Successful companies recognize that the sales process for new products requires different allocations of time and must overcome different objections and barriers by comparison with the traditional approach. People who excel at selling new products have traits and behaviors different from those who successfully sell existing product lines. The best companies develop organizations and cultures to support salespeople in rising to the challenge.
Demands on time
On average, salespeople spend more time meeting with customers throughout the sales cycle than they do when selling established goods and services. Much of that time is spent educating customers on how the product will change their current business practices. Given that time is a salesperson’s most precious resource, that’s a costly investment.
Barriers to Closing
Resistance to the sale typically occurs later in the process for new innovations than for established products. Customers are often curious about new products, but as the process continues, customers become more hesitant to abandon the status quo.
The biggest challenges are in each of the six stages common to most sales processes:
- Sales inquiry
- Needs recognition
- Solution development
- After-sale maintenance
In the first two stages, the biggest barrier is that customers think they have only limited information about the product. Similarly, in evaluation, they often worry that they still don’t fully understand the product.
A big shift occurs in the solution development stage when customers turn their attention to how their business practices would change if they decided to adopt the product. The two biggest issues are: Customers don’t like open-ended situations and they worry that their way of doing business will get disrupted. Similar concerns are raised in the decision stage.
From the sales organization’s perspective, this pattern is problematic and difficult to overcome. The initial customer enthusiasm is seductive and persuades salespeople that their time is being put to good use. As the process unfolds, it becomes clear that many of those curiosity-driven meetings were never real opportunities, leaving the salespeople with little to show for their efforts.
The Training Needed
In general, organizations don’t do enough to help salespeople navigate this complex process. What usually passes for training when a product is launched is merely a product showcase in disguise; the main challenges that will arise during the sales cycle aren’t addressed.
Early in the cycle, not only must the salesperson provide the right product information, but customers must feel they have the right information. Later in the cycle, the salesperson must help the customer understand, assess and manage the risks associated with change.
What Makes for Successful Salespeople?
- They take the long view. The most successful salespeople are managing their time more deliberately than other salespeople do.
- They have different concerns, perceiving barriers different from what others see. They are concerned about people and process issues that will stall the sale if the buyer lacks the evaluation criteria to make a purchase. In contrast, other salespeople focus on their product knowledge, worrying that they lack descriptive information.
- They exhibit more resolve. Although grit matters in most sales, it is even more important when selling new products. Those with a long-term focus on the future develop coping strategies to deal with the obstacles they encounter along the way.
- They have a learning mindset. Some salespeople have a learning orientation — a desire to improve their abilities and a need to master difficult tasks. Others have a performance orientation, craving praise for superior work or dreading poor evaluations.
- They are knowledgeable, customer focused and adaptable. Salespeople need an understanding of market trends and customer buying patterns, a predisposition to meet customer needs beyond what is required, and the ability to adjust their processes quickly according to feedback.
A Culture That Supports New-Product Sales
Frontline sales managers play a central role in executing organic growth strategies. If the company is building a sales force from scratch to support a new product, they hire people with the appropriate skills and abilities. If the company is launching a new growth strategy, these managers translate it into actions that will work in the field.
Managers use the assessments to guide coaching sessions about specific behaviors that will lead to higher performance and to develop focused learning plans. Competency assessments foster behavioral change by providing data from an outside source about where salespeople’s skills need improvement. These assessments are most effective when questions focus on specific behaviors.
During the launch phase of a new product, the companies don’t know exactly what skills will be needed for success, so they make an educated guess. They revisit their competency maps and revise their training programs, creating a culture in which salespeople aspire to grow.
The Benefits of Strategic Account Management
The best companies often launch new products through strategic account management programs. Strategic account managers (SAMs) are permitted to take a longer-term perspective for business development and are responsible for building a useful network at all levels of their customers’ organizations.
It is best practice for SAMs to hold regular planning meetings with customers and establish mutually beneficial goals to support the sale of new products. This form of planning and collaboration allows SAMs to become intimately familiar with customers’ business practices, culture and strategies.
SAMs are responsible for bringing together the senior leadership teams to show how the two companies can grow together. Senior leaders at the selling organizations demonstrate their personal commitment to these programs by regularly calling on customers and holding strategy meetings with SAMs. This helps the operating team understand its customers’ challenges and anticipate problems that might be created by the adoption of a new product.
Successfully executing an organic growth strategy requires a deep and lasting commitment from the entire senior leadership team. At the best companies, the entire sales organization takes pride in having developed a long-term mindset regarding organic growth. These companies recognize that investing in R&D is not enough to ensure that it will bear fruit; they make the same commitment to commercialization that they make to idea development.