The serving salesperson: Moving from a selling mindset to a serving mindset
Set serving customers as your “true north”
By Dr. Dan McQuiston
Business-to-business (B2B) customers need help.
Their vendors are inundating them with information. Buying groups have gotten larger. Each member of that group has their own set of decision criteria. The duration of purchase process has increased. The customers want a business-to-consumer (B2C) digital purchase experience in a B2B setting. Vendors are lagging behind in providing that experience. And then there’s the impact of AI and other technologies.
Research by Gartner has found that 55 percent of B2B customers(1) say they receive an overwhelming amount of information and 77 percent reported that the purchase process(2) has become much more complex, so it’s little wonder that they need assistance in navigating through the purchase process. Unfortunately, research from Salesforce(3) has shown that many vendors are not offering that assistance:
Eighty percent of customers were more likely to make a purchase if the sales professional demonstrated an understanding of their goals. However, 71 percent say most sales interactions feel transactional. Eighty-seven percent of B2B buyers expect sales reps to act as trusted advisors. However, only 61 percent say they generally trust sales representatives.
Clearly salespeople have some work to do in this area.
Objectives of this research
My colleagues at Butler University and I undertook a research project to examine which activities and behaviors salespeople might engage in to provide a positive experience throughout the purchase process. We undertook the research project in two stages. The first stage involved conducting a series of personal interviews with B2B customers to get a better idea of what activities and behaviors salespeople can engage in to create a more positive experience throughout the sales process. We then used the information gained in those interviews to design a questionnaire that gathered more information about how to provide a positive experience that was administered electronically through email to both salespeople and B2B customers.
It was surprising how often B2B customers mentioned desiring assistance from salespeople to help them navigate through their buying journey. Comments such as “Help me get my arms around the issue we’re facing,” “Educate me better on how your product will solve my problem,” “Help me make sense of all this information,” and “I wish they would serve my needs better” were heard. It was this last comment that really stuck in our minds. “Serve my needs” puts things in an entirely different context than simply “Understand and meet my needs.” We realized that we needed to learn more about what additional research might be applicable to this concept of salespeople assisting and even serving their B2B customers as they go through the decision process.
The universal theme of giving
We began our secondary research by becoming familiar with the work of Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor and bestselling author at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Grant has conducted several research studies examining the behaviors that help individuals be more successful in their dealings with others in the workplace. Not surprisingly, he found that success in the workplace depends largely on the type of reciprocity styles that individuals employ in their interactions with others. His research led him to define three types of reciprocity styles:
Takers – Those who view reciprocity as a practice of putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs.
Matchers – Those who strive to preserve an equal balance of giving and taking. They operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking help in return.
Givers – Those who view reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they take.
When Professor Grant studied reciprocity styles across cultures, he found that there is one style that is truly universal: when we reflect on our guiding principles in life, the majority of us are intuitively drawn to giving. The Israeli psychologist Shalom Schwartz surveyed representative samples of thousands of adults in 70 countries by asking the respondents to rate the importance of both giver and taker values. In each country the majority of people rated giving as their single most important value. They reported caring more about giving to others than about power, achievement, excitement, freedom, tradition, conformity, security and pleasure.
Perhaps more interesting is in a study of salespeople in optician practices, Grant found that givers brought in 30 percent more annual revenue than matchers and 68 percent more revenue than takers. Even though matchers and takers represented over 70 percent of the salespeople, half of the top sellers were givers.
Are salespeople motivated by internal or external rewards?
Along these same lines, one part of our study examined B2B customers’ perception of what type of rewards motivated salespeople. Both the salesperson and B2B customer respondents were asked a variation of the same question seeking their opinion as to whether they felt salespeople were motivated by internal or external rewards. The results found that 35.8 percent of salespeople feel they are primarily motivated by external rewards and 20.8 percent by internal rewards. However, 55.2 percent of B2B customers indicated that they felt salespeople were primarily motivated by external rewards and 15.8 percent by internal rewards. This perception is clearly not in keeping with a giver mentality or creating the serving experience that B2B customers are seeking.
Being a giver without being taken advantage of
An important point here: having a giving philosophy does not mean you allow people to take advantage of your giving nature to your own detriment. In his research, Professor Grant found that the most effective negotiators were “other-ish” givers — givers who are still committed to serving others but also have a high concern for their own interests. They have a giving mindset but not to the extent that they sacrifice their own best interests and end up being taken advantage of. The overriding philosophy for “other-ish” givers in negotiating with others is “win-win or no deal.”
The online survey
We used the information we gathered in our interviews to design the questionnaires for our online surveys with the following objectives: 1) to survey salespeople to better understand the behaviors and practices that they employ in their attempts to be more customer-focused and create a more positive experience for their customers; and 2) to survey B2B customers to determine what perceived traits, attitudes and behaviors are exhibited by salespeople that they feel assist them in their buying journey and are associated with positive selling outcomes.
As we examined the factors revealed in the data analysis, it became apparent that B2B customers are indeed desiring more from their salespeople than simply helping them navigate through their purchase journey. Combining the survey findings with the personal interviews we conducted, we concluded that B2B customers are indeed attracted to those salespeople who exhibit more of a serving mindset during the sales interaction. Accordingly, we have designated this new role for salespeople as the “serving salesperson.”
The serving salesperson
Data analysis revealed the following seven factors that describe the mindset and behaviors exhibited by a serving salesperson that help create a more positive sales experience:
- Set serving your customers as your “true north”
- Blend passion and perseverance
- Sharpen your “EQs” (emotional quotients or emotional intelligence)
- Facilitate the process
- Grow the trust through human touch
- Engage in brain-friendly communication
- Create the wins
Let’s examine each one of these.
Set serving your customers as your “True North.” The North Star that points to “true north” is that unchanging constant that has been used throughout the ages to guide travelers on their journeys. The true north for a successful serving salesperson is embracing the value of giving and having as their unchanging constant an enduring desire to serve and to expand on that desire by embracing a dedication to serve the needs of their customers to the best of their ability. Acting differently requires thinking differently. A serving salesperson must proactively and intentionally choose to create a mindset that moves from a selling strategy to a serving strategy. The survey respondents reported that salespeople can set serving as their true north by being authentic in their sales approach, working to truly understand the customer’s needs, and from the outset seeking to develop a relationship that will benefit both parties.
Blend passion and perseverance. The blend of passion and perseverance – “grit” – is exhibiting that passion and perseverance throughout the pursuit of achieving an overarching, long-term goal. Gritty people maintain their determination and motivation to achieve that long-term goal over extended periods of time despite experiencing failure and adversity along the way. For the serving salesperson, that overarching goal of serving the customer acts as a compass that gives direction and meaning to all the other goals that ladder up to this overarching goal. B2B customers indicated that salespeople could show grit by having a passion for the products they sell, setting a defined course for the sales process, and exhibiting the character trait of grit throughout the sales process all the way to its completion.
Sharpen your EQs. The results of this survey verified the findings of other research that has found that having high emotional intelligence — your emotional quotient or ‘EQ”— is a contributing factor to success in as sales as well as in life. The findings of this survey brought out the fact that salespeople need to work to better understand the emotions the customer is experiencing throughout the purchase process. Salespeople can sharpen their EQs by resisting the desire to speak when it did not help the situation, truly wanting to listen to the customer’s needs and recognizing the customers’ emotions as they were happening.
Facilitate the process. Researchers and marketing practitioners alike agree that the level of complexity in the B2B purchase process has and will continue to increase. Salespeople need to constantly endeavor to first understand the tasks that their customers are undertaking throughout their buying journey and then seek to assist them in completing those tasks during that journey. Customers are so inundated with information that a salesperson can facilitate the purchase process first by collating, summarizing and interpreting information that is applicable to their customers as they proceed through their purchasing journey. Proactive vendors can also facilitate the buying process by building content libraries of industry and competitive information, establishing customer portals, increasing the use of CRM tools and employing virtual reality. The respondents indicated that salespeople could facilitate the process by bringing a different perspective to the situation, helping the customers make sense out of all the information that was available, and are proactive in providing both information and recommendations to create a more positive experience.
Grow trust through human touch. The majority of modern-day B2B customers grew up purchasing products online, and as a result they expect a B2C purchase experience in their B2B interactions. However, currently many suppliers are not yet equipped to provide that experience. While a number of consulting firms have postulated that the vast majority of research in the future will be conducted online(4), research has found that the top two behaviors salespeople engage in to convert prospects into customers are a combination of data-driven skills and human insights(5) — a mix of the use of technology combined with the presence of the human touch. The respondents in this survey stated that the salesperson could grow trust through human touch as well as create credibility for themselves by acting in the customer’s best interest, giving examples of how this product was successful in solving another customer’s problem, making a concerted attempt to find and direct the customers to the right information and helping the decision process go more smoothly.
Engage in brain-friendly communication. Salespeople need to understand there are two systems that the brain uses to make decisions. The reflective system (left brain) processes logical information and the reactive system (right brain) processes emotional information. Salespeople need to pay particular attention to understanding the importance of the reactive system as it controls the limbic system, the part of the brain that is involved in behavioral and emotional responses. Evolution-wise, this is the oldest part of the brain and controls the ‘fight or flight’ behaviors dating back to our earliest ancestors. As a result, there are a significant number of threat networks in the reactive part of the brain. To be successful, salespeople first need to be aware of these networks’ presence and second, work to develop a personal as well as an emotional connection with the customer to diffuse the negative reactions these threat networks create. Once that connection has been established, the customer will be much more receptive and more likely to process the information the salesperson is providing in a positive light. The respondents stated a salesperson can engage in brain-friendly communication by developing a personal connection early in the process, genuinely caring about the customer as an individual, and understanding how the emotions the buyers are experiencing affect how they approach the purchase process.
Create the wins. Successful salespeople have traditionally worked with their customers to create the ‘win-win’— where both the buyer and the seller gain from a mutually beneficial exchange. However, win-win generally implies that that are only two parties affected by the outcome. Creating the wins expands the benefits achieved by the sales transaction to all the relevant stakeholders that will be affected by the purchase. Such stakeholders would include not only the customer, but also the customer’s customer, employees of the vendor and customer organizations, suppliers, stockholders and society in general. Salespeople can create the wins by endeavoring to ensure that all the relevant stakeholders succeed, assisting in making the customer’s operations more effective, and creating an atmosphere that promotes a more effective collaboration with the salesperson that results in crafting a successful solution.
The results from this study support what previous research has found: B2B customers are seeking assistance to navigate their way through the buying journey. B2B customers are seeking a B2C experience in a B2B setting, and other research has found that combining the use of technology with the “human touch” can help provide that experience as well as resulting in more satisfied and profitable customers.
The findings of the personal interviews along with the results of the electronic survey indicate that salespeople can best offer the assistance their customers are seeking by shifting their mindset from providing a selling experience to a serving experience, assuming the role of a “serving salesperson.” Providing a serving experience will not only provide B2B customers the assistance they are seeking but also help in creating a competitive advantage for salespeople who focus on providing this experience.
About the author
Dr. Daniel McQuiston is professor emeritus of marketing at the Lacy School of Business at Butler University. He has a master’s degree in business administration from Bowling Green State University and received his Ph.D. in marketing from The Ohio State University. McQuiston has served as faculty and taught numerous marketing, executive education, executive development and business analytics and information programs. He is well-versed in the manufacturer’s representatives function as he assisted in the development of the CPMR program and has taught in every CPMR session since its beginning in 1989.
1. Gartner, The Sense Making Seller — https://emtemp.gcom.cloud/ngw/globalassets/en/salesservice/ documents/trends/sense_making_ebook_final.pdf
2. Gartner, Win More B2B Sales Deals — https://emtemp.gcom.cloud/ngw/globalassets/en/ sales-service/documents/trends/win-more-b2b-sales-deals.pdf
3. Salesforce, The State of Marketing, 7th edition — https://www.salesforce.com/content/dam/ web/en_us/www/documents/reports/salesforce-research-seventh-state-of-marketing-V2.pdf
4. Gartner, The Future of Sales — https://emtemp.gcom.cloud/ngw/globalassets/en/sales-service/ documents/trends/future_of_sales_ebook.pdf
5. McKinsey, “The secret to making it in the digital sales world: The human touch” —https:// www.mckinsey.com/capabilities/growth-marketing-and-sales/our-insights/the-secret-to-making- it-in-the-digital-sales-world