What happened to competitive advantage? There was a time when each business had one. Some had many. However, today, that seems to be disappearing. In 2009 The Harvard Business Review called competitive advantage “fleeting,” and less than six years later Wired called it “dead.” However, the disappearance of competitive advantages is motivating businesses to take a bold, innovative approach.
Business School Professor Rita McGrath explains, “to win in volatile and uncertain environments, executives need to learn how to exploit short-lived opportunities with speed and decisiveness.” Sales professionals are integral to this strategy.
As technology advances, competitive advantages are becoming easier to replicate. As a result, barriers to entry fall. More competitors enter the market. In response, companies are turning to more complex solutions to buoy profits. Therefore, the sales professional is expected to do more than sell and move on. They’re expected to support the customer throughout the implementation of the solution and beyond. It’s no surprise “Balancing sales and relationship management” was the leading concern among sales professionals in our 2018 Selling Challenges Study. Here we look at a few ways sales professionals can balance selling with the relationship management that’s critical to survival for both sides.
Separate Selling from Follow Up
Sales professionals can balance sales and relationship management by signaling their plan to the customer early in the relationship. That is, the sales professional must make clear their intention to keep new product discussions separate from the work they provide on solutions already implemented. Doing so allows the sales professional to carve out separate meeting time with the customer to focus on “whitespace” in the account without impeding on the value they’re expected to bring in the form of a relationship.
This approach is important for the sales professional because to grow their business with the customer they need both sides of the equation. The experience of providing ongoing support for existing solutions provides insight into the customer’s day-to-day operation. Meanwhile, the separate product discussions inform the sales professional of future business needs.
Become a Trusted Advisor with Four Characteristics
Increasingly complex solutions require deeper relationships between customers and sales professionals. Therefore, “becoming a trusted advisor” is important. Sales professionals are discovering that they need to articulate not only the value of the solution but their individual value as an ongoing resource to the customer. One Accenture survey of more than 1,200 companies worldwide revealed that sales professionals who “build a trusted relationship with customers can improve results.”
Sales professionals must develop into trusted advisors, a role characterized by four components. First, the sales professional must identify how the customer defines value. Next, they must generate ideas that resonate with this understanding while helping the customer build competitive advantage in their market. Then, the sales professional needs to communicate the value of the ideas before finally delivering on their commitment. Above all else, value must not only be communicated; it must be demonstrated.
Delineate the Groups
Sales professionals can balance sales and relationship management by approaching each routine as two, separate groups of stakeholders. This approach is important because it might limit the number of people the sales professional must engage when discussing new solutions. As a result, it becomes more manageable to bring value that’s relevant to each of these stakeholders. With this focused approach, the sales professional will also help prevent the sales cycle from becoming too long, a common outcome when engaging larger groups.
Of course, keeping the two groups separate is not always possible. In many cases, within a single company, the “relationship” and the “buying decision” customers overlap, or they might be the same group entirely. In this scenario, the sales professional can keep both relationship management and follow up conversations focused on two subsets of the single group. In fact, if some of the buying decision-makers may prefer to be included only in new product discussions as their C-level status keeps them engaged in broader corporate strategizing that doesn’t involve product implementation follow up.
Competitive advantage may be going away, but strategic thinking is not. In fact, it’s more important than ever. If the sales professional is going to help the customer leverage strategy, they must be strategic in their approach to the customer. Sustainable competitive advantage is “every company’s holy grail. And it’s no longer relevant for more and more companies,” remarks Professor Rita Gunther McGrath.
To help companies achieve this end, sales professionals need both selling opportunities and relationship management; each informs the other. Therefore, it’s critical to separate the conversations, rise to the status of a trusted advisor, and segment buyer groups.