Strategic Thinking for Sales Professionals

Solving a client's problem
Google the phrase “challenges of a sales professional” and you will find yourself up against a torrent of issues that sales people face. In fact, there does not seem to be a prominent theme, as there are challenges throughout the sales process – from prospecting to closing. It seems like, as a profession, sales people will only encounter problems, not solutions.

Yet, therein lies the opportunity to showcase the true value of sales professionals. Indeed, a successful sales person is one who can navigate these challenges and adopt a strategy that allows the professional to adapt to changes in the environment.

In this article, we showcase the power of strategic thinking for sales professionals. It offers a solution to one perspective; however it might not be totally reflective of your situation. But read this not just for the solution, but to learn to navigate this ever-evolving environment time and time again.

Strategic thinking it the process of looking at situations from many different perspectives so as to converge on the best solution for you or your client. Our strategic thinking process uses these 8 steps:

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Intent

What is your intent? Obviously to meet your sales targets. But if you move around with this at the back of your mind, you will very quickly find yourself out in the cold. No one is bothered with what you have to do for yourself or your company. You will need to have a genuine intent to solve someone else’s problems. This has to be the overarching intent for all sales professionals.

(And if you can’t, then you are either in the wrong company, have the wrong product, or in the wrong profession!)

Success factors

The minute we move from a self-serving intent to one that is other-serving, your success factors will also change. So instead of saying that success means bringing in $1M of sales, close 10 new clients by October or file 30 purchase orders by December, it would now be something like:

  • address 100% of customer problems

  • talk to 50 more people facing the same problem

  • deliver Level One solutions to 80% of the people who face the problem

See the difference? These metrics focus us on doing the right things, not simply doing things right.

I know what you’re thinking. “Does that mean my sales targets are not important? How can I go about simply solving people’s problems without bringing in sales? After all, I am paid on commission and if I don’t bring in the bacon, I also don’t bring it home!” Great point. We don’t actually kill your targets; we just move them to your constraints. (See below)

Options

The options may transcend sales and cross into marketing. The thing about being strategic is not to split hairs and stick to clearly defined boundaries. Ultimately, it is all about meeting your intent. So, what options can you derive to meet your intent?

  • change our marketing message from product to solutions

  • have a website to share best practice solutions with people

  • create a word of mouth campaign

  • develop current and new channels

  • make YouTube videos highlighting the solutions, pointing them to our website

  • create content and blog about it

Thinking in Time

This is an exercise that looks at historical events and past decisions that impacted your situation and from there, identify what you could do now to achieve your intent. While in this post we will be looking at the sales industry as a whole; when you use this, you should include individual events in your thinking.

Let’s look at what shifts have happened in the sales profession over time; I’ve grouped them into three major themes:

Information

It used to be that sales people held on to the information and they slowly released them to prospective buyers to keep them in the game. And since the information imbalance was great, buyers felt trapped in the process, but hard pressed to leave because they needed a solution. These days, the tables have been turned. Buyers now hold all the information and before they even enter into a conversation with a sales person, they have got quotations from every dealer around for 20kms, and know the benefits and limitations of each dealer’s products. They are in a much better position to dictate what they want to hear and see from a product and would not sit through the whole show-and-tell presentation that traditional sales professionals used to put up.

What this means?

The sales professional must now live up to its moniker – the Professional. (S)He cannot rely on a canned message and a PowerPoint deck. Instead, the presentation would have to be one of co-creation; looking at the challenges faced by the prospective client and co-creating a solution that is not in the deck. The important thing here, therefore, is to get in front of the client to discuss the issue.

Technology

There is a huge shift in momentum from outside sales to inside sales. Outside sales is the traditional sales process, where the person comes to visit you from the “outside”. So this is something most of us are very familiar with. Inside sales is better understood as “remote selling”, but it is NOT telemarketing. It is presenting highly complex information, usually about big-ticket items, using Internet technology. And this is where technology has been leveraged by a large extent in sales. WebEx and Citix are two telephony companies that have powered inside sales. With their ability to connect people over vast distances, present to the clients over the Internet live, and answer product-related questions real time, this has created a platform of selling that just 10 years ago was a dream.

Related: 2014 Migration of the Sales Profession

According to Velocify (see related article above), almost half of all the companies they surveyed have admitted that they are moving onto inside sales.

What this means?

As inside sales practices become more acceptable, and in fact, expected, sales professionals must learn to move onto this platform. Of course, outside sales is not dead, and so, there is a need to juxtapose between the two, thereby creating a hybrid sales solution.

Competition

As markets open up and knowledge transfers across boundaries, businesses cannot hold a monopoly over information and solutions. Where once you may have had a proprietary product, it now does not hold that yours is the only way of achieving the outcome. There will be other solutions to meet the needs of the buyer and to hold out an “Ours-is-the-best” point of view might very quickly see you out of the market.

What this means?

There is a need to constantly expand the application of your products. You must also have a keen sense of what the market is doing and where you figure in all that. Your price will now be more sensitive to market offering, unless you are able to carve out a new niche that allows you to gain virtual monopoly.

These three forces have created a different playing field for sales professionals. While there are still expectations of the high-touch process, smaller-margin products cannot sustain the expensive, unleveraged sales process. There is therefore a need to move away from what we used to do and embrace something new.

Constraints

We define constraints as the necessary conditions required for a successful decision, and we now move our sales targets here. Starting with the words “Provided that I/we can…,” we can frame the constraints as

  • make sure there is enough time to do all relevant activities,

  • bring in $1M of sales by year end,

  • close 10 new clients by October, and

  • file 30 purchase orders by December

What this means is that no matter what solution we finally choose, it would have to meet these conditions. Hence, your need to bring in the bacon is addressed, not as a success factor, but as a constraint.

Systems thinking

When we apply systems thinking, we in effect take a step back and survey the situation at about 10,000 feet. From there, we see what is driving the situation and what is holding it back. By assessing the interconnections between these drivers, we can then identify the centre of gravity of the situation, and from there, the holistic solution.

Related:

The New Systems Thinking Part 1: A refreshing way to find solutions

The New Systems Thinking Part 2: New perspectives, new ideas

We start by identifying the system, using intent as a guide. In this case, our system is “Having more people to help find a solution.”

Building the system diagram, which looks like the spaghetti diagram attached,

Sales Professional System Diagram

one key driver that shows up is marketing. What else is interesting from this diagram are the ancillary drivers leading to, or from, marketing. Each of these form a focal element to raise marketing to becoming a reinforcing driver.

The conclusion from systems thinking is that we need to market ourselves better as the solution provider to our potential clients, with the product taking a secondary position.

Reframing for other options

Reframing is the process of looking at the situation from a different lens and seeing what that affords us; in our case, what option(s) are open to us. There are seven perspectives:

Related: 7 Perspectives to see your situation differently

Let’s jump straight in:

Technique #1: Differentiated value proposition

Special advisory, focused on a certain market space or function?

Technique #2: Finding more like-minded customers for customized solution

Outsourced sales professional? Consulting?

Technique #3: Other related customer needs

Maybe put in the purchasing function too? Or roll out the solution for the client?

Technique #4: Bundling

NIL

Technique #5: Finding white space

NIL

Technique #6: Networking or alliance

Can, but need to find the right partner solution

Technique #7: Customer experience

NIL

Each of the ideas above can become an option to find better ways to meet with your intent. Looking at the ideas above, some may not really apply strictly to the role of the sales professional, like the consulting idea. However, the one about including the purchasing function may be an interesting take on sales; i.e. provide a total solution, up to and including, project management.

Balancing options with constraints

All the different steps of our strategic thinking process has been to expand one’s thinking to come up with options to meet the intent; in this case, to help more people solve problems within your area of expertise, ultimately to ease them into buying your products. This step is now to narrow down the options so that we converge on the top two options. We use the grid as such:

Balancing Grid

When we look at this, we can see that Options 1 & 2 go together. Option 4 – channel partners is also an easy decision. And although there is a question mark on the ability of word of mouth to close 10 new clients by October, it does not require too much effort and can be commingled with channel partners. In fact, as we look at these, we realize that can do all these, starting with Options 1 & 2, followed by Options 3 & 4, in that order.

Bracketing to manage uncertainty

The fact that there is no much uncertainty in these and the risk of each of the options is low, there is no need for us to apply bracketing. We can move straight to execution.

Ultimately, the way forward for the New Sales Professional is to create content and provide a solution for potential customers, get that service out in the open through channels and word of mouth. This does not take away the need to close the deal, it just helps the sales professional gain greater credibility and build a relationship.

Conclusion

Many people think that sales is not a strategic function. It may be the executive arm of marketing, yet the approach to sales can be strategic. By applying strategic thinking, we can see that “business as usual” may not be effective in today’s changing environment.

If you have any questions to this post, or want to learn more about how to develop your sales people to be more strategic, just drop me an email at iandyason@aitrainingconsulting.com. After all, its only an email!

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