake’s overview
The last 18 months have created circumstances that many would never have imagined. It has required leaders to make decisions that challenged their agility and decision-making ability. As many leaders navigate their way out of the changes the pandemic imposed on the organisation, the focus appears to be on: “what’s rights for our people” – not only in the way we reorientate work but also for people’s mental health and wellbeing.
This has led to the lens being swivelled and focused internally, more than may have been the case in the last few years. This introspection has been compounded as businesses try and “knit fog” to plan and understand the full implications of Brexit.
While this has been going on, your customer management, sales and customer service functions have been dealing with the customer interface. Many have been coping with virtual interaction, while at the same time juggling working from home. So, now as we start to renavigate the way we interact with our customers, what will this look like? Will your customers be happy with you coming to the office for a monthly meeting? They may have become used to short yet frequent virtual interactions: do they need to change?
Ask your customers
We suggest the first step in the process would be to ask what your customers’ needs are and how they are accommodating new ways of working. Once you are armed with this information you can replan your contact strategy accordingly.
However, it is worth considering a couple of factors:
- How has the customer faired through the last two years and how is their business holding up going forward?
- Where is the relationship at the moment? Is it in the early stages, where we are still trying to get to know one another or do we operate like old friends across numerous contacts and touch points against a shared plan or way of working?
Both of these will have a bearing on your customer and contact strategy as we move out to reorientate our relationships, in order to meet new requirements and ways of working. So, what could you do?
If you have a relatively new relationship or an established relationship with new people in place, then the focus needs to be on rekindling the emotional elements of relationship development. Approximately, 70% of the time you spend should be focused on social interaction in order to get to know one another: face-to-face meetings, meeting up at trade events or conferences, doing something social. Keep up the virtual interactions, but make time for the informal and social. Don’t forget the rational elements: approximately 30% of time allocated to virtual or face-to-face business review or planning meetings, coming together to collaborate or co-create, focused on sense-making a way forward out of the current uncertainty or “peeking through the fog”.
If you have long-established relationships where most of the key contacts know each other quite well, you need to try to rekindle the social side of the relationship to catch up on the personal ups and downs that have taken place over the last two years. Allocate around 30% of time on the development of opportunities to capture “what we did well” and “how we overcame adversity” – these are our relationship “war stories”. They build and embed trust.
Then, about 70% of efforts are focused on baselining and evaluating “where we are” or re-setting after the last couple of years of turbulence. Come together, preferably face to face, to collaborate on making sense of the way forward and what lies ahead in the next three, six and nine months – using this as a platform to co-create mutual value for the relationship going forward.
Our suggestion would be the development of a short-term agile relationship plan that you come together to steer and develop, so that going forward the customer management teams have a sense of what they can do to kick-start new relationships and rekindle established bonds, while ensuring a more hybrid approach is developed that takes account of the last 18 months.
Whilst fragile supply chains and resulting economic issues are challenges, they also present huge opportunities for KAMs. If they can work with customers and provide solutions to these issues, they have a reason to be listened to. As always, good salespeople will get a seat at the customer’s table if they are willing to find value-based solutions to critical problems. A good recession and economic shock can be good for business!
Q: What are the key skills for a) salespeople and b) sales leaders going forward?
PSq: 1) Of course, we will say a positive sales mindset: client centricity, tactful audacity, authenticity, proactive creativity. 2) Values and purpose within the role. 3) Self-awareness – listening and being aware to the pressures on the individual. 4) Coaching.
PSt: 1) To be the great listener. This involves two central attributes: first, listening for what your customers care about; and not just what they care about, but why their issues are priorities – in essence, listening for root-cause analysis period. Secondly, is to pay attention: pay attention to what your customers aren’t saying. Do they have blind spots? What don’t they know that they don’t know? That’s where you can bring the greatest value. I summarize all this under a notion of being a professional noticer. It’s beyond listening.
2) Elevate your virtual quotient. We have IQ, EQ, and now I believe there’s a third element that I would describe as VQ – your ability to project and convey and be relevant in a virtual world. I believe much of the “Q” has to do with the ability to use time in a very precise and concise manner.
3) For salespeople, success in the future will lie in being a sense-maker to help your customer make sense of information, market trends, insights and generally bring simplicity and clarity to their tsunami of complexity. From a leadership standpoint, I go back to my focus that talent attraction and retention is everything. Every product and solution today have become a commodity. The only thing that can’t be commoditized is your culture. That comes from leadership. And I believe leadership is about character. Leaders with high character will attract talent with high character, which will create unusual business and financial results. In essence, who you are now matters as much as or more than what you do.
Q: How much of a priority is salespeople’s welfare?
MD: KAM welfare is recognised as critical. Performance drops if they are working flat out. Organisations are recognising that “working from home” is hard and long hours (working in isolation) can be stressful and damaging to health. Again, the formal response to this is not clear – but it is a challenge.
PSq: It is a key priority not just of salespeople but to be aware of everyone’s welfare within your sphere of influence. Part of the attrition problem mentioned above is due to welfare issues. This will help focus the mind.
PSt: Very significant. You can’t give away what you don’t have. If you are not a grounded, centred person, how can you help other people? Your values are now ultimately your value proposition. So, the culture and character of your company is now ultimately the value that you bring to your customer. If a company has a toxic culture, top talent will leave, and leave rapidly. No talent, no future.