Recently, a start-up company in Atlanta hired me to find “a hard-working, enthusiastic, top producing sales rep” to help them get a jump start on building their business. I was careful to accurately describe the opportunity and the company’s expectations in the job posting. To my delight, response to the ad was swift and numbered in the hundreds.
After sifting through the tall stack of resumes, I narrowed the search to two dozen “best fit” candidates and prepared to conduct phone and face-to-face interviews. I settled on asking each person the same set of questions designed to draw out, among other traits and thoughts, the candidate’s attitude toward the selling profession.
Frankly, a somewhat disappointing revelation befell me. Today’s sales professionals exhibit a lackluster opinion of the art and science of selling. If the very people that are charged with representing your company, product line and themselves are not proud and passionate about their chosen profession, how can they successfully inspire prospective customers to feel good about buying from your business? Today may be a good time for your sign and digital graphics company to pump up your sales force.
Taking the pulse of passion
Granted, the sample population of my mini-study was slightly biased. They were all seeking a new employer either because they were let go from their last position—perhaps because they weren’t that proficient—or they were disenchanted with their current sales job and were looking elsewhere. But, shouldn’t you think that someone trying to “sell” themselves to a prospective employer would be bubbling over with enthusiasm about their vocation? They weren’t.
Here were some of the questions I posed to the job candidates:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the sales profession against other occupations in terms of being admired and respected?
- What are some things that top flight sales professionals do that average sales reps can’t do, don’t think to do, or aren’t willing to do?
- Why do you think customers buy goods and services from one company and not others that offer similar things?
The average response to the first question was 8.02. Not bad, but consider this…only three of 22 applicants gave the sales profession a “ten” rating. I had to withhold my shocked reaction when two candidates boldly answered “five” to the question.
Most respondents qualified their answer by making sure I was asking them for their opinion of the profession and not the public in general. Had I phrased the question “how would today’s consumer rate the sales profession against other occupations in terms of being admired and respected?”, I would have received a much lower average response—something between “pond scum” and “lying weasel.”
When I asked about what separates the top dogs from the rest of the sales pack, over half the answers dealt with the individual’s drive and work ethic. I would agree with that to some extent, but I was disappointed that most made no reference to the role the client plays in the customer-vendor relationship in most accomplished salesperson’s success.
The late Larry Steinmetz, author of many books on the art of successful selling, conducted a study of world-class sales professionals and what sets them apart. He found the top three behavioral characteristics of the consummate salesperson are superior listening skills, the consistency of keeping promises, and the ability to build genuine personal and professional relationships with clients—all of which involve the customer.
It’s got to be the sales rep
If you’ve read this column in the past, you would expect the answer I was hoping to get to the third question would be “people buy from people who they like, trust and with whom it is convenient to do business.” I would have been happy with anything close to that from the group of people I polled.
Instead, the most popular answers were customer service, name brand recognition, product quality and price. Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment. You could break down a business into five basic departmental components—management, marketing, production, technology and sales.
If you ever took the time to compare your own company to competitors in terms of potential attack points, you probably reach the conclusion that your management structure, policies and strategies are very similar. In this litigious world we operate in, there is little room for creativity and differentiation here. Likewise, the way you market—advertise, offer customer support, price your products and the like—is not remarkably different.
Generally, the same holds true for the way products are made, packaged, delivered and the technology incorporated to make, apply or use them. Understandably, you may argue that your business is completely different from your competitors. So, why are prospective customers so willing to tell you “Look, I can have the same graphics made down the block” or “I don’t see the difference in your (insert your most popular offering here) and somebody else’s”?
If all those components are fairly equal, the only thing remaining is the strategy a business engages to win the favor of its customers—vis-à-vis the way it sells. In your company, how high do you prop up your salespeople? How much do you empower them to make smart business decisions on the fly—on the front lines face-to-face with customers? Perhaps the first question to be asked is “how well have I prepared them to represent our company?”
Motivate without the hype
One of the most basic principles of leadership and management is that an organization will repeatedly observe behavior that is reinforced, recognized and/or rewarded. Let this concept guide you as you pump up your sales force.
Not long ago, I was fortunate to be part of a project that studied the factors that led to job satisfaction among salespeople. The focus group was asked to list the most important factors that contribute to the ideal job. Here is the Top Ten list (in the order of most frequently given answer):
- A sense of achievement / making a difference
- An open, honest work environment
- Increased opportunity / empowerment
- The challenge of the job itself
- An increased sense of self-worth
- Job security
- A good boss
- Formal recognition/awards
- Team spirit / camaraderie / esprit-de-corps
How many of these factors are present or available to your sales force? Not sure? Surprised that awards and recognition are so far down the list? I was. Could you introduce and capitalize on more of this list with your sales force? Probably.
Here are some suggestions on how to bolster the morale of your sales effort that are easy to do:
- Hold all-employee meetings and bring in your salespeople to share a success story about how your products and services solved a problem for one of your customers. Don’t try this without first approaching the salesperson well ahead of the meeting so they have time to prepare their thoughts. Have them present the case. There is a strong possibility the sales rep will use the opportunity to publicly thank other colleagues “back at the ranch” that made the achievement possible.
- Share your financial statements—e.g. profit and loss statement, balance sheet—with your salespeople. Point out where you would like to see improvement in certain line items. Generate sales reports of profitability by customer account. Salespeople can be myopic when it comes to their day-to-day activities—concentrating on “moving the groceries” rather than whether their efforts produce profits. Some business owners are reluctant to divulge the contents of the books. I get it. If that’s the case, redact or remove the sensitive data that you don’t want to be made public. Wise owners use this valuable information to draw insight, educate salespeople, and inspire them to act entrepreneurially.
- Annually, sit down with each sales representative and together set stretch goals using the acronym SMART—specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound. Don’t reduce the goals to only hitting the sales numbers. Some great areas for goal setting include profitability, expense control, number of referrals or testimonials from clients, attrition control and closing key target prospects.
- Invest in training your salespeople in the soft skills of selling—listening, probing with a purpose, interpersonal relationship building, and promise-keeping, to name a few. In my experience, the hours dedicated to sales meetings are typically spent on passing along product knowledge and addressing or solving internal problems. Brainstorm with your sales folks to identify the specific, observable behaviors of good listeners, leaders, and high integrity individuals and discuss those. Incorporate skill identification and practice (aka the dreaded role play) and case studies to spice up the discussion. You may want to consider bringing in an outside subject matter expert to facilitate the short but powerful training.
The potential return on your efforts to pump up your sales force is limitless. Don’t be surprised if a brief intervention into this arena yields bountiful and immediate results. Good luck.