While giving a talk at a sales conference recently, it struck me that industry conferences inevitably focus on two themes: the future and change. Future trends in technology, the future of work, the accelerating pace of change, and so on.  The message always boils down to some version of “Transform or Die.”  Am I right?

But today I think that message actually does have a special resonance for sales professionals, as we face massive shifts in how our customers make buying decisions and in how those customers choose to engage with us. Our ability to adapt will determine our ability to succeed.

Studies show that today’s B2B buyers have done more than two-thirds of their decision-making research before they engage with a vendor; 75% start the process with an online search; and 76% leverage their personal and professional networks for guidance and advice.
So instead of relying on us to help guide their decision processes, they are holding us at arm’s length.  They use peer reviews, third-party analysis and thought leadership, networks and communities, and in the process, consume all manner of content that we did not create and we do not control.  They are in essence “secret shoppers” who are forming opinions about our brands, our companies, and our offerings, independent of our influence.

“Independent of our influence”:  That’s a scary thought.  As sales professionals, we have been trained not just to influence our customers’ behavior, but to control it as much as we can.  It’s clear that our ability to achieve this using traditional selling methods is going away.  In essence, we are control freaks who are losing control.

So what can we do about it?  How can sales people regain a greater measure of influence, if not control, over the self-service buyer’s journey?

The answer may surprise you: Marketing. Yes, I said it: Marketing.

Sales professionals need to develop a modern toolkit of skills and capabilities that look and feel a lot like marketing.  These tools enable sales people to engage with their customers and prospects at various points in their journey, perhaps without actually connecting directly, in ways that can make a difference in their ultimate buying decisions. In other words they need to become “secret sellers” who earn their customers’ trust and preference.

Sales people must adapt to and adopt new digital, content, and social-driven behaviors in order to get the right content into the hands of the right buyers at the right time through the right channel.  Marketing needs to help sales people build these new capabilities—such as Social Selling– which are the new door openers, but require sales people to develop marketing-like skills.  This is absolutely critical if we ever expect to exert influence on that 67+% of the self-serve buyer’s journey.

In essence, sales people need to become “twenty-thirty-forty-fifty-sixty-something millennials”—with the skills and mindsets of digital natives who engage fully and operate fluidly in these new spheres of influence.

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