Buying behavior has changed. Marketing has changed. Sales has changed. Customer-centricity is revisited as customers continue to change and increasingly feel overwhelmed. However, has sales adapted enough to overcome commercial challenges? How has the collaboration between sales and marketing evolved since the early days of CRM and Sales Force Automation?

Nancy Nardin
Nancy Nardin

How has technology changed the sales stack? What are the main challenges for buyers and for salespeople today – and tomorrow? And how does sales technology help in overcoming them and in improving sales and salespeople success?

Someone who knows all about these questions and evolutions is Nancy Nardin. As a recognized sales expert, Nancy among others, has a website where sales leaders can find lists and reviews of sales tools and technologies, webinars on sales stack topics, guides on how to build the best sales stack, reports on sales enablement, account-based marketing and much more. An interview: sales realities and sales technologies in the year 2017.

From the early days of the sales technology market to Smart Selling Tools

Nancy, thanks for granting us some of your time. Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself, your activities and why/when you started

Nancy Nardin: I started my sales career with GRiD Systems in Silicon Valley in 1983. Just one year earlier, GRiD launched the world’s first laptop computer having received a patent for the design where the display folds down over the keyboard (aka the clamshell design which is still in use today).

This was when it was still rare for a company to provide desktop computers to all its office workers. GRiD salespeople were the ones tasked with educating the market on who and why people should want to take a computer on the road with them. We weren’t dumb. We didn’t try to convince companies to provide them to their office workers. We went after companies with large field organizations (both field sales and field service).

CRM is table stakes as a system of record for salespeople to keep all their records in one place. But it doesn’t do much to help them actually sell.

The idea was to level-up the ability for sales to present to prospects and for field service to have access to technical resources. Keep in mind, there was no PowerPoint. So GRiD created its own software that allowed reps to leave their boxes of slides and over-head projector transparencies behind. It wasn’t’ too much later when contact management and CRM solutions came to be. With that background, it would be fair to say that I’ve been involved in the sales technology market since the beginning.

Fast forward to 2008 which is when I saw the sales software market – beyond CRM – start to take shape. That’s when I decided to launch Smart Selling Tools as a means of tracking the market. Since then, I’ve been offering free resources keep sales leaders informed of sales tech trends.

CRM is not enough: the many ways to improve sales rep productivity

And now a fast forward to 2017. Digital technologies and platforms, as well as evolutions with regards to mobility and so forth have changed the ways we live, work, consumer, entertain ourselves and so on. People want the devices and platforms they use privately for work and the consumerization of IT has been leading to phenomena such as BYOD. In your experience, how have these changes played out among sales professionals and do you see generational or other differences in this regard?

Nancy Nardin: Devices and platforms, yes. I definitely see a desire for BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). However, I’m not seeing a desire for much BYOA (Bring Your Own Apps).

With the exception of some low-priced apps like mileage trackers or travel apps (like TripIt), I’m just not seeing salespeople go out and look for apps for use within their broader sales role. One of the reasons is that many apps work within CRM and therefore can’t be deployed by an individual rep. Another reason is that apps often cost $45-$60 or more a month.

For that matter, I’m not even seeing many managers buy apps that are aimed specifically at helping salespeople with their job. They’ll argue with me on that and say, “Nancy, we give them CRM, and we have marketing automation for lead routing, so we have the basics covered.”

To them, I say, “Sorry, you don’t get a lot of credit for that.” It’s like bragging about offering office workers a desk or a pc. CRM is table stakes as a system of record for salespeople to keep all their records in one place. But it doesn’t do much to help them actually sell. There’s so much more they can be doing to improve sales Rep productivity.

Channel enablement and sales enablement: factors to succeed

Sales enablement is one thing but if you’re in a ‘sales-through’ or even ‘sales with’ channel/partner model, partner enablement becomes crucial as well. What are the key similarities and differences in various models from an enablement and sales tools perspective per you, depending on go-to-market model and industry?

Nancy Nardin: Channel partners need 1. Branding. 2. Ease of access to sales content 3. Ongoing training 4. Configuration, pricing, and quoting.

And in the case of a ‘sales-with’ model, 5. collaboration. When it come to channel enablement, the OEMs that do those 5 things right have a much better chance of higher sell-through assuming products/pricing is competitive.

Content and information are essential for customers, sales people and partners, at least if it helps them in achieving their goals. How do you see the role of content and do you notice any evolutions?

Nancy Nardin: We’re certainly seeing more field organizations deploy mobile content apps that make it possible for salespeople to find, share, and send the right content wherever they are no matter if Internet access is available.

The best offer guided selling-like functionality which helps step the rep and prospect through options so they arrive at the best solution based on the prospect’s unique needs. There’s no excuse today, not to have a mobile content/catalog app in place. There are many options that enable organizations to get up and running quickly.

If you want more sophisticated functionality, like tying quotes to back office inventory systems, you’ll need to pay a little more financially and in IT support.

One of the problems I see when it comes to enabling reps with content apps is deciding who’s responsible. Is it a Marketing initiative? Is it a Sales initiative? Who gets to decide? Who pays for it? I spoke to one Sales VP who said his marketing team is in charge of sales enablement and they are going to create their own app.  Whaaat?!!!

That’s just craziness. I asked why on earth they would want to do that and he said because Marketing doesn’t have any budget, but they do have a developer on staff. If that wasn’t shocking enough, he added, “We don’t have any say in the matter.” Sadly, there’s more of that type of culture and attitude than not.

Improving revenue by shifting time to selling tasks: there is an app for that

Shocking indeed. Talking about sales tools and the sales stack: can you name some of the tools you like or that have surprised you positively? It can be in general or in specific categories.

Nancy Nardin: There are a few. More than anything, I like tools that relieve Rep over-head, what Gartner (FKA CEB) refers to as the Seller Burden.

Improving sales productivity (which I define as shifting time spent from non-selling tasks to selling tasks) holds the greatest opportunity for improving revenue. If you can move the needle from 35% of time spent selling to 50%, that’s a 43% increase. Revenue should go up commensurately.

Some of the tools that help with that are Conversica which offers a virtual (as in non-human) assistant that reaches out through email to trade-show and other lead lists to facilitate meetings with salespeople (note: Conversica is one of several tools where artificial intelligence is used in sales). Two other solutions that fit into the productivity category are Velocify and VanillaSoft. They prioritize lead and prospect follow-up, make all the information readily available for either phone or email outreach, and will even leave pre-recorded voicemail messages (voicemail drop) so salespeople can move on to their next call.

Building your sales stack: start with questions and friction points

We’ve got to simplify the process for both salespeople and buyers. That means smarter technology that does a lot of the heavy lifting.

Imagine: I know nothing about sales solutions and the sales stack. On top of visiting your website: how do I get started?

Nancy Nardin: Ask yourself and your salespeople a lot of questions! That’s the first place to start.

What’s keeping your reps from spending more time with prospects? What’s keeping them from spending more time with the right prospects?

What’s keeping them from closing more deals, or from closing deals more quickly? Look for the friction points, determine which are the easiest to address in the shortest amount of time with the least amount of money and start there.

Social selling is risky business (if you do it wrong)

Your Twitter profile says you’re on the Forbes Top 30 Social Selling thought leader list. I saw that you’re on many many more lists than that too but let’s talk social selling. When I think social selling, I think we could do an entire interview about that alone. Can you share some of your key tips and of course feel free to share a few tools as well?

Nancy Nardin: First of all, it’s important to note that social selling doesn’t mean getting a LinkedIn and Twitter account. Furthermore, there are real risks associated with doing it wrong.

Smart Selling ToolsI’ll give you an example. I’m very open to accepting LinkedIn requests. It’s great for salespeople to connect to potential buyers but make sure of a few things. First, tell them why you’re connecting – be personable. Definitely, don’t just send them an invite without a note. You might say that you do all you can to stay aware of what your customers and potential customers go through, how they’re dealing with real challenges, and what resources they get value from. You’ve read a number of things they’ve posted (be specific) and you’d value connecting with them.

Whatever you do, don’t immediately send a pitch or offer to talk with them about their needs immediately upon acceptance of your connection request (uggghh!!!). When I get those, I immediately dis-connect without a second thought.

On Account Based Marketing and Industry Based Marketing: making sales reps more relevant

I totally can relate with that. Next question: in just a few years account-based marketing has moved from large B2B firms with large accounts to a practice that has moved far beyond this area. What are the key drivers of this rapid expansion, the main benefits of ABM and some best practices, per you?

Nancy Nardin: ABM is just one approach, albeit a great one, to aligning marketing and sales objectives and activities.

Marketers still focus on the beginning of the sales cycle ignoring the impact they could and should have during the bulk of the sales cycle.

For too long, marketing has focused on generating lots and lots of leads without regard to quality. In contrast, I’m now hearing marketers say they have moved away from demand gen in favor of an ABM approach. So the pendulum has swung the other way. Couple of points, it doesn’t have to be either or, and not everyone will benefit from an ABM approach.

ABM is well suited for companies who sell to multiple departments within an account or who have a wide product line that can be sold throughout an account. I would argue that if you sell to a specific decision maker inside a specific department that you don’t need ABM. You might need ABS, in other words, your salespeople might still need to create a targeted list of accounts and contacts within their territory and they’ll need to learn about that account and what’s relevant to the account, but Marketing doesn’t need to spend a bunch of marketing dollars on an ABM strategy.

That said, it could still be very helpful for Marketing to create industry specific content that reps can share with an account to be more relevant. I would call that Industry Based Marketing, or IBM.

Getting marketing and sales to collaborate better

I fully agree, although I think IBM might not be the best acronym. Let’s talk about the collaboration between sales and marketing. What evolutions have you seen in recent years and how can companies improve the alignment, from a human, cultural, organizational and technological perspective?

Nancy Nardin: Sadly, we still have a lot of education and work to do to get sales and marketing to work more closely together. A good first step is to align goals and objectives and most importantly, to align how each is measured and compensated.

Marketing should start by understanding that it’s not a good use of a sales person’s time to pass on a “lead” at the wrong sized company or a company that is otherwise not a worthy prospect. So, maybe commit to filtering leads before distributing to sales. Pre-filtered leads are known as Marketing Qualified Leads or MQLs but there should be a common definition created by both sales and marketing on what an MQL should look like.

Sales skill sets: it’s about time

True. Ask ten people what an MQL is and you’ll get ten different answers. I saw that you tweeted about a development toolkit from Qstream with regards to the key competencies of a best-in-class sales team. How would you summarize the main skills sales reps, internal, external, channel and so forth, need to have today?

Nancy Nardin: Of course, it depends on what you’re selling, and the type of sale. If it’s a transactional or one-time, low-priced, high volume sale, they need different skills than what complex, high-priced, low volume sellers need.

Everyone will likely need product training and reinforcement. Everyone will likely need situational fluency skills that involve knowing which questions to ask, how to listen to what prospects are really saying, and how to conduct the types of conversations that end with good results.

Video role-play solutions, skills development and reinforcement tools like Qstream, and sales enablement play books and guided-selling solutions are different approaches to consider.

A bit related with the previous one but not the same: what are, in general, the major sales skills that are missing today in your experience?

Nancy Nardin: Often, its time-management. Salespeople are asked to do a lot of non-selling tasks and they’re asked to handle larger and larger territories with bigger and bigger quotas. It’s enough to cause anyone to crack.

People can only spin so many plates at a time before the china starts to break. Knowing how to prioritize, focus, and filter attention is a critical skill-set. It just so happens, that technology can help.

Increase time spent selling - improving sales productivity is shifting time spent from non-selling tasks to selling tasks and holds the greatest opportunity for improving revenue - interview Nancy Nardin Smart Selling Tools

Technologies at the service of sales: artificial intelligence

Let’s talk a bit about technology indeed. Not just the tools but also the technologies themselves and how they might or will impact sales and sales and marketing collaboration? I’m thinking about AI (artificial intelligence), for instance. What do you see in the near future in this perspective?

Nancy Nardin: I just mentioned the importance of focused and filtered attention and the ability to prioritize activities. AI and machine learning has the potential to help with that in a big way.

For instance, why isn’t there a system that can analyze my email and my opportunities, and my scheduled tasks, and my forecasts to compile a list of suggested activities prioritized automatically? This is still done with the human brain which is only capable of remembering and sorting through so much at a time.

(Editor’s note: you can find different tools to enhance sales productivity, leveraging AI, on Nancy’s website. One of the tools she mentioned earlier, Conversica, is an AI-driven platform.)

Is there something you would like to share with the readers and which we haven’t touched upon yet?

Nancy Nardin: Yes! We hold a webinar nearly every week with a different tools vendor. The webinars include a conversation with a sales leader on their challenge and why they chose a specific technology (and the impact).

And then you get to see the technology in action. In just 45 minutes a week, you can catch up and stay up to date on sales technologies. Take the mystery out of technology and take control of your future revenue.

Nancy Nardin in a few quick sentences (and the case for simplicity)

Thanks for your insights and wanting to share them, Nancy. Let’s conclude with a few statements and words you can fill in after the dots.

  • If Nancy Nardin had to urge sales leaders to do one thing right now in just one tweet she would say….. imagine its year-end and your team missed their targets. What do you tell yourself you should’ve done differently? Make that change now.
  • The best Bonnie Raitt song… is by far, “I can’t make you love me”
  • A good sales manager…. cares about what gets in the way of their salespeople.
  • The major lacking skill in sales in 2 years from now will be…communicating value. Same problem as today.
  • People have to visit because…. it’s the only site focused solely on the sales technology landscape and how to make decisions on your sales stack.
  • In their relationships with sales, marketers still haven’t learned to….understand their value further down the funnel. Marketers still focus on the beginning of the sales cycle ignoring the impact they could and should have during the bulk of the sales cycle.
  • The role of CRM in sales and marketing today is…a system of record. In many cases, it should not be the main interface for salespeople to do their job.
  • In her previous career at Gartner Group Nancy Nardin learned…more than she ever cared to know about the semiconductor industry! (She sold to Intel, AMD, National Semiconductor, Motorola, etc.)
  • If Nancy Nardin was a futurist and trendwatcher she would predict that the major change in sales will be…simplicity. We’ve got to simplify the process for both salespeople and buyers. That means smarter technology that does a lot of the heavy lifting.
  • The best opportunity management tool is….the one that fits your type of sale best. Consider Altify Opportunity Manager, Revegy, and Membrain.
  • Saying that one day we won’t need sales people is…dumb
  • The major changes in buyer behavior are…more people are involved in every decision than ever before which makes a salesperson’s job all the more difficult. It also means that selling needs to move from product fit to include prescriptive guidance on the decision/consideration process.
  • In her interview with Matt Heinz, Nancy Nardin said she’s pet-less for the first time ever but can’t be long without a little furry one, since then…we’ve adopted a beautiful, loving rescue dog. The sweetest, most appreciative dog in the world.
  • A sales energy audit…will help you identify where your sales process is leaking energy. Just like sealing doors and windows and adding insulation will stop wasted energy, the same will happen if you can find the inflection points that sucks a salesperson’s time away from selling.
  • This interview….was really fun. Thanks for the invitation!

Thank you for accepting it!

Time concept image: Shutterstock – Copyright: pixbox77 – All other images are the property of their respective mentioned owners.