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How Sales Teams Can Thrive in a Digital World

by Andris A. Zoltners, Prabhakant Sinha, and Sally E. Lorimer

Since the dawn of the internet era, experts have predicted that technology will replace salespeople, and it’s easy to find examples. From 2005 to 2017, U.S. pharmaceutical companies slashed one-third of their salespeople, while the use of digital information sources (email, podcasts, mobile apps, websites) grew. From 2009 to 2019, industrial supply distributor W.W. Grainger cut more than a quarter of its branch locations and numerous field sales jobs. Since the mid-1990s, Grainger had been investing in digital capabilities to supplement its network of branch stores and salespeople. By 2019, Grainger’s purely online “endless assortment” business was 15% of sales and growing. Grainger’s still dominant “high-touch solutions” business deployed a combination of field and inside sales forces, and digital channels against the largest customers. Meanwhile, Amazon’s industrial products distribution business, launched in 2015, was already half the size of Grainger’s in North America.

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Must end soon! But not too soon! The catch in time-limited sales tactics

As Christmas shopping ramps up, you may be getting a lot of emails offering you attractive discounts for a short period only. You may see flash sales or special deals that exhort you to “buy now” to avoid missing out.

These digital “time-limited” offers, as they are called, are actually an old sales tactic.

Those in the game of selling cars, for example, have long used the trick of alluding to that other very interested buyer who’s likely to return and snap up the bargain that’s before you. Telephone salespeople routinely offer deals that must be accepted during the call. Want time to think about it? Too bad.

Online time-limited sales work on the same basis, but with technology taking it to a whole new level. Now retailers can bombard you with offers that are highly customised and super-short – a deal, perhaps, for something you might have been searching online for, and now available at a discount only until midnight.

But for these tactics to work, our research suggests, requires finding a Goldilocks zone between being too pushy and not all. Time needs to be limited to deter you from searching elsewhere for a better deal. But paradoxically you also need enough time to convince yourself that buying is the best decision.

Experimenting with time limits

To find out what makes time-limited offers effective, I and my colleagues Robert Sugden and Mengjie Wang from the University of East Anglia ran experiments to see what leads people to accept or reject such offers.

What we found is that these offers leverage risk-aversion. That is, the more you dislike risk, the more likely it is you will take the bait and buy now.

In our experiments, using university students, we asked participants to complete 30 “price search” tasks. These tasks involved giving participants a “budget” and asking them to buy a product from six different price offers, shown to them sequentially with a few seconds between each. Any unspent money they got to keep.

In half of the tasks they could consider all six offers before making their choice. In the other half, one of the first three offers would be time-limited, lapsing after either four or 12 seconds, which they could only accept before the next offer appeared.

We also varied, when participants accepted a time-limited offer, between showing them no more offers or showing all remaining offers immediately. This was to test if greater feedback (increasing the possibility of regret) reduced the probability of a time-limited offer being chosen.

Participants then did 15 related risk-taking tasks based on their choices in the tasks with time-limited options. This helped us determine what was going on with their choices.

A time paradox

Overall our results point to choosing time-limited options being linked to risk aversion. People generally prefer to secure a certain cake now over the uncertain possibility of a better cake in the future. We really do believe the old proverb that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

But there was a catch – and a big one. Somewhat paradoxically, people also need to think things through to jump on the time-limited offer. Time-limited offers were accepted more when participants had 12 seconds to decide rather than four seconds.

This indicates people need enough time to reflect on the task to decide they are better off going for the “safe” deal.

As we warn in our paper, one should be wary about extrapolating too directly from laboratory behaviour to real markets, but our results suggest time-limited offers do not rely on limits to the consumers’ ability to make a rational decision. When they work it is because they are mechanisms of search deterrence – restricting the consumers’ opportunities to compare available offers – amplified by risk aversion.

So businesses may be shooting themselves in the foot when they create offers that are too short, too pushy. If you’re like most people, you need time to reflect on the risk of not buying. If the offer is too fast and furious, you’re likely to just be turned off.

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What Is A Sales Process? Five Effective Sales Tactics To Close

A sales process is a system comprising a set of steps that the salesperson can follow to understand at which stage of the sales cycle the prospect is. A valid sales process can help salespeople shorten the sales cycle, and to align sales teams around common goals and processes.

Why sales processes matter

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Venture capitalist, Dave McClure, coined the acronym AARRR which is a simplified model that enables us to understand what metrics and channels to look at, at each stage for the users’ path toward becoming customers and referrers of a brand. This is an example of a journey potential customers might go through. This same process can be used by salespeople to target specific actions throughout the sales process, thus shortening the sales cycle. 

Closing a deal is the only thing that matters in the sales process. You can have many conversions and several people interested in your product or service, however, if no one decides to make that last step, you are wasting time.

Regardless of whether you work as a sales rep or as a founder of a business, closing a sale should be at the top of the “must-do” things on your daily activities list.

Many believe that selling is about showing up, pitching the prospect correctly and sometimes answer some of the prospect’s objections. Unfortunately, it is a little bit more complicated than that. Although many might try to “sell” you the secret formula for sales success (see the irony in that?), there’s no such thing as a ready-made method to close a sale.

Every situation is different. Every prospect has a different need. Every salesperson sells differently.

Selling is a combination of science and art. Understanding which factors can be controlled and how you can steer the wheel in your favor is the key to close more deals and take your business to the next level.

What Does It Mean “Closing A Sale”?

Understanding what the top salespeople do daily is going to give you an edge against your competition. One of the old adagios in Sales is “Always Be Closing.”

Top performers have this in their mind constantly; they work closely with prospects and get them to the finish line hand in hand. But, is it all about closing?

One of the biggest misconceptions for those who are not involved in sales as a profession is that closing a sale means signing a contract. To be successful in sales, you need to understand that the sales process is made of several steps and top performers break down this process in a series of micro-sales (or micro-wins).

Each step of the funnel takes the prospect a little bit closer to the big commitment. Implementing the following strategies will increase your chances to be successful.

What Do You Need To Do To Be Like A Superstar?

Before diving into effective strategies to close a sale, it’s important to lay down the basic rules that will differentiate you from the rest of the sellers out there in the market. Remember, selling is a mix of science and art. The science is made of strategies, the art is made of attitude.

To be successful in sales, you cannot just apply great strategies and wait for them to work. Selling is a tough job and needs you to be smart about it. Understanding the behavior of the best salespeople, regardless of their industry, will give you some ideas on what to work when it comes to you.

1. Believe In What You Sell

This might sound silly, however, there’s a lot of people who go out there and speak with prospects who constantly doubt their solution.

If you don’t believe that your solution is the best, how can you convey its value to the prospects you are talking to? Saying that you have the greatest service or product in the market and meaning it with words and behavior is very different.

2. A “No” Is Just One Step Towards A “Yes”

Understanding that getting Nos is part of the sales process will get you far ahead of most of the competition. Top performers are ready to get a rejection and move on. They are ready to close an opportunity if it doesn’t move forward.

The best salesmen move quickly and don’t waste time on a “no”. If you want to be successful at this game, you need to understand that rejection is a natural part of the process. To be the best, you need to understand what went wrong in the process.

Was the wrong prospect? Was the right prospect but too early for them? Was the pricing too high? Do a post-mortem analysis of rejection and learn from it, then move on and start again.

3. Talk About Value Not Features

Another common mistake that many do while selling is to talk about the features of a product or service. Do you really buy that camera because of the latest features or because the end result will be a fantastic photo?

Do you really buy that laptop because of the high-speed RAM or because you don’t want to be frustrated anymore when working on several projects at the same time? Features vs. value is one of the key points to understand in the sales process. Features are supporting arguments to the value your product or service brings to the prospects.

4. Stop Talking, Seriously

When you are the seller, there might be an inner expectation to be the one leading the conversation talking. You are indeed in the driver seat, however, it is crucial to understand what is the best way for you to control the conversation.

Great salespeople don’t get lost in their own words, they ask questions, they want to know more about the prospect’s needs.

What Are The Most Effective Strategies For Closing A Sale?

Moving onto the science part of the equation, there are strategies that you can implement in your daily activities to achieve better results.

It’s important to understand that implementing strategies alone while forgetting the art part of the equation won’t necessarily get you to the finish line.

1. Understand The Right Prospect Fit

Lead qualification is probably the most important step in the sales funnel. If you qualify a lead in the wrong way, you might end up wasting your time trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. It’s crucial to focus only on those leads that meet your criteria as a company.

Before starting reaching out, you need to understand the answers to these questions:

  1. What type of company do I want to work with?
  2. How many people work there?
  3. What industry are they in?
  4. What title does my decision-maker hold?
  5. What’s the minimum investment the prospect needs to make so that everything is worth the effort?

All these questions should be clearly answered before you even start reaching out.

Almost two-thirds of all lost sales are the result of a poor qualification process. You might be thinking that because selling is a number game, then you need to reach out to as many people as possible, however, by doing so, you will diminish the opportunity to close the right deals for your company.

Not every sale is a good sale. To be successful, you need to assess the opportunity cost of closing and managing a bad account.

2. Don’t Give Up Too Early

As said, to be successful in sales, you need to break down your sales funnel into micro-steps. Aim at getting the prospect one step at the time ahead. You can’t expect to get the prospect to sign with you after the first meeting.

There’s a 2% chance that a lead will jump on working with your company after talking with you just once. Following up is the key to success in closing a deal. It has been reported that 50% of the sales happen after the 5th contact with a prospect, however, most sales reps give up after 2 touchpoints. Yes, you read that right. Prospects will either ignore you or find an excuse not to talk with you on average four times.

Following up should be a constant activity through the sales funnel, not just limited at the prospecting phase. How many times have you sent out a proposal and the prospect went dark? When “touching base” with them, did you just “ping them” or sent them valuable additional information to help them make the decision?

The average sales rep tend to “just follow up” with a prospect by sending a generic email and asking what’s going on the other side. All that comes across when you send that email out is “Hey, why haven’t you bought yet from me? Please, I really need this deal!”.

Following up for the sake of doing it yields no value. Make sure to be relevant and share with the insightful prospect information. It could also pay off to be bold. If the prospect is not answering maybe she is not ready to buy; why not just ask that?

3. Build Rapport

It’s one of the oldest saying around and yet so many people forget that. In sales, people buy people, not products. It is a basic thing but we often think that we need a better presentation, a better proposal, a better discount, and whatever else to close a sale. The reality, however, is that you just need yourself, your true self.

Prospects want to be treated like humans, not like banks. They want to talk to someone who cares about their situation and needs. Stop harassing them with useless proposals without even knowing what they are looking for. Take the time to build a long-lasting rapport with a prospect by being genuinely curious about what’s going on in their world. Put them in the center, not your product, service or company.

Don’t fall in the so-called sales disconnect. Have you ever wondered what the prospects want to hear in the first conversation with a salesperson?

Most of us will think that the last piece of information we should share with a prospect the very first time we are talking with them is a price, well, think again about it, pricing comes at the top of the list of what prospects care. Are you truly listening to your prospects’ needs? Because 69% of them think that sales reps are too focused on their own interests.

4. Create A Process For Objections Handling

The sales process is far from being a nicely paved highway. In fact, it’s more like a mountain road with a lot of bumps and obstacles to it.

On the way to the finish line, you will encounter several types of objections, these are a natural part of the “sales dance” you start with a prospect.

However, to be successful and make sure you focus on the right points, you need to be prepared. One of the most common mistakes organizations make is to forget to work on a simple, yet effective, objection handling document.

Anticipating and dealing with objections in the right way can simplify your way to success. Ignoring this step will leave you and your team in the uncertainty of the moment. Every answer you will give will be depending on the current state of mind and moreover, it might make you look like you don’t know what you are talking about.

There is no unified approach to objections handling, as the process might be different depending on the industry you operate. However, you can start to build a document by writing down the most common categories to which you usually get objections and think about those questions prospects might have.

5. Don’t Forget To Ask For It!

The biggest mistake in the sales process is not to ask for the sale. We often get caught up in minor actions and solving problems that we forget to ask for it. It’s a natural evolution of the sales conversation and yet so many people are afraid to ask the most important question.

Understanding how and when to ask for the sale is crucial to make sure you take the prospect through the finishing line. Even the most experienced sales reps tend to delay the magic moment because deep down inside them, they fear rejection.

Remember, as said earlier, a “no” is just another step towards the final “yes”. Although it’s normal to feel attached to a deal, especially if it is a big-ticket prospect or you have been working on it for months, delaying the key question will only make you lose important time.

So, when is the right moment to ask for it? Like anything else, there’s no exact moment in the sales process when you can or should ask for it, however, if you start thinking that you should go for the question, then probably you are already too late.

Selling is a process, if you have done your research, made sure the qualifying process was correct, ensure that it is the right fit for your company and answered all the important questions, then it’s probably the time to ask for the sale.

Conclusion

When it comes to sales, a lot of people deal with a different set of emotions. Not everyone is ready to make the right effort to close a sale.

Selling takes time, preparation and above all a sense for people. Remember that you are talking to another person. The moment you stop seeing the person in front of you as such, but she becomes just a number, then you are going to fail at this game.

The five strategies mentioned above for closing a sale will get you on the right path to create value for your prospect and increase the success rate for your company.

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