By John Graham
Understandably, the pressure to improve sales performance is very real, both for salespeople and sales managers. Reducing sales costs while maintaining proper customer service is a continuing and challenging business exercise.
Finding ways to use the Internet to facilitate the sales process is certainly a priority. At the top of any list is what can be called sales communication, the task of making it possible for salespeople to stay in close contact with their customers so that no customer is left behind.
While corporate America has come up with the term "relationship manager" to describe this experience, it's possible that "customer manager" is even more descriptive. Although it is less "touchy-feely," it suggests that the salesperson's role is to implement a wide array of tactics to grow a book of business.
For this to occur, it may be helpful for salespeople to reconfigure both their thinking and their practices in specific ways:
1. Move away from "it's up to me" to "it's up to us." Closing the deal is the salesperson's symbol of success. It's coming home with "the big one." It's the measure of one's sales prowess. "I'll take care of it myself; I don't trust anyone else," is the mantra.
Team selling is an attempt to move from a "me" to an "us" approach. While it's certainly helpful, it seems to miss the mark.
First American Insurance Underwriters, Inc., a life insurance and annuities wholesale brokerage firm, sees the winning formula as a combination of a salesperson's in-depth experience and the company's specialized expertise, particularly when dealing with complex financial issues. One is not more important than the other; it takes both.
In other words, the myth of the salesperson as lone hunter is gone, even though many have difficulty putting it out of their minds.
2. Become an extension of the customer. The Internet is having a formidable impact on sales, and not only as a distribution channel. BI (Before Internet), the "bond" between salesperson and customer was primarily a "relationship," a quality that most salespeople continue to believe is totally crucial to their success, and something the company they work for should treat with the utmost respect. In other words, any and all dealings with the customer must go through the salesperson.
With the advent of the Internet, that not only changed, it ended. A decade ago, those salespeople made it clear their customers wanted to "talk to a live person." Those words aren't heard much today. Because buyers have learned they can depend on the Internet to perform up to our expectations, they use it as an actual extension of themselves. The fading of "paper back-up" is just one indication of this trust.
What does this mean in terms of the salesperson's "relationship" with customers? More and more customers may be measuring a salesperson's value against their online experience. This means they expect the salesperson to serve as an extension of themselves.
This poses an interesting question: Are men or women best prepared to meet this challenge? Ramon Avila, the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Marketing at Ball State University in Indiana, indicates that the scales may be weighted toward women. "In sales, you have to be really people oriented," he states. "You have to listen and understand the client's wants and needs. If you can empathize with what they are going through, you are going to do well in sales. Women are generally better at that than most men."
The salesperson's value is in being an extension of the customer.
3. Move beyond product knowledge. Again, before the Internet, and more particularly before Google, salespeople were the primary source of product knowledge. They were necessary because they held the keys in their hands. Finding the right information is only nanoseconds away today.
Equally important is the fact that software is simplifying all types of products. On a recent evening, only one person showed up at an Apple store for a class on using the iPhone! More and more products are becoming intuitive.
What customers need — whether b2c or b2b — is how to maximize the benefits of what they buy — what can they do with it that will improve their lives, make them more successful, or increase their income? Where salespeople generally stopped in the past is just the beginning today.
4. Never dispose of prospective customers. "When you conclude that you don't want to spend more time working on a prospect, what do you do with the information?" was the question the marketing consultant asked the salesperson. "I keep the information on file. I have to move on," was the answer. Most salespeople can relate to this scenario.
Although there are prospects that never become customers, there are others who will. The salesman was clearly surprised to hear from me. "It's been several years since we talked," he commented when calling back. "Well, you kept in touch and the time came when we can use your help," I responded.
We never want to make a mistake when a buying decision needs to be made, so we tend to rely on resources we already feel comfortable with instead of venturing into uncharted waters. Ironically, these can often be the easiest sales — the customer is ready to buy and price can become quite secondary.
What's so interesting about these situations is how pleased — even excited — these late blooming prospects are to be placing an order. It's almost as if they are finally repaying an overdue debt for the time and effort that has been invested in them.
5. Become marketing-driven. It may seem that the words "marketing-driven" and "salesperson" are incompatible. What has someone in sales got to do with marketing?
The answer is found in what is happening in sales. Every salesperson is expected to accomplish more today, and that's a trend that will undoubtedly continue to accelerate, particularly as competition continues to intensify.
Few salespeople are able to successfully manage their book of business — unless they become marketers. Many are being handed larger territories, while others are having the size of their territories reduced. Still others are being given additional lines of business. Inevitably, the strategy is to focus on the biggest customers and the best prospects and to neglect the rest.
When asked about this situation, the response is almost always, "I've just been so busy, I haven't had time to get to them." Unfortunately, this is becoming an untenable answer.
The goal of the marketing-driven salesperson is not to meet with or even to speak with every possible prospect or customer. Some require regular direct contact, either by phone or in person. The majority, however, can be "touched," at least monthly, with email bulletins that offer new ideas, concepts, and solutions (not just more product information), and that encourage recipients to respond.
The goal of this marketing strategy is three-fold: 1) to demonstrate that the salesperson is a valuable resource; 2) to give the recipient the opportunity to respond immediately; 3) to create a stream of sales over time. While you are working on immediate sales and leads, the marketing effort is working in the background. In effect, a marketing-driven approach is not simply to "get the message out," but, more importantly, to constantly connect with both customers and prospects in a way that helps them recognize the salesperson's value.
You may notice that nothing has been said about "sales techniques," a subject for which there are literally tens of thousands of websites, which hold out the elusive allure of instant success.
Will Pike, the hero of William Martin's historical novel, The Lost Constitution, could have been speaking to salespeople when he talked to his family about their lives and their Massachusetts mill: "We might be dreamers, but we have to be doers, too. So we get up in the morning, we go to work, and we solve our problems."
In the final analysis, it's the doing that makes the difference in sales.
John R. Graham, the author of The New Magnet Marketing and Break the Rules Selling, writes for a variety of business publications, and speaks on business, marketing, and sales topics for company and association meetings.