For years, salespeople have struggled to vanquish the “used car salesman” stereotype. In his book, “To Sell Is Human”, Daniel Pink asked people to identify the adjectives they most commonly use to describe salespeople. Words such as “annoying”, “pushy”, and “manipulative” were most prevalent.
Only recently have salespeople started to liberate themselves from outdated stereotypes. Thanks to the proliferation of data and technologies that enable sellers to interact with buyers in new ways, the role of the salesperson has been reincarnated.
Katie Ng-Mak, VP of Global Partner Strategy and Operations at HubSpot, has witnessed the transformation first-hand, having been at HubSpot for nearly a decade. Our Head of Revenue at Node, Greg McBeth, recently sat down with Ng-Mak to pick her brain on the changing nature of sales.
Like many successful females, Ng-Mak’s career success has been the result of lateral—rather than sequential—career moves. She started her career in financial services on Wall Street before pursuing an MBA at Harvard. An impressionable professor urged Ng-Mak and her peers to try their hands at sales, the thinking being that the skillsets are directly transferrable to business and a host of other disciplines. With ambitions to one day start her own business, Ng-Mak made the leap to a sales rep, and joined HubSpot. In a nutshell, her “one year foray” into sales morphed into a decade-long career. She quickly climbed the ranks from sales rep to sales manager to director to VP of Sales to, most recently, VP of Global Partner Strategy and Operations.
The changing nature of sales
Having come from an analytical background, it’s not surprising that Ng-Mak has gravitated towards data. But in her early days as a salesperson, data and sales were viewed as two independent domains. It’s only recently that the sales discipline really tangibly embraced data and acknowledged that it is a prerequisite for success. Today, high-performing sales teams are 3.5 times more likely than underperforming teams to use sales analytics.
Why is data so fundamental to success? The sales process is increasingly complex. There are more stakeholders at the table and they’re faced with increasingly complex problems. What’s more, B2B buyers now engage with vendors through, on average, six distinct channels. It’s not just phone and email anymore. Moreover, buyers face millions of decisions along the way. Without data and analytics, it’s impossible to make sense of the complex sales journey and, more importantly, optimize it. Salespeople can no longer rely on intuition to navigate through the sales process. In fact, high-performing sales professionals are 1.6 times more likely to prioritize leads based on data analysis and half as likely to prioritize leads based on intuition, as compared to their lower-performing counterparts.
A call for creativity
For Ng-Mak, creativity ranks high among the list of characteristics of successful sales reps and managers. Creativity is not often associated with sales, a profession traditionally characterized by routine activities such as cold calling and “spray and pray” outreach tactics. But, today, creativity is a secret weapon for sales professionals. In a world where the average B2B buyer has completed 70% of the buying journey before making contact with a business, salespeople need to be creative in order to reach and resonate with the buyer. Phone and email conversion rates have plummeted. Competition is fierce. The Henry Ford-esque mentality—“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black”—no longer holds water. Salespeople need to be flexible, engage in problem-solving, and craft solutions according to each individual buyer.
At HubSpot, Ng-Mak and her team exercise their creative juices daily. They perform boatloads of experiments and leverage data to understand what is working and what is not. Sales reps are empowered to try and test new strategies. This safe testing ground allows them to determine how to combine different mediums of communications to engage holistically and authentically with buyers. A few years ago, one of Ng-Mak’s sales reps started leveraging video to engage sellers. This was long before video was an established practice in sales. After seeing positive results in the data, Ng-Mak revamped her team’s strategy to rely more heavily on video. As Ng-Mak explains, “Sellers need to meet the buyer where they want to be met”.
Today’s sales manager
How do sales managers step up their game in light of today’s evolving sales ecosystem? Ng-Mak believes that high-performing sales managers differentiate themselves by putting learning and development at the center of their relationships with sales reps. They need to be invested in helping their sales reps understand what types of skills and data are needed to be successful in sales today. They also need to think carefully about the most effective mediums to transfer knowledge, whether it be via classroom-style, e-learning, peer-to-peer coaching, one-to-many coaching, and so on. Ng-Mak explains, “At HubSpot, learning is constant. We try a lot of things because, not only do sales reps have different learning styles, but different concepts are learned more effectively through different mediums.”
A wealth of information is now available to buyers. Salespeople need to be masters of information in order to help buyers navigate sales processes and effectively articulate the business case for a specific solution to all the various stakeholders involved in the decision.
The bread and butter of sales
Despite the many changes uprooting the sales industry, there’s one critical aspect of sales that has remained constant since the inception of sales—at its core, sales is a relationship-driven business that is grounded in empathy and trust. But, despite the fact that sales will continue to be grounded in relationships, Ng-Mak predicts that trust is going to be much more difficult to establish. It’s no longer going to be defined by interactions and conversations between the buyer and seller. It’s going to be much more holistic in nature. It’s going to be based on all of the buyer’s many multi-faceted touch points with a business, including interactions on social media, engagement with marketing content and advertisements, interactions with chatbots, and more. If this entire experience is not consistent, trust will deteriorate. Today, 65% of buyers come away from the sales process frustrated by inconsistent experiences.
Top sales professionals shed the silo mentality and view the buying journey as an interconnected journey, involving marketing, product development, operations, and finance. Top performing sales teams are2.1 times more likely than under-performers to have fully-integrated systems that enable them to see a connected view of data that spans the entire buyer journey. This is where data and analytics really show their true colors. 76% of sales professionals indicate that using sales analytics has significantly or somewhat improved their ability to provide customers with a consistent experience across every channel. As Ng-Mak explains, “A business’ ability to manage the holistic relationship is going to be critical.”