The era of ultra-informed and therefore ultra-demanding customers: the new skill set of an IT sales representative
Thanks to the internet and social media, customers can now research for themselves the information they need to make a purchase. The role of an IT sales representative has changed to adapt to this new behaviour. Interpersonal skills, expertise, tools, methods... pretty much everything has evolved in the IT sales profession.
Managing customer relationships
Customers these days are well aware of exactly what they need. So the challenge of an IT sales representative is therefore to build a relationship of trust based on listening, empathy and the type of expertise that can answer complex needs with simple solutions. “Before contacting us, customers have already done some research on the internet and have some understanding of the range of solutions available on the market. Our role is therefore not so much to convince them, but more to guide and advise them, to remove any last obstacles stopping them from going ahead with the purchase,” says Nicolas Verdier, Account Sales Executive at OVH for the French region of Brittany. It’s about being proactive not in selling but in customer relationships. Basically, an IT sales representative has become an expert in understanding the customer, their market and the competition. That is what allows them to offer, in a clearly objective and demonstrable way, the solution that precisely answers the customer’s need. “We should be able to stand in the customer’s shoes and help them decide the best approach to take.” The ability to listen and tailor the approach to each customer is what makes all the difference.
To become an expert in understanding customers, IT sales representatives make use of social media platforms, among other tools. “Before social networks came along, identifying the right person to contact and understanding all the important aspects was like an obstacle course. Now all this information is widely accessible. This makes it a lot easier to make the first contact and personalise our approach.” It’s known as “social selling” and it’s facilitated by platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube or even Instagram.
Moreover, the tool has a double use. It also allows customers to get to know who they’re talking to better, and to form an opinion on that person’s skills and expertise. This is an important element that contributes to building a relationship of trust. “That’s why it’s important to take care of your “personal branding”. Our social media profiles should be accurate, transparent and visible enough to motivate customers to contact us and entrust us with their needs.” The profiles should also be kept “alive” by regularly posting information and news that are relevant to the customers. So sales representatives have their own brand images, but they are also ambassadors for their company’s brand – a double responsibility. In addition to their professional expertise, they should also develop “social” expertise. That includes being on the lookout for fake profiles and “fake news” that could be circulating on the platforms. “We should never risk having an “imposter” in our network. That would have a direct negative impact on our credibility.” For social selling, then, transparency and vigilance are key.
Dealing with management issues
IT sales representatives should also be able to handle management issues. In other words, they should be good at managing the targets they’re given and developing the organisational qualities they need to better manage their working time. “We are evolving in a service economy, in which advice and guidance represent a significant part of our work. We must therefore organise ourselves in order to be able to dedicate enough time to each of our customers, without however losing sight of our sales targets. It’s the downside to “customer relationships” – since they are personalised, they can rapidly become time-consuming if we are not careful about managing our time efficiently.” Jérôme Debruyne, Key Account Manager at OVH, adds that “it’s for that reason in particular that more and more companies are developing and perfecting sales methodologies that facilitate the work of salespeople by enabling them to optimise their time management.” Basically, it’s about following a process that sets out which actions to take and when, from the first identification of a lead until the closing deal. This enables them to save time, to make sure that no stage is missed out and of course to provide excellence service to the customers.
Does the IT sales representative have to be a technology expert?
Customer relationships, social selling, management – but let’s not forget the “IT” in IT sales. Is IT expertise the fourth key skill of today’s IT sales representative? The answer is not as obvious as you might think. “Yes and no,” says Jérôme. “Yes because knowing about technology enables them to be proactive, but no because nowadays it’s the human that’s at the heart of the business relationship. And paradoxically, the bigger the company, the less it is necessary to talk tech. But generally, the sales talk is different depending on whether it’s telesales, mid-market sales or key accounts teams. Each requires different technical skills.” When recruiting a salesperson, Jérôme favours candidates with a greater sense of customer relationships, before considering their technical expertise. “Let’s say the ideal skills ratio is 40% relationships, 40% management and 20% technical.” To respond as well as possible to customer needs, companies rely on internal collaboration across the company and good team coordination. “For example, at OVH we encourage collaboration that brings the different skills of each employee together, whether they are a pre-sales representative, solution architect, customer success manager, key account manager, account sales executive or team leader. And for key accounts with very specific needs, we contact the R&D department. Each discussion with a customer is unique, and “backstage” we gather all the expertise necessary to offer them the best possible solutions.”
Zooming in on the little-known story of OVH and IT sales
For a long time, OVH was a company that was relatively discreet, only engaging moderately with publicity and marketing. It wasn’t yet a household name. The company has always benefited from its status as a pioneer in the web hosting sector and has harvested the fruits of its particularly innovative business model. Word of mouth helped significantly to develop its reputation among technophiles, sysadmins and developers, who would come to the OVH site and order their services without needing much help. Via distribution lists and forums, these users benefited from direct contact with the teams in Roubaix. They would submit feedback on their services and suggest improvements. In return, the company kept them informed of developments, invited them to participate in beta tests, and so on.
So this type of customer base represented the “hard core” of OVH users. It’s thanks to them – and the “shadow IT” phenomenon – that OVH is now competing in the market alongside the major players. This new type of customer has a whole new set of different needs. For example, CIOs might need to reduce the operational costs of their IT systems, boost their agility, quickly develop innovative applications or even deploy infrastructures that can be accessed worldwide and on the go. So it is essential to be able to offer them appropriately tailored solutions. That’s why OVH has set up sales teams, and in this way expanded into new user sectors.
How will the IT sales profession evolve?
The profession is constantly evolving in order to keep up with, or even anticipate, customers’ changing needs. The trends we are already seeing will continue to progress. “Sales methodologies, and the training needed to apply them in practice, will continue developing. Social selling tools will become “closing” tools. Digital approaches that can help us optimise the customer experience and understand the different stages the customer goes through will be perfected, thanks in particular to artificial intelligence. And our efforts to constantly improve how we personalise the solutions we offer will become ever sharper.” Let’s not forget how the concept of building trust will develop. The technology and the automation of sales-related tasks will develop very quickly. That means that the human aspect, empathy, listening and guidance will play an increasingly important role in business relationships. And to support and encourage these invaluable IT sales competences, companies are investing a lot in workplace wellness.