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What’s Your Sales Automation Strategy?

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Faced with profitability challenges, a global consumer electronics firm decided to restructure its business with a focus on optimizing costs, sales productivity, and customer satisfaction. To achieve these goals, the company automated customer and product master data, disputes and claims resolution, stock replenishment, and discount management. The firm also deployed automated web-crawler tools to improve competitive intelligence-gathering. With buy-in from leadership, the company was able to reduce the cost of select processes by 15% in only three years.

The challenges faced by the consumer electronics firm are common among today’s sales organizations. A recent McKinsey study shows that more than 30% of sales activities can be automated to improve efficiency and effectiveness. However, lack of awareness of automation’s potential, inadequate tracking, return on investment (ROI) concerns, and delayed delivery challenges are hindrances to adoption. Many organizations that have overcome these challenges have still struggled to meet automation project targets, with only 50% reporting project success.

At the other end of the spectrum, companies are pioneering sales automation with inspiring results. Using five prominent technologies — machine learning (ML), robotic process automation (RPA), natural language processing/generation (NLG), smart workflows, and cognitive agents — companies are reducing costs, improving customer service and scaling operations.

In this article, we’ll examine sales automation’s overarching benefits, how it can be applied to standard sales processes, and how to successfully adopt new processes to improve your team’s ability to sell. We will also detail five key principles to consider while building and executing on your sales automation strategy.

The Benefits of Sales Automation

A European telecommunications firm turned to an IBM Watson-based chatbot to improve its customer service operation. The firm leveraged user-behavior analyses and usage-pattern predictions to improve processes based off data from customer interactions with the chatbot. The telco used its findings to improve its outreach and enhance its Customer Value Management (CVM) function. The program has contributed approximately 10% of total activations, with 6% margin improvement. Approximately 26% of calls are now fully managed by the chatbot with no human intervention. The initiative has reduced costs while improving efficiency and customer satisfaction.

In addition to improved service, sales automation can improve accuracy and consistency by eliminating human errors and streamlining processes. It can boost scalability by allowing flexibility to grow key activities while sustaining execution quality. Customer coverage availability increases via the use of RPA and virtual agents and traceability expands, which improves audits and root-cause analyses.

Here are a few examples of how automation functions within each stage of the sales process:

Pre-Sales Improvements:

Automated web crawlers collect market and competitor data to analyze and predict, for example, an industry’s total addressable market (TAM) and a customer’s present and future potential. AI allows organizations to better project market trends by region, which can be used to automatically update sales frontline quotas. Organizations can use advanced analytics to automate and systemize sales-call plans. RPA and ML tools can automatically detect bottlenecks and their root causes in the sales process and help sales-funnel management. ML tools can automatically generate call-lists and guide salespeople to call the right customers with the appropriate topic at the right time.

Sales Improvements:

NLP-based tools can decrease request-for-proposal (RFP) response time. RPA and ML tools automatically analyze and export pricing schemes. Automated workflows can optimally accelerate discount/rebate setting and management. ML tools can generate insights on actions and behavior associated with high closing rates. Billing workflows in turn are automated via RPA-based account receivables and payable management (e.g., invoice generation and processing).

Post-Sales and Sales Operations Support:

RPA- and NLP-based tools allow the automation of customer feedback and behavior analysis, enabling call centers to improve customer satisfaction and first-call resolution (FCR) while freeing up full-time equivalent (FTE) capacity. RPA and ML tools can identify customers with a high probability of churn and auto-generate promotional offers to retain them.

Planning Your Sales Automation Strategy

To successfully deploy enterprise sales automation, companies need to plan the process in advance. Depending on the organizational maturity level, process mapping, and IT landscape, as well as the company’s capabilities, we’ve mapped three routes that can yield an optimal result for each use case:

  1. Organizations can fix and automate processes by first lifting the procedure to best-in-class before starting to automate.
  2. They can automate first and fix later by finding quick solutions with existing capabilities to overcome key pain points followed by process optimization.
  3. Or they can fix and outsource, which involves improving the process and then shifting to external service providers.

The consumer electronics firm and the telecommunications firm applied the fix and automate approach. It is comprised of the following three steps:

Step 1: Redesign and simplify the customer journey.

Eliminate unnecessary processes and outputs by removing unneeded approvals, data inputs, and reports. Then simplify forms and policies through the mapping of current and ideal-state processes and triage them based on complexity.

Step 2: Standardize policies and processing logics for triaged processes.

Organizations should capture existing best practices and ideal-state processes to codify in standard operating procedures. They should reduce the number of reports by consolidating customers’ requirements and standardizing the format.

Step 3: Shift individual activities to customers or service providers.

Organizations should transfer some activities to customers by providing self-service digital portals. They should also identify service providers who can take over simplified and standardized processes.

Executing on Your Strategy

As organizations pursue sales automation, most start the journey with a highly fragmented IT landscape characterized by complex legacy applications and high maintenance costs. Typical IT development/implementation thus involves a trade-off between fast-business impact and consistent architecture. There are three potential approaches:

  • Start-up approach focuses on fast business impact and leads to excessive cost for maintenance; is typically not extendable.
  • All-in-one approach targets overall integration and leads to excessive development cost.
  • Stable island approach is a more recommended approach as well as a pragmatic midway, which balances impact and consistent architecture yielding viable end products. “Stable islands” is a stand-in term for viable end products.

Successful automation leaders typically leverage a “stable island approach” enabled by process redesign, agile practices, capability building, value-capture plans, and responsive IT support. The importance of the process design cannot be overstated, as automation is most effective when combined with an agile process redesign. Most organizations skip this step and fail to realize the full benefit of sales automation.

Five Principles for Sustained Sales Automation Success

We have identified five principles for a successful sales automation journey by dissecting the journeys of organizations that have failed and succeeded at this process.

1. Thorough Process Re-Design.

Carefully examine the sales process to insert value-adding activities and eliminate non-value-adding ones. Automating inefficient processes only transfers the inefficiency from humans to algorithms, often magnifying the inefficiency. The global consumer electronics firm invested up-front to understand the “as-is” sales process and worked with experts to create the “to-be” process.

2. Emphasis on Capabilities in Contrast to Deadlines.

Sales automation can offer consistent productivity improvements, but also can become unsustainable if implementation outpaces capability. Invest in tailoring your automation’s capabilities, building to the needs of each key role. The global consumer electronics firm tracked skill development at a person-by-person level rather than being overly fixated on development timelines while building its automation center.

3. Clear Value-Capture Plans.

Some organizations pursue “small value” quick wins and miss bigger automation opportunities, while others take a cost-myopic view and ignore value from improved quality, speed, and flexibility. It is critical to prioritize the right use-cases while using action plans with clear milestones and timelines to guide implementation. Both the European telecommunications player and the global consumer electronics firm ensured that their automation business cases were rooted in hard data and communicated guidelines around testing, acceptance, and release with specific action plans.

4. Responsive IT Support.

IT plays a critical role in educating and training frontline workers, supporting automation planning, and ensuring security clearances. The global consumer electronics firm formed a development team within its sales function to create automation solutions fully in-house. The operations teams across Europe worked with the automation team to create success. This reduced external vendor involvement and enhanced custom solution flexibility.

5. Agile Practices.

A dual operating model of agility combined with automation mitigates implementation challenges. Such an operating model could iteratively deliver end-products via multi-deployed teams with shared KPIs while embracing experimentation and development via coaching and feedback.

Each sales automation journey requires its own unique planning and optimization. Use the techniques and principles we’ve provided as a guide to help explore your team’s journey, while making sure to carefully adapt and modify as needed. No matter how you choose to employ sales automation within your organization, it would benefit you to begin researching and planning today.

The authors wish to thank Kay Chen, Bruno Lee and Mandy Woo for their contributions to this article.

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5 Ways to Control Your Inventory So It Doesn’t Control You

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Managing inventory is a task that can make or break your small business. With too much inventory, profits suffer and storerooms overflow. With too little, items get back-ordered, customers get frustrated and business is lost. And striking a balance is hard, especially with disruptions to the global supply chain in the last few years causing delayed deliveries.

While you can’t control the supply chain, you can take steps to prevent common problems like product shortages and excess stock. Here’s how.

1. Stick to the story

Donna Daniel owns and operates three connected small businesses in Claremont, California: The Grove Clothing, The Grove Home and The Outdoor Store, which sell women’s clothing, home goods and unisex adventure-themed gear, respectively. To run all three of her stores, Daniel needs to keep an impressive variety and quantity of inventory in stock — and ensure it moves quickly to make room for seasonal items and new shipments.

To keep her inventory cohesive within each store, she arranges it in themed displays — or what she calls “stories” — which tie together dozens of different items to appeal to a color, season or activity.

“I don’t buy anything outside of the stories,” she says, which helps her collect data on sales and seasonal trends, and keeps her stock to what’s most likely to sell.

She keeps most of her inventory on the shop floor, with stock in each store’s backroom and larger items in a nearby storage unit. In the backrooms and warehouse, she stores items according to product type and size — not by story — so employees can easily restock displays and substitute a similar item if necessary.

2. Double down on your reliable inventory

“Just-in-time inventory is much more difficult to do today,” says Mark Baxa, president and CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals, a global trade association for supply chain professionals. Baxa adds that since the supply chain is less stable than it was pre-pandemic, businesses may need to lean on their most reliable products and vendors.

Courtney Cowan, owner and founder of Los Angeles bakery Milk Jar Cookies, keeps supply needs and consumer demand stable with a very consistent product line. Her 16-flavor menu has “changed very little” in the bakery’s nine-year history, though she leaves room for a rare seasonal standout to join the rotation. Since her store pre-mixes and preserves dough in a deep freezer, she can ensure that her bestsellers are always in stock.

Though some businesses may prefer a bit more variety, in uncertain times — over-ordering on go-to products with a dependable profit margin can help fill the gaps and keep sales steady.

3. Keep products moving

Longtime retailers know that while running out of inventory is bad, having too much can be worse. “Too much backstock eats up all your capital,” Daniel says. She prevents this from happening by planning ahead and using sales sections to make room for new merchandise.

Daniel reorders seasonal inventory as far as a year ahead by using recent sales reports as a baseline. But with this commitment to hundreds of new products arriving every month, she makes sure that items don’t sit on shelves for more than a few weeks.

“I do not like merchandise hanging around,” she says, explaining that if an item isn’t clearing out quickly enough, she’ll move it to the sales rack and discount it until it’s gone.

Though selling an item for a fraction of its original price may seem painful, it may be worth doing to keep inventory moving and keep customers coming back for new products.

4. Get to know your supply chain

Especially in periods of supply chain disruption, getting to know your vendors can make a big difference in your day-to-day operations. “Hold your supplier base accountable,” Baxa says. He suggests finding the “shortest path” possible, including finding local and sustainable suppliers, to help ensure consistent, reliable supply.

Daniel follows the same principle, sourcing her inventory from mostly local vendors so she can pick up items instead of shipping. She weighs several factors, including production time, available quantity and shelf life to figure out how much to order and how often.

Cowan’s inventory is perishable, so she needs her wholesale ingredients to arrive on a tight schedule. Her bakery receives truck deliveries directly from the restaurant supplier Sysco and wholesale store Costco, which keeps her supply chain close to home.

“We keep it as centralized as possible,” Cowan says. For special ingredients like nuts and candy, she places advance orders with small online vendors.

Clear communication with vendors can help business owners figure out limitations, plan ahead and mitigate risk.

5. Use a point-of-sale system with inventory management tools

For the past five years, Daniel has been using Lightspeed, a POS system with standout inventory management tools. The software can track her inventory across all three of her stores, and it generates reports that help her analyze seasonal sales data and follow her businesses’ growth.

This data is essential for her to plan reorder points and determine which items will reliably sell. Especially with a small staff and multiple locations, an all-in-one POS system can help minimize costs and labor.

Best POS for inventory management

Lightspeed Retail POS

Cost: Software $69 per month (billed annually) and up. Hardware quote-based.

Lightspeed’s retail point-of-sale system is built for inventory management. It can keep detailed records of your products across multiple locations and set automatic reorder points, so you don’t run out. The software also offers employee and customer relationship management tools, as well as advanced analytics features on its higher-priced plans.

You have the option to use a third-party payment processor, or Lightspeed’s in-house processor with per-transaction fees at 2.6% plus 10 cents for swipe, dip and contactless payments and 2.6% plus 30 cents for keyed-in transactions.

Square for Retail

Cost: Software free and up. Hardware from free card reader to $799 terminal and up.

Square’s retail-specific POS software offers inventory management tools and multi-location capabilities as well. The free version has a variety of other useful features including reporting tools, customer and employee management. Email marketing, loyalty programs and payroll are available with a higher-priced plan or as a paid add-on.

Though its inventory management isn’t quite as deep as Lightspeed’s, Square’s user-friendly interface and accessible pricing make it a great choice for most retail businesses. Payment processing fees vary per plan, but with the free retail plan, costs are 2.6% plus 10 cents per in-person transaction, 2.9% plus 30 cents per online transaction and 3.5% plus 15 cents per keyed transaction.

Shopify POS

Cost: Software $29 to $299 and up. Hardware $49 and up.

Shopify’s point-of-sale system is geared for businesses that primarily sell online. The software tracks inventory, hides out-of-stock products on your website and offers basic inventory analysis. It also facilitates drop-shipping, curbside pickup and local delivery options, plus access to vendors and third-party applications.

Shopify helps businesses manage inventory across online and in-store locations. Its Pro version can create purchase orders, run inventory counts, perform advanced inventory analysis and generate low-stock reports. However, it’s not ideal for a business that only sells in store. Payment processing varies by plan, with in-person fees starting at 2.4% with Shopify POS Lite.

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6 ways to improve your coupon marketing strategy and increase sales

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Of all the reasons customers buy something, saving money is near the top of the list. This need to save is why discount coupons have become a bigger part of running a successful ecommerce business. Studies show that before making a purchase, 92% of online shoppers search for a coupon or discount code.

Coupons are valuable to ecommerce because they inspire customers to take action. New or up-and-coming brands are especially likely to benefit from offering coupons. According to Inmar Intelligence research, 54% of shoppers purchase from a new brand because it’s less expensive, and about a third are influenced by digital coupons.

With the right coupon marketing strategy, you can target customers where they already spend time online: via email, text, and social media. A coupon campaign that uses relevance, timeliness, and perceived value, can help you maximize exposure and customer follow-through.

1. Add discounts to lead forms

Just as their name suggests, lead magnets are a helpful tool used to attract new leads. Lead magnets are flexible and let you offer a variety of incentives based on your business type and customer preferences. For example, in exchange for sharing their email address, subscribers can get an eBook, access to a webinar, a checklist, a resource guide, or even a video packed with insider information.

One of the most popular types of lead magnets is the discount offer. Subscribers can save a percentage or dollar amount on a future purchase.

Lead magnets pop up automatically on your website after customers:

  • Spend some time browsing your shop
  • Scroll down on the page
  • Move their mouse to close the page — the idea here is to get people to stay on the site longer by offering an incentive

For example, the first time you enter Nick Mayer’s art website and attempt to navigate away from the page (either by moving your mouse to close the tab or click the back arrow), a popup appears. The popup offers the user the opportunity to enter to win a free print by submitting their email and trying their luck at “spinning the prize wheel.” Not only is this digital coupon a fun and clever graphic design, but it’s also a very enticing way to acquire leads.

coupon strategies
Photo: Mick Mayer Art

Lead magnets work especially well if one of your business goals is to grow your email list. According to a study by Google and Boston Consulting Group, 90% of customers are willing to share their email address if it means getting a special offer like a discount.

To keep customers coming back, occasionally update your coupon offers since customers are always looking for fresh new deals. Make sure your offers and coupon strategies are relevant based on what’s important to your audience. This way, once you have new email addresses, you can nurture your leads and share exclusive offers the general public doesn’t have access to.

For example, Biko, a Canadian jewelry brand, offers shoppers 10% off their first order in addition to access to insider-only discounts. Since this site’s target audience is most likely millennial women with an interest in fashion and unique accessories, Biko captures the emails of people who want to buy more amazing products and also save money.

coupon strategies
Photo: Biko

To attract the right lead magnet, figure out what incentives are important to your audience. For example, 48% of U.S. consumers attribute extra costs such as shipping as the number one reason for shopping cart abandonment. Therefore offering a promo code for free shipping can be a more persuasive incentive than a discount on the product or service itself.

coupon strategies
Photo: Baymard Institute
Unexpected shipping costs are the number-one reason consumers don’t complete their online purchase.

2. Use limited-time offers

A limited-time offer is a discount customers have access to for a set amount of time. For example, you can set availability to a few hours or a few days. The goal is to get customers to act sooner by putting an expiration date on the coupon. This type of scarcity marketing can give the customer the perception that a product is more desirable now than it was even a few days before the coupon campaign went live.

Limited-time offers tend to pop up during product launches or special times of the year, like over the holidays. This approach also works well to attract customers who are in the consideration stage of their customer journey. They’ve done the research and narrowed down their options. When they land on your site and see the offer, they understand the value you offer, plus they’re getting what they want with a discount.

To make your offer stand out from the competition, do a little research to see what types of offers other retailers have available. Then find a way to go one step further. For example, if they offer customers free shipping on their first purchase, do the same and add a gift certificate for a friend or family member.

coupon strategies
Photo: Harry’s

Use email marketing to help keep limited-time offers top-of-mind for your subscribers. Add a sense of urgency to act by including a countdown timer in your emails to remind customers that time is running out for them to buy the product they’ve been eyeing.

You can do even more with this idea of urgency by adding in social proof. For example, include a few testimonials from customers who’ve bought the products you’re promoting. Social proof taps into the experience known as FOMO (fear of missing out), which greatly influences customer behavior.

3. Strategize what types of deals to offer

Percentage and dollar amount discounts are popular discount options because they work. But you don’t have to limit yourself to just these types. The discount you offer depends on your ability to manage the cost financially. It’s one thing to give first-time buyers $20 off, but how will this affect your bottom line? Will you still make a profit, or will you lose money?

Before you launch your discount campaign, think about what matters to your audience. Customer surveys are a great way to learn more about what your customers want. If you’ve already surveyed your customers, then you have data insights to guide you in designing a coupon strategy.

Based on survey results and customer comments, discount options may include:

  • Free shipping
  • Abandoned cart savings
  • Free gift with purchase — offer something inexpensive but valuable that sets the tone for the new customer relationship
  • Chance to win a giveaway — multiple people sign up, but you only give away a small number of products
  • Share a referral or include a gift voucher — effective because many shoppers want to be seen as a trendsetter
  • Offer a printable version of your coupon for an older audience that might prefer print over digital

Over time, your customer preferences might change due to new interests, experiences, and advice from their network, so experiment with the types of offers you share.

For example, if you promote lead magnet offers on your website, you can use a tool like Google Analytics to gauge conversion rates. Check to see how many times your popups appear and how many times leads submit an email address. Once you start to see a consistent decrease in conversion, it’s time to make a change to your coupon marketing strategy.

4. Create a customer reward program

Reward programs are a great way to encourage customer loyalty. In exchange for consistently choosing to buy your products over the competition’s, customers receive exclusive offers that provide value and let them save money. The longer customers stay loyal, the higher their lifetime value (LTV) and the higher your revenue.

By all accounts, reward programs seem to be working. According to Fortune Business Insights, loyalty programs are expected to grow from $4.43 billion in 2021 to $18.22 billion in 2028. This is thanks in part to the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning that can provide businesses with insights on which strategies will be more likely to convert customers.

Reward customer loyalty by offering special discounts. You can even throw in extra perks like a free product when customers hit certain milestones, like sending a thank you product when customers hit their one-year anniversary.

The first step in creating an appealing reward program is to figure out what your audience wants. This is based on what you know about them. Ask yourself questions like what kinds of products do repeat customers buy the most and what types of rewards do they use the most — percentage discounts or dollar savings.

Next, segment your customers into groups so you can create specific programs and messaging for particular types of customers. For example, let’s say you have a clothing brand that caters to men and women. Create a rewards program that lets each segment accumulate rewards, points, etc., to use toward specific purchases.

Some brands, like Designer Shoe Warehouse (DSW), even offer loyalty programs with tiers. This way, as customers spend more, they unlock more rewards.

coupon strategies
Photo: DSW

To keep customers engaged and excited about moving to another reward tier, use email or SMS marketing to remind them of the level they’re currently at and what savings await them.

Also, consider incorporating artificial advancement in your tiered rewards. When a new customer qualifies for the reward program, welcome them by giving them a few “free” points or dollars to get started. A study of the Endowed Progress Effect found that customers gravitate to reward programs where they feel like they’ve already started vs. reward programs that start at zero and customers have to build on them.

5. Use different distribution channels

Although there’s power in sending coupons via email, you shouldn’t rely solely on this tactic since emails don’t always get opened right away (or ever if they get stuck in the promotions tab on Gmail). Instead, you should expand your coupon strategies and experiment with other channels, list your product or service on popular coupon sites, and test different methods to maximize your reach and grow your leads.

One way to increase the chances of your customer engaging with a coupon code is to use text messaging to share discounts. The open rate for text messages is 98%, with a click-through rate as high as 36%, yet most marketers still don’t use SMS marketing in their strategy. Moreover, as smartphone usage increases around the globe, more customers want to communicate via text message with your business. Including a mobile option in your coupon marketing strategy is important. In 2021, 71% of ecommerce took place on smartphones.

coupon strategies
Photo: Statista

Promoting new products and discounts on social media is another way to improve your coupon strategy. There are billions of users across popular social media channels like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, so your strategy should include sharing discounts regularly.

However, it’s important to be mindful of overusing coupons. If your products are always on sale, they start to feel less valuable, and your lead magnets may view your coupon strategy as a marketing ploy to get more emails or followers.

To avoid this disenchantment, plan your discounts around special events, customer anniversaries, or holidays. These are times when customers are inclined to shop more anyway, and it makes sense to target them across different channels. You can also use the help of influencers to promote your product or service. In this way, customers can get your coupon through a personable source they already admire and trust.

6. Use creative visuals

At their core, coupons are basically a request for customers to buy something. As a result, coupon codes can easily be sent as plain text messages. But where’s the fun in that? Customers appreciate attractive visuals, so incorporate eye-catching graphics, colors, and fonts in your coupon design. After all, you want your offer to get customers excited, right?

If you’re using an email campaign as part of your coupon marketing strategy, you can base your visuals on your customer segments.

Take this automated email campaign for Sephora. After customers sign up for the email newsletter, they get one version with a special offer if they spend $200 or more and another version if they don’t. Both coupon designs are striking and offer relevant information.

coupon marketing strategies
Photo: Campaign Monitor

You can use this same strategy when promoting your special offers. For example, if a customer uses a coupon, send a thank you email and include links to similar products they might be interested in buying next time. If a customer doesn’t use a coupon when they buy something, send an email that includes a special offer for a future purchase.

This approach works because customers appreciate personalization. Consider cross-selling and upselling by including links to products based on their historical purchases. Using your creativity to make your offers visually appealing and personal can increase the amount a customer ends up spending.

Take your coupon marketing strategy to the next level

Keep in mind, coupon marketing strategies work best in combination with other tactics. Relying on coupons alone to grow your business will actually have the opposite effect because customers won’t see the value in your product. They might shop at another store where the perceived value is higher simply because the competition is more strategic about when and how they offer discounts.

Take some time to get to know your ideal customer and their expectations. From there, you can build a coupon marketing strategy that gets noticed and converts more customers.



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Are Lonely Salespeople Costing You Customers?

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Sales has always had lonely moments. However, when the pandemic sent salespeople home to Zoom, the loneliness became palpable. This is becoming a costly problem.

Many of the changes to the sales profession are no longer temporary. Our clients are reporting that a portion of buyers are permanently working from home. Sales organizations are hiring more remote employees and video calls are the expected norm.

In an agenda-driven video sales call, the social elements (handshakes, shared coffee, etc.) that once humanized the sales interaction have been stripped away. Without these emotionally engaging elements, and without a bullpen of colleagues to buoy their spirits, sales jobs are increasingly becoming transactional and lonely roles.

As one seller put it, “Before, I was busy all the time, and some of it was fun. Now, I’m on Zoom just trying to stay awake. I’m realizing I need more social interactions, but at the end of the day, I’m too exhausted to make the effort.”

Left unaddressed, salesperson loneliness can become a costly problem. Recent research conducted by one of us (Dr. Good) reveals that loneliness goes beyond just a hit to morale — it has begun to impact salesperson behavior with customers, leading to an erosion of revenue, margin, and market reputation. Dr. Good’s data was gathered from two studies that surveyed more than 250 B2B and B2C salespeople from a variety of industries, as well as follow-up qualitative interviews, performance data, and observations of more than a dozen sales teams. Findings revealed that salesperson loneliness is causing three problematic behaviors that ultimately create a cycle of poor performance:

1. Social awkwardness

When social skills aren’t routinely practiced, they deteriorate like any other muscle. Sellers in the studies were frequently observed misreading social signals and misjudging the importance of key details in exchanges with customers. While not surprising — all of us are a little awkward these days — sellers play a particularly heavy price for missing social cues. Buyers are less likely to engage, and the trust required for relationship building doesn’t happen.

Further compounding this problem is the fact that sellers may be coming into a sales interaction moments after having been rejected by a previous customer. Without the buffer of peers in close proximately to help them reset, this could increase the potential for a confidence deficit, contributing to even more initial awkwardness on the next call. An awkward start has a chilling effect on customer engagement and can derail or, at the very least stall, what could have been a successful sales process.

2. Loss of focus on customer needs

Sellers who are overeager for social connection don’t listen deeply during the needs assessment phase of the sales process. The data revealed that these lonely sellers were more likely to forget critical customer information.

In a virtual environment, the visual cues that make each customer distinctive and memorable are often absent. When each customer is just another tiny box on your same computer, in the same room, talking about the same things, they bleed together. This lack of distinction makes what happened (and what the customer said) harder to remember. As one seller told us, “I’m on with 20 customers a day, and every call feels the same.”

We also saw evidence that because they don’t have enough meaningful social connections outside their job, sellers can wind up treating the customer as a confidante, someone they share with, rather than someone whose needs should be the organizing element of the conversation. 

Without a clear understanding of customer-specific needs and goals, sellers are unable to create a compelling or differentiated story about their solution. This impaired memory early in the process winds up hobbling them when they try to close.

3. Conspicuous overspending on customers

Nowhere was the direct cost of salesperson loneliness more readily apparent than their expense account. Dr. Good’s studies showed that salesperson loneliness was directly connected to increased spending on customers. It’s not hard to understand why someone who’s lonely would want to buy their clients gifts and meals, or why they might want to reduce the price to maintain a client friendship. These actions usually generate a warm response from customers, and what lonely person doesn’t want to generate a more positive emotional reaction from the people they spend time with?

However warm it might feel in the moment, this “sweethearting” did not improve salesperson performance in either of the two studies Dr. Good conducted. While buyers may have been grateful, and sellers may have gotten the dopamine high of a positive social interaction, this conspicuous overspending did not create additional revenue. It was a cost with no return on investment.

In the current social-starved environment, many sellers are over-indexing on the old adage, “people buy from people they like.” In an effort to be liked, salespeople have forgotten that the true purpose of sales: to improve life for customers.

How Managers Can Help Lonely Salespeople

As humans, we’re hardwired to seek meaningful connection. The challenge for sellers (and their managers) is two-fold: the shift to virtual created a huge interpersonal void for salespeople whose time had previously been filled with human interaction. Second, when salespeople try to mitigate their loneliness, their coping behaviors play out with customers, which has a direct impact on the organization’s financial health and reputation.

The three above behaviors create a dangerous cycle that erodes competitive differentiation, eats away at the margin, and results in costly turnover in the sales role. With the virtual world of selling unlikely to fully revert, it is crucial that leaders proactively mitigate this problem. Here are eight strategies to break this cycle:

Create situations that encourage non-competing.

When every sales meeting feels like Shark Tank, with coworkers pitted against each other, it reinforces the loneliness. Go beyond the usual sales reporting meetings and give your salespeople regular opportunities to be together without an agenda or contest. Something as simple as a weekly 15-minute “Share your favorite TV binge” huddle gives sellers a way to connect with coworkers rather than thrusting their loneliness on unsuspecting customers.

Activate a sense of shared purpose.

Sales loneliness magnifies when sellers feel that they’re nothing more than a lone wolf quota filler. You can help counter this feeling by regularly reinforcing a sense of higher purpose. Make a practice of discussing how your organization’s solutions make a difference to customers, and how each member of the team contributes. This reminds sellers that their jobs have meaning and that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

Design a structure for peer-to-peer support.

Hold regular peer meetings in which sellers brainstorm together to help improve each other’s skills. For example, you can ask people for their favorite questions to ask during discovery or how to open new conversations without awkwardness. Putting sellers in a situation where they’re sharing best practices creates a support structure they can draw upon during times of challenge and change.

Do some brain training.

Listening skills were the most obvious (and potentially detrimental) thing to decline for reps experiencing loneliness. Reverse this trend by running a quick training drill for your sales team where they practice listening and responding to each other describing personal things like weekend plans or how they’ve arranged their workspace. Improving their listening skills in lower-stakes social settings, where there’s not a deal at risk, will help them do the same in front of customers.

Make sure your sales team is crystal clear on your value proposition.

When a rep has confidence in the value proposition they’re offering to customers, they’re less likely to discount or “sweetheart.” Without this solid base, a rep is more likely to feel like they are risking the personal connection by offering a price that may be perceived as too high or overspend on the customer to mitigate negative feelings.

Set spending guidelines and model appropriate gifts.

When spending guidelines are vague, it diverts attention from the true objective of the sale, which is to improve life for customers. Show your sellers exactly what appropriate and effective spending looks like. Perhaps it’s giving customers a helpful book about an issue they’re facing or providing a coffee gift card for them to use in your meeting. Demonstrate to your team that your solution combined with their own expertise is enough; you don’t need elaborate gifts to make connections.

Encourage your salespeople to schedule small breaks between client calls.

Tell your salespeople, “Give yourself five minutes between calls to review the notes, have a glass of water and remind yourself how we improve life for these customers.” This will increase their confidence in their offering and give them a chance to shake off what may have been an unsuccessful past call.  Grounding themselves in the value of their offering helps them start more strategically and curbs the impulse to overshare.

Encourage friendships outside of work.

Your customers don’t need another friend, but your salespeople probably do. But to have friends, you have to be a friend. Truly caring leaders would be wise to encourage salespeople to seek opportunities to pursue friendship outside of work. While friendship may seem like a touchy-feely topic inappropriate for leadership commentary, the research tells us that a salesperson’s lack of friends can be quite costly. Given the high stakes, it’s a problem worth addressing.

Salespeople are no different than the rest of us. When they’re lonely, they become more awkward, they tend to overshare, and they try to connect in using whatever means they have at their disposal. The above strategies can help mitigate salesperson loneliness, and ensure that your team is approaching customers with calm confidence. 

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