23 April 2022
We're coming out of COVID, it's time to get the sales force out selling again.
COVID hit Australia in January 2020, with the first case reported in Victoria and three cases confirmed in New South Wales later that day. Pretty soon we were all working from home.
We've been in and out of lock-down for over two years - all impeding the ability to do business.
Can't do much selling from home.
Actually, that is not strictly true. Depending on your selling model and IT systems - a lot of sales work can still be performed working from home just as it was from the office. Arguably, some selling has become more efficient.
Tools such as Zoom and Microsoft TEAMS provided the means to connect. Sales trips that used to involve jumping on planes, trains, and automobiles - can now be conducted online and, thanks to COVID, that is now perfectly acceptable.
Coming out of COVID, likely a lot of sales business will continue to be conducted this way.
The rise of the inside cat
Before COVID, Digital Marketing had already altered the sales landscape. However, there have always been two types of sales people; internal sales people who rarely ventured out, and external sales people who also rarely ventured out.
It's very easy for external sales people to find reasons to spend more time in the office.
Inside cats are sales people who spend most of their time in the office.
And can you blame them? They have a desk, friendly (most of the time) people to talk to, a computer to play with, meetings to attend, reports to write, emails to respond to, some even play at marketing doing the occasional post on LinkedIN, mocking-up a new brand-vandalised flyer, and generally being busy.
Outside it’s scary; customers don’t want to see them, driving is tedious, and what’s the point? – if they want something they will call. But most importantly, face-to-face selling time (sitting with a customer) requires considerable energy – it’s tiring.
For these people COVID has been a gift; the perfect excuse for not getting out.
Do we need external sales?
Obviously, it depends entirely on type of industry, type of product, your selling model, the customer's expectations, and the individual ability of the sales person.
Much has been written predicting sales people will no longer be needed. Through digital marketing and automation, the buying process has been transformed.
Some say "The salesperson just gets in the way of the sale."
If you are selling well understood commodity widgets and people know what they want, an end-to-end automated digital sales model might be perfect.
And it's true, the internet has changed selling. Technology has augmented a sales person’s activities and further blurred the lines between sales and marketing.
There is no doubt that technology has changed their role...
- Providing information: Sales people used to be the first step in researching product and service options. Armed with sales materials, the sales person would inform the potential purchaser and help guide them toward a decision competing against other sales people seeking to do the same. However, the internet has reduced (not eliminated) the need. In motor vehicle sales the rule of thumb is a buyer will make a purchase within 72 hours of walking into the car dealership. They have already thoroughly researched their options and all that is left is to test drive and nut out a deal.
- There is less need to undertake sales prospecting. Digital Lead generation is so efficient the sales person has far less need to "beat the bushes" looking for sales prospects. This is a good thing, because most were lousy at it anyway. However, pre-internet , other forms of promotion (notably main media advertising and direct mail) were already generating leads.
- Automation: Marketing and sales automation have improved selling efficiency providing automated lead nurturing systems, CRM systems provide sales pipeline tracking, quoting and pricing templates, and reminders to follow-up sales quotations. Sales automation will even send out the follow-up emails.
We have the internet, why do we need sales people?
Like so much of the internet, as extolled by digital evangelists - it over promises and under delivers. Anything to get your credit card details and sign you-up to another online cash vampire platform.
Here is a sample of what sales people contribute...
- Helping make the decision: not everything is published on the internet, and not everything published is accurate.
- Helping navigate through the information and answering complex queries: even if all the information is available online, doubtless there will be further questions.
- Providing confidence: the vast majority of buying decisions are not simple transactions. Being able to talk to a real human-being builds trust.
- Strategic selling: big-ticket transactions (for example infrastructure projects and Defence contracts) are complex sales that need to be carefully managed and facilitated.
- Solution selling: When selling products or services that are customized or designed from scratch to suit the customer's need, a sales person is needed to understand requirements, facilitating the development of a solution, and presenting the proposed offer.
- Negotiating a price: many products and services are not offered at a fixed price and there is wriggle room. Product options and accessories, bundled service/support all blur the total value of the transaction. A salesperson guides the customer through making a decision and manages the negotiation of a mutually acceptable price.
- Closing sales: pretty obvious eh? Many customers need to be encouraged to make a final decision. However, many sales then require further documentation before the sale is truly closed. Contracts, financing, registration, account set-up - this is the work of the sales person.
- Up-selling: For many products and services, selling the base model has little profit margin. The profit comes from the upgrades and options. This is particularly true of motor vehicles.
- Building relationships: most business transactions involve a high degree of trust. It isn't just trusting that the product or service will be reliable and delivered as promised, its also about confidence that if a problem arises, the vendor will take the complaint seriously and provide a remedy. Strong business relationships are important.
- Sell trust: The more you rely on impersonal sales and marketing systems the more vulnerable you are to churn. A skilled sales-person adds a human face to the business making it less likely they will switch to a competitor particularly if a sales person is available to understand and address concerns.
- Servicing existing customers: finding new customers is more expensive than retaining existing customers. Customer retention (account management) is a primary selling task.
- Demonstrating products and services: complex products often need to be demonstrated . Particularly important if the full value of the product can only be achieved through using it correctly.
- Managing pre-qualification, bids and tenders: the majority of business-to-business transactions involve competitive bidding. Sales people are needed to perform these processes.
- Building and servicing distributor relationships: products and services that are sold through channels need a sale person to initially find and set-up distributors and then to service those distributors to ensure they prioritize their time and attention to on-selling them to the end-users.
And, consider this. Many can't be bothered crawling the internet. They will just contact the three vendors with the strongest brands and ask them to send someone over.
Looking through the above list of sales functions, it should be obvious that digital marketing isn't able to replace the sales person.
Sales function versus sales title
Some people might argue that much of the above functions are not performed in their organization by sales people. Firms that sell solutions (solution selling) for example; the process of needs analysis, solution development, design and estimating are likely performed by people who don't have the word "sales" in their title.
Call them what you like - these are all sales processes.
There are special classes of sales people present in many organizations that deserve special mention.
Business Development Manager: there is trend toward giving sales people (people who perform the functions listed above) the title "Business Development Manager." However, the BDM is traditionally a specialist sales function that has a loftier purpose. BDMs analyze the market and identify new opportunities that require a strategic approach to develop. Traditionally, BDM's are responsible for delivering business growth through developing new products, new markets, diversification, or acquisition.
The Rain Maker: the Rain Maker is an individual who has the unique ability to identify and attract new business usually through having extensive industry contacts, a nose for spotting opportunities, and having a highly credible personal reputation. Rain Makers are usually business principals (CEO, Senior Partner etc.).
However, business titles is a pointless discussion, the issue is function not title.
Importantly, the best sales people often aren't called sales people.
It's important because the modern trend is to eschew the term "sales person" (and the many variants) because (particularly in Australia) we don't like being "sold" and many professionals don't like being called sales people even if they are contributing to, or have primary responsibility for, the sales process. This leads to fatuous statements like "we don't need sales people."
Trade secrets, truth serum, and war stories
The problem with the internet as an information source is that it is incomplete, badly organized, full of bullshit, and sanitized.
By "sanitized" I mean that there are some trade secrets (for example, information about a major commercial opportunity that is in the pipeline) that can't be published. It's subject to all sorts of confidentiality or even if there is no real legal issues, the business is just not ready for it to be in the public domain.
Or, simply - no one has bothered putting it online. Contrary to popular belief, you can't find out everything on the internet.
This sort of market Intel is carried around in the heads of business people all the time and can be worth gold if you find out before your competitors.
Great sales people, not just Rain Makers and BDM's but including front-line sales soldiers, have traditionally built business networks, and spend time with industry people helping them to tell war stories and impart these nuggets of gold.
For all sorts of reasons this is becoming a lost art. But, one thing is for sure - enjoying a few pints of truth serum needs to be done face-to-face.
If your people aren't out there schmoozing, you are probably missing out on valuable Intel.
Time to get the sales force back out there
Ok, so, it's taken some words to reach this point but we have established that...
- The rise of the internet hasn't killed-off the need for people who perform sales functions (their title is not important).
- There are some sales models that truly can eliminate the need for sales people (online shopping sites fed by digital lead generation). These are a small subset of possible selling models that dominate the marketing conversation giving the impression that digital marketing is replacing sales people.
- Digital marketing and other processes improved via online technologies have modified and enhanced sales activities, but not eliminated people performing sales functions.
- The true value of people working in sales is their ability to interface with other human beings to solve problems. Selling is about solving problems.
- COVID has taught us that online meetings is a potentially highly efficient means of making contact with people and conducting meetings with customers. Both sides potentially benefit from the efficiency.
- But, don't discount the extra value (and therefore competitive advantage) of actual face-to-face interaction.
- A key part of selling is gathering market intelligence that isn't readily available on the internet.
- Automated digital marketing processes aren't good drinking buddies.
However you achieve it, through virtual meetings or real face-to-face contact, there is an old sales jungle saying...
Face-to-face wins the race
Here are five tips for increasing face-to-face selling time
Getting value for money from sales people (people having a sales function rather than a sales title) is about leveraging their time...
- Make sure sales visits have a purpose: Face-to-face selling time is expensive, each visit must be high value; either they are facilitating the sale of a high value transaction, or working on securing a customer who will be buying a high-volume of your products and services.
- Choose the right sales model: Salesforce efficiency starts with examining your business situation and developing the best methods, sales team roles, territories, systems, and management process to service the market opportunities. Read more about what is a sales model?.
- Don't bury them with low-value tasks: If you have a salesperson who is fantastic when face-to-face with customers what you don't want them doing is sitting in the office churning their way through paperwork. Find someone cheaper and better to do the sales administration.
- Separate selling from delivery: Sales people should be excluded from any form of delivery of products or services. Once they have closed the sale, the contract should be handed to operations people skilled and dedicated to that task. The problem is that while they are involved in delivery, they aren't selling. Secondly, delivery shouldn't start until the customer has agreed to all aspects of the contract. It's easy for the sales person to blur the lines if involved in both. Lastly, selling is more discretionary - it doesn't have to be done today, it can be done tomorrow. Delivery is more tangible and deadline driven. Give a person the choice between a hard deadline task, and a soft-line task - they will choose the hard deadline every time.
- Don't give sales people a blank sheet of paper: The worst thing you can do with a sales person is ask the question "why aren't you out selling?" The question should be "Why didn't you visit Acme Manufacturing this week?" Sales people need plans, targets, and management.
Lastly, if you find an individual who is magic in front of customers, do everything you can to keep them there. Support them with process oriented experts, mentors and minders - do what ever you can - but keep them out there!
Sales planning and management in a digital world
What is a sales model?
Are digital technologies killing the sales representative?