It’s fascinating to me that we live in a time where we need to talk about “human differentiators” for the sales profession. I also find it a bit sad. However you feel about it, a blend of cognitive and interpersonal skills is critically important for the evolution and survival of the sales profession.
First, B2B buying research consistently reports buyers’ dissatisfaction with seller behavior. Much of the disappointment can be traced to a shortfall in listening and communication skills, a lack of understanding of buyers’ issues, the failure of converting data and information into actionable insights, and sellers’ inability to communicate effectively with purchasing influencers and decision-makers. Results from studies are mixed, but most indicate that buyers are engaging sellers later and later in their buying journey, with one study reporting that Millennial buyers would rather avoid sellers altogether.
Now, overlay that sales analysts and pundits are practically making doomsday predictions about the pending impact of technology on the sales profession, especially with predictions about artificial intelligence and machine learning. Advanced techonology can’t replace human-to-human connections and this is how top salespeople provide value to buyers and strengthen their business relationships.
What Does the Impact of Technology Mean for the Sales Profession?
Will artificial intelligence indeed displace the human sales force? Will buyers’ disillusionment with sellers accelerate the trend of avoiding them until companies remove reps from the equation?
The answer, as usual, is “it depends.” The platforms and e-commerce marketplaces are emerging already; there is no stopping that train. But some of the outcome is up to us, and how we respond to the above situation and market feedback.
Digital transformations are already in motion with smart rooms, chatbots, platforms, buyer/seller marketplaces, AI-fueled of recommendation engines, customer rating systems, and the ability to get further support as needed. Simple, tech-enabled transactional buying support and e-commerce models will likely displace many transactional sellers, or at least radically transform their roles, reduce the number of reps needed, and move them inside if they weren’t inside reps already.
Outside or field sales reps will likely morph to a hybrid role, spending as much or more time working inside and virtually. Perhaps they will be labeled as consultative sales professionals or solution consultants rather than being identified by where they spend their time physically. These reps will likely be assigned major accounts to manage and grow or be provided a list of targeted clients to acquire. They will become problem solvers who guide the complex sale and support buyers in making sense of VUCA situations to make sound business decisions. Some will be engaged deeply along the buying journey, as today, others may simply be supporting the platform or marketplace buying experience.
A skills upgrade will be required for both inside reps and “field sales reps.” Inside reps should maximize the human interactions and account management practices needed to support transactional purchasing, and the remaining hybrid “field sales” or consultative selling roles should solve complex problems with detailed, technical, or bespoke, engineered solutions. In addition to buyer-centric selling skills, many of the required skills will be the ones that underpin what I call the “human differentiators.”
What are the Human Differentiators?
Human differentiators are a series of interpersonal skills and competencies that demonstrate relationship-building skills, buyer-centric communication habits, and business skills that exceed buyer expectations and deliver outcomes that our buyers and customers want.
Human differentiators include:
- Listening skills
- Good judgment
- Consulting skills
- Critical thinking skills
- Problem-solving skills
- Good decision-making skills
- The ability to turn data into actionable insights
- The ability to “connect dots” and help buyers/customers do the same
- Good, old-fashioned kindness and manners
Why are These Series of Skills Needed?
Human differentiators build rapport, foster trust, add value, and earn respect through how you interact with others. They are the response to the above challenges/feedback from our buyers. Primarily, human differentiators deliver value in ways that computers, technology, and bots cannot. This distinction may not be 100 percent true for some of the competencies that are mostly logic-based. Still, even with logical decision-making or problem-solving, as examples, even advanced AI or machine-learning algorithms cannot take the emotions of the buying committee members into account. (For my fellow sci-fi fans, think “Captain Kirk” versus “Mr. Spock.”) Until robots buy from other robots, people will make decisions based on a mix of emotion and logic. Technology advances rapidly; our brains evolve slowly.
Buyers evaluate you based on how you interact and communicate, so differentiating yourself with excellent communication and interpersonal skills will position you as someone buyers want to work with. Actively listening to your buyers sets you up for better buyer-centric selling throughout the sales process. Past sales research has shown that when sellers acknowledge buyers’ perspectives and feelings, buyers are more likely to accept their recommendations. Empathy matters because people have a deep-seated need to feel understood, and as mentioned, most people make decisions emotionally.
Clear, well-intentioned, and consistent buyer-centric communication and behavior allow the buyer to build trust in you. As Gartner points out, trust and confidence in the sales rep and the information they provide are critical to modern B2B buyers. In sales situations where executive decision-makers are involved, creating and communicating relevant value is essential. Sellers have to speak “the right language” to resonate with executive decision-makers.
As buyers do more on their own and engage less with salespeople for simple and transactional buying, your ability to build a strong human-to-human connection will differentiate you from your competitors.
How Do I Put the Human Differentiators into Action?
Commit to the journey of learning and using human differentiating skills. Decide you want to deepen these skills and then make a commitment to yourself. Commitment trumps motivation every day of the week. Here are some suggestions for you to act on now.
Practice active listening whenever communicating with a buyer
Pay full attention and listen so that you hear and understand the buyer; be fully engaged and attentive. Eliminate distractions such as phones, computers and tablets to be fully present.
Show non-verbal listening cues through smiles, reactions and nodding. Use verbal interjections like “uh-huh” or “hmm-hmm,” and visible empathy when appropriate (be cautious of verbal interjections on conference calls, they can be disruptive rather than supportive).
Avoid “listening just so you can talk back.” The more you let the buyer talk, while you actively listen, the more you’ll be able to understand their problems and help solve them. Acknowledge and summarize others’ points of view when appropriate. Use “you” statements: “You feel that you can get better results than what you’re getting now.”, “You’re concerned that you’ll be losing business soon unless you make a change.” “You” statements showcase empathy and help you verify a clear understanding of what the buyer is saying.
Use buyer-centric communication in all interactions
Practice buyer-centric communication principles (acknowledge, clarify, confirm) to ensure you understand what customers are saying and that they feel understood (and know you care).
Acknowledge with empathy, as mentioned above. Clarify any key information that the buyer shares; don’t assume the buyer means something. Ask questions and “peel the onion,” until you understand root causes and motivations. Confirm any recommendations that you have made throughout the process. You can’t make the buyer’s decision to purchase; it’s up to them. Ensure that whatever you see as the next step aligns with the buyer, so you don’t run ahead prematurely. Check with others for agreement or to solicit their perspectives. Multi-thread or personalize your messaging to be relevant for each person you speak with.
Hone your professional presence
Practice professional presence. You can review these posts on my R-Value-PIE model (here and here) for reference. Project confidence through body language and tone of voice. Speak clearly. Vary your pace of speech, but avoid rushing. Vary your pitch of speech to prevent monotone. Use people’s names within reason. Whether in-person or on video, make eye contact (on webcam, you do this by looking directly into the camera lens).
Consider your posture. Sitting upright projects confidence and professionalism. Leaning in shows engagement and interest. Be polite and likable. Smile. Be respectful of buyers’ time and stick to agendas and timelines unless they want to pivot. Cultivate self-awareness, especially to ensure your sincere good intentions, and broadcast your willingness to help. Operate in your buyers’ best interest.
Become a student of critical thinking and decision making
Learn as much as you can about the differentiators, such as decision-making, data analysis, critical thinking, and the mental models and practices that guide excellent decision-making.
I’m not sure why this isn’t suggested more often to B2B sales pros. There are many resources out there, from MindTools, to Farnum Street, to LinkedIn Learning, to your local or online universities. Your company may even offer these courses, although I’d be surprised to find them in the sales curricula (look in leadership development or ask your HR or training leaders).
You will find some other great information at the above resources, especially Farnum Street, for learning about mental models and even how to think more clearly. For handy reference guides and job aids to support you, check out the Memory Jogger books published by Goal/QPC. You can find them on topics like problem-solving, facilitation, risk-based thinking, and more. In addition, it makes good sense to further hone your financial and business acumen, if those skills aren’t already in your toolbelt.
There will undoubtedly be change ahead for the sales profession. Whether it’s fueled by evolving buyer behavior, advances in technology, or some yet unforeseen factor, we need to adapt to stay relevant.
As Will Rogers said, “Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
Assess yourself. Where do you need to shore up your future-proofing skills? Is it buyer-centric selling? It is the interpersonal side of the human differentiators? Or is it the critical thinking, data analysis, and decision-making skills? Whatever the case may be – don’t wait. Get started today and prepare yourself for your continued success in our sales profession.
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This article’s sales methods come from SPARXiQ’s Modern Sales Foundations™ course. MSF offers a full-cycle sales methodology, covering prospecting, opportunity management, and strategic account management. It’s based on what elite sales producers do differently to get radically better results than others. For more information, visit the link below.
Modern Sales Foundations
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What it takes for salespeople to deliver value has changed significantly as the modern buying process has evolved. Modern Sales Foundations™ (MSF) is an end-to-end sales training program that teaches sellers the buyer-centric strategies and approaches needed to excel in today’s marketplace.