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From Charismatic Persuader to Knowledge Broker: The Evolving World of Sales

The impact of accelerated change in the business environments of most companies is undeniable. Disruptive technologies, lower barriers to competitor entry, shifting needs and expectations of customers, macroeconomic conditions and impact of numerous geopolitical events are some of the variables that now require most companies to be in a state of constant evolution. This accelerated rate of change impacts just about all industries, functional areas, and job roles; however, it is quite possibly the world of sales in which we find some of the greatest disruption and need for evolution. This is perhaps most evident in Bain and Company’s (2013) finding that, over the period beginning at the turn of the last century, the trend in cost of sales has increased substantially for more than half of the largest companies in the U.S. These researchers point out that this increase in cost of sales represents a reversal of previously long-standing trends. Prior to this period, scale economies in sales were almost a given, in that most companies were growing revenue at an annual rate that was much higher than the associated sales and marketing expenses. Clearly, this is no longer the case and this trend reversal can be attributed, to a large degree, to the new level of complexity facing sales professionals in today’s business environment. This new level of complexity is fueled by the reality that the buying process has become much more sophisticated and customers have an expectation for value that extends well beyond the features and benefit of any particular product or service. Unlike the days of transactional and tactical selling, customers are increasingly demanding tailored solutions anchored in industry and functional expertise. There is also increasing expectations that vendor/supplier companies will partner to solve tangible business problems, with overall value determined by measurable business outcomes, not just by features and price. That is, unlike the days in which the sales professional was responsible only for communicating functions, benefits, and advantages (a situation that often led to significant disconnects between the sales professionals and economic decision makers), today’s sales professional is expected to provide solutions that result in relevant business-driven return on investment.

The Ever-Changing Sales Environment

Advances in the business-to-business (B-to-B) procurement process during the 1980’s and 1990’s ushered in more advanced buying practices, fostering supplier competition and reducing the impact of charismatic sales professionals. The drive to install greater structure into the buying process in order to ‘protect’ purchasing personnel from the ego-driven sales person, as well as to ensure that purchase decisions address the diverse needs of the full range of stakeholders impacted by that buying decision, moved the world of sales from transactional to solution selling. It was around this time that thought leaders in the sales profession fostered greater awareness that aggressiveness manifested by sales professionals often led to defensiveness in the buyer, while fostering trust and understanding created an environment of cooperation. Recent research in the neuroscience of influence and persuasion confirms that sales professionals can have a significant impact on how the brains of buyers process interactions as potentially rewarding or threatening. As the sales process became increasingly more complex, techniques emerged that were designed to promote topdown alignment to the political and economic power within the buying organization. This led to the most successful sales professionals focusing on implications of business problems and the specific benefits of resolving them by implementing solutions. However, the world of sales generally was slow in adopting the solutions approach and continued to operate below the level of real power, as many sales professionals persisted with the features and benefits approach to conveying value.

Perhaps the most obvious change in the reality of today’s sales professionals, however, is the significant increase in the amount of product/service and company information available to the customer at the earliest stages of the buying process. Long before the buyer is introduced to the sales professional, he/she is likely to be fully aware of the features and benefits of the product/ service offering, what competitors offer as alternatives, reviews from other companies that have previously engaged the vendor/supplier, etc. Therefore, today’s successful sales professional can no longer expect to show up, fill the room with personality, and win based a persuasive presentation of features and benefits. To be successful, today’s sales professional must exhibit strong contextual knowledge by showing up as a business consultant and partner, clearly conveying deep knowledge of the needs of the customer organization, competitor activity, trends in customer’s customer base, and how the product/service being offered will address strategic issues, provide real ROI, and help the company hone their competitive advantage.

While all of this reflects an obvious need to continually evolve the approach to B-to-B sales, it is also true that there are many elements of sales that remain as important as they were in years gone by. At the core of sales remains the critical task of building rapport and then persuading others to make commitments and to take action. As such, it remains important that the sales professional be able to initiate new relationships, establish credibility and use personal impact by confidently expressing ideas and opinions, tailoring communication style to meet the receptivity needs of the audience, and eliciting trust by conveying the intention and competence to affect positive outcomes for the customer. These aspects of effective selling remain necessary, but are woefully insufficient to establish one’s self as a top performer. The sales professional today must be willing and able to take on the added burden of helping customers navigate the complexities of their consistently changing realities and business needs. Caliper’s extensive research in sales performance over the last 15 years points to the need to greatly expand the traditional hunter/farmer conception of sales and to consider a wider range of sales-related functions that are more in line with the how customers buy in today’s complex environment. This research has involved scores of companies and thousands of incumbent sales professionals across a wide range of industries. The following describes the success profiles of the various sales categories that emerged from the analysis:

The ‘Traditional’ Sales – New Business and Account Development

The New Business Development category is the one that probably most comes to mind when one thinks of the ‘traditional’ sales profession. Often referred to as the ‘hunter’ model, these professionals are often responsible for developing new business from new customers or accounts. They create opportunities by initiating contact with prospects, often through coldcalling, in order to generate interest in products or services. New Business Developers persuasively present their value proposition, find ways to get past initial resistance from prospects, and negotiate effectively in order to close sales. Therefore, this category of sales typically requires the more ‘traditional’ sales competencies such as influencing and persuading, building relationships, negotiating, remaining resilient in the face of failure/rejection, and negotiating to win-win solutions. Top performers in this role also need to be self-starters/self-motivated, so a strong desire to achieve goals, the tendency to initiate action on their own, and the ability to manage their time effectively are critical aspects of performance.

The other ‘traditional’ sales category that emerges from our analysis is Account Development, or what is often referred to as the ‘farmer’ sales model. While individuals in this category are still required to move others to making decisions and taking action, they are typically not required to be as assertively persuasive or ego-driven as their ‘hunter’ counterparts. Rather, they are often charged with maintaining and strengthening relationships with current customers and working to develop new relationships through introductions or referrals. So, in addition to the ‘traditional’ sales competencies related to persuading, developing relationships, and negotiating, top performers will exhibit strong tendencies in organizational savvy. That is, Top performing account developers are able to effectively collect and leverage information related to the organization’s formal and informal communication channels and power relationships. They tend to operate effectively within the context of company’s culture. This allows the best performers to accurately identify and get to the true decision makers and key influencers, as well as predict how new events or situations will affect those individuals and groups, as well as affect the attainment of company goals.

Sales through Service – Account Service Specialist

This category of sales professional often finds success by providing strong service to existing customers/accounts, while strategically taking opportunity to cross- or up-sell at the appropriate times. Top performers in this category build rapport with clients in order to identify their needs, offer tailored advice about products or services, and create additional opportunities to generate business by coming through for their customers. Therefore, this category of sales typically requires sales competencies related to enhancing the overall customer experience, and ensuring actions and decisions are supportive of service as well as being in the best interest of the company.

The Collaborator – Consultative Sales

This category of sales professional reflects somewhat more recent trends in the world of sales, in which more and more customers expect to partner with the sales professional to collaboratively develop solutions to pressing business problems. This category of sales professional typically wins business by consulting with customers in order to understand their true needs and provide solutions that effectively address those needs. They establish and strengthen working relationships based on mutual trust and shared accountability, which allows them to ask probing questions and to systematically uncover root causes of stated issues. Through this process, they provide compelling proposals, allowing them to close sales that turn into repeat business. Top-performing consultative sales professionals, in addition to the typical sales competencies of persuasiveness and resiliency, exhibit a range of competencies that reflect the desire to develop common goals and objectives with the customer. Related to this, they exhibit the motivation to provide insight or create tangible value in some way relevant to both the bottom line of the company and the organizational status of the primary decision makers. The competencies that support performance in this area include strong interpersonal sensitivity, active listening, and relationship building. In addition, we find a strong sense of accountability (taking full ownership of issues, problems, opportunities) is not only manifested by the consultative sales professional, but they are also able to convey that sense of accountability to their primary contact(s) in the customer organization, generating a sense of shared purpose.

The Subject Matter Expert – Technical Sales

Professionals who serve in sales roles grouped under the heading of ‘Technical Sales’ generate opportunities by leveraging technical expertise and product- or industry-specific knowledge. An individual in this type of role may be the primary salesperson in a technical or scientific sale or act as a subject-matter expert working in conjunction with another sales professional. Technical Sales professionals leverage their expertise to build credibility and gather important information or specifications, allowing them to propose targeted solutions and ultimately close the sale. These professionals often hold the title of sales engineer, pharmaceutical sales representative, medical device representative, or product sales representative. This type of role requires strong performance in some core sales competency areas such as influence and persuasion, relationship building, information seeking, and negotiating. However, for this role greater emphasis should be placed on such competencies as analytical thinking, business acumen, and learning agility.

The Knowledge Broker – Strategic Sales

Top performers in this sales category establish themselves as industry experts and true business partners. They leverage deep knowledge of the client’s business, industry, product, and marketplace to bring new insight, challenge assumptions and conventional wisdom, and ask the difficult questions that the customer may not have thought about or has been avoiding. The Strategic Sales professional must establish the credibility to position her or himself as a confident, strategic partner. Through this sales process, they are challenging their clients to find a deeper understanding of their business, the issues they face, and their path moving forward. Therefore, successful Strategic Sales Professionals manifest competencies that are reflective of organization-wide, conceptual, big-picture thinking and strong cognitive ability such as strategic thinking, business acumen, learning agility, and organizational savvy.

A New Sales Paradigm: Blurring Organizational Boundaries, Navigating Complexity, and Measuring ROI

As the world of sales continues to evolve, one thing is becoming quite clear. That is, the role boundaries that once dominated thinking in the world of sales is no longer a valid approach to understanding sales. Professional buyers now have the capacity to conduct deep research on product/services and the vendor company. They are easily able to obtain feedback from previous buyers who have engaged the vendor company and the sales professional, as well as the number and quality of competitors. In short, buyers now do the prep work that replaces the features and benefits sales person. Conversely, the sales professional is now expected to do the homework that was once the purvey of the buyer. That is, understanding the buying organization’s true business needs, providing insight into the buyer’s own industry, understanding the implications of current and anticipated changes in the business environment, etc. The complexity of the business environment that is reflected in this blurring of role and organizational boundaries necessitates that both sellers and buyers collaborate more extensively than in the past if they have any hope of successfully navigating the nuances and intricacies to achieve their complementary goals. Today’s sales professional also needs to stand ready to convey true business value, not through persuasive communication, but rather through compelling and tangible ROI evidence. That is, today’s sales professional should expect to function as a knowledge broker, bringing insight and wisdom to the customer that differentiate themselves and their companies, not as vendors of choice, but as true strategic partners.

Caliper is an employee-assessment and talent-management-solutions company that helps businesses align talent with strategy; hire better people faster; and develop leaders, teams, and missioncritical employees. We partner across all types of organizations, industries, and sectors – from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses and from government agencies to non-profits. Our solutions are built from a unique combination of rigorous behavioral science, leading-edge technology, and deep expertise.

Whether you need to hire for an important position, promote from within, reduce turnover, improve team effectiveness, or develop current and future leaders, Caliper can help you make the best talent-management decisions.

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