The selling process most companies follow is out-dated—created for a market that no longer exists. Customers’ buying processes have evolved, and their expectations with regard to their suppliers have increased dramatically.
They now expect salespeople to focus on solutions to their problems, not features and benefits of products. Sales teams must adapt to this new reality in order to achieve sales excellence. And in today’s rapidly changing markets, sales excellence is required in order to stand out from the competition.
We see a close relationship between the customer’s perceptions of the salesperson’s effectiveness and the annual turnover rate (replacement by the competition). Salespeople rated good or very good are being replaced by half of their customers each year! Clearly, just being good or very good is not good enough!
This isn’t so surprising. When the customer decides to buy from salespeople, they expect them to be good or very good. That was one reason why they chose them. When the salesperson delivered a good or very good level of service or product, they were simply meeting the customer’s expectations. The salesperson was simply fulfilling their side of the transaction.
In this environment, every interaction between the customer and the salesperson is viewed transactionally by the customer. The relationship tends to be at arm’s length. Indeed, when the customers were asked to describe the salespeople in this group, they used words like “vendor” and “supplier”. It’s easy to replace suppliers and vendors, especially if price considerations accompany the replacement.
On the other hand, turnover for salespeople rated excellent was minimal—and when it occurred it was due to external events (merger, move, management turnover) unrelated to the salesperson. When asked to describe this group of salespeople, customers used words like: partner, asset, and resource. Clearly, the customers’ perceptions of this group transcended the customer-vendor framework. One does not often replace trusted partners or valuable resources.
Obviously, we all strive to develop trusted relationships with our clients. But this is difficult—especially when only 34 percent of Americans believe that other people can be trusted.
The question then becomes; what can a sales organization do to achieve sales excellence? Here are three suggestions:
1. Train the sales force to succeed in the new market environment. Training must become a top priority. View training as a long-term investment that will return a multiple of the short-term costs. Sadly, this approach often conflicts with the compensation plan in effect.
Professional football players are paid millions of dollars per year. Yet the actual time they perform in a game is approximately three hours per week. The rest of their time is spent practicing and training in preparation for the game. No GM or coach would tolerate players who refused to practice, but who just wanted to show up and play on the day of the game.
But sales managers and executives routinely tolerate, and often encourage, such behavior. Training is often viewed as a detriment to making the numbers. It takes the sales st
aff out of the field and is viewed as nonproductive.
This is a classic case of the tradeoff between urgent and important. Any executive will tell you that continually developing the skills of their sales force is vital to the health of the company’s revenue stream. But when faced with allocating selling-time to training, often the training gets postponed.
The training must instill the knowledge and behaviors required to succeed today. Product training is merely a precursor. Understanding business principles, industry, customer base, customer applications, human behavior, and the customer’s buying process are required to function as a customer-centric salesperson. Professional salespeople must become business consultants. The breadth of knowledge they need to interact with their customers has grown well beyond product features and benefits, and traditional sales tactics.
2. Take an “I will help you solve your problems” approach to customers. This goes well beyond just looking for problems that your product/service can solve. It means understanding the depth and complexities of the problems facing the customer and being innovative in creating solutions. It may even mean bringing in products or services other than your own. Act as if you were a member of the customer’s staff.
The salesperson’s ability to understand the customer’s business is the driver of the entire buying process. It accelerates the understanding by both the customer and the salesperson, of the situation and its consequences; and it increases the odds that the solution proposed by the salesperson will successfully deliver the expected business value.
Only by delivering exceptional value to the customer can you become a partner, not just a vendor. This is the essence of customer loyalty.
3. Focus on the human element of the relationship. People are the one constant factor in all markets, regardless of the volatility of other factors. The more you understand about human behavior, perceptions, and motivations, the better equipped you will be to connect and build trust with your customers. And trust is essential to any relationship.
Human beings don’t trust organizations. We trust other people. The salespeople that we’ve met and worked with, in effect, become the vendor company. We trust them. Indeed, building trust is a person-to-person process. Trust develops over time through experience. The key component of trust is the customer’s perception of the salesperson’s intent. The customer must believe that the salesperson is trying to help him and has his best interests at heart. Once established, this will change the dynamics of the sales situation. It will become cooperative instead of competitive.
The more salespeople look and feel like salespeople, the less likely the customer is to trust them. Salespeople need to quit behaving like salespeople and start behaving like business people who share a mutual self-interest with their customers. They both want the same thing—a solution that truly meets the customer’s needs.