The specialist versus generalist debate is a decades-old argument with published research dating back to the 1970s. In the past, the prevailing trend leaned toward generalists, the logic being if one has a “jack of all trades” sales team, they can speak to any buyer and not risk losing potential business. Once considered sound logic in the boardroom, today it is laden with issues that can cripple a sales pipeline.
Like many sales exercises, it is prudent to put yourself into the seat of your buyer and see from their perspective. Consider the following scenario: A large company is looking for a new marketing firm. Of their final two selections, both firms are equal in nearly every regard except specialization. Company A has a large and varied portfolio and company B has a similarly large portfolio that is specialized the prospect’s industry. Companies A and B can both get the job done well, but the prospect is going to select the specialized partner over the generalist company 9 times out of ten.
This is because the buyer’s perception is that the specialist is going to have a deeper understanding of their needs and therefore provide more value than the generalist. This holds true at the company level and the sales level. Sales is not only about conveying value, but also about people and relationships. Sales specialists will hold a deeper understanding of the industry and are better able to lend valuable insight to the prospect. This creates an environment that is favorable for nurturing a trusted and meaningful relationship. A sales person that can walk the walk and talk the talk holds far more value for the buyer, and this can be directly linked to increases in sales revenue and retention.
Sales generalists may have an advantage in lead generation. The nature of qualification sales calls is that they do not dive too deep and may not require a significant specialization. Therefore, from an efficiency standpoint, generalists may be more advantageous on the front end of the sales process. In regard to that position, however, it’s very important to keep in mind that in the sales process, the more you can specialize, the greater your closing ratios will be. Prospects want to work with companies that understand them and “get it.” Also, specialization can aid in client retention and further up selling opportunities because of the specific and trusted advice a customer receives from a specialist.
Specialization and personalization has long been a huge trend in the B2C arena, and our prediction is that this enthusiasm for specialization will also grow in the B2B sales world. What are your thoughts on the specialist versus generalist debate?