Death of a Salesman?

This much is clear: The old way of selling is dead.

The sales function in industries as diverse as consumer products and financial services—and everything in between—is changing. IA tapped the insights of three sales experts to find out how independent agents can leverage the changing face of the sales process.

Daniel Pink is author of the long-running New York Times bestsellers “A Whole New Mind” and “Drive.” His latest book, “To Sell is Human,” is a No. 1 New York Times business bestseller and No. 1 Wall Street Journal business bestseller. In 2013, Thinkers 50 named him one of the top 15 business thinkers in the world.

IA: Successful selling: Do you think it’s an art or a science?

Pink: It’s both. There is a rich body of research—in psychology, economics, linguistics and cognitive science—that reveals some systematic ways to become more effective in selling. Yet selling effectively defies being reduced to any single algorithm. It relies on skills like improvisation and creativity that are far more art than science.

Based on your research for “To Sell is Human,” how has the sales process changed in the last five years?

The biggest change in the last few years has been the change in information. In the old days, sellers always had lots more information than buyers. When buyers are at an information disadvantage—and don’t have many choices or ways to talk back—the seller has the edge. But that world is ending. Today, buyers of anything—insurance, cars, consulting services, whatever—often have as much information as the seller, as well as lots of choices and many ways to talk back. In that world, buyers have the edge.

The result of this change is that sellers need a new set of skills. Instead of the ABCs of Always Be Closing, they need to adopt the new ABCs of Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity. These three qualities are the platform for effectiveness in a world where buyers and sellers are more evenly matched. Attunement is perspective-taking, getting out of your own head and seeing things from someone else’s point of view. Buoyancy is staying afloat in an ocean of rejection. And clarity is moving from accessing information to curating it and from solving existing problems to identifying problems customers and prospects don’t realize they have.

Independent insurance agents face the threat of product commoditization and direct selling online, particularly for personal insurance. How can agents combat that?

The key is to come up with goods and services that defy commoditization and to do things that direct sellers cannot. For instance, direct sellers have an edge if a customer knows precisely what her problem is and precisely what product she wants. But agents can gain an edge if they’re able to move from problem-solving to problem-finding. Can they work with that client or prospect, apply expertise to identify his genuine needs and interests and fashion a solution that’s appropriate for him? That might require a broader suite of offerings over time. But at the moment, it requires thinking of one’s self as less as an order-filler and more as a consultant or trusted advisor.

Matt Dixon is an executive director of strategic research at the Corporate Executive Board, and author of “The Challenger Sale” and “The Effortless Experience.” He recently wrote about the dismantling of the traditional sales process for the Harvard Business Review.

IA: Successful selling: Do you think it’s an art or a science?

Dixon: It’s probably an art, but there’s no reason you can’t put science around it. When we go out and study best salespeople and what they do differently, you could argue that the challenger sale is an art form: the way [those salespeople] teach customers something new, tailor their insights, take control at critical pressure points during the sales process. But there is a way you can break that down into its core components and put science around it, to scale it so you can train other people how to do it.

The analogy I would use is that you look at a beautiful painting and you say clearly, that’s a work of art. But there is a way to break it down into its core components and replicate it, or at least come close.

In your recent Harvard Business Review article you describe the shift in sales as a change from “solution selling” to “insight selling.” What does that mean for independent agents?

Really the biggest shift we’ve seen in selling is not really the change in selling, but the change in customer buying behavior. Customers are engaging the salesperson later and later in the purchase decision, by using other sources of information to self-educate around problems they want to solve. How do they do that? They go to websites.

You see commercials every day from insurance providers touting their ability to price shop and compare features and benefits of different policies. Even for complex and sophisticated business purchase decisions, customers are armed with information in a way that just weren’t before. Going back 30 years, you needed the salesperson to effectively “show up and throw up”— to tell the customer about the features and benefits of the policy, because there was no other way for the customer to learn these things. The days of the talking brochure salesperson are really over.

The best salespeople are out there engaging in social media. Business people or consumers are out there learning about insurance and most salespeople aren’t in the conversation at all, or to the extent that they are, they’re seen as salespeople and schlocky, pushy and aggressive rather than trying position themselves as trusted advisors.

Your biggest competitor today actually isn’t the competition—it’s your customer’s ability to learn on their own.

What is the one thing agencies can implement right now to achieve “challenger sale” status?

Think about the next conversation you have with a customer on insurance—to what extent are you leading “with” versus leading “to”? Are you leading with the history of the company, the policies, features and benefits, the corporate parrot approach to selling? Are you starting the conversation around the issues that matter to customers? Are you leading with insights that teach the customer something new about their insurance needs that tie back to the insurance products that you’re uniquely positioned to provide them? In a world where customers can learn on their own, the thing they are really looking for from a salesperson is the thing that they couldn’t learn on their own.

Jeffrey Gitomer is a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books on sales, including his most recent, “21.5 Unbreakable Laws of Selling.” He consults with Fortune 500 giants such as Coca-Cola and AT&T, as well as insurance companies.

IA: Successful selling: Do you think it’s an art or a science?

Gitomer: Successful selling is a science. You can read about it and learn about it like any other science on the planet. If there’s an art in selling, it’s never letting the other person feel like they are being sold.

Many people say the sales process is going through a revolution. What does that mean for insurance?

The challenge is for industries to understand more sales are being made online than are being made one on one.

For all salespeople, the more difficult sales will always be there. The simpler sales will fade away.

Geico is taking away the easy business. The low-hanging fruit is not there anymore. What [agents] have to do is climb the tree. Not only is the sale still there—it’s a better sale, it’s a more long-term sale and it’s a higher commissionable sale. The whining agents are the weak ones. The insurance salesperson is very valuable in today’s marketplace, because most people are under-informed. The problem is independent agents are falling short of the communications mark. If an independent agent thinks they can wait until the 11th month to re-up their policy, those days are over. I don’t want a birthday card. I want something that will tell me how to live my life better.

How have the “21.5 unbreakable laws of selling” been affected by these technology and communications changes?

My laws don’t contain anything about closing the sale and old other-world sales and other stupid things in sales that make customers angry. Just like them. And if you have a 10-minute conversation with them, maybe they will like you back. If you break into the traditional sales mode, I’m throwing that salesperson out of my office. They don’t know one thing about me. The old way of selling is dead.

If I ask an audience of independent insurance agents how many have never Tweeted, 75% will raise their hand. I think that’s pathetic. And then they moan about the fact that “online companies are killing my business.” No, you’re letting them kill your business by not being online yourself.

What about agents who say “I am on social media but I’m not getting any business directly from it”?

It works. They’re not doing it right. Maybe if they invested a few nights learning about it or featuring their customers on a Facebook post or a blog, they would get all kinds of people. If an insurance agent wants to be of consequence in their community, they better get with it. Because another insurance agent is going to see the opportunity and trounce them.

Katie Butler is IA editor in chief.