How to build a connected sales force

Today’s marketplace is in the midst of a profound transformation in how sales are generated and sustained, and nowhere else is that 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 are 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.

That’s why in this article I’ll share with you how you can act on the opportunities I’m seeing in the marketplace today. I’ll also provide a valuable case study that underlines how this new approach can translate into steady sales growth.

With any transformation comes the need to examine and explore the “new normal” of the landscape and to develop new rules to survive. This is especially important for those of you who are eager to adapt quickly and to help your sales organization thrive amid all these changes.

Some, such as Seth Godin, have looked at how selling is changing and have concluded that connections are now going to be made by people who are willing to create and lead “tribes.” The trouble with that way of looking at things is that it’s based on a false analogy. Things that are “tribal” evoke imagery of warring factions who each seek to win at the expense of others. Tribes divide people. The root of the word tribe reveals the underlying problem—it comes from the Latin word tribus, which was meant to describe the social order of the city state in ancient Rome. Tribes—in the classic sense of the word—were things you either belonged to or were excluded from depending on your family lineage or where you lived.

That doesn’t really sound like an idea that properly explains how businesses and the people who lead them today can thrive and grow, does it?

However, that’s not to say that history is unable to teach us something valuable in this exercise. Think back to when you were young and you were enchanted by the tales of One Thousand And One Arabian Nights. Commerce in the ancient world of that story took place in the merchants’ bazaar (and an interesting aside: that classic story itself was passed down by word-of-mouth over the ages through bazaar storytellers). Bazaars were the places that lay the foundation for the modern marketplaces we know today. Part of their power was in their community structure. No single seller had a monopoly. Nor could a seller possibly be a leader to everyone with whom they wanted to do business.

Instead, being part of a bazaar meant that sellers shared what they knew and pooled their resources—banding together into a connection-rich network of selling goods and services. Just like the changed landscape of today, this was good news for buyers. Whether they needed a merchant, a craftsperson, a food seller or a banker, a buyer could confidently find what they were looking for. These were self-contained, self-sustaining little communities within themselves (and that remains true even today at grand bazaars around the world). Your work earned you a spot in that marketplace. Your reputation determined whether you stayed, and that reputation was measured by how useful you were to others in that community as much as by how well you looked after your customers.

In other words, success at the bazaar hinged on relationships—the ones forged in the marketplace in those networked communities. That matches what I’m seeing in the marketplace today. 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.

Occupy spaces and create communities

It’s not just about closing the sale anymore. And it’s not about telling others to follow you as leader in a tribal fashion. Today’s bazaar without borders means that buyers from the four corners of the earth can find what they are 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, what you are doing is 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.

Four essential communities for today’s sales force

If you are committed to adapting and building a sales force that can really thrive in this new landscape, there are four kinds of communities that your organization needs to focus on building and sustaining. Each of these should be a formalized part of the platform that you build to offer to prospects and customers.

1. Knowledge communities. Information and field-tested insight are highly valuable commodities in today’s marketplace. People have a hunger 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 these types of communities to better engage their prospects and customers. They’re posting videos, publishing case studies, developing whitepapers and ebooks, 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 backlist—just like a publisher (who, it’s worth noting, generate a significant percentage of their sales in this area). The more you add to your knowledge backlist—especially if you post your content online—the more valuable the information becomes for your audience today and in the future.

2. Expert 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 expert 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 expert communities can also include your clients, giving them the opportunity to share their expertise or even to talk about how they have benefitted from the skills they have gained by doing business with your organization.

3. Corporate communities. What I am seeing in the marketplace today is that smart leaders in sales work hard at developing 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 that 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. Learning communities. Create a community of clients who talk about how you’ve helped them solve challenges, helped them make them 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 communities matter so much now…

So why do communities matter so much now? Because just like in those ancient bazaars of the classical world, buyers today are looking for more than a transaction: they want to do business with people who can offer 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. That means putting their needs first: helping them learn and grow, and delivering value above and 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 Solutions began working with a small-business telecommunications company. Previously their business model hinged on having their clients perform 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, 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—that their clients would just 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 range of success stories as their customers began to share with them and with each other all the ways that they were using their product. Third, the firm’s customers became deeply loyal, not just because they felt their input was valued, but also because they had a new 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 have done in the past. Find ways to build your own communities. Think about how you can become a trusted part of that borderless bazaar in the marketplace today. In doing so, this year could be your best ever. It’s right there within your reach.

Colleen Francis, Sales Expert, is Founder and President of Engage Selling Solutions ( Armed with skills developed from years of experience, Colleen helps clients realize immediate results, achieve lasting success and permanently raise their bottom line.


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