It’s Business, Stupid!

Marie Crespo argues that top-level sales professionals are metamorphosing into high-quality businesspeople.

We all know that business is under pressure, and especially sales.

Brutal price competition in our global economy, combined with increasingly professional procurement and the capability of the internet to shift the balance of power towards buyers – who are now better-informed – has driven this pressure.

At the same time, salespeople are increasingly expensive to employ, so most low-value sales are moving to an automated channel such as the web, where sales and marketing have effectively merged.

Sales leaders have responded in a number of ways. Several industries have implemented ‘efficiencies’, with cost-reduction exercises that have initiated a race to the bottom in terms of the quality of the selling available via low-cost channels. (I’m thinking of some offshore call centres and automated call systems.)

Other industries, like pharma, chose to inflate the size of their sales forces in the hope that sheer weight of numbers would continue to drive growth. But there’s only so much one can squeeze out of a process and, when it’s broken, doing more of the same simply won’t help.

The result has been a seismic shift in the way that forward-thinking organisations approach sales. It has been well-documented that many generalist ‘vanilla’ sales roles are disappearing. According to Professor Neil Rackham, a long-established researcher into sales performance, their traditional function as ‘talking brochures’ has become redundant.

Suzanne Fogel, David Hoffmeister, Richard Rocco, and Daniel P Strunk from DePaul University agree. Writing in the Harvard Business Review earlier this year, they argue that ‘sales careers have moved beyond the days of glad-handing and door-opening’. Instead ‘a great salesperson today can assess multiple customer needs and motivations, analyse and forecast market trends, use sophisticated automation tools, and develop value-driven solutions in partnership with clients. Critical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to negotiate have become more important than an outgoing personality.’ 

It used to be all about the relationship, didn’t it? But that approach is no longer effective in most situations. In his foreword to The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson, Professor Rackham notes that the power of relationship selling is waning, although he adds the caveat that relationships remain important. These days, he says, ‘a customer relationship is the result not the cause of successful selling’. Thus, a relationship is the reward that we as salespeople earn for having created value for our customer.

Because of this, traditional salespeople are becoming yet another case of the ‘squeezed middle’: low-cost sales have moved online, while individuals with superior business acumen, critical reasoning and creativity (as well as relevant training and educational attainment) are increasingly taking the higher ground where the major deals are located. Quite simply, these people add more value to an organisation through their ability to identify a customer’s potential problems, create a solution and communicate it effectively at C-suite level, both within the customer and their own company.

What’s really interesting, though, is that this approach to high-end selling is increasingly blurring the boundaries between the buyers and sellers. Indeed, the distinction may not even be as useful as it once was at this level, as both parties attempt to craft a solution that will mutually benefit their respective organisations.

Professor Rackham, interviewed in the Sales Leadership Alliance newsletter Novate, highlights this trend: ‘We’re entering an interesting era in high-level selling. A few years ago, if I eavesdropped on a conversation, I could tell who was selling and who was buying. Now, I’m not so sure: it’s more like listening to two high-level business equals sitting down together.’

Indeed, he has a new definition of high-level sales — ‘working to optimise the boundary between two corporations in a way that creates new value’. And that definition can be extended to any two or more entities including those which make up the UK’s health sector.

So what does this mean for sales in pharma? As is often the case, times of great change tend to sweep away the old order and make space for new ideas and ways of operating. While buyers will have increasingly less time to interact with salespeople who are unable to add value, and many deals may be made around price at the transactional level, those sales professionals able to make the leap will have the opportunity to operate at a far higher level.

Unexpected new alliances may form between organisations that find they can create new sources of value. Meanwhile, the effective sales professionals of the future won’t be as numerous as their predecessors but they will be more complete business people, as polished in the language of the boardroom as any of the people they’re selling to. Indeed, given their role as innovators and trouble-shooters, the top-level salespeople of the future may even be able to teach the buyers a thing or two!

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Mar 19, 2013 - Mar 21, 2013, Barcelona, Spain

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