February 8, 2023

Unitranche

Supportive Business Potential

Cracking The Code Striking A Fine Balance Between The Art And Science Of Selling In A Post Covid World

The actions of top-performing sellers are paving a better pathway to selling the way buyers want to buy. This was stated by the popular professional social media platform LinkedIn in its 2022 ‘State of Sales’ report. This report reveals 6 illuminating stats about the ‘Future of Selling’ and among them, the most important finding is that virtual selling is here to stay. About 1/3 of sellers (31%) surveyed have said that they have closed deals over $500,000 without ever meeting the buyer face to face.

Now, there is nothing new about this stat in the apparent post-Covid world. But, has selling been so easy with increased digitization post-Covid? Are we living in a world where the ease of doing business has gotten better, with higher digital intervention across verticals, after the pandemic? The answer is to an extent Yes! Selling on virtual channels may have offered scores of advantages but the pulse of selling is complete only when there is a human touchpoint. In a challenging world, the ‘hybrid’ format of selling offers a level playing field combining the best of both worlds by using virtual methods to seek potential customers and then using physical methods to close the sale. Riding this wave though is not smooth. There is a lot of learning in store. 

In a highly engaging and knowledge-packed virtual round table discussion with thought-provoking leaders lending their views and Abhai Singh, India Sales Head & Scaled Customer Business Lead – APAC at LinkedIn, anchoring the session, several nuances and strategies about selling were brainstormed. 

Convincing new-age buyers – Is there a formula?

B2B organisations are caught in a perfect storm of change but many are only starting to recognise this today. With changing B2B buyer behaviours, growing deal complexity along with longer sales cycle, and higher decision-maker turnover, nearly 68% of organisations reported missing sales targets in July 2022. Although we are seeing varying outcomes across APAC from the global macro environment, it is contributing to an overall sense of caution adding to revenue pressures and heightened focus on productivity.

In a significantly changed B2B environment, companies will need a different approach to capture the interest of the changing demographics and Gen-Z and millennials, who constantly change their outlooks on product purchases. In this context, LinkedIn’s Abhai Singh brings an analogy with the ‘teacup scenario.’ The sales team, he says, is always acting under pressure and in such situations are the decision-makers making the right selling strategies? 

With the backdrop of selling in a complex macro-environment, Abhai kick-started the round table with the most pertinent question – 

How are the sales teams responding to the shift of hybrid selling in changing demographics involving more of the multi-gen/Gen Z population as buyers? Not to forget the complexity of selling increases with bad data and the great reshuffle. 

Data says that 25% of India’s population is Gen-Z or the millennials who have a strong impact on purchase behaviours. Another cause of concern is the changing demographics coupled with a behavioural shift in buying trends and of course the concept of remote work, work from anywhere and the desire for flexibility to frequently change job roles and workplaces are becoming an acceptable action. With so much dynamism, how, then, can sales targets be achieved? 

VP Sales (South & Central Asia), IDS Software, Manoj Mohanty, said that among most industries it was the hotel industry that suffered the most during the pandemic, However, resorts which are a 5 to 6 hours drive from major cities fairly did well during the pandemic. Unlike other countries, India is a bit different as we have many forms of Tourism Religious, Leisure, Social ++. The industry relies on several human touchpoints. The Technology workforce may have adopted to ‘Work from Anywhere’ system; however, personalization of service happens only when the human is physically involved in closing deals. Manoj is confident that the hybrid system will drive sales in the near future and is here to stay for a long -time.

Resonating similar thoughts, Intellect Design’s CEO, India & South Asia, Ramanan SV, said, Human Beings are generally social animals, and the fact that we enjoy meeting people face to face cannot be denied. But the digital world, he says, has brought in the advantage of maximizing resources. As a company that services the BFSI sector, Ramanan asserts that almost 100% of the Central Bank deals were closed virtually, without having a face-to-face meeting during the pandemic period. But this changed significantly post-Covid. Over a cup of coffee, key decision makers at the client end were inclined to close the deals better than a mere virtual discussion. 

Ramanan had a very valid point to convey. According to him in the debate between the art and science of selling, 80% may be science but the 20% value delivered by the art of closing a deal is what satisfies the seller and the buyer. It is an art to sell and that art is honed only in physical interactions with the client, be it new-gen or old-gen. 

The debate between the art and science of closing deals may be sorted but the looming problem at hand is the great reshuffle. This was an unsettled wave that companies were facing at scale. Retaining talent, especially a workforce that had the talent to sell and the art to close deals, was a mammoth challenge for many organizations. NetApp, the global tech giant, thrived and flourished in the pandemic period but the question is how did NetApp manage the great reshuffle wave? 

Puneet Gupta, VP & MD, NetApp, at the round table discussion said his company thrived because enterprises across the world, during the pandemic, had to develop Apps and because of that the value of data became very important. But at the same time, various complex situations cropped up. One among them was talent retention. What really made NetApp resilient during these tough times was its ability to reorganize swiftly to handle core operations.

When sales demand agility – keeping pace with fast-changing paradigms: 

Abhai, in the round table discussion, tempered the topic to bring focus on the common problems sales departments face across the globe. The question is: 

How are Revenue Leaders being agile and thoughtful in the way of empowering frontline managers to coach their teams better in this changing macroenvironment? As we know there are more touchpoints across sales cycles – therefore more complex is the act of selling.

Global optical and digital solution provider, STL’s, Chief Sales Officer, Ashwini Bakshi from his rich experience of working in the telecom and networking space, makes his point about the question. The critical ingredient for Agility in uncertain times is a disproportionate focus on the customer. A customer-centric approach never fails, says Ashwini. This is the DNA of STL which flows across levels from the leadership to the frontline workers. For all of us, it is the customer’s need and ask that is the top priority.

“Going a step further, customer centricity needs to be topped up with people centricity. Customer + People (of the company), when driven and engaged, have led many revenue leaders on the path to success.”

“Removing variability in business and bringing a common ethos to sales practices is challenging but can give companies a massive advantage.  Leaders must walk the corridors, engage with the teams and build this common ethos from the ground up. For us it is about consultative and empathetic selling,” says Ashwini. 

Tabrez Shaikh – Head of Global Sales & CS – Artwork Flow by Bizongo pointed out that the sales team for Artwork Flow operates majorly from India while selling to the US market. 

Tabrez justified that the digital interventions have eased selling via online platforms making the business grow exponentially. The 1st step to coaching and empowering the sales team at Bizongo was to develop a storytelling process along with a client discovery process that enabled the sales execs to gain knowledge about the customers and the selling strategies at any juncture of the sales cycle.

“Not only did Bizongo hold workshops (virtually) for its sales team to understand the nuances of selling and keeping the customer at its centre, the company empowered its sales employees with some essential selling-based tools. The team leverages several contact enrichment, sequencing and sales engagement platforms like LinkedIn. LinkedIn’s platform equipped the sales team with knowledge on getting deep customer insights that lead to meaningful conversations with potential ICPs that we target,” expressed Tabrez.  

Amidst global headwinds – Is India agile, resilient, and cautious?

Undeniably, post-Covid, selling has become rough. With a changed B2B environment and the global headwinds looming on us, analysts say that the B2B sales industry is in trouble. But data says that India is still agile & resilient and Indian leaders are taking a precautionary approach rather than a doomsday one. 

In this context, the question is:

How do the Chief Sales officers make sure that, when customers do their research online (LinkedIn ads, etc.), the brand is made visible and client-facing teams are seen as thought leaders and trusted partners? 

“Digitization is paramount for MMT,” says Rishi. For our Corporate/ B2B business; the company wants to go digital wherever possible, cutting down human intervention to a greater degree – simply put, automating tasks that can be done digitally rather than resorting to manual means. RIshi also says that contextual selling that is driven by customer-focused content generates better revenue outcomes. 

MMT’s Raj Rishi says, “There are two ways in which his selling team imbibes value-based selling. One, by exhibiting 100% transparency in selling. If executing the demands of the deal is not within our capacity, then we recommend another product. On the other hand, the hard skill is to invest in resources that are adept at technology and can communicate and deliver real value to potential customers.”

Sopra Steria’s Director of Business Development, Mktg & Comms, Tarun Singhal, opines that in such global headwind times, it is best ‘to be authentic’. “Focused content approaches with industry-relevant topics were carefully chosen over self-praise. This gave the company an edge over others in the market.”  

The relevance of selling using branding and marketing online and to a virtual target audience also changed the outlook for NetApp significantly, said NetApp’s Puneet Gupta. Branding initiatives by almost all organizations undergoing major digital transformations recognize the fact that customers were now relying on online identities more than ever. Several communication platforms (like LinkedIn), says Puneet, bridged the gaps between buyers and sellers and the virtual world made it a huge possibility for business and sales execs to normalize their selling strategies and achieve targets.

“At the same time, as new data on customer profiles started gaining importance, we at NetApp dug deep into the already existing customer data that brought out some valuable insights. This means that as much as the customer is celebrated and engaged virtually, the in-person relationship is not going to go away. Branding therefore must blend the two worlds ensuring that the customer remains satisfied, informed and engaged,” said Puneet.

Rakuten Sixthsense’s Director & Head of Sales & Marketing, Amit Srivastava, says his company trusts the KPI approach to sales and branding. Drawing specific knowledge from data sets became very important for Rakuten. In a knowledge-driven economy, Amit says it is important to invest in people who can cull out specific KPIs that add value to branding and customer-facing facts. 

“Digital tools to engage with customers were procured to excel in branding and drawing attention towards Rakuten’s products. 

Apart from LinkedIn, Rakuten also invested in sales generating tools that gave the advantage of gaining insights into competitor info and deep customer behavioural insights,” said Amit.

Another key aspect of sales and marketing is storytelling. Tarun Mathur, Co-Founder and CBO of PolicyBazaar, with relevance to branding, says it’s very important to talk about the company’s journey. “Being a startup, we had to connect with customers. We had to connect through product, process, and marketing. We had to talk about the journey of our company and our products through effective storytelling. And for this storytelling digital mediums like LinkedIn served the purpose. Companies like PolicyBazaar must value that connect, as our products need to be customized across several policy products, said Tarun.”

Standardizing sales processes to fix value and velocity selling:

Prioritization, cutting noise, and going after the right client at the right time, is all so overwhelming in sales and target achievement. Abhai says that LinkedIn’s Sales Survey yielded an outlook of standardization, where planning for the next 3 quarters needed to be done effectively which saved time and costs. In this context, the question is:

During the sales planning process itself, how does the team ensure prioritizing the right account and knowing when is the right time to engage? 

IDS Software’s Manoj Mohanty offered to answer this question from his experience. He said, “Selling is all about human intelligence backed by data. As a tech company, we do have many tools for every stage of the sales cycle of closing deals. Right from prospecting to engaging a client, data-backed standardized selling strategies are put in place. Now the data analysed proved extremely useful in understanding the challenges faced in the past to take a corrective course of action. Deep data analytics was needed to make the right decisions in converting the leads into sales.”

They say it takes a village to close a sale, reflects Intellect Design’s Ramanan. If sales were to involve a lot of employees across the organization, then standardization becomes a necessity. Ramanan says at Intellect Design their CRM involves standard stages from P0 to P5. These six stages are divided based on the sales activity. While selling may speak a common language the selling story cannot be the same. Based on the client’s job role the selling strategies need to change. And Intellect Design has not overlooked the fact that buyers too are doing active research before closing the deal. 

Throwing more facts, Ramanan says that standardisation is required right at the demo stage. A ‘Demo Diagnostics’ is an absolute need to understand what worked and what did not work in the demo that either converted the sales or rejected the sales. So, when the deal progresses, sales teams can make informed decisions on executing it.

STL’s Ashwini Bakshi, stresses that it is important to focus on the task at hand in current quarters to close deals but it is equally important to look ahead and meticulously plan for the next couple of quarters. Planning for the near future is core to business growth and this future planning is possible only with effective standardization and a common customer-centric ethos. Solving the needs and problems of the future will be critical as businesses and countries face global headwinds.

Prioritizing the right account and knowing when is the right time to engage also involves an understanding of the market sentiment, says Sopra Steria – Tarun Singhal. By leveraging new-age tools, organisations can get their act right at the qualifying stage itself while competing with several other bidders.

In summary:

  • LinkedIn’s Abhai Singh strongly believes that “Skills is the new currency.” The discussions in this roundtable pivoted around hiring the right talent for the right sales role matters.
  • Marketing efforts and sales – aligning them is going to be very critical in a hybrid world where the confluence of the two workforces must overlap efficiently to deliver value-based services to the customers.
  • Larger and broader plans for near term involving the present quarter as well as the future quarters will be necessary in thriving in the business.
  • Hyper personalizing content suited for specific audiences will be the need of the hour. Story-telling in a customized fashion to engage and influence customers on social media platforms will be a bare necessity.
  • The great reshuffle will hamper sales, but automation sales tools and navigators will prove highly beneficial to train the workforce.
  • Data-backed informed decisions are an absolute necessity for customer satisfaction. It is important to keep analysing customer data to improve sales.
  • Hybrid selling is here to stay for long. Digital mediums will be needed to connect to the customers at the initial staged but closing the deal is preferred only over a cup of coffee spiced up with some light, friendly chat.
  • And above all, standardization of sales strategies is essential for business continuity and for framing a uniform sales culture across the organization.

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