The smiling salesman hung up the phone after successfully closing another deal, while his discouraged colleagues struggled to convert even a fraction of the new leads they had been chasing all week. Little did they realize, the savvy seller hadn’t hunted down a new buyer in months - all his calls were to existing clients and opportunities already in his pipeline.

Welcome to the era of trying to sell in a downturn—or with a downturn looming. According to Korn Ferry sales performance research, so-called “win-rates” sales in the U.S. dropped 10% globally during the pandemic, with the size of deals shrinking 13%. With little improvement expected this year, experts say the standard panicked approach has been to aggressively seek new customers—which they argue is the wrong course to follow.

The best course of action now should be to focus on nurturing existing relationships. “You need to ask the question: ‘How do I convert more of the opportunities I already have in my pipeline?’” says Christoffer Ellehuus, Korn Ferry's Global Sales Effectiveness Practice Leader. Indeed, Korn Ferry data indicates that sales organizations with salespeople that effectively cross-sell or up-sell and expand relationships improve quotas by 18%, and win-rates by 13%, respectively.

Of course, the idea of turning to a firm’s tried and true buyers is certainly not new, and still, many sales teams have difficulty attracting fresh business from them. But Ellehuus says the problem tends to be a lack of any formal sales methodology – a practical, repeatable, scalable framework that can be used across a global sales organization and provide a connective tissue between a sales team’s pitch and a customer’s needs. The benefits of a formalized process speak for themselves; Korn Ferry statistics show that those organizations who attain a dynamic level of sales methodology have win rates 27% higher and quota attainment 21% higher than those with a random or informal methodology. They also report 27% lower voluntary turnover.

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Paired with setting up a formal sales methodology is the need for salespeople to understand that selling has changed dramatically post-pandemic. Whereas a salesperson might have once hopped on a plane to meet a client and rely on personal relationships, they now need to create virtual relationships, anchored in a discipline of asking the right questions at the right stage in a sale. Do they know why their buyer is interested in being in the market? Are they having a conversation with the buyer because there is a real business need, and has that business need changed? Given the increased number of people involved in B2B buying decisions these days, are they even speaking with the right person? “This is the kind of discipline you need to build valuable customer relationships that move opportunities forward” says Ellehuus.

Similarly, in today’s world, experts say sellers can’t be relentless product-pushers. According to a Korn Ferry survey, buyers said that sellers were among the least trusted sources of information for business decisions. Rather than the hard sell, “customers are looking for someone that can support their needs,” says Joe DiMisa, senior client partner and global salesforce effectiveness and rewards advisory leader.

Buyers are doing their research now more than ever, and the number of buyers who are reaching out to sellers in the early phases of the sales process has declined by 21% over the last two years, according to Korn Ferry data. This means there are a significant number of buyers who only engage a seller once they’ve made up their minds--they already know the full landscape of competitive offerings before they reach out to a particular provider.

Even when handed a proven sales methodology and process, teams may still run up against the issue of adoption. The fix is to make it real for the seller at the time of need by taking the methodology out of the one-off training sessions and embedding it in the various customer platforms where sellers do most of their job. Ultimately, however, the main motivation for sales teams to employ a new sales process is when they see that it can help them win more deals, says Ellehuus. “Sellers are sellers because they like to make money.”

Christoffer Ellehuus joined Mark Grimshaw and Becky Abraham for a discussion on this topic at our Seize the Sale webinar. Watch the on-demand webinar.

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