How to Achieve Sales Success in the Age of Buyer Complexity

By Henry Canaday
The headshot of Spencer Wixom

You could say that Spencer Wixom – the new CEO of the sales training company The Brooks Group – has been around the block. In fact, Spencer has been around enough blocks that he has a unique perspective not only on sales training, but also on what it takes to succeed in B2B sales.

During college, Spencer expected to be a lawyer. So, before his senior year, he landed an internship at the United States Supreme Court. One of his jobs was to research and write about the art that hangs in the Justices’ chambers. As he puts it, “I learned I couldn’t understand (let alone craft) good legal arguments, but I could convince Justice Ginsberg to appreciate the Rothko hanging on her wall.” Sales job number one.

He went back to school, switched his emphasis to business, and started working part-time in radio sales. Sales job number two.

After school, he moved into investment banking and started writing pitch books – “rolling up smaller businesses into larger businesses,” he explains. Sales job number three.

The next block was real estate, where Spencer had to persuade farmers or other landowners to sell him their property so he could develop it into residential uses. Sales job number four.

Always agile, Spencer then joined researchers at the Corporate Executive Board (CEB, now part of Gartner) in analyzing data to understand how global sales forces performed. Sales job number five.

“I began to realize that every job I’ve been in in my life – to some degree or another – has been a sales job,” he says.

His big conclusions after all this experience? Sales professionals have to understand customers and begin providing them value as soon as possible. Training them to do so requires sales trainers to understand sellers better.

The Brooks Group itself is a Selling Power Top Sales Training Company that helps sales leaders with hiring new sales reps, training reps in a wide variety of skills, and assisting with sales leadership and sales coaching. The company has been training sales teams for more than four decades. Its core training program is called IMPACT Selling, and the approach is firmly based on data and scientific analysis – along with years of observing what the best sellers do.

Today’s Training Needs

While four decades of experience is impressive, sales changes. So what does effective sales training require today? “I think there are three ways that we really need to appreciate salespeople right now differently than we have in the past,” Spencer says.

First, due to the pandemic and changes in buyer behavior, reps must communicate and behave differently. Relying heavily on sales technology and AI, many sellers are engaging and influencing prospects less and spending more time on analysis. Wixom argues, “Although these tools can be powerful productivity boosters, we can’t let the human-to-human skills of questioning, engaging, and influencing buyers atrophy. Sellers need to feel confident and capable in interacting with prospects and customers or we won’t see any benefit from just having more contacts to engage.”

The second big change is in what motivates sellers to succeed. Instead of chasing big goals just to maximize income and be at the top of the leaderboard, more reps are looking for unique and engaging experiences and bringing balance and harmony to their lives. Companies need to understand how their reps “are wired” and how that wiring has changed, in Spencer’s phrase, or they won’t get peak performance out of them.

Thirdly, Spencer thinks companies are now spending less effort to understand their sales reps’ mindset and mental clarity. “We need to find ways to develop and strengthen personal skills. There are outside forces weighing on a seller’s ability to solve problems, handle conflict, and be resilient and productive. We can lighten this load, but we need to assess where each seller is at and give them tailored coaching to get stronger.”

Spencer says he was attracted to The Brooks Group precisely due to its ability to deal with these changes in sales and the company’s capability to assess where reps are in communication, motivation, and personal skills.

Technology in Sales

This focus on individual and personal qualities does not mean ignoring technology. “There’s a lot of great sales technology out there right now that allows for pattern recognition, that helps improve the scale and the detail of our investigation; but, at the end of the day, there are certain things that human beings can do with human beings that can’t be replaced by machines.”

Spencer foresees a future in which sales reps use technology opportunistically where these tools are effective for certain tasks, while not losing the ability to empathize with, understand, and engage individuals at prospect companies.

And one of the most important human skills that reps need to refocus on now, in Wixom’s view, is asking the right probing questions. “You could call it ‘discovery.’”

Sales professionals understand they must ask open-ended questions and start a dialog to discover strategic insight about prospects. But Spencer believes sellers “need to be more purposeful in digging below the surface to understand what it is that customers want to do in their business, in their life, in their situation, and in their circumstances.”

What Buyers Want

Buyers only buy because they want to do something. And sellers must learn what that “something” is.

Especially as sales reps engage buyers later in the buying cycle, they can assume buyers know what they want to do and, as a result, the seller just reacts to the buy signal. “That’s not working,” Spencer argues. “It’s creating an environment that is full of indecision on the part of the customer and full of just product competition on the part of sellers.”

The Brooks Group CEO says sales reps need the patience and skill to slow things down, dig more deeply, and really understand what the customer wants to do. Only then can a seller effectively align solutions to the buyer’s purpose, including all stakeholders.

The Brooks Group differs from other sales training companies because, from the outset, it is looking at reps’ motivations, behaviors, balance, and clarity of thinking, Spencer says. Its training facilitators and coaches begin by understanding each rep’s needs and how to develop each rep according to their strengths and weaknesses. As a result, each seller understands who they are and how to apply the principles they learn. “We try very hard to create an experience that is without waste – without scrap or anything less effective.”

Follow-up is critical too, and The Brooks Group has an interactive digital library called BrooksUP. The new tool covers all the principles taught in classrooms and offers ongoing micro-learning in an interactive environment that helps sellers master new sales principles. “We use micro-questioning techniques, quizzes, and skill tests over time,” Spencer explains.

The Empowered Manager

The Brooks Group also empowers managers to track each sales rep’s progress to sales excellence. To measure the impact of sales training, the company has developed a Selling Skills Index (SSI) assessment. Reps are given different scenarios in the sales process and asked to choose the first-, second-, third- and fourth-best next step.

The SSI scenarios cover key stages in the sales process – from investigating, meeting, and probing all the way through to resolving objections and closing. It also provides a sales acumen score, based on our unique Sales Acumen Survey, as a reflection of overall sales effectiveness. The SSI questions are given to reps both before and after training, which allows individuals and the organization to track new knowledge and stronger sales intuition among its people.

Spencer says the typical rep increases their sales acumen score by an average of 10% after training and reinforcement. “It’s exciting to see knowledge being created.” This gain means that sales reps really are developing much better intuition on the next best steps to take throughout the sales cycle. “The more sellers strengthen those reasoning and decision-making muscles, the more effective and confident they are in approaching increasingly complex selling situations.”

Continuing to develop these sorts of instincts is especially important now as buyer behavior is changing so rapidly. The Brooks Group monitors these buyer trends as closely as trends in reps’ behavior. And Spencer insists probing skills are one big mismatch between reps’ capabilities and buyers’ needs.

The good news is that the mismatch can be addressed. Reps score an average of 47 on probing in the SSI before Brooks training – and 58 afterwards. “We focused specifically on that, helping them go deep in questioning,” Spencer says. “It moved 10 points up and helped tremendously in strengthening their experience in front of a customer.”

Most important, skill gains translate to sales gains. “We see anywhere between a 10 to 20% improvement in sales performance to quota,” Spencer points out.

Staying Relevant

To stay relevant and train smarter, the company’s instructional designers constantly strive to refine training in and out of the classroom. Live training with an expert facilitator can embed sales principles, but The Brooks Group also looks at other modes, such as video, flash drills, and micro-lessons.

Indeed, combining classroom with other sales training tools boosts sales acumen gains by an average of 9%, and then adding the right sales coaching can increase average gains further to 15%.

“You have a sales coach actually guiding you through that, holding you accountable for it, debriefing it with you,” Spencer explains.

Let’s Chat

Speaking about new tools, what about artificial intelligence and its latest superstar, ChatGPT? Wixom still thinks machines should do what they do best, and people should do what they do best.

He recently asked his sales team to create an email with the message they wanted to engage customers with, along with their own passion. Then Spencer had ChatGPT cut this human email down 30-40%.

And lo and behold, it did a pretty good job. “It actually sounds really good; it’s helping you govern yourself, strip out all the unnecessary things, make the message cleaner and simpler.”

So the Brooks CEO thinks ChatGPT may help refine sales reps’ intuitions and gut instincts. “But customers can tell, behind all the noise and content thrown at them, there is somebody behind all that who cares about improving their business, what they’re trying to achieve, and is interested in helping them do it better.”

In fact, understanding the role of artificial intelligence in sales is much like Wixom’s overall approach to sales training: Understand the sales rep first; then you can understand and persuade the customer. Look for the strengths and weaknesses of each sales rep, focus on the weaknesses, train, reinforce, coach, and measure. Better sales skills, either digital or human, will translate to higher sales.