How to make salespeople more effective

April 11, 2011
The challenge for salespeople is to be ahead of the curve, not behind it, says author John Graham.

By John Graham

Not withstanding the value that many salespeople bring to their customers, the profession of selling is under the gun. There have always been those who have decried the existence of salespeople, describing them as an unnecessary evil.

If we want to buy a car, an insurance policy, or just about anything else, there is an intermediary — a salesperson — standing between our purchase and us. At best, a salesperson is interested, knowledgeable, responsive, and helpful. At worst, the person is totally self-absorbed, uninformed, and untruthful.

Unfortunately, the latter is the picture of selling today for many customers, and while it’s certainly nothing new, there’s little indication that this will change anytime soon. If anything, these criticisms may become worse unless salespeople accept the fact that customers are truly in charge of the sales process.

1. Customers expect to be their own salespeople.
At one time or another, just about every customer has taken a salesperson’s advice, only to regret it. Getting burned — perhaps it would be more accurate to say betrayed — makes buyers suspicious of what they’re told. While this may seem like an an easy problem to solve, it may be the most daunting issue facing salespeople today.

Clearly, the Internet is taking many sales out of the hands of salespeople. It’s an education in what great salesmanship is all about, and leading the way in that education is makes it easy for customers to be their own salespeople. In fact, the buying experience is actually enjoyable: placing orders is easy (particularly with the instantaneous “one-click” button), there is plenty of information and reviews available, returns and refunds are uncomplicated and fast, customer communication is extraordinary, delivery is often ahead of schedule, and product recommendations arrive based on your buying habits. And, of course, the customer is always in charge.

2. Customers like to play. Ironically, one of Apple’s greatest homeruns isn’t electronic. At least this is the view of the company’s CEO, Steve Jobs, who said at the introduction of the iPad 2 that Apple’s retail stores played a major role in the immense success of the first iPad. The world’s leading technology company is expanding its bricks-and-mortar presence, making it a homerun.

While many retailers struggle, Apple continues to open new stores the world over, where customers are encouraged to play with the products, ask for help, and interact with the Apple folks. You’ll never find “Do Not Touch” signs in an Apple store.

Unlike other retail stores, Apple stores not only make it easy to see what’s going on (huge front windows made of special anti-glare glass), but they are welcoming places where customers love to shop. The “salespeople” help rather than sell.

There are no gatekeepers in an Apple store. No matter your age, you can just go in and start playing with an iPad, iPod, or other Apple product. Even so, it’s not uncommon for some customers to ask permission before they try something. They remember visiting stores with mom, who always reminded them to keep their hands to themselves.
Clearly, Apple understands that today’s customers want to enjoy the buying experience

3. Crank up communication, not the sales pitches. Top salespeople have long taken pride in being effective persuaders. However, if the truth were known, most people in sales are probably best at talking their way out of getting orders.

For example, walking through a major home appliance store is like walking through a cemetery. The ranges, refrigerators, washers, dryers, and dishwashers are all lined up neatly one row after another. It’s all very dull.

After awhile a salesperson may come along and ask customers if they have questions. They may get the facts, but chances are they’ll completely miss the experience of the refrigerator. They can see it, but that’s all. What counts is what the fridge does to add convenience and enjoyment to life.

What if the refrigerator manufacturer gave iPads to the salespeople, with brief videos of consumers using their refrigerators and talking about their product? Customers could see it come alive. How much more compelling that would be than listening to a salesperson, even a good one, talk about the refrigerator in the cemetery-like setting of the showroom.

Would the right technology, such as an iPad, help increase customer involvement? Would it make products more compelling? Most importantly, would it produce more orders?

What are the implications for salespeople in all this? What message does it send to those who want to be successful in sales?

• Stop looking in the rearview mirror for answers. They’re not behind us; they’re in front.

• With so much information available on the Internet, today’s customers are often better informed than the salespeople who are supposed to be helping them.

• Customers won’t tolerate a salesperson getting paid who, in their estimation, fails to provide meaningful value.

• The days are gone when wearing a suit is the major prerequisite for salespeople, as well as the idea that by looking successful, customers will think the salesperson actually is successful.

• All aspiring salespeople should be required to work in retail and be evaluated by their customers, and stay there until they get excellent ratings.

• People can get in sales without passing anything other than an aptitude test, if that. Sales may be the one anti-knowledge profession, which may be why so many people drop out.

• The best education for becoming a salesperson is to be trained as an investigator, where one is forced to be attentive to the facts, listen, and focus on solving problems.

• Failure to follow up contributes to most lost sales.

• Many salespeople are most successful in talking themselves out of getting the order.

• Salespeople mistakenly attribute their success to their salesmanship or customer relationships, when really it’s that the customer is ready to make the purchase.

• “How much is this rug?” asks a customer. “The rug is $1,795,” replies the salesperson. “That’s too much,” responds the customer. “OK, I can give it to you for 50% off,” says the salesperson. What should the customer do? Get out fast. The salesperson lacks integrity.

• New salespeople should not be partnered with those who are more experienced. That’s often a perfect way to perpetuate bad habits and incompetence.

• The biggest mistake salespeople make is trying to sell something. The right mission is to solve a problem for a customer.

• Too many salespeople depend on their mouth as their favorite tool for getting the order. They want to win sales with words, not by satisfying their customers.

This is the environment in which most salespeople find themselves. In many respects, it’s confusing and frustrating, very different from just a couple of years ago.

A short time ago, an article about sales appeared in a well-respected publication. It extolled the benefits of using technology in selling. Although it mentioned tablet computing, specifically the iPad, the overall focus was on smart phones.

With so much news extolling the immense opportunities for salespeople using iPads, the emphasis on smart phones seemed strangely out of sync, and frankly, dated. Yet it points out the challenge for salespeople to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing, and sales issues. Contact him at 40 Oval Road, Quincy, MA 02170, 617-328-0069, [email protected], or visit his website at