The sales profession has a problem.
Prospects and clients are stuck thinking of salespeople as single-minded hustlers, whose only job is to harass them by calling or emailing over and over until they can weasel into a sales call and then use their killer “close” to get the business.
That’s not the problem.
The real problem: sales professionals still view themselves as single-minded hustlers, whose only job is to harass prospects by calling or emailing over and over until they can weasel their way into a sales call and then use their killer “close” to get the business.
That’s not going to work anymore. The world has changed.
The New Sales World
If you are in sales, the first step is acknowledging that the sales role has changed. In fact, it is still changing. Rapidly. Instead of a sales process that is led from the sales side, it is now the prospects who are firmly in control of their own buying journey.
The rise of the internet has driven this evolution. Or rather, the easy access to information that technology provides is at the root of this change. In the past, when a prospect wanted to get more information or when they wanted to buy, they had to go to their salesperson. That meant that salespeople had the control.
Now, potential customers can get all the information they want (and more) with a simple Google search. They can go to a website and place an order without ever talking to a person. If all you can do is deliver information or write up an order, your job is on its way to obsolescence. You will be replaced by a website, a chatbot, or a marketing automation program.
In fact, the Forrester Research report The Death of a (B2B) Salesman suggests that the only type of sales role expected to increase in numbers is the “Consultant” who is tasked with guiding customers through complex problems and complex solutions. The “Order Takers”, “Explainers”, and “Navigators” are all facing huge declines in hiring in the near future.
So there is a growing need for sales professionals who can be consultants, who can guide their prospects through the mountains of noise to find the right solutions for their problems.
Stay Relevant, Employed, and Well-Paid: Become a Sales Sherpa™
If the sales world is evolving, then the skill sets that drive sales success have to evolve as well. Ours is not a world of cold outreach, transactional-selling, and clever closing tricks. The path to success that worked in 1990 or 2000 (or even 2010) isn’t going to work today.
Instead of forcing their selling process onto their potential customers, Sales Sherpas™ are guides who realize that their potential customers are already on their own journey. They are engaged in their own buying process. It harkens back to the sales adage, “People don’t like to be sold to, but they love to buy.”
Because the prospect can look for a solution on their own, the Sales Sherpa has to be a resource for the buyer during that buying process. The salesperson provides value by helping make prospects’ buying process faster, more efficient, or more effective. Basically, they need to help their prospects make better decisions than they could on their own.
If sales professionals want to stay reliant on transactions and rote activity for success, they will fail. If their role really can be defined as simple activities done over and over, technology will eventually replace them.
But if they are in a role that emphasizes the skills that are uniquely human: relationship-building, trust, improvisation, spontaneity, and empathy, they will not only retain their positions, but see them expand.
The Seven Sales Sherpa™ Skills
In the past, a competitive personality who could hustle, who wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and who could follow a simple sales process would often succeed in sales. But we’re seeing those individuals struggle more and more.
These days, there are 7 sales skills to hone if you want to succeed as a Sales Sherpa.
1. Create Trust
This isn’t a fuzzy feel-good idea, it’s the foundation of anything and everything that happens in the sales engagement. Sales is about influence, influence is based on communication, and communication is based on trust. By the transitive property, then, sales is trust. It makes sense that in a time where trust is taking a hit (the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer showed a decrease in almost every category it tracks), our ability to connect with our prospects is key.
Sales Sherpas aren’t brochure deliverers anymore, they need to be trusted advisors. It doesn’t matter how good of an advisor you are if you are missing that trust. The sales relationship must focus on creating that bridge between the salesperson and the prospect.
Execute: Focus on the first interactions you have with your prospects. Are you trustworthy? Are you on time, do you do what you say you’ll do, etc. Before you dive into the sales presentation, connect with the prospect as a person. Rapport may seem like it’s frivolous, but by showing interest in the person across the table, you have a chance to build the human connection and find out what makes them tick.
2. Manage Complexity
We thought that easy access to information would make the buying process easier, but it’s done the opposite. Studies show that the more information we have, the harder it is to make decisions. In B2B settings there are more people involved in the buying process and there are more options for B2C consumers than ever before.
This is the landscape that the Sales Sherpa has to navigate. Or rather, this is the landscape that they have to help their prospects navigate. It’s their job to be the ringleader that can juggle multiple decision-makers, streams of information, and organizational needs. Don’t waste time bemoaning complexity – that’s your job.
Execute: Take the time to analyze the situation at each of your prospects. Identify the decision-makers, the pain points for each of them, and what objections they might have. Take note of the spoken and unspoken guidelines that are being used to buy. Use that document to strategically map out your communication and decide where to focus you time.
3. Clarify Thinking
The Sales Sherpa provides value in the new context by helping their prospects parse and translate all of the information available to them. It’s important to remember that while a salesperson spends all of their time selling, it’s rare for a buyer to spend all of their time buying. Because the Sales Sherpa has expertise in how to make decisions, it’s critical that they help point out the opportunities and pitfalls for their prospects.
The 2016 DemandGen Buyer’s Survey actually reported that more people are engaged in the sales decision than before and that they are spending more time investigating and researching options when they do. Sales professionals need to help the prospect uncover and clarify their needs, and then draw clear and direct lines between those needs and what the salesperson is offering. It’s important that the Sales Sherpa doesn’t make assumptions about what prospects do or do not know.
Execute: Questions and storytelling are critical. Do you investigate enough to really know what the prospect’s challenges and needs are? If they aren’t clear, or you aren’t sure, stop and clarify before you move forward. Then, when you need to connect the dots for prospects, use stories. Humans communicate through metaphor and analogy, so make sure that you have a full repertoire of stories from past clients about how taking specific steps helped solve specific issues.
4. Interpret Nuance
When you are looking at the sales plan you’ve drafted for a prospect, look for places where the explicit process and implicit process diverge. That’s a fancy way of saying: look for situations where people are saying one thing but you know they mean something else.
This doesn’t happen maliciously, but complexity means that things aren’t always as they seem. Sometimes, the VP who can OK the deal is busy and will defer to whatever their Director says. Or maybe your internal champion is talking a good game, but they don’t have the clout to pull the trigger. Or maybe there’s an internal power struggle between Marketing and HR that you have to manage. They aren’t going to tell you that, but it’s critical that you know it.
Execute: Look at every major deal in your pipeline. Identify the end-user, decision-maker, and internal champion that you have at each, and see if they are the same person or different people. Then, think back (and ask someone on the inside if you have enough trust) to determine if there are any unstated issues happening for your buyer that could influence their buying.
5. Improvise Solutions
People don’t like uncertainty. It creates an especially challenging buying environment. But the more potential uncertainty that exists in a selling situation, the more valuable the Sales Sherpa is. If there was no uncertainty, and no surprises, your expertise wouldn’t be needed.
Every potential customer is unique in the same way a snowflake is unique. From a distance they all look the same, but up close there are many variables that can change in an instant. By coming up with new options and opportunities in the moment, the Sales Sherpa has a role in keeping the process moving forward and preventing it from stalling or running off the tracks.
Execute: When something unexpected happens with the prospect’s sales process, don’t complain. This is actually when you are going to earn your money. At these moments, use the question, “How can we _____” to move forward. Always think in terms of options and opportunities. Is also a great place to use the stories (see#3) to reinforce what others have done.
6. Demonstrate Empathy
There’s an increasing emphasis on technology within sales organizations. While sales enablement tools are useful, be wary of thinking that the long-term solution for your sales challenges is a new automation package or CRM system. If your sales process truly can be automated, it’s going to find itself firmly in the hands of technology.
Luckily, algorithms aren’t good at building human connection. Computers can’t empathize. The human element of sales doesn’t end when you have built some trust in the beginning. It’s important that you remain a human being throughout the sales process. Your buyer wants someone who can help them navigate their human emotions during the process.
Execute: One of the most powerful statements you can make to a prospect is: “I understand”. Because that’s what all humans want: to be understood. If a prospect is sharing an objection or problem, don’t immediately jump to telling them how you can solve it. Instead, say, “I understand why____, here’s a different perspective…”. It will strengthen the relationship instead of pulling it apart.
7. Provide Momentum
Real life Sherpas lead travelers up the mountain. They don’t hang out in base camp the whole time. It’s the same thing for Sales Sherpas. Their job is to lead, and they can’t do that if the prospect isn’t moving forward. Throughout the sales process and until the final commitment question, the salesperson is still creating an environment and reasons for action.
The goal of sales is still to move people forward. This is where the “hustle” and mental fortitude that are hallmarks of the successful salesperson of the past still shine. It’s not about being aggressive or pushy, but rather about having the willingness to provide impetus to the process.
Execute: Pick up the phone. Send that email. Reach out through text or social media channels. Follow up. Ask for the next step. Remind them of the costs of doing nothing. Don’t give up. When you have an opportunity to provide service to your prospects, keep working with them until they tell you to stop. Find ways to provide more value and help them move forward.
Get Your Prospects to the Mountaintop
Amidst all of this change, one thing remains the same: your prospects have needs that they are trying to solve. The process of selling is evolving, but not the fact that people still need to buy products and services.
By cultivating the skills above, you position yourself as a person who can help your prospects solve the needs they have. You become a truly “valuable” partner for them. And when you view yourself as a Sales Sherpa, instead of a transactional hustler, you demonstrate that value.
And that’s when you will find success as you lead your prospects up the mountain as a true Sales Sherpa™.