image008Gartner’s Tiffani Bova identifies three dangers looming over modern sales organizations.

Life throws a lot of curve balls—both good and bad. Car accidents and natural disasters are every bit as unpredictable as winning the lottery or finally meeting your soul mate. What is predictable is the challenges sales organizations face.

Sales organizations are finding it harder and harder to deliver predictable revenue, and historical sales models are beginning to show cracks. Slowly but surely, sellers are lining up on one side of the sales cycle, while buyers line up on the other. Too many sales leaders are either unaware of this shift, ignoring the problem, or incapable of fixing it.

I recently had the chance to speak with Tiffani Bova—vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner—and then to hear her speak at this year’s Sales 2.0 Conference. In both our interview and her presentation, she talked about three dangers that modern sales organizations face, and how they’re creating a perfect storm that wreaks havoc on sales pipelines and future performance.

These dangers include:

  1. The Communication Breakdown

Ever watch a bouncing ball? It goes from one side to another, up and down, and all around. It’s tough to follow. That’s the digital buyer. These prospects come into the sales process at different stages and go bouncing around, collecting new information and shifting their focus back and forth.

Yet, despite the changing buyer, salespeople are still measured on legacy metrics, as if customers start with zero knowledge of us. Reps are measured on calls made, social touches generated, and emails sent. But legacy metrics don’t work anymore, because as Tiffani puts it, “The digital buyer is not linear.”

Why is this a problem?

“As a seller, I would never forecast a 50-percent buyer at 50 percent,” Tiffani told me. “Then my manager would question why I didn’t do the 42 things on my checklist. My manager would want to be involved in the negotiation and would push to close ASAP. Because of that, I would ‘massage’ the probability of closing this prospect at 10 percent, so I can have some breathing room to actually work with the customer on his buying cycle. But now I’m managing my manager, instead of providing accurate pipeline and forecasting data, which should provide visibility into the business.”

The result: Salespeople aren’t providing accurate information about prospects. So sales leaders don’t understand why the health of the pipeline isn’t improving, or why lead quality isn’t improving, despite significant investments in digital marketing.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle of the Sales Funnel

When we treat today’s buyers as if they’re on a pre-defined, linear path, our approach is all wrong. We get excited when buyers express legitimate needs or have near-term projects. We charge ahead without realizing we can kill deals if we don’t understand the back-and-forth movement of the buyers.

Digital marketing brings a prospective lead to sales at a certain percentage. “Let’s say 50 percent,” explains Tiffani. “But she may go to 30, then to 60, back to 30, to 80, and then close. The percentage changes as the buyer speaks with a rep and experiences the company through videos, blogs, and customer testimonials. Most importantly, it changes when the seller learns more about the prospect’s brand and offers insightful solutions. While buyers may think they know what they want, astute reps ask probing questions and make recommendations for buyers to consider.”

Herein lies another problem. Most organizations have invested in digital marketing campaigns, lead scoring, and lead qualification. However, salespeople have not been trained to sell to digital buyers. As Tiffani explains, “We need salespeople who are in tune with new, more informed buyers—who are on their own digital journeys and want the freedom to go from 40 to 20 to close, without being micro-managed by sales reps. New leads don’t always need to go to a hunter. They could go to an inside/digital rep who has the skills to question, probe, and help customers on their journey.”

  1. The Seller’s Dilemma

If the buying process has changed so much, why do sales leaders insist on using the same old metrics and incentive structures?

Sales managers aren’t blind to what’s happening in our profession. Most of them just don’t know what else to do. They are still managed by legacy sales metrics, so they insist their teams are as well.

“Managers are trapped,” explains Tiffani. “They’ll get fired or leave when they don’t make their numbers. They know they need to work differently, but they don’t have time to dig into ways to transform the salesforce to sell better. They figure they’ll get to transformation and innovation at some point, but that never happens.”

What I Learned from Tiffani Bova

The sales process is now customer-driven, non sequential, and unpredictable. Selling to this new buyer requires new metrics and new skills.

Sales models must be fluid and provide a mix of activities based on each buyer—where and how that person entered the sales funnel, and how the relationship has developed over time. Salespeople will have to ditch their pitches and have robust business conversations tailored to each unique customer. And sales leaders will have to find new ways to define sales success for their organizations.

Buyers now plot their own journey, but great salespeople know how to keep that journey moving forward.

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