The Changing Face of Sales for Small-Business Owners

Salesforce EVP Tony Rodoni on managing strong customer relationships in the digital age.

The Changing Face of Sales for Small-Business Owners

Most sales leaders would agree: It’s a rapidly changing world, and the rate of change is only increasing. Tony Rodoni, who has spent 11 years leading small-business sales at Salesforce, has seen a dramatic shift over the past decade in how sales teams build relationships and connect with customers.


“In sales, nothing is more important than your relationship with the customer,” says Rodoni, executive vice president of SMB sales at Salesforce. “When I was starting out, we built those relationships by getting out of the office and getting to know them personally—wining and dining them, if necessary. I laugh about that now. I can’t remember the last time I played golf during work hours or when a customer even had time to hit the back nine.”

Tony Rodoni, Executive Vice President for the Commercial Business Unit at Salesforce

Today, building close customer relationships matter as much, if not more, than ever. But increasingly they’re supported by powerful digital platforms—rather than expense accounts and power lunches.

Here’s Rodoni’s take on the evolution of sales, and how technology can connect the dots for small businesses as they scale.

Over the course of your career, how have you seen the role of the salesperson change?

Thanks to the internet, buyers are more educated than ever before. They don’t have to go through a salesperson to get basic education about products. In the past, if you wanted to buy a dishwasher, you had to go to a department store and ask a salesperson questions. Now, customers know more than vendors do—all because of the ability to research the internet and browse through social media.

Today’s salespeople have to assume their clients already know basic product information, and instead want someone to help them draw a line between the product and the impact it can have on their businesses. They want salespeople who understand their problems and can help determine the best solution for them.


How does this increased access to information affect the way customers approach choosing products?

While the internet has made it easier for customers to become more educated, we’ve found something counterintuitive: B2B sales cycles are actually lengthening instead of shortening. We suspect that’s because, with more information available, customers take more time to learn about products and become an expert. Buyers today have virtually unlimited information and are trying to synthesize all of it.

That includes peer recommendations. Today’s hyperconnected consumers use their social networks to get recommendations—from both friends and strangers. It makes the success you’re having with existing customers more important than ever. These customers will share their opinions and drive referrals. That’s why at Salesforce, the success of our customers is our key focus. They’re a multiplier effect for sales.

And it works both ways. In the past, one unhappy customer wasn’t that visible. Now, they are—or they can be. Just one unhappy customer can make a big dent in your business.

As small businesses grow, what’s their biggest challenge in maintaining relationships with customers?

When companies are just starting out, employees need to wear many hats. After a company gets a little bigger, it starts to differentiate between sales and service. This is a common mistake among growing businesses. It creates a disconnect where the salespeople don’t see what the service people are doing, and vice versa.


If you’re a new salesperson and the first thing you say to a client is, “Can you take me through all your history with us?”—that customer will get frustrated. We see small businesses struggle when they don’t have what we call 360-degree customer views, where everyone can see every interaction the company has had with a customer.

When a salesperson has a complete picture of the relationship, the customer gets a much better experience. Especially today, when 80% of companies’ revenues typically come from existing customers.

How are small and medium-size businesses overcoming this disconnect?

Small and medium-size businesses have an advantage here. Overcoming the disconnect is hard to do when you’re a big, multimillion-dollar company because you already have infrastructure in place. It’s much easier for small companies, without existing systems in the way, to keep everything connected.

Many small-business entrepreneurs have worked at bigger companies before starting their own ventures. They often say some version of this to me: “I saw where we got disconnected as we grew. I saw where we put in systems that didn’t scale. I saw when sales and service weren’t aligned. And I’m not going to let that happen here.”

When they start their new companies, they plan ahead and remove complexity by using a single, scalable system they can grow with from the very beginning.


Looking around the corner, what do you see as the next transformation in the way that companies approach sales?

One trend will be eliminating the order processor–type sales role, as more consultative sales roles become highly valued. Customers don’t want you to push products; they want you to understand their problems and suggest the right solutions. You need to become a doctor of sales: Diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution.

As far as the technology goes, artificial intelligence (AI) will play a huge role in moving sales from a system of record to a system of automation and recommendation. AI can guide sellers through the process, telling them who to call, who to engage with, where to connect the dots. It puts those basics right into the system.

This article was paid for and commissioned by Salesforce.

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