Today’s marketplace is in the midst of a profound transformation in how sales are generated and sustained. And nowhere else is this more apparent than in the changing relationship between sellers and buyers.
Gone are the days of pure transactional selling. Buyers don’t wait for you to come to them anymore. Instead, they seek out what they’re looking for. When they’re prepared, they choose to do business with those who best meet their needs. More than ever, the strength of the connections you cultivate determines how successful you’ll be in positioning yourself in the minds of your buyer as that top pick.
Let’s discuss how you can act on opportunities in the marketplace today. Also, let’s explore a valuable case study that underlines how this new approach can translate into steady sales growth.
Build relationships within communities
If you look at the current selling landscape, you could say it resembles the rise and success of the modern farmers’ market. These operate on a small scale across multiple communities and thrive on local connections. You see your neighbors all the time, which is community building, and vendors all promote each other through a rich network of selling goods and services. For example, the local heritage pig supplier recommends buying tomatoes at another farmers’ market up the road for a delicious sauce to compliment the meat. Or the bread maker tells customers that the cheese and jams of the neighboring vendor are second to none. A buyer can confidently find what they’re looking for in these networked communities. And the seller’s work and reputation is measured by how useful they are to both the marketplace and customers.
In other words, success at farmers’ markets hinges on relationships. The same is true of today’s selling landscape. Communities are where relationships get forged now, and to be part of a community means to put in the time to share what you know so that you help something meaningful grow for the benefit of others.
Seek spaces, not places
It’s not just about closing the sale anymore. And it’s not about telling others to follow you as leader in a monopolizing way. Today’s marketplace without boundaries means that buyers from the four corners of the earth can find what they’re looking for in spaces where people congregate. I’m choosing my words carefully here: I’m talking about spaces rather than places. Spaces don’t occupy a fixed location, nor do they have limits on who can join or what they can contribute. Spaces can be created online. They can be found in professional associations. And they can be forged in the content that you create for others, addressing topics that people are thinking about. By occupying spaces, you’re creating a sense of kinship and shared purpose.
Out of this, communities are born — and with it, a sense of permanency and socially-tested credibility that provides the potential for perpetual sales growth, month over month, year over year. When managed correctly, it means an end to the boom-bust cycle of sales, because unlike the old way of doing things, communities are populated first and foremost with people, not buyers.
The four groups to establish
To adapt and grow a sales force that can thrive in a marketplace without boundaries, there are four types of communities your organization needs to build and sustain. Each of these should be a formalized part of the platform that you create to offer to prospects and customers.
1. Intelligence communities: Information and field-tested insight are highly valuable commodities in today’s marketplace. People are hungry for good ideas, and that’s why it’s important to share what you know. When I say this, I don’t just mean on a personal level; this applies just as much to groups of people you manage. Today, many businesses are building intelligence communities to better engage their prospects and customers. They’re posting videos, publishing case studies, developing whitepapers and e-books, and posting fresh ideas to their blogs. The content that you generate has more than just “new release” shelf appeal today. It also creates a valuable back list — just like a publisher (who, it’s worth noting, generates a significant percentage of their sales in this area). The more you add to your knowledge back list — especially if you post your content online — the more valuable the information becomes for your audience today and in the future.
2. Specialist communities: No matter what line of work you’re in, you’ve been honing your professional skills throughout your career and have built up a library of know-how. Multiply that by the number of people in your sales force and you’re looking at an incredibly deep pool of expertise for audiences to draw from. Skill complements knowledge. It adds proof to the promise of good ideas. That’s why specialist communities help nurture prospect relationships. They help build trust, proving your competence and adding value so you can establish and retain more customers in less time. They showcase the mastery of your sales force or your executive team — how you use your sharpened skills to achieve great results. Building specialist communities can also include your clients, giving them the opportunity to share their expertise or even to talk about how they have benefited from the skills they’ve gained by doing business with your organization.
3. Business communities: What I’m seeing in the marketplace today is smart leaders in sales working hard to develop a good corporate rapport with their clients. In particular, they seek multiple buying influences inside their own accounts. They create a community of advocates inside their best customers. The outcome is they gain a broad base of support throughout the organization while building a library of knowledge about how that client’s business operates (e.g., who makes decisions and according to what criteria). This is about more than mining a corporate hierarchy for influential decision makers. In fact, every point of contact has value. Every conversation is a good conversation — whether it’s with a CEO or a gatekeeper. Insight comes in many forms, and each contact you make in that corporate community plays a role in the sales process. You will never lose business by forming too many of these relationships, but you’re sure to lose business if you fail to engage too few of them.
4. Education communities: Create a community of clients who talk about how you’ve helped them solve challenges, helped them make more money, saved them money or time, or retained their employees. You can leverage that learning opportunity to help grow your business even bigger. Learning communities come in many forms. It can be as simple as forming an advisory group or a user forum. It can feature shareable best practices or case studies, each one underlining the advantage of doing business with you. Smart, successful companies today recognize the power that results from bringing people together. They don’t settle for sales teams who operate in isolation. They create these communities where everybody can learn from each other and gain from that expertise.
Why the four communities count
Just like with farmer’s markets, buyers today are looking for more than a transaction: they want to do business with people who can provide knowledge and insight on top of the products or services being offered. That meeting point can only be achieved if you take the time to build a rapport with your prospects and customers. This means you put their needs first: help them learn and grow, and deliver value far beyond what your product or service provides.
Consider the following case study, which reveals the power of leveraging community and relationships.
A few years ago, Engage Selling began working with a mid-sized medical devices company. Their previous business model had hinged on their clients acting as resellers of their product. It meant that the product itself remained static, since there was no opportunity for their clients to provide feedback. They were reactive rather than strategic. With help from Engage Selling, this company decided it was time to do things differently.
A senior executive within the firm spearheaded a bold initiative to create a client-focused community. Doing this meant embracing one of their biggest fears: their clients would only use the forum as an opportunity to complain about what was wrong with their product.
Instead, three interesting things happened. First, the clients began offering suggestions about product features, leading to entirely new applications that had never been considered before. Second, the company suddenly found themselves with a range of success stories as their customers began to share with them and with each other all the ways they were using the product. Third, the firm’s customers became deeply loyal, and not just because they felt their input was valued; they also had a sense of personal ownership in the new direction of the firm. The outcome of this community and relationship approach was immediate. Sales skyrocketed and continued to do so quarter after quarter for several years.
Amazing things can happen when you embrace change as an opportunity to work differently than you’ve done in the past. Find ways to build your own communities. Think about how you can become a trusted part of today’s marketplace without boundaries. In doing so, this year could be your most profitable one ever.
Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions (www.EngageSelling.com). Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.