The future of sales: 6 skills every B2B sales rep needs

Posted by Justin Lee on 4/9/18 7:48 AM
“So what happened next?”

Last Saturday on the subway, I found myself accidentally eavesdropping on the group of strangers opposite me. The story being told was so compelling that I (almost) missed my stop in an attempt to hear the end.

Stories have that effect on us. They hook us in, focus our mind and appeal to our emotions. We feel personally invested and propel ourselves towards the outcome.

So it makes sense that a great sales rep needs to be a great storyteller. They know it’s a sparkling narrative — not dry, recited facts — that paves the way to closed deals.

That’s because a brilliant story triggers the release of oxytocin: the ‘trust hormone’. And despite our automation obsession, trust remains the number one driver of purchase decisions.

But the B2B landscape is changing exponentially, with over 700 SaaS sales technologies released last year alone.

Companies have a world of data at their fingertips, and no longer rely on reps to enlighten them. Ratings and online reviews dominate the internet — and therefore, decision-makers’ choices.

But today’s successful reps are adapting to these changes. Supported, not overshadowed, by technology, they’re creating new-and-improved narratives.

Here are some key strategies and trends to watch in 2018.

Act I: Know your audience

All prospects aren’t created equal. Knowing who to target, how, and when, is crucial. 

Today, a highly personalized approach is a prerequisite, with 75% of prospects being more likely to buy into a customized offer.

Account-based selling

Account-based selling/marketing (ABS/ABM) is a relatively new tactic that, powered by technology, has recently started to pick up speed: Gartner predicted that ABS will become the standard selling framework for tech companies with over $5M in revenue.

Here’s the gist: in a traditional selling/marketing set-up, you cast a ‘wide net’, catching lots of small fishes. With ABM, you use a spear — yep, to catch the big fish.

ABS rejects the one-size-fits-all mindset. Instead of treating every lead as worthy of the same investment, accounts are evaluated in terms of their potential success. 

Then, sales and marketing (and product, and finance, and development) will align to target high-value accounts with a hyper-personalized experience.

Not only does this collaborative aspect encourage a more holistic view of the customer, it unifies departments and streamlines the sales process. 

That’s why TOPO CEO Scott Albro proposes the term “Account-Based Everything,” instead.

To summarize, ABS:

  • generates the best prospects (low value leads are filtered out)
  • reaps the highest ROI (customers are more likely to opt for cross-sells and upsells when they trust you)
  • creates cost-efficiency (you don’t waste resources)
  • builds and nurtures long-term relationships
  • reduces PPC spending
  • is easily trackable

You can start gleaning insights and measuring engagement with a platform like Datanyze or LeanData.

Data analysis

Only 53% of fast-growing companies claim to be effective in using analytics for decision-making. This suggests there is huge untapped potential for reps with data analytics knowledge.

“You can know who’s going to purchase before beginning a long and potentially fruitless conversation — by understanding the actions your buyers take,”
- John Sherer, Director of Sales at Appcues.

Data analysis is key because it leads to straightforward, actionable insights.

  • What are your decision-makers interested in and how do they operate? 
  • What are they buying, where are they advertising? 
  • What has worked for them before, what has nosedived? 
  • What’s their budget?

Answers to these questions open up a world of opportunity.

Today’s jazzed-up CRM’s are becoming more and more sophisticated in this respect; by giving shared access to lead data, software like HubSpot become a relationship hub for teams (beyond sales) to use collaboratively.

A growing breed of chatbots also empower tomorrow’s successful salespeople. 

Take our digital assistant, GrowthBot, which helps you to find out key information on your prospects (and competitors). 

Try asking “What software is using?” or “How much are ____ spending on PPC”?

Anticipating your prospects’ next move provides real strategic value (and can prevent boardroom blunders). This knowledge will, in turn, allow you to demonstrate (not list) how a product is uniquely valuable to them.

Act II: Draw them in

The millennials (don’t forget Gen Z)are officially taking over, bringing with them a brand-new set of expectations. Establishing a presence on all the channels where they spend time is key.

For these digital natives, constant connectivity is a must-have: 

84% of millennial business buyers expect real-time interaction from companies.

Omni-channel and social media

The omni-channel strategy that’s working so well for B2C works for B2B, too: lead retailers are online, on Messenger, in inboxes — and on social media.

Social selling divides the sales world: some think it’s just a buzzword, others think it’s the future.

But if you think social should be left to the marketers, think again: 

78% of salespeople who use social selling outperform their peers.
Leads developed through employees’ social media activities convert seven times more frequently.
Three in four B2B buyers rely on social media to engage with peers about buying decisions.

Yes, social media helps establish connections and build a network of prospects. 

But it also allows reps to better understand and relate to their customers, giving access to behavioural data and buying signals: where are prospects encountering pain points, what’s happening at their company, what are their responsibilities at work?

This information adds value to conversations and guides the selling process all the way through to post-purchase.

Last but not least, customers often use social media to share their opinions and vent frustrations.

The more reps can keep their ear to the ground, the better equipped they are to reduce churn. 

It doesn’t need to be a drain on your working day, either: 

B2B reps only need to invest 5% of their time to be successful with social.

In this landscape, there are hundreds of tools. 

  • Platforms like Hootsuite and Buffer are a necessity for scheduling content and tracking analytics. 
  • Linkedin Sales Navigator is key for outbound sales and BuzzSumo is great for tracking trends. 
  • For more information, Saleshacker’s guide to social selling has a full and comprehensive list of tools and tips.

Real conversations

Here’s what lead generation used to look like: give away a valuable piece of content… in exchange for a ton of personal data, buried under a never-ending form. 

Basically, holding potential buyers at ransom instead of simply delivering value.

Drift’s Daniel Murphy explains:

“Asking a potential customer a bunch of questions before you’ve provided them with answers just doesn’t feel right. So we don’t do it.”

The alternative to content-gating? Live chat

Prompting a real-time, two-way conversation lets customers connect with you on their own terms, when it suits them. 

And by automating simple queries, reps are left with more time to tackle the complex aspects of relationship-building. Check out Automat or Intercom to get started.

Act III: Surprise them

Our brains operate by four simple principles: 

  1. If it’s not dangerous, ignore it.
  2. If it’s not new and exciting, ignore it.
  3. If it is new, summarize it as quickly as possible and forget the details. 
  4. Unless it’s truly unexpected, don’t send it to the neocortex for problem solving.

Clearly, it takes a lot to get our attention — especially when it comes to pitching and prospecting.

Buyers can find out everything they need to know about a product with a 5-minute Google search. To hook them in, you need to entice them with something unknown and unexpected.

Challenger selling

You might have already heard of The Challenger Sale, but the model’s just as relevant as ever thanks to its glowing track record.

“The most important sales skill we’ll see in 2018 is once again Challenger Selling. 
The relationship builder approach is becoming less effective by the day: prospects want actionable insight.”
- Ben Cotton, Senior Manager, EMEA Sales Enablement.

Basically, a ‘Challenger’ rep will educate their prospect, challenge their assumptions and force them to think differently.

While some disagree with the Challenger model’s disregard for relationship-building, the core message is paramount: uncovering disruptive ideas and unique insights creates unbeatable value, and will refocus a buyer’s mind to align with your product.

For a lighter reading experience, check out The Challenger Sale Summarized. Platforms like Revegy and CEB offer insights, software and solutions based on The Challenger Sale.

Video prospecting

Cold-calling seems prehistoric. And it looks like cold-emailing is on the same track, with an average open rate of 1%

The alternative? Humanizing the process with a personalized prospecting video.

In an environment where we’re constantly fielding text-heavy emails, video truly stands out. Instead of opening an email to see a copy-and-paste job, we’re greeted with a real person. And it works:

59% of company decision-makers would rather watch a video than read an article or blog post. 

When Wistia A/B tested emails with and without video, they generated a 300% increase on the clickthrough rate of those with.

Reps can use video to connect to new leads, convince decision-makers and pre-emptively answer their questions. Video allows awesome product demos at scale and can inject excitement into boring proposals.

And no one’s expecting director-level skills. There are plenty of simple video platforms designed for marketing and sales teams without technical knowledge, such as Vidyard, Soapbox, and Loom

You can use these to record, edit and track the performance of videos after they’ve been released.

Just remember…

While technology is an important chapter, nothing is as valuable to the sales story as human talent. In fact, Sales Success Stories Podcast host Scott Ingram believes we’ll see less automation in the future.

“After a couple of years of more automation and scale, I think the pendulum is going to start to swing back toward more human interactions based on relevant insights and value.”

Storytelling might sound old-fashioned, but that’s exactly what makes it powerful. 

A good story relies on traits that are uniquely human: empathy, emotional intelligence, trust. As HBR’s Harrison Monarth perfectly summarizes:

Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.