Are today’s salespeople just not as good as we used to be?

For today’s sales leaders, it can be hard to accept the formula that consistently worked for us no longer works today

January 23, 2018

For today’s sales leaders, it can be hard to accept the formula that consistently worked for us no longer works today

If you’re a sales leader over the age of 40, then the chances are you’ve asked this question, probably accompanied by phrases along the lines of “when I was a rep I was doing 6 meetings a day” and, “in my day hitting the phones meant 20 calls a day”. We know that these behaviours made us successful – and got us to where we are now. It’s therefore a struggle to understand why our reps don’t just follow the formula: Are we failing to motivate them? Or are they simply not as good as we were?

Let me show you how we did it in the old days
I got my first B2B sales job back in 1991 with Canon Ireland. I was responsible for selling fax machines and my sales territory was the Dublin 2 Postal Code, made up of streets and streets of advertising agencies, legal firms, accountancy firms, architects, embassies, travel agents and stock brokers. My sales manager told me that I’d get some of my quota from upgrading existing customers, but most of my targets would need come from new business – and that meant going door-to-door.

My first conversation would often be with a receptionist, asking “Who is responsible for buying office machines?” or “What do you use right now?” More than anything, we were trained to identify “THE decision maker”. This made absolute sense because most organisations had just one person empowered to make all decisions about fax machines. If we could reach out to the decision-maker, we were often in business.

This formula worked so well for me, that I was promoted to a role selling electronic filing and microfilm systems to large enterprises in the National Account Division. I cold-called, I built relationships with “THE decision maker” at any existing client and guess what? The formula worked again. The biggest deal I landed was supplying microfiche reader printers and cheque scanners for every branch of a major Irish bank. How many people did I have to deal with to land that? Just one: a decision-maker who had been in her role for 15 years, had a fantastic relationship with Canon and needed no convincing of the value of doing business with me.

Why is the old formula so embedded? Because it worked for so long
I moved into IT sales, swapped pressing door buzzers for telesales and email with support from marketing lead generation activities (none of which had really existed when I first started out). Did any of this change the successful formula of doing the hard yards, finding the decision-maker and then cold-calling your way to success? Not at all. The approach remained simple, repeatable and reliable.

So why don’t we see today’s sales reps adopting it? What’s wrong with them?
It’s tough for sales leaders like myself to accept that the principles that worked so consistently for us, over so many different scenarios, are no longer working for our sales teams. It’s tough – but it’s absolutely essential if we’re to be effective sales leaders today.

I know this because the salespeople I’m working with at LinkedIn certainly aren’t lazy or shy of work. They are some of the smartest I’ve had as colleagues, they are educated and hungry to succeed, and they define success not just as hitting targets but as reshaping the world of sales. They know from experience that the formula of the past is broken. Here’s why:

  • The proliferation of information
    In the 1990’s customers and prospects needed their B2B salespeople for information on their products, services and pricing. Now they can undertake most of that research independently. In 2016, 68% of B2B buyers told Forrester that they found going online preferable to interacting with a salesperson. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 80% of B2B transactions will take place without any human interaction at all.
  • More decision makers and more mobile decision makers
    Accoring to Gartner CEB, there are now more than six decision makers involved in the average B2B buying process – and on average, at least one of those decision makers will move jobs each year. If you’re selling to CIO’s in the UK, the average time in role is just 34 months. That relationship with a single decision maker is no longer the passport to success that it once was.
  • Transformed buyer expectations
    As consumers we have become accustomed to Netflix, Amazon, Spotify and the highly personalised experiences that they deliver for us. B2B buyers increasingly expect something similar: informed salespeople ready to talk about how products and services can add specific value for specific customers by solving specific business needs. They’re not typically getting it. In an Accenture report from 2014, 77% of buyers didn’t believe that salespeople understood their business – and didn’t believe they could help.

Evolving sales for the new world
Faced with this triple threat to the old formula, it’s absolutely essential that sales leaders recognise the need to evolve – and to support their B2B sales teams in meeing the fundamentally different challenges of 2018 and beyond. There doesn’t have to be a bleak future for sales, but there will be if we refuse to accept what’s going on.

The evolution of sales starts with prioritising the right skills within our sales teams. LinkedIn data shows growing competition for more advanced, specialist and complex sales skills. These go beyond the standard Sales, Account Management, Business Development and Sales Management skills that are tagged in 49% of sales profiles. Demand for skills like Solutions Selling, Consulting, Networking and Relationship Building is 1.8x higher – and yet only 11% of salespeople have them.

Complex skills such as Enterprise Relationship Management, Business Alliances and Partner Management are in greater demand still – 3x higher than the standard skills. However, just 1.5% of sales professionals have these skills to offer.

The upshot is that if you want to evolve your sales team for the new world in which we’re operating, you need to prioritise the right skills and compete effectively for them. In the same way that the marketing skill set has developed alongside the evolution of the marketing tech stack, sales needs to develop to keep up with a changing suite of products and processes. We have to learn to recognise and reward wholly new sales behaviours: a new breed of people pursuing a new approach with new technology.

At LinkedIn, we’ve identified three key strategies that top-performing companies are adopting, in order to develop a new sales formula – and support their salespeople in following it:

1. Converging sales and marketing
Top-performing sales teams encourage their marketing colleagues to move down the funnel and engage prospects throughout the sales cycle. They recognise the positive impact marketing can have on close rates and sales cycle times. On LinkedIn, prospects who have received marketing from a business are 11% more likely to accept a connection request from its sales reps, and 25% more likely to respond to a LinkedIn Sales Navigator InMail.

At LinkedIn, we’ve been working businesses to bring sales and marketing closer together through a shared view of customer data and one another’s activity. This enables them to target the same sweet spot, understand buyers better and engage them throughout the buying cycle. Companies like Marketo, Hubspot and Adobe are pioneering how automation of the bottom of the funnel can create a seamless buying experience from inbound lead through to deal close.

2. Using Sales Automation to help B2B sales 
B2B salespeople are an expenisve resource, so it’s important to increase their productivity and value to both your business and its customers. However, CSO Insights suggest that only 40% time of sales professionals’ time is spent selling, with the rest going on admin and training.

Automation has a key role to play in reducing the administrative burden for sales, and freeing up more time to act as strategic business advisors to clients. We’re working to provide this through the automated insights of LinkedIn Sales Navigator, and the synchronisation of sales with leading CRM and marketing automation platforms. The impact on how sales professionals spend their time is huge: the average Sales Navigator user finds 4.5x more relevant decision-makers, engages 5x more members of their target audience, and connects to 2.1x more prospects.

3. Personalization at scale

Remember those 77% of buyers who think that Sales can’t help them?

In fact what those 77% buyers want is reps who integrate customised data and insights into their interactions to make them relevant and meaningful. Today’s most successful sales teams understand this, and they tap into the same kind of technology that makes personalisation possible in the consumer space.

The success rate for cold calling is 1% success rate, for unsolicited email it’s 3%. Social Selling plays in a completely different league. The average success rate for Sales Navigator InMails is 15%, with top senders hitting 30%.

The most successful social sellers achieve this through customisation, fusing traditional and modern sales techniques in three key ways:

They find common ground with their prospects. Sales professionals who have at least one commonality with a prospect (similar skills or following the same group) have an acceptance rate for InMail that’s 46% higher.

They use content to personalise messages. On average, opportunities that involve prior content-led engagement have a 32% higher win rate, compared to non-influenced opportunities.

They have common connections, which is the second-highest predictor of InMail acceptance, and is nearly as predictive as attending the same school as the prospect.

Sales Navigator will surface these insights (commonalities, relevant content and common connections) at scale, helping salespeople to achieve the essential personalisation for competing in today’s sales environment.

Are we driving evolution or holding it up?
To sum up, I’d like to return to the question at the top of this post: are today’s salespeople somehow just not as good as we used to be? The answer is that they are very different – or at least the best ones are. We need to encourage evolution rather than trying to constrain our teams by making them follow a formula that has been suddenly left behind.

This will involve hiring for tomorrow, investing in training strategic and advanced sales skills, aligning sales and marketing more closely, and focusing on automation and personalisation to move your sales teams away from menial tasks like CRM admin. Be ready to restructure your sales and marketing organisation to deliver on this vision, with the aim of building deeper and more valuable relationships at scale, and creating a truly strategic sales force.

As Charles Darwin wrote, “it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” If we are to be sales leaders worthy of the name, then we need to recognise that change – and encourage evolution rather than restricting it.