What sales skills and strategies are needed to succeed in 2024 and beyond? Comms Business finds out more.

Salespeople across the Channel are navigating drastically different sales journeys compared to just a few years ago. For resellers and MSPs, this means some new sales skills might be needed, and managers and business owners are keen to find new sales strategies that could help them succeed.

The biggest shift in recent years stems from the decline in face-to-face meetings, as has been seen across the business landscape, with that in-person contact previously a core component of closing a sale.

Ben Avery, head of channel sales, Gradwell Communications, explained the impact this has had in the sales environment. He said, “Before 2020, the sales process was led by face-to-face meetings where it was easier to build rapport and decisions were made faster. With remote sales meetings, the way salespeople build rapport has changed and, in some cases, this has resulted in longer deal cycles and more competition.

“However, salespeople now have flexibility to do more with their time as the need to travel has been significantly reduced. A significant benefit of the changing sales journey is that vendors can now be engaged in the process earlier through remote meetings, driving better collaboration from the onset of the deal.”

Avery emphasised the reality that fewer in-person meetings means end customers have more bandwidth to speak with more vendors before making a purchasing decision. He said, “From the perspective of the end customer, they also have the capacity to speak to more vendors and channel partners because they can sit more meetings in a day. Another significant impact of this change is that more of the buying cycle happens before contact with the vendor or reseller and so the buyers are more educated on their technology options as a result.”

Ashley Butcher, channel sales director, Node4, also discussed the impact of longer deal cycles. He said, “Since Covid, sales journeys are becoming longer. More decisions are being made at high levels within an organisation, some even within the C-Suite. This means that the people who used to be able to make decisions are now only influencers. In turn, this makes the sales process a lot more complicated – it is more prone to issues and there are more blockers, which delays the journey from opportunity to closure.”

Of course, channel salespeople are skilled at building long-term relationships and providing customers and prospects with advice that will ensure the proposed solution can deliver the results needed.

Jamie Hughes, sales director for the UK, Evolve IP, said, “It’s clear that people still buy from people, and they are looking for a trusted adviser. A big part of this is the impact that data plays in helping identify opportunities.

“Sales teams are being driven by data to have more meaningful conversations with their customers and to help them identify future buying trends and patterns. Data can help you understand where the market is going and how resellers can position themselves to be at the forefront.”

For Iain Sinnott, head of international carrier sales, Enreach for Service Providers, these changes mean golden oldie best practices are back in vogue. He said, “The sales journey is returning back to basic best practices, of selling outcomes and benefits, not technology for its own sake. In the current climate, customers, particularly businesses, are looking for products and services that make a tangible difference, such as offering 24/7 automated chat for CX out of hours, or enabling small teams to do more with less resources.”

Craig Hoile, head of channel sales, Tollring, added, “The sales journey has changed from being transactional to one that is more strategic. Salespeople in our sector are placing greater emphasis on cultivating deeper connections with their customers and fostering trusted advisor relationships over the long term. This is essential if resellers and MSPs are to help customers successfully navigate the complex and often overwhelming technology environments currently on offer, in a way that generates meaningful returns.

“This approach does require more from partners, who are now having to offer guidance on the optimal set of products and services that directly align with the needs and strategy of those acquiring the services. This also means resellers are having to work closely with their vendors and solution providers to ensure they are equipped with the appropriate resources, tools and information to advise and justify why a recommended solution is the right one for each customer.”

The right skills and strategies

So, what does this mean for the skills and strategies salespeople need? Sinnott, from Enreach for Service Providers, emphasised the importance of making time.

He said, “Salespeople need to spend more time understanding their customers. For large accounts, that can be in person, but when dealing with large volumes of SMBs, that will require understanding typical use cases and finding ways to educate customers through various resources, such as helpful explainer videos.

Mike van Bunnens, CEO, Comms365, added, “Sellers will need a deep understanding of their customers’ operations in order to be able to help them identify the most appropriate solutions, as well as educating them as to what’s possible by leveraging today’s advanced technology and the potential impact those innovations could have on their customers’ growth.

“This requires a very broad skill set, from understanding the technology and problem solving to quantifying the potential benefits of new projects, as well as more people-focused skills like relationship building and stakeholder engagement.”

Relationship-building will remain central to successful deal-making. Butcher, from Node4, said, “Old school sales tactics and corner-cutting practices are becoming less and less common. Today, salespeople need to be expert relationship makers and have a very high integrity.

“Increasingly, salespeople are taking on the role of the trusted advisor – working on strategies with C-level contacts, they must be open to support where necessary and hand it over if the C-level wants to own it. This flexibility provides credibility, when opportunities are discovered.

“This is important because the channel is a very close marketplace – salespeople are well-known and respected within the market. For this reason, personal brand is hugely important… and your perception becomes your legacy! Make it fun and positive!”

Lee Broxson, CSO, Jola, explained the strategies and tactics that he sees as beneficial and detrimental given the changes that have been made to the B2B buying process. He said, “Surveys have shown that when SMEs are buying ICT they: research the web, approach existing suppliers, and ask peers for recommendations. Unsolicited approaches by phone, email or IM are disliked, ineffective and may actually hamper your chances, especially when used in isolation. Your salespeople are your most expensive resource. Stop wasting their time and expertise by forcing them to make hundreds of cold calls, most of which end in failure or rejection.

“For quality run-rate leads you need a five-touch inbound marketing strategy that combines direct mail, social media, PR, SEO and events. For larger prospects you need an account-based marketing programme that integrates the sales and marketing departments. It’s easier to sell to existing customers, so build an effective cross-selling programme using product specialists where justified.”

For Hughes, from Evolve IP, making use of artificial intelligence-assisted tools can be advantageous. He said, “Upskilling is crucial across a wide range of skill sets. At Evolve IP we look at how we can optimise our teams by offering training in some of the basics, such as Excel and Outlook.

“Another element is how we should be embracing AI. I think people are aware of AI tools but not necessarily how to use them and put them into context around the work environment. Social media should also be a big part of a salesperson’s skill set. They should be able to advocate for their brand and hold a conversation easily about what they are selling.”

Being able to structure your meetings and sales processes effectively is a crucial skill. Avery, from Gradwell Communications, said, “Successful salespeople must have a strong structure for their meetings and sales process so that there is clarity for the end customer. This means that the next stages should be clear and well communicated, and that rapport is still effectively built up via remote meetings.

“Questioning is still king for all salespeople. Making sure that every deal is well-qualified and the compelling reasons to change are well-understood. There is an art to effectively getting to a no on some opportunities so that they can prioritise their time on those who will say yes.”

Tapping into opportunities

In terms of the big opportunities across the Channel, many sales professionals in the market bring this back to building and growing strong relationships with customers.

Avery, from Gradwell Communications, said, “Channel sales teams need to build relationships with vendors that are long-term and strategic as opposed to being transactional and focussed on single deals. It’s crucial to define what success looks like over the long-term for both parties, so that you can work toward a common goal that delivers for the end customer.”

Shifts in the technology landscape are also opening new opportunities. Butcher, from Node4, pointed to the cloud as one area that can lead to a new or widened pipeline.

Butcher said, “The biggest opportunity at the moment is certainly in the cloud services and value-added services. We can see this in many providers pivoting their business towards value-based solutions, such as cloud and security. Margins are being squeezed from every angle, so value-added services are so important to the future and longevity of businesses.”

For Tollring’s Hoile, new opportunities can often be found by probing your existing customer base. He said, “The biggest opportunities for partners will vary of course, but any partner can look towards their existing customer base for clues. By adopting a more scientific and strategic approach to better understand existing customers, channel providers can not only uncover fresh avenues to add value and enhance sales within that business, but others like it.

“I suspect, however, that one trend that this approach is likely to reveal is the significant growth in organisations adopting Microsoft Teams Calling to either replace or supplement an existing phone system. We know that the two technologies most requested from companies in this position are contact centre and analytics, and there is a great opportunity for channel providers to deliver on that.

“This is particularly true where Teams Phone services have been added, rather than fully replaced another system, as partners can add a lot of value through holistic, joined up analytics that deliver insights across both new and existing ecosystems.

“Hybrid working is here to stay, but it adds another layer of complexity. Reseller partners need to ensure that any solution can support and report on hybrid working environments with a consistent level of service.”

Sinnott, from Enreach for Service Providers, emphasised the importance of delivering meaningful results for the end customer. He said, “The biggest opportunity lies in supplying a wide range of integrated or related products and services which combine to deliver higher revenue, lower churn, workplace flexibility, and lower operating costs to the end customer. Through these layers of services, with a cumulative higher ARPU, channel players can build greater profit and reduce churn.”

Being able to demo products and solutions is also increasingly important. Avery, from Gradwell Communications, said, “The art of the demo is crucial. Salespeople often only get one opportunity to bring the product to life and align it to the needs of the end customer. Few salespeople excel in this so it offers a point of differentiation against competitors for those who can effectively demo their solutions.

“In addition, salespeople are running more concurrent deals than ever before, so effective deal forecasting and planning is an essential skill. Being able to accurately forecast when a deal will progress, understand what is driving the activity and articulating why the customer should buy from them and not a competitor should be the priority.”

Hughes, from Evolve IP, added, “Upskilling, learning, and sharing knowledge with vendors is a big part of our business. Salespeople don’t need to know everything, but they need to know where to access information and how to develop opportunities. I’d say in the last five years there’s been more change in our industry than in the last 10-15. It’s a constantly evolving arena from collaboration software to hardware and APIs.”

Vendors support

To ensure their partners are able to compete for and win deals despite these challenges, many vendors across the Channel are evolving how they support resellers and MSPs. Butcher, from Node4, said, “Vendors have a huge part to play in supporting MSPs whether that be through incentives, event sponsorship or sharing knowledge. Collaboration will be the key to success for both existing and emerging MSPs.”

Avery, from Gradwell Communications, added, “Vendors can help channel partners understand new market trends and outline how to position opportunities like the PSTN switch-off to their customers. This can be through education, sales training and support with pre-sales and demos.

“As a result, vendors can remove barriers to success by supporting their partners at key stages of the deal cycles, such as making their subject matter experts available for site visits and meetings to help build rapport.”

Jola’s Broxson emphasised the reality that “the biggest waste of your time is the deal you don’t win”. He added, “The best test of a new supplier is conversion rate and margin. Good account managers help you identify and qualify opportunities. They give you the questions to ask to uncover problems and needs and they help you close deals.

“A channel-only vendor growing rapidly with a lot of partners is a good sign because it means their partners are closing lots of large contracts. Most vendors say they have a channel programme but there is little substance behind the fluff. Ask for evidence and references.”

For Evolve IP’s Hughes, this is about ensuring partners have the knowledge they need to advise customers on their options. He said, “Knowledge is power. Round table discussions are a valuable way forward. Time to reflect on market changes is very important. Use cases around where different products fit can get overlooked. It’s a continual learning process for all of us where sales teams need to be inspired and remain hungry for success.”

Vendors can support partner sales by training their partners around use cases. Comms365’s van Bunnens said, “We’d always recommend resellers and MSPs look to their vendors for any available case studies they have to prove the efficacy of their ideas to potential customers. Training on potential use cases is another major factor, and again, best-of-breed vendors will incorporate this within the onboarding process to ensure resellers can hit the ground running.”

Through working in partnership, vendors and their channel partners can succeed together. Sinnott, from Enreach for Service Providers, said, “Vendors need to be true partners with their resellers and MSPs, being with them throughout and after the sales journey, helping them to develop those conversation starters with customers, identify use cases and then match the technology required, not vice versa.

“By having a more open, collaborative attitude to the market, vendors can help their channel partners develop ecosystems that include multiple choice, including their own competitors.”

This article appeared in our January 2024 print issue. You can read the magazine in full here.