Selling in the Age of Big Data
Every day we see more evidence that the age of Big Data has arrived. With the data inevitably comes automation – the steadily increasing automation of business activities that used to be performed by human beings. For companies with a strong sales culture this presents a deep-seated challenge. Business analytics and data-driven sales & marketing tools can offer deeper insight into your demand environment and provide recommendations to make better decisions around your products and customers. But as an organization you worry – do these data-driven capabilities really make your organization better if they threaten the very foundation of your longstanding sales culture? You don’t want a technology solution to replace your sales force. What you want is a technology solution that can make your sales professionals better at the job they already do.
Sales: A Culture of Personalization
A sales culture has always been built around the core primacy of the personal relationship. Good salespeople are those who know how to manage the personal give-and-take of interactions with their customers in a way that builds loyalty while making that customer’s business profitable for the organization. There are many intangible elements as to what makes this formula work or not work for any given salesperson and that person’s organization. These intangibles make sales one of the most variable activities in the company in terms of performance measurement, with typically a large performance gap between the handful of stars, the large number of average performers and those few at the bottom of the pile. This performance gap is not healthy for the company – it is inefficient and leaves money on the table. A good sales culture is not one where all the value is concentrated in the performance of a few standout salespeople – it is one where the performance of that great bulge in the middle moves closer to that of the sales stars. Here is where data-driven sales & marketing analytics and predictive decision tools can help – not by taking away the personalization of the sales process but by making it stronger.
Personalized Selling Needs Personalized Marketing
While selling has always been about the personal relationship, marketing as it has evolved over the past three or four decades has been anything but. Marketing decisions from pricing to product promotions have moved away from the needs and preferences of individual customers to estimates based on averages for large numbers of customers, typically organized in some kind of segmentation methodology. This means that when salespeople make their calls on individual customers they are not supported by marketing decisions geared to the specific circumstances of each of those clients. That takes away from the personalized value that the salesperson can bring to each meeting.
The arrival of Big Data, rather than being a threat to the personalized sales experience, is a liberator of salespeople from the tyranny of shoehorning customers into predetermined segmentation buckets. Advanced analytics can take the raw data from transaction records and a variety of other sources and transform the data in to insights about individual customer needs and preferences. This can help take a great deal of guesswork out of selling decisions and replace the guesswork with informed guidance that is more likely to resonate with the customer, at attractive terms of offer and at a time when the customer is likely to be receptive to the offer. Salespeople can create impactful customized collateral around these offers that speaks directly to each customer, not to a segment based on some mythical average customer.
Sales and Data: Marrying Two Cultures
Bringing advanced analytics into the organization is not enough – you also have to integrate analytical processes into the selling process. This is a tall order when the organizational culture revolves around traditional notions of sales. For one thing, most salespeople don’t have the time to learn new tools and processes – their hours are more than consumed by the selling and administrative responsibilities they already have. Another obstacle to getting sales buy-in is that people used to viewing success as a result of their unique sales instincts are likely to resist tools that seem to take some of those instincts out of the equation. That reluctance may also be coupled with a concern about what the changes would imply for their compensation expectations, which of course are strongly oriented towards variable performance-based structures.
In reality it is the human intuition that makes the data useful – without the qualitative insights that the human brain is capable of producing the data tell no story and can serve no role in making better, more profitable decisions. Any reward structure needs to affirm this and make sure the sales representatives understand that compensation is still based on their unique sales abilities. But with quantitative intuition they have the best of both worlds – access to insights they would otherwise not have, the evidence to back those insights up, and knowledge of the odds of those insights leading to new sales. Information and analytics haven’t replaced the sales reps, but rather have made them better.