The most pervasive mantra in sales has always been to build customer relationships. Work the prospect lists. Stay in front of hot leads until they sign on the dotted line. Meet that quota.
But time-tested sales techniques are fading quickly because customer needs and preferences have completely changed. With infinite amounts of online information at their fingertips at any given moment, today’s consumers and business buyers often know more about a product than sales reps themselves. And they’re exercising that power by insisting on higher levels of personalized service and overall experience from brands they patronize.
This has profound implications for small and medium businesses (SMBs), which will be under intense pressure to beat or exceed the levels of customer experience provided by progressive brands such as Amazon, Zappos and Canada’s Videotron.
While relationship-building always matters, progressive-minded Canadian SMB executives need to define it differently.
Back in the day — which doesn’t seem so long ago — if I needed to buy a new dishwasher for my home, I’d just head to the nearest appliance store, check out a few models, chat with a sales rep, choose one I liked then go on my merry way.
Today, few consumers or business buyers shop that way because we’re all online. It’s simple and smart to do some advance research, compare products, see who has the best deals, read what reviewers have to say, find out who offers the most customer-friendly service and support and get opinions from our friends and acquaintances on various social media platforms. Then — and only then — are we likely to entertain conversations with sales reps.
It's a completely different dynamic from the one most sales reps were trained on just a few years ago, but every SMB leader needs to pay attention because it’s the only way business will be done — quite possibly forever.
What’s more, customers expect businesses they engage with to recognize this new day and age and to accommodate them in entirely new ways. If sales reps think they can just walk up to a customer on a show floor and get the quick-sale or close them with a phone call, they’ve got another thing coming.
We’ve entered the Age of the Customer, where the customer is setting the terms of engagement and organizations must deliver exceptional personalized services and cultivate sustainable relationships — not just quick and transactional sales.
If they fail to deliver on this, customers are more willing than ever to shift loyalties without much warning — especially in Canada. In fact, about half of Canadians consumers in a recent Accenture survey said they’ve switched providers in the last year due to poor customer service. Eighty per cent of respondents who switched said they could have been retained, and nearly 70 per cent said there is very little chance they’ll return.
To build brand loyalty, you can’t tell your teams “I want you to be a trusted advisor,” then say, “now, get 20 transactions done by the last day of the month.” Relationships must be long term and trustworthy, and sales reps must be empowered to act as consultants rather than having to hyper focus on numbers. If they’re doing things right, the numbers will take care of themselves.
Even with the right attitude, competing in the digital economy isn’t easy. You need to be able to aggregate, sort, analyze, interpret and make predictions from rising amounts of customer data — which means having the right technology in place to do that.
SMBs rely on tools and processes like email (44 per cent) and spreadsheets (41 per cent) to track and store customer information, according to the “2016 Connected Small Business Report” from Salesforce, and while these are relevant tools, the way SMBs leverage them need to evolve.
A few decades ago, these tools alone were just fine. But in the digital economy, it’s almost impossible to create a complete, 360-degree view of the customer that way. For one thing, you have too many people plugging customer data into systems of record that really weren’t made for effectively managing such information. These systems were built before the advent of the Internet, so even with updates, they don’t connect well to new systems of engagement, meaning the information they contain is siloed. And they certainly aren’t capable of mining information from social media platforms to get a pulse on what customers are saying about you.
Modern business and customer demands require an integrated approach, especially when you consider email and spreadsheets are manually-intensive time sinks putting SMBs at a significant disadvantage to competitors deploying modern CRM (customer relationship management) solutions.
Now, you’re likely thinking: “CRM systems are fine for large brands, but smaller companies like mine don’t have the time or money for a CRM solution — and may not need one.” And you’d be right — if you’re talking about small or medium businesses that don’t plan to be around in a few years.
Progressive SMBs, especially those led by millennials who have grown up with technology, are already looking at CRM and AI-driven technologies to help advise lead scoring, forecasting and similar planning exercises.
For example, in the next three years, Canadian sales professionals anticipate a 173 per cent surge in their use of artificial intelligence (AI), a 137 per cent jump in the use of deep learning to classify, predict, and react to data patterns and a 120 per cent increase in the use of predictive intelligence, according to the second annual “State of Sales” report by Salesforce Research.
The essential point here is technology now exists to help SMBs meet evolving customer expectations and engender loyalty. By embracing the right tools and sales culture, Canadian SMBs can put themselves in a position to not only compete but to come out on top — in the Age of the Customer.