Salespeople acquired a stereotype for foot-in-the-door, sell-your-mother-for-a-dollar moral bankruptcy long before Zig Zigler cartwheeled his way into the public consciousness. But if salespeople appear a hardened bunch it’s because they spend their days on the front line. And let’s face it, if salespeople fail, no one gets paid. It’s about time we cleared society’s pedestal of entertainment celebrities, precious artists and fatuous egomaniacs. At long last, it’s time to hail the salesperson!
A well known Australian fitness chain is notorious for its zealous customer retention policy. It might be that you’ve decided you’d rather jog around the block for free than pay to work their treadmill like a rodent. Or perhaps you are simply happy to ease on into the natural dimensions of middle age. But before this particular company will allow you to terminate your gym membership, they force you to jump through all sorts of hoops.
Firstly, you can only depart following a face-to-face meeting with one of the friendly gym ‘representatives’, who make themselves remarkably scarce for the next week or two. Then, a sprightly young member of the opposite sex comes bouncing into the room with a clipboard and a disarming smile. Stories abound of people who have entered that room with stoic resolve to terminate their membership, only to emerge with a sheepish grin, a membership upgrade and a T-shirt that says, “Fitness is a state of mind!”
Why does this gym channel such a significant chunk of its resources into retaining existing customers? Because selling to new customers is hard! It’s much harder than wooing existing customers. There aren’t too many greater vocational challenges than attempting to convince strangers to part with their hard earned cash.
And yet selling makes the modern world go around, just as it has in markets and bazaars since time immemorial. The more frequently people are subjected to the hard sell, the greater their level of immunity to it and the more difficult it is to cut through, even with a great product. Oh yes, selling is an art, and Australians are particularly difficult potential customers. We have an inbuilt cynicism towards professional spruikers. Let’s call it our ‘bullshit radar’ (usually set on ‘high’).
The line runs something like this: ‘Why should I believe you when you say that your product is better than any other? Aren’t you just saying that because it’s your job? If you switched jobs tomorrow to sell for your competitor, wouldn’t you then try to convince me, with a straight face, that that product is the best on the market? You’re a mercenary? Why should I trust a mercenary with a silver tongue? Get out of my face.’
It can make for a tough day at the office.
OLD DOG’S TRICKS
Every year for the past two decades, a Gallup poll has asked a sample of Americans to rate how they feel about various professions. And every year, salespeople are rated on or near the bottom, rubbing shoulders with those other collective purveyors of truth, politicians and tabloid journalists.
So how did it come to this? George Gallup, who invented market research, was once the colleague and mentor of Australian thinker Michael Hewitt- Gleeson. Hewitt-Gleeson is adamant that the public’s lowly regard of salespeople is anchored in its perception of traditional ‘evangelical’ selling techniques.
“Here’s a profession that hasn’t even been able to sell itself to its customers, let alone its products or services,” says Hewitt-Gleeson. “It’s essentially based on an old fashioned religious approach – I’m right and you’re wrong, I’ll convert the sinner and close the sale.
“Until very recently,” he continues, “I’d never found one company in the world that had an R&D department in its sales division. The mentality is: we know what selling is; you make an appointment, do a presentation, answer objections and close the sale. That’s the only possible way of doing it, so if it doesn’t work we’ll just fire the salesperson and hire a new one.”
Hewitt-Gleeson travels the world holding seminars for companies and sales teams that are interested in exploring new approaches to selling. The central tenet of his ‘NewSell’ philosophy is that a salesperson can’t close a sale; only the customer can close the sale.
“I prefer to work with companies and teams that have an open mind about changing their selling techniques,” he says. “But when I do find myself in front of salespeople from, say, the motor or insurance industries, I develop provocative concepts to try and shock them away from their dogma. Instead of going into the whole science of why it is not possible for a salesperson to close the sale, I offer $100,000 for anyone who can produce any evidence whatsoever that a salesperson can close the sale. No one has ever been able to claim the reward because there is no evidence. It stumps them to a level where you can have a reasoned discussion. Of course, a lot of people don’t want to know. They’d rather burn you at the stake than change their mind.”
DEVIL IN THE DETAIL
One of the great things about selling is that it is highly measurable. When things aren’t working, it’s plain for all to see. But what if the individual’s selling technique is not really at fault. What if our hypothetical salesperson would make it onto Hewitt-Gleeson’s dream team, yet problems still abound?
Even the best salesperson can discover much of their hard work undone by failures of system. A good example is data management. Imagine if you pulled off a miracle by wooing a notoriously recalcitrant prospect from a position of muted hostility to the doorstep of clienthood. Then, for some inexplicable reason, that prospect slams the door in your face and disappears back into the shadows. You’re mystified, only to discover that their contact details were entered incorrectly and they didn’t receive vital correspondence, or worse, received correspondence intended for someone else (maybe even their competition!).
Only four percent of organisations have a single champion responsible for data accuracy, according to research by Australian data quality software company, QAS. This means that data accuracy is almost always seen as being someone else’s responsibility. And the qualities that make a good salesperson – charisma, networking ability, opportunity identification, etc. – are not usually in synch with those of a good data manager.
QAS research also reveals that most businesses average only 70 percent data accuracy. The company’s CEO, Glenn Parker, asserts that their flagship product, QuickAddress, brings that figure up to 95 percent. QuickAddress plugs into virtually every CRM and data-capturing environment and supplies a series of prompts when an address field is being entered. Each field gives a number of auto-complete possibilities based on the data that has already been entered and geographical context.
According to Parker: “The thing about data is that it is an invisible item. Everyone uses it, no one is really responsible for it and it’s easy to ignore. If only one or two data problems arise in a day, it’s not a big enough issue to have a board meeting about. But when you add up all the issues that arise, suddenly it becomes a significant problem.”
HORSES FOR COURSES
The point about salespeople performing a range of duties to which they are not particularly suited is intriguing and largely unexplored territory. If your all-star salesperson is a bit of a poodle, accustomed to the finer things in life (prestige car, expensive suits, someone else’s credit card), then why have them inputting data or writing proposals or performing any other element of the sales process that is not especially aligned with their acknowledged strengths.
Justin Roff-Marsh is founder of Ballistix, a company that applies the division of labour principle in its core service offering – ‘sales process engineering’.
“The special skills that a salesperson has should be deployed where they produce a benefit,” says Roff-Marsh. “When you pay a salesperson $100,000 a year for their special skills, you are only getting a return on those special skills when they are sitting face-to-face with potential customers. We don’t want salespeople doing literature fulfilment, data entry, writing proposals, financial reports or all of those other activities that don’t provide any return on their special skills. We want them face-to-face with customers negotiating transactions.”
Naturally, Ballistix targets executive management, and despite some early wariness to cede any control on the part of salespeople whose sales process is being ‘engineered’, Roff-Marsh says they quickly get over it when they see evidence of increased sales and they are released from performing tasks that they never liked in the first place. It is a ‘horses for courses’ approach that requires discipline and efficiency on the part of the company for success (no good salesperson will give up control of their selling process if the void will is not filled to satisfaction). But managed well, it yields results.
THE GLOBAL VILLAGE
Globalisation, and particularly the advent of the internet, has made the marketplace more dynamic than ever before. Long gone are the days when companies could corner their local market by being the first mover and grow plump on the market advantage that geographic placement bestowed.
Salespeople need to be more adaptable, think more laterally and penetratingly into the future than could ever have been imagined a mere generation ago.
“Painfully few companies, sales forces or individual sellers have recognised how dramatically their market has changed,” says James Fennessy, CEO of Huthwaite Asia Pacific, global sales coaches and advisors.
The internet has brought a profound change in consumer education over the past five or six years. Today, most customers don’t need to leave their armchairs to become savvy analysts of global market opportunities.
“Salespeople now have to help customers understand challenges and problems they may not realise they have; help them see opportunities and help them put together solutions they could not devise on their own,” says Fennessy.
For most businesses, salespeople are still where the rubber meets the road. The bulk of any given company’s revenue is still derived from the success of its foot soldiers in placing the product or service in the hands and minds of willing buyers.
Michael Hewitt-Gleeson sums it all up with an eloquent spin on the old adage, ‘The customer is always right’.
“The paradox is that for a salesperson to be successful, the emphasis should not be on the salesperson… it should be on the customer. In a sense, your headline should not be ‘All hail the salesperson!’ It should be ‘All hail the customer!’ But I suppose that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”
Paul Ryan is editor of Australian Anthill.
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Sales books will tell you to wear a navy suit with a red tie, because this ‘look’ is supposed to convey strength and attract the gaze of potential clients and customers. However, the popularity of these books and the almost zealous willingness of sales professionals to follow instruction to improve sales performance (and make greater commissions) has created a world where this ‘look’ has become almost synonymous with selling, sending out a red-flag to potential clients or customers.
According to professional image coach Jon-Michail, salespeople need to demonstrate credibility, with personality. “Dress smart but don’t be a cliché. Navy suits do work better than black, because navy is a friendlier tone – but think outside the norm and choose something different – maybe a French navy. Use colourful tie or personal cufflinks to attract attention, but please avoid cartoon characters or novelty patterns at all cost!”
|FIVE ‘COMMON SENSE’ TIPS FOR SELLING
When you are on a roll, keep rolling. Just because you close a big sale, that’s no reason to slack off. It’s a lot easier to do a good job when things are going well. Ride the high and you will find that your enthusiasm is infectious.
On tools for selling, Michael Hewitt-Gleeson is fond of a Christopher Columbus analogy.
Once Columbus decided that the world wasn’t fl at but round, he didn’t need to return to admiral school to relearn how to navigate or tie knots. He simply used the skills and tools he already had to sail away from shore rather than up and down the coast.
For Hewitt-Gleeson, the key to selling – like sailing – is strategy, not tactics. His new book, ‘WOMBAT Selling’ (Word Of Mouth Buy And Sell), focuses on harnessing the power of word of mouth for commercial gain.