Just a month ago, virtual assistant firm Vaiot created a new platform that was able to sell car insurance without any human assistance. This is a big deal. Until now, digital technology has been used to optimise some parts of the sales process. However, human touch has always been required at some stage of the sales cycle. Now, they have managed to do so without any human involvement in the complete end-to-end sales process.
Does this mean that B2B sellers are going to be replaced by AI and robots? Not likely. So why are such developments still a threat to our profession? The straight forward answer is “encroachment”.
What Is Encroachment?
The term content creation first existed in 2001; still in the early days of the internet. Since then, it has exploded with currently over 2 million blog posts and articles being published every day. The proliferation of the internet and social media has helped democratise information in a way that has placed more power in the hands of people to educate themselves.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s business buyers relied on vendors and their sellers to help educate them on the decisions they should make and the suppliers who could help them. This is no longer the case. in 2011, CEB (now Gartner) rocked the B2B sales world with their findings that buyers are on average 57% of the way through their buying cycle before they engage with a salesperson. This released a whole host of fear and speculation about the increasingly commoditised role of the seller and their waning influence on the buyer. The reality is that this didn’t mean sellers couldn’t be part of the influencing process. It meant that sellers had to adapt to how they did so. They needed to leverage different types of methods to place themselves where buyers’ attentions were.
What Did The Pandemic Do?
Fast forward to 2020, and the pandemic dramatically shifted buyer behaviours, again. It forced our society to advance digitalisation to such an extent that we saw technological maturity accelerate. Digital developments that were expected to take years took only months. This has meant that buyers have new expectations. They want more of the buying process to be digitalised and automated. Even the purchasing process, right at the end of the sales cycle, is being automated with tools such as DocuSign allowing for less human engagement with buyers.
The Hidden Danger You Don’t Realise Is Coming
You might think that if you are selling a complex solution that you would be safe from becoming obsolete. After all, the more complex the sale, the bigger the impact for the buyer requiring more need for human interaction. Unfortunately, this is not so, and there is a risk that you are probably not seeing.
The problem isn’t complete “obsoletion”. The problem is having more and more of your influencing eroded. There is also a hidden danger. As buyers are less willing to engage with us, this means that digital technologies, AI, and Machine Learning are being used to inform your buyer and distance you from them. Buyers are now trying to find ways to circumvent sellers. They are not doing so maliciously, but purely to save themselves more time and to place more of the buying process on their terms. The result is less involvement for us.
Even when we are involved, buyers are less tolerant. In the past, they would have been more open to approaches such as “current state” analyses and hypothesis. We would begin conversations by sharing findings from our research about the buyer’s company, and we would spend time in Discovery and Diagnosis to understand more about their challenges and goals. Buyers are now less tolerant of this. They frankly expect you to have done your homework and acquired most of this information. They are also not willing to waste their time confirming information that they “live and breathe” daily. And, they certainly don’t want to waste their time answering questions that they feel you are asking to lead them to a sale.
There Is Good News!
As with most changes in our society, change doesn’t necessarily mean “obsoletion”. It means that we have to adapt. Do buyers want to remove all seller interactions? No. What they want to do is limit and remove valueless interactions.
The one thing that AI and digitalisation cannot do that humans can is to “see around corners”. Big data, AI, and Machine Learning can significantly help us make sense of trends and uncover insights hidden within oceans of data. But, what they still can’t do is create reliable scenarios about the future. You can guess what might happen in the future because you have strong intuitions about cause and effect. Your brain is designed to observe how your environment works. It then uses such experiences and knowledge to consider the likely outcome of how your environment is developing. A computer, on the other hand, finds such causal reasoning hard. They can spot correlations, but they can’t explain why a particular event should follow another one.
Become A Business Advisor
How does this information help you have more engagement with buyers? The answer is that you can give them something that machines cannot: the ability to assess the future and make smart decisions.
Now, more than ever, sales is less about Discovery and Solution-Mapping and more about being a Business Advisor that your buyers can trust. This is more than being a Trusted Advisor. People still equate being a Trusted Advisor with someone who is providing buyers with exemplary customer service. The problem with customer service and being a “firefighter” is that you are still in the commoditised space. At some point, such value will taper off and reduce as your buyer’s world evolves.
Your buyers are always seeking to understand how the future will look and what their place needs to be in that future in order to thrive. We are inundated with stories of once bellwether companies now going bankrupt and industries being disrupted by players who we would never have associated with that industry. The task of the entrepreneur and business leader has never been so tense. Even with all the data, AI, and Data Science at their disposal, the job of deciding for the future still falls on the human business leader. This is not an easy job at all. That is where you must play as a seller. You must bring value where machines and AI cannot. You must provide your buyers with information about the future that they either do not see, do not fully understand, or do not appreciate its magnitude. Your job is to help:
- Inform buyers of potential problems that they are missing; and/or
- Inform buyers of potential opportunities that they may miss if they do not act.
You then advise them of the decisions they should consider and present your offering as a solution to help them. That is how you create value, and it is also how you create urgency in your buyer.
You Are In A Position Of Power
A lot of sales professionals have an inferiority complex. They believe that the balance of power lies with the buyer, and they need to tread carefully to make the sale. This is absolutely not true!
For over 6 years, I led a division that sold high-end advisory services to Chief R&D Officers of multi-billion dollar organisations. These were individuals who sat on the executive boards of these big businesses and responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars. You would think that they have too much knowledge and experience to gain value from someone like me, but you would be surprised.
In an average week I would have about 20 conversations with a Chief R&D Officer or an SVP of R&D. In a year where I was working 36 weeks, that meant that I was having about 720 conversations with such job titles and responsibilities. Do you know how many conversations the average Chief R&D Officer would have with his/her peer in a year? 5. That’s it, just 5! That meant that I had 144 times the interactions than they did. I had so much insight that I became an incredibly valuable window into their world and could share both best practices and bad practices. They looked to me for information about the trends in their job role and what was happening in their world. I was able to give them insights and advice on the decisions they are making and what would be the likely outcomes.
This is a fantastic way for you to start becoming a Business Advisor to your buyer. You have more conversations with your buyers in a week than that buyer has with their peers in a year! What knowledge and insights are you sitting on that would be invaluable to them? What information do you hold that can help them make better decisions? How can you help them better understand things that they can’t see that would impact them?
You don’t need to come up with such insights yourself. Talk to your manager and your sales peers. Collectively you may have thousands of conversation to draw insights from. You can also gain a lot of insights from your Marketing partners. They may have a wealth of data and trends at their disposal. You should also liaise with your technical and product partners. What are they seeing from a product and delivery perspective that could help you either convince a buyer to shift from their current provider to you or convince them to seriously consider your solution?
Finally, the best people to talk to are those in your own company who have the same job title as your buyers. This was one of the most valuable activities I undertook, and it is something that the best performers I interviewed all have in common. Get to understand your buyer’s world. What does the average day, week, and month of your buyer look like? Do you even know how they are measured? This is a critical one. I am still shocked at how little sellers know about the very people they sell to. When I ask my clients to name the top 5 metrics in their buyer’s performance reviews and job responsibilities, only 2% can confidently answer that question. If you don’t know how your buyer will be assessed in their annual performance reviews, how can you possibly know what will be valuable to them or how to articulate your value in a way that aligns with their career prospects?
These are the questions to ask yourself and the insights that you must learn. There is more to becoming a Business Advisor that your buyer can trust. But, what I have shared with you is a powerful start to that journey. It will help you differentiate yourself from other sellers. It will help you position yourself as someone so valuable that your buyers will want to engage with you, and you will be less prone to becoming commoditised by new technologies.