How Has Selling Changed Since The Nineties?

Published: 05th May 2006
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How Has Selling Change Since The Nineties?

by Jonathan Farrington

The traditional customer call once seemed indispensable to the selling process; the time and expense involved were just a basic cost of doing business. In recent years, however, the business community has come to regard the sales call as an expenditure for which there are substitutes. For many companies telemarketing and direct mail have made the sales call a choice not an inevitability. This is not surprising when various studies suggest that getting one sales person in front of one customer now costs 500 - this cost has trebled since 1983. As a consequence professional salespeople have to be more effective than ever to justify the investment in a face to face effort.

To help companies meet this challenge we need to examine how outstanding achievers have adopted to the rigorous demands of current markets.

In essence we can draw seven primary conclusions and taken together these findings paint a picture of the current state of the sales environment.

Customer Focus Creates Competitive Advantage

The one term that sets top performers apart - customer focus

Outstanding sales results depend on -

- The ability to think from the customer's point of view

- Understanding and responding to the customer's agenda,

Buying cycle and best interests

Beyond a superficial reading of immediate customer needs, salespeople must gain a deeper understanding of both the buyer's long-term goals and the overall business climate

At the heart of customer focus is the art of listening constructively - the best salespeople are masters at capturing information

Customer focus means taking the customer seriously - to-day the salesperson who clings to the product orientation of a decade ago is losing ground

As client companies branch into new markets and unfamiliar territories they are demanding unique, flexible solutions from their vendors - customised to support specific goals

Another myth which can be exploded is that whilst customers value flexibility, being too flexible can undermine the sales relationship. On the whole salespeople imagine that customers value a vendor's responsiveness above all. However recent research shows that their primary concern is reliability.

In summary, in order to maintain customer focus the best salespeople become facilitators, creating a partnership that extends the selling relationship within the customer's company. The motivation to achieve this should be strong - it costs five times as much to attract and sell to a new customer as it does to an existing one!

The right to do business has to be earned and never assumed

Rather than doggedly asking for the business, the very best sales people work to keep the relationship moving towards a sale. They realise the need to identify how to turn their company's products into real solutions which must meet specific needs.

Unfortunately our surveys confirm that the average salesperson drags the customer over old ground as much as 52% of the time - they are unable to provide continuous stimulation and never know when to treat an existing customer like a new one.

Conversely, exceptional salespeople only make such 'return' calls for 10% of the time. Above all, earning the right to proceed requires gaining the customer's trust and top salespeople work diligently to establish a climate in which the customer is willing to share information and feels comfortable doing so. The key here is integrity.

Customers are persuaded when they are part of the process and not part of the audience

Sales success to-day demands a radical shift from the 'peddler' mentality of merely demonstrating products and expanding on their features. It requires treating the customer as a participant. More often than not, a 'flashy' sales presentation alone alienates rather than persuades

The best salespeople regard the sales call as a two-way conversation - not a one sided pitch. They have developed active listening skills Average salespeople score fairly well in their ability to provide customers with facts and figures, but top performers dramatically outscore the rest when it comes to gathering information. In addition, how a salesperson collects information still distinguishes exceptional achievers from the rest of the pack. I.e. top performers ask better questions and as a result gain much better information essentially they aim to engage customers in the buying process with questions that require thoughtful answers, that stimulate curiosity and that reveal the customers underlying needs

Businesses need to re-define selling and what contributes basic selling skills

In to-day's world of selling, there is less and less room for apprenticeship. Selling has become an exclusive club of highly skilled professionals where product knowledge and time management skills for instance, are the cost of membership not leadership.

Ongoing research demonstrates that to-day's 'average' salesperson is just as effective as the high performer in explaining features and benefits effectively, relating a service or product to customer needs and closing a sale. But, above this Level 1 plateau of competence, the exceptional salesperson is busy defining the "basic skills of tomorrow".

Building an up-to-date foundation in sales competence does mean sacrificing some old notions of what it takes to succeed in a competitive marketplace. For example a salesperson can no longer just "win by knowing". Every company needs to test their assumptions about what skills really contribute to sales success. Too often operating on old sales theories means training and rewarding people to do the wrong things.

Research also confirms that top 5% achievers are not necessarily those with the greatest product knowledge and yet in excess of 60% of all training budget is spent on product training

When the buyer and seller act as partners they are building a bridge to profitability

Successful selling is definitely not about the "hit and run" sale. Sales achievers regard their relationship with key customers as a partnership and cultivate it as such. When customers face tough business challenges and complex technological choice, they rely on sales people who can assist them in making the right decisions.

The primary objective of a sales partnership has to be to create and sustain a mutually productive relationship which serves the needs of both parties, now and in the future. The key word here is symbiotic. Partnership does not mean eliminating the tension between buyer and seller; it means that top-performing salespeople know how to strike a balance between achieving immediate results and developing the relationship fully.

Strategic selling begins in the boardroom

In most industries to-day, a handful of ideal customers have become universal targets. Nearly every industrial salesperson dreams of calling on the CEO's or managing directors of those top companies, which logically means that there are maybe 500 customers for a million sellers. With such intense competition, conventional approaches are not equal to the challenge. Salespeople need to develop strategies that distinguish their products, services and their organisations in the mind of the customer.

Making a sale has always involved an element of systematic planning but strategic selling means more than rehearsing product information and timing the close. Strategic selling begins with understanding your company's strategy, vision, and distinctiveness, and then selecting high profile customers

The next step, logically, is anticipating each stage of the buying process, from analysing the competition to identifying the influencers and decision-makers, and being switched in to the buyer's political issues. In other words, there is a need for a comprehensive strategic profile and rigorous opportunity assessment process.

Most important, strategic selling means strategising from the customer's point of view. Top achievers see strategic selling as a routine part of their work - not a final resort

What are the implications for sales management?

For companies to remain competitive now, their sales organisation must be able to respond positively to changing economic tides. As businesses strive to establish customer orientation, sales partnerships and a strategic approach to selling, they are demanding more and more from their salespeople but ensuring that these new methods are widely practised and smoothly implemented falls to sales management

Building productivity

Sales productivity is a strategic issue. That's why problems in this area stem from salespeople being unclear about their company's priorities i.e. what their message should be and what they should be selling.

The trend in industry of removing layers of management between the sale force and the general manager presents a challenge to those sales managers who remain. To begin with, the sales manager becomes an essential link between company strategy and what takes place in the customer's office. He or she must not only grasp the corporate vision but be able to communicate it to the sales force in terms of the real effects on sales practices

Creating direction

Sales managers with an intimate feel for the selling process succeed because their staff regard them as part of the sales team but coaching the team is as important as playing in it. In other words, sales managers must be prepared to provide training, feedback and support to every individual within the team.

Once committed to the training process, they must routinely reinforce new ways of behaving in real sales situations. They must provide a clear sense of direction on a daily basis, not just at the monthly sales meeting / quarterly review / annual appraisal

The very best sales managers engage in frequent coaching and feedback, even when their sales people work in remote locations. While encouraging salespeople to air their problems openly and discuss their concerns, sales managers must be able to offer clear and specific feedback for improving sales performance

Rewarding change

The sales manager is charged with translating the company's reward system into specific improvements in sales performance. Both salespeople and corporate managers count on the sales manager to recognise and reward outstanding achievement, formally and informally.

The process of promoting new attitudes about the customer and the role of the salesperson can be frustrating and slow. Reverting back to recent research there is compelling evidence to suggest that companies will see results sooner if they recognise and reward salespeople - "you get more of the behaviour and results that you reward".

The trend in sales compensation appears to be away from commission to guaranteed salary, from compensation based on orders to compensation based on delivery and sign-off. Interestingly some organisations we know base their 'salesperson of the year' award on the basis of customer satisfaction or customer retention rather than sheer volume of orders or activity

Why Do We Need A Fresh Approach To Selling?

Many organisations have developed without objective analysis of their purpose and structure the buying power in many industries is no longer evenly distributed - in a large number of markets a few big firms control the majority of purchases

The development of new marketing techniques has meant that some tasks traditionally performed by the sales team can be more effectively handled by other methods. The prime objective of all sales staff is to gain business. From an organisational point of view, however, how they all achieve their goals must be defined in order to identify what kind and the quality of skills are required

Summary And Now the Good News

It is now a given fact in any sales-related seminar or conference you may attend that traditional sales methods are being relegated to the annals of history. The new, more discerning customers of today have seen to that. They now wield greater bargaining power, demand more value for money and have become more knowledgeable and professional when it comes to decision-making. Suppliers are now faced with rising customer expectations and the need to become more flexible to the requirements of each individual client. Yet the key to differentiation lies within these expectations since more complex buying decisions lead customers to value closer links with their suppliers

Jonathan Farrington is a business coach, mentor, author and consultant, who has helped hundreds of companies and thousands of individuals around the world achieve their full potential and consequently, optimum performance levels.

The moral right of the author Jonathan Farrington has been asserted.All rights reserved.

This publication or any part thereof may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording, storage in an information retrieval system or otherwise, unless this copyright statement is retained

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