B2B Modern Sales, Social Selling, Content Marketing

An Interview with Graham Hawkins, Experienced B2B Sales Expert and Thought Leader

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An engaging and insightful conversation with Graham Hawkins, experienced sales leader, author, entrepreneur and thought leader on modern B2B sales.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Graham Hawkins, experienced B2B sales seader, suthor, entrepreneur and thought leader on modern sales. Graham has 28 years of  global experience in sales and sales leadership roles in the enterprise technology industry including Australia, Asia Pacific, UK and Europe.

Graham, through his thought-provoking and insightful blog posts and social conversations is sharing valuable guidance and driving an important dialogue on the current state and future of B2B sales. We had a rich and engaging conversation filled with powerful nuggets of information and practical advice on the forces of change in B2B sales, the need for sales transformation, the critical role of content and social media and some of the challenges sales leaders are facing.

Here are the highlights of our conversation.

I ask Graham to share a about his background and what has lead him become a real thought leader (my words) on modern sales and sales transformation.

 

“I did not start out with the intention to become a thought leader, I started to write from the heart.”

Graham shares a great story that brings his experience and thinking to life:

"I started to notice a big change about 10 years ago. In my first sales role mid 1990’s you could pick up the phone and call any enterprise buyer and say: ‘I will be in the area next week, can I come in and talk to you about file and data management?’. They would literally be falling off the chair saying yes. Yes please come in and help me transform my business. They needed to talk to the vendor. In the early stages the vendor had all the info. Buyers didn’t know how to solve their business problems so they were looking to vendors for solutions and their expertise.

It was easy if you were in the right business and the right territory at the time, there was significant opportunity You could literally stand by the fax machine and the orders would role in.

Fast forward 15 years to 2008, I was hearing ‘No’ from my customers more often. ‘No you can’t have a meeting, no we do not need you to come in.’

Graham’s customers were also sharing that they intended to do business with less vendors. He shares a ‘light-bulb’ meeting he had with one of his largest customers in 2010.

“Our 4th largest customer, Quantas represented about a million dollars in business, a reasonably large customer for us. Each year we had our annual renewal negotiation. It was always one of those argy-bargy meetings. The customer would vendor bash for the first half an hour, that was their strategy. In some cases it was justified, but really it was their negotiation strategy. I must have been having a particularly bad day :), and said, “Do we really have to go through with this charade. I went on to say every year we get together. You say you say you want us to be a partners and not suppliers. We are trying to be that. Can’t we just be adults and talk about this. The head of vendor management Quantas started to smile and suggested ending the meeting and going for a coffee with me.”

Essentially the customer shared with Graham that they were consolidating their vendors and looking to reduce their Tier 3 vendors from 363 to 100. Graham’s company was 1 of those 363 vendors. This was a directive coming from the CIO and CFO.

“This was a massive change in our go-to market plan, a genuine concern. I was stunned and started thinking how many other customers thinking along those lines. I started speaking to our customers about vendor rationalization and found it was quite common. This was becoming a real challenge for smaller vendors.”

This lightbulb meeting lead to a research project for Graham and eventually a book called Sales Transformation. The book addresses many of the changes that sales organizations are now facing.

The 5 Forces of 'change' for Sales People: ‘Bargaining Power of Buyers’ and some of the key external forces of change - specifically ‘Digital and Social’.

 

The bargaining power of buyers: Graham highlights that there are more businesses moving towards dealing with less vendors. The bargaining power also stems from the information parity shift Graham highlight in his example above of sales in the 1990’s. Buyers have access to info much more information than ever before. The balance of power has shifted from vendors to the buyer.

“We have moved from vendor push to customer pull models. Buyers are doing 60-80% of their research online. They can self diagnose their problems and prescribe their own solutions. This is dramatically different.

Field Sales was ok when the buyer was in the field, but the buyer is no longer in the field the buyer is online.Sales has a lot of adjusting to do in the next 3 to 4 years.”

Social and Digital: “To be successful at sales you need to be digitally driven and socially connected. You need to have a personal brand online that quickly allows the buyer to see who they are dealing with and understand your unique promise of value. Unless you are bringing a buyer new insights, unique info they cannot get elsewhere, why would they spend an hour of their time to meet with you time with you?

Sales has to transform how they go to market - focusing not on the sales process but the buying journey."

Graham paints the picture with a brilliant example of how one technology vendor in the Martech (marketing technology) space is really getting it right - Hubspot.

 

“I came across Hubspot at a conference, went to their site to download a white paper knowing it would trigger a sales event. I promptly got a call from someone at Hubspot, but what ensued was a real refreshing experience. As an experienced sales person, I was waiting for the sales spin and all the qualifying questions, on budget and timing. I didn’t get any of that. We spoke for an hour and the guy from Hubspot was asking questions. He was subtly educating and helping me. His title was Inbound Marketing Specialist and Customer Success. That is the model for the future. Moving from ABC (Always Be Closing) to ABH (Always Be Helping).

Hubspot is very focused on ABH. This is clear in the way they use digital and social. Following the call, I got a White Paper that was right on topic for what we talked about. Three weeks later he shared more thought leading content. It was fairly subtle but a very clever use of all channels including phone, email and social to educate and engage with me.

As a sales person I had my buyer hat on and I began to realize this is the what successful sales people of the future look like.”

From ‘Generalist to Specialist’: The Future of the Sales Profession.

 

Graham is about to release a new book “The Future of the Sales of the Profession.” In one chapter he focuses on the idea that the old role of outside or field sales “is going the way of the dodo.”

“When you look at what AI, Machine Learning, Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are bringing to the sales role. More and more vendors will set up a highly capable, highly specialized inside sales force instead of the old outside or field sales model. The use of digital platforms and guided selling with Artificial Intelligence to engage and get  better insights will change the landscape faster that any of us realize.

The successful salesperson of the future needs to be a specialist. A generalist may have broad knowledge, but they are not well positioned to meet the needs of the modern buyer. I call it - a mile wide and an inch deep. Why would the modern buyer want to meet with you if you cannot bring them a level of expertise and insights, beyond what they can find through their own research.

Salespeople must move up the scale from generalist to specialist. You need to be able to do what the guy at Hubspot did for me: educate the buyer. It sounds common sense and simple but so many do not understand this, we are not seeing this kind of change. I believe we are up for a turbulent period in the next couple of years.”

Graham also highlights, “I do need to put the caveat in my language, every industry is different and every market is different. What applies in some industries and markets may not apply fully in others. But the need for change is quite broad. The fundamentals of the need to change are relevant across most industries.”

We dug a little deeper on the role of social media and content in modern sales.

 

“Sales need to be seen by their buyers as adding value. That means specializing in some area and demonstrating your expertise through sharing and engaging with others. Social is a great way to do that.”  

Graham highlights three key points about social: the opportunity to listen, the role of content to add value and build relationships, the value of engagement and emphasizes ‘please don’t pitch.’

Listening: “This power of social is in the opportunity to listen for those buying cues:  new insights about a prospect’s business, their industry, leadership changes as well as the personal interests and motivations of the buyers. Social is the absolute platform for gathering that information to make you a more knowledgeable and valuable sales person.”

Content to add value and build relationships: “In order to become a specialist and a person of influence in your industry. You need to be creating and sharing content that is on message for what you are all about. You are able to build and nurture relationships by sharing thought leading content that adds value. If you are sharing content regularly, when a customer moves into the into a buying phase you are top of mind.” (Graham’s Hubspot example)

Graham has a sales transformation consulting business and is launching a new venture SalesTribe. He shares his content strategy:

“I have been actively putting out content that is aligned to the expertise and value of my consulting business and new business venture . I am targeting the same audience (salespeople and sales leaders). I am very focused on curating content from experts and thought leaders in the industry and creating content relevant to my target audience. I am amazed of the power of content for inbound value. I had three people contact me in one week following one post. They were interested in speaking engagements, training and consulting all aligned to my area of expertise.

It is important to share, that this doesn’t happen overnight. It took me time to generate momentum and build my personal brand online."

Engagement: “Engaging on social media is a great way to learn from other and build relationships. I am learning all the time by engaging. Social is all about opening your mind and engaging with others and learning. The act of engaging on social with people who disagree can help drive important conversations.  In some cases this type of engagement has influenced my perspective and my thinking has evolved. So powerful for learning and driving change.

Social Platforms are hugely powerful in allowing you to listen. and expand and develop your network and have real potential for inbound. Just don’t pitch. (Social) is not the place to pitch your products.”


Note on SalesTribe: Graham is in the process of launching a new business, Sales Tribe. He did not at any time during our conversation start to pitch his business or his consulting business :). But I did ask.

“Sales Tribe is about helping salespeople and sales leaders connect and navigate the wave of change of modern sales. It is a two-sided marketplace. On one side salespeople who need help to become specialists and succeed in modern sales and other side business that need access to leading sales capability.”

Sounds like it is focused on solving the problems the sales industry is facing. Looking forward to seeing more as the business launches.

Graham is talking about  a major shift for most sales people in how they think about sales and how they approach their role. Can salespeople make this change on their own or does it require organizational change to be successful?

 

“This is the key question. There is hardly a business where a salesperson can easily change how they operate. Senior management needs to lead the change. No sales cannot do it on their own..”

Graham references Kotter and his principles of change management. The first thing you need to do is create urgency then get senior management buy-in.

“Without senior management buy-in sales people will face challenges to change on their own.  

As a sales person even if you recognize you need to build your personal brand and you need to share content will soon be out of favour with management. Why? Because you are not out making calls, sending emails and booking meetings.”

There is significant dialogue on the need for sales organizations to change and transform how they sell. But we are not necessarily seeing the change in sales. Why are sales Leaders not embracing, and driving the change?

Graham shares some important insights on why sales is falling behind and not making the change needed.

“Sales is being measured and managed by 20th century metrics - volume metrics: more calls, more meetings and more pipeline. This is driving all of their activities. In many cases they are not being permitted to start to think about the digital landscape and social and the opportunity to share thought leading content to drive inbound leads.

Sales leaders continue to be given hard numbers by the CEO and CFO and are expected to just keep cranking out sales through their sales machine. Sales leaders are missing what is staring them in the face, the need and the opportunity to transform how they sell. Who can ignore the Martech opportunity, a 13 billion industry that did not exist 10 years ago. An opportunity that can enable the change.

It is the tyranny of ‘short-termism’. We are stuck trying to crank out the same old routine because that is what made us successful in the past.The sales profession needs to wake up and wake up fairly quickly in their thinking and approach. Hence some of the strident language in my posts on LinkedIn.

The challenge is that sales leaders cannot afford to take the foot off the pedal, while we take the time to build build a content and social media program. This is creating is a lot of risk. If you do not take the time to align your business with your buyers. It is only a matter of time that you will be disrupted. An Uber or AirBnB will send you packing.”

Graham highlights that in many organizations the sales leader is not sitting at the strategic planning table and this is one of the challenges.

“When the sales leader doesn’t sit at the table. The  CFO gives a number and the Sales leader has no choice but to go back and continue doing what they have always been doing. There is no opportunity to provide input to change.”

Some final thoughts.

 

“The old vendor push doesn’t work, don’t interrupt. Those days are well and truly over.

The Hubspot example I shared really brings this to life (Sales people must stop pushing…..and start using honey!)

If you can set yourself up for the future of sales by listening, sharing your specialist knowledge, adding value and building and nurturing relationships. That is when you will be successful and you will be valuable to your employer."


Thank you Graham for a thoughtful and engaging conversation. 

by Kim Babcock
Jan 27th, 2017