We’ve spent a lot of time and words talking about how the sales process has changed over the course of the last ten or so years. Between talking about the change in communication preferences, trends giving more power to the buyer, and the elevation of Marketing as a partner to Sales, you’d think we’ve covered it all. But there’s one more big theme we need to talk about before we can say we’ve truly talked about all of the changes happening to the selling process: Information.
Frankly put, years ago, salespeople were gatekeepers of information about the products and services that their company offered. And with that status came a great deal of power. Now that the industry has evolved away from that paradigm to one where the buyer can easily find information on their own, sales reps are finding themselves struggling to answer a tricky, existential question: Where do we fit in the equation?
Sales as Gatekeeper
Years ago, if a buyer wanted information about a product or service, there was only one way that they could get it: By speaking with a sales rep. Sales reps held every bit of information that a buyer could want or need to make a decision: product specs, prices, customer reviews/testimonials, comparisons to other products on the market.
As gatekeeper to this information, Sales had a lot of power. Because buyers had to go through sales reps no matter what, sales teams around the world essentially had carte blanche to shape the buyer’s journey around their needs and desires—instead of the needs and desire of the buyer.
This, of course, led to a dynamic that was beneficial to the sales rep—and not really anyone else. Interruptive selling techniques proliferated (cold calling being the king of all interruptive selling), and what’s more, they actually worked.
Information is power, and for a long time, Sales was in control of that information. During that time, it was good to be in sales.
Unfortunately for sales reps, that time was destined to end. As new technology entered the daily lives of buyers, it became harder and harder for Sales to hold onto the control of information.
On the one hand, new technologies made it increasingly difficult for Sales to force their information onto an audience through interruptive selling techniques. DVR enabled viewers to skip over television ads; caller ID allowed people to ignore cold calls; spam blockers filtered out sales emails; and today ad blocker is making it more and more difficult for ads to do their job online. All of these technologies made it very easy for buyers to ignore the information that Sales was purposely trying to put out there.
On the other hand, different technologies allowed buyers to find information on their own, diminishing the importance of sales-reps-as-information-gatekeepers. Google search (and Bing, and Yahoo) made it easier for buyers to find information like specs and prices for products and services; websites like Yelp allowed buyers to access customer reviews and testimonials without needing to go through sales reps to get them (and, obviously, without the control that a sales team would love to have over customer reviews); and other apps and websites made brand comparison by feature and price much easier than it was in the past.
On top of all of that, the proliferation of social media as a way for buyers to get recommendations on products and services from friends, and other trends in communication preferences, further limited the influence that Sales can exert over the buyer.
Ultimately, and over time, this shift in the control over information had a profound impact on the buyer’s journey, transforming it from something that was seller-focused to something that was buyer-focused. Simply put, today the buyer is more informed (and therefore, holds more power) than they ever did in the past.
How Sales Can Continue Demonstrating Value
There’s no going back to the old days: The “informed buyer” is here to stay. But Sales can still show its value to buyers. All a sales team needs to do is partner closely with their marketing team or a marketing agency.
In today’s world, Marketing has a lot to do with the success of Sales. Marketing is often the primary creator of content, and sales teams must increasingly rely on this content to demonstrate value to buyers. By partnering closely with marketers, sales reps can ensure that high-value content is created, which can then be used to lure buyers in.
As an example of this concept, let’s look at the world of magazines for a moment. Years ago, magazines made the bulk of their revenue from a mix of advertising in print issues and subscription. Because there is no “ad blocker” for print copies, this allowed magazine companies to make a lot of money from advertising.
Alas, as more and more consumers look online for content, magazines have also shifted largely online. This removes a lot of the “subscription” revenue from the equation, since fewer print copies are being bought, which drives up the pressure on advertising to bring in money. But as online ad blockers get more advanced, the ability for magazines to make money online is being hampered.
Smart magazines are taking a page out of the Sales playbook. Though they continue to offer a lot of content for free on their websites (to draw people in through organic search, etc.) they also create high-value content (such as political deep dives, infographics, brand-exclusive pieces like interviews, etc.) and place this content behind a paywall. If someone truly values that content, they then have to pay for it.
The free content offered by magazines is comparable to the free blog posts that you might publish to draw people to your company website. The premium, behind-the-paywall content is comparable to white papers, webinars, slideshares, and more that you might offer visitors to your site who complete a form. Though they aren’t paying you money to access the premium content like they would pay a magazine, what they do give you is just as valuable, if not more so: Their contact information, which you can then use to pursue a sale.
The Bottom Line
The golden days of Sales-as-information-gatekeeper are long gone, and there is no going back. A dramatic shift has taken place which has helped make the buyer’s journey more of a buyer-focused endeavor. To continue showing relevance today, Sales needs to learn how to position itself as a gatekeeper of a different kind of information: High-value content that can’t be found anywhere else.