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How Salespeople Become Business Advisors

Sign up for the EzineI’ll be speaking next week at ITSMA’s 20th Annual Marketing Conference in Boston. The theme is, “The New Face of Marketing.”

As a run-up to that event, I was interviewed by Dan Armstrong, Director of Research and Thought Leadership at ITSMA.

Here is the interview as published on ITSMA’s website. Thanks to Dan and ITSMA for allowing me to republish it.


ITSMA’s annual How Buyers Consume Information study—the most recent update of which will be presented at ITSMA’s 20th Annual Marketing Conference, The New Face of Marketing—highlights how buyers seek value from salespeople throughout the purchase process. That means challenging customers with credible, provocative ideas upfront in order to create epiphanies and build awareness, not just concentrating on the later stages where many salespeople are most comfortable.

But how many salespeople can do this? According to ITSMA’s Thought Leadership Selling study, most marketers don’t think their salespeople are up to the task. We’ve invited Dave Stein, CEO of ES Research Group, to speak at the upcoming ITSMA Conference on how marketers can help their salespeople become thought leadership sellers.

ITSMA: Do all salespeople have to be thought leaders?

Stein: It depends on what you’re selling and who you’re selling to. The more commodity-like, the more transactional, the less the salesperson needs to be a thought leader. In fact, trying to be a business advisor when you are selling a commodity could muck things up.

ITSMA: How many things are really commodities? And when do salespeople actually sell commodities?

Stein: They don’t. When you’re selling purely on the basis of price, you don’t even need a salesperson. If you’re buying propylene glycol by the railcar or high-fructose corn syrup delivered to a certain location, you look at the prices on a website and make a choice. But that’s a small piece of GDP. Most products can benefit from a more advisory approach.

ITSMA: What’s an example of a product that might seem like a commodity but should be sold on an advisory basis?

Stein: GPS is in every smartphone now. It’s not proprietary anymore. But it does enable businesses to improve operations in ways that may not be immediately obvious. The more the customer understands those implications, the more likely he is to buy from the salesperson who educates him. Think about it: you can track your vehicles to reduce fuel use, accidents, wear and tear, and whether they’re being diverted to personal use. Lots of products and services that seem ordinary actually have important business implications. The salesperson who connects the dots gets the deal.

ITSMA: What’s the implication for marketers?

Stein: Marketers position the company as a thought leader advising customers on how to meet business objectives. It’s a message that needs to be reflected in the website, in case studies, in sales enablement and training, in campaigns, and in all kinds of marketing materials.

ITSMA: In our recent study, we found that most marketers think only a minority of their salespeople are capable of thought leadership selling. Do you think that’s true? And if so, can it be taught?

Stein: The whole right-brain/left-brain dichotomy—the creative versus the analytical—has come under fire. Nobody is all one or the other. But I think it’s still a useful way to think about what makes a good thought leadership seller.

The best B2B salespeople have the financial acumen and analytical approach to make a business case. Plus they need industry experience and credibility in order to generate trust. Of course they should also be self-motivated and empathetic and outgoing. But when a customer says, “We’re in a fast-moving industry and we need a partner who can help us see what lies ahead and figure out what to do,” you need someone who can think about the business clearly and offer them credible advice. So start with the right person. That’s key.

ITSMA: What about the right-brained types?

Stein: From a fifth to a third of the people in B2B sales roles are not suited for the jobs that they are in. No matter how many tools and how much training they get, they will not be self-sufficient. Skills can be learned. But you have to start out with a left-brained person—someone who is a logical, process-oriented thinker—rather than a right-brained creative type. In complex B2B sales, the days of salespeople counting only on their charisma are over.