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How To Build a Sales Culture

In my years of experience in working with (and for) companies large and small, I have discovered that there is a common element to the most successful businesses.  The most successful companies have a sales culture.  A “sales culture” is a philosophy that permeates the company, from the corner office to the loading dock, that says, essentially, “We are a sales organization, and everything else we are able to do is a product of our ability to sell our products or services to our customers.”

This isn’t a philosophical statement; it’s reality.  The only difference is whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.  It’s reality because no matter how good your products or services, if you can’t persuade someone to exchange money for those products or services, there’s no reason for production or service to exist, and hence your business will cease to exist.  An acquaintance of mine attempted to make a go of it as a financial consultant, and to be frank, he was the most brilliant financial guy I’ve ever met.  He’s now working for someone else as a CFO – because despite his brilliance, he was unable to make a single sale.

The most successful companies both acknowledge and embrace the idea that they are first and foremost a sales organization, and that culture flows from the top.  It flows from the top because it must.  Despite the protestations of those who advocate bottom-up leadership, the reality is that any corporate culture is set not by the employees at ground and field level, but by the overriding philosophy of management.  That’s you, by the way.  So, let’s assume for the moment that you have decided that your company needs to accept and embrace a sales culture.  How do we go about that?

Set the mission:  First of all, whatever your mission statement, throw it away.  I know, it’s something that you’ve put a lot of thought into and probably has some great phrasing.  It’s probably also something that your employees couldn’t remember if a gun were put to their heads.  Let’s replace it with something simple like this:  “We are a sales organization, and we grow profitably by Acquiring new customers, Developing current customers to greater profitability, and Retaining profitable business.”  Use this as the mantra that guides your company’s decision making.

Communicate:  All good things in sales (and business) come from good communication, and most bad things happen because of insufficient communication.  Knowing this, the next step is to communicate the message to your people, and to do so consistently.  This is where a lot of companies fail, because the communication happens like this:  The Big Guy at the Top will have a staff meeting where he/she communicates the ‘new mission’ forcefully to his key managers, and then expects the managers to communicate it downstream.  They do, but with varying degrees of emphasis and enthusiasm.  The Sales Manager obviously embraces the mission, while the Production Manager may be less enthusiastic, and so forth.  If you really want to effect change, it has to be up to you.

In creating a sales culture, there is no employee whose job is so small or insignificant that he/she shouldn’t hear this message from YOU.  Have all-company meetings, or all-department meetings, or all-branch meetings; however you need to do it in order to have the opportunity to have every employee hear the message directly from your lips.  I once struggled with the support personnel in a 50-person department; no matter what I told the supervisors, nothing seemed to change at ground level.  So, over the objections of several supervisors and even a couple of managers from other departments, I held a full-department meeting and laid out my goals for the next quarter, how we would achieve them, and what everyone’s duty was as part of the goal achievement.  The employees asked great questions, and within days were taking the actions that I needed them to take in order to achieve the goals.  Result – we didn’t just make the goals, we blew them away.  And you can bet that we repeated the quarterly meetings consistently.  The take-away is that, for the most part, if your people know the goals, they will act in accordance with them – if they believe that the goal is real and permanent.

Align Goals:  To accomplish your goal of profitable growth through acquiring, developing, and retaining customers, you must align all your departments and goals.  I once worked for a company that would set each department’s goals in a vacuum; for instance, sales would be tasked to grow the company 15% while the production department would be tasked to cut labor costs by 10%.  Assuming there are no major technical innovations (there weren’t), you had departments with goals that could not all be reached collectively.  This produced management and interdepartmental conflict on a constant basis.

Instead of this, set department goals in such a way that they can all be achieved together.  For instance, instead of budgeting in dollar terms, budget in percentages from the top line.  This way, when departments need more resources for equipment and personnel, they know how to get it – help grow the company.  Even with the best goal setting, however, you’re going to see some internal conflict.

Remove Internal Conflict:  Good sales forces, by their nature, create internal conflict.  This isn’t because salespeople are bad people, obnoxious, or difficult to work with (although that is a separate issue), but because good salespeople push the frontiers.  Because sales is all about growth, good sales forces are always creating extra work and pressure for the other departments which must then function at a higher level to support the sales growth created.  This creates conflict and push-back.

As a business owner, it’s your job to mediate and handle these conflicts and push-backs.  It’s a delicate issue because no department, or department manager, wants to feel subordinate or less important than sales.  The reality is that, if you’re truly embracing a sales culture, the other departments are exactly that – subordinate to sales.  When conflicts arise, you should go back to your mission statement; what helps your company grow profitably through acquiring, developing, and retaining customers?

Few things can be as demotivating to a sales force, or as detrimental to sales productivity, as the daily interdepartmental battles that can result when other departments feel that they must act as a brake pedal on progress.  Good sales cultures overcome this problem by empowering managers who are sales advocates and by removing internal obstacles.

Have a High Performance Sales Force:  So far, we’ve talked about aligning a company’s objective, people, and goals around the sales force, which creates a very sales-friendly environment.  Now it’s time to turn up the heat on the people who are doing the selling.  You have the right, and the responsibility, to demand excellence from your salespeople once you have molded the culture of the company around them.

First, you need a strong sales manager.  A “strong sales manager” is one who actively works, on a day to day basis, to strengthen and enhance the abilities of his/her salespeople.  Your sales manager should be not only a good administrator, reporter, and forecaster; the sales manager must be a good coach and developer of people.  He should be willing to advocate for the needs of the sales force while simultaneously demanding the highest effort and achievement from them.  He must be capable of surrounding himself with top talent and then making that talent even better.

The sales manager must understand the basic equation of sales achievement:  Quantity of activity x Quality of activity = Results.  To this end, the sales manager should have performance metrics in place to assess both quantity and quality of sales activity, and be equipped to hold salespeople accountable for those metrics and for the results.  Struggling personnel must be either coached or changed; top performers should be rewarded and coached to even higher levels.

Your salespeople should be excellent “fits” for your company and environment, and should be capable of winning new business, developing current business, and retaining customers (remember the mission statement?).  They should have the appropriate mix of traits necessary for success, while being highly skilled and trained (which means that your investment in training should be ongoing).  The salespeople in a high performance sales force are not salespeople that must be babysit or constantly watched to achieve results.

Moreover, the people in your sales force should be excellent relationship builders, both inside the company and outside.  That means that the sales force shouldn’t have any “cowboys” who are negative or abusive to other employees; for a sales culture to work, the other employees have to want to get behind the sales team.  Salespeople who can’t play nicely with others will work against your goals, no matter how good they are with customers.

Reinforce the culture:  As you’ve probably guessed, it’s not enough to have some meetings, say “we are a sales organization,” and call it good.  Cultures happen because they are reinforced, directly or indirectly.  For this to work, key decisions must be made based on the new mission statement:  “Does this decision help us to acquire, develop, or retain customers?”  That doesn’t mean that non-sales departments starve; that new machine for the plant may be completely justified by its benefits in product quality.  The raises for the production staff may be appropriate to reward them for their part in acquiring, developing, and retaining customers.  It does mean that your company has one universal criteria for spending, personnel allocations, and any other key decision making.

The Benefits:  There are numerous benefits to aligning your company around a sales culture.  The biggest is this:  Sales focused companies tend to produce excellence in every department.  The reason is simple:  Companies with a strong sales department cannot stay bad or mediocre in other areas; if they do, those sales gains will quickly be lost through customer dissatisfaction and attrition.  As noted earlier, good sales departments tend to lift other departments through necessity.  This is not true of other departmental objectives; an excellent production department seldom creates pressure on other departments to up their games.

How to Convert a Buyer Into a Non-Buyer

If there’s any common ‘stress factor’ in selling, it’s the process of finding prospects and converting them into buyers.  Think about that for a moment – we do some form of ‘cold prospecting’ to generate an appointment, then use questioning to find needs and hopefully create interest, then present, propose, and close.  It can be exhausting.

But what about leads that come to you, ready to buy?  Most salespeople – including myself – would look at those buyers as easy pickings, especially if you have something specific that the customer wants to buy.  It’s not that easy.  One of the things that some salespeople are good at is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  I had that experience a few days ago, except that I was a buyer – and the salesperson converted me into a non-buyer.

The story goes like this.  I’m in the market for a used SUV, preferably an Escalade or a Denali.  In fact, you could say a “well used” one; not anything too expensive.  In doing a Craigslist search, I found one at a new car dealership (it was a trade-in) about a half hour outside of Dallas that was nice – an Escalade, good miles, my preferred color, everything.  And as it so happens, I was taking a trip to San Diego to speak at a sales managers’ meeting (that’s where I’m writing this), and I could easily rebook my return flight to take me to Dallas, buy the Escalade, and drive it home.

I’m a buyer.  The price is right and the car is right.  Granted, I’m going to try to negotiate a bit, but I’m probably not going to be that difficult.

So, I called and spoke to an obviously young salesman, asked him a few questions, and then I had to go.  He texted me an hour later and asked me if I had any more questions, so I texted him a reasonable offer, explaining that I’d need transportation from Love Field to his dealership, and when I’d be arriving if I rebooked my flight.

That’s where things went wrong. I was in the car business years ago and I understand the ‘go to my manager’ game.  I hated it as a salesman and I hate it now as a customer.

His response went something like, “Boy, my general manager almost bit my head off when I presented that offer!  He’s MAD!  But I was able to get you $100 off.”

Good grief.  They’re still doing that nonsense.  First of all, I know that the GM wasn’t “mad” at all, he’s trying to bump me.  Fair enough.  But do they really think their customer is so dumb as to believe it?

I could recount the whole conversation by text – but I’d rather not.  It was more of the same back-and-forth for the next 30 minutes, the dealer coming down little by little, and the young salesman trying to make me believe he was about to get fired.

I think the fact that it was by text made it worse, because I could keep reading the nonsense.  But, at some point, I started thinking.

I thought about how much trust is involved in buying a used vehicle sight unseen – that the dealer is describing it accurately and that the pictures are a good representation.

I thought about the fact that, if the dealer weren’t trustworthy, I’d be an hour from the nearest airport with no return flight booked, facing a last-minute airfare, and my only transportation would be the dealer.  In other words, I’d be at their mercy.

And they’d already shown themselves willing to stretch the truth and insult my intelligence during the sales process.

I texted, “Thanks for your time, but I’m no longer interested.  I withdraw my offer.”  Another, rather frantic “If I could” text came, and I said, “I won’t be responding to any more texts.  I no longer wish to do business with you.”

I should interject this.  I wasn’t being unreasonable; my offer basically allowed for the extra last-minute rebooking cost of my flight from San Diego.  Which, also, isn’t the dealer’s problem.  Had the salesperson come back with something like this, I’d be flying to Dallas tomorrow:

“Look, I understand that you want a discount.  I also understand that an Escalade in this color, this year, these miles, and this price is a rare bird – that’s why you’re looking in Dallas and not Kansas City.  If you’d like a little discount to feel good about it, I can do that and here’s my number – but I’m not going any lower because this thing will sell well.”

Not the ‘my GM is gonna fire me’ junk, just being straightforward.  I’d have agreed that he was right and I’d have made a deal.  That would have been respecting my intelligence.  But when I started thinking about the trust needed to make a deal like this, sight unseen, dealer unmet, an hour away from an airport and 500 miles from home, I just decided that I didn’t have the necessary trust.

So, the next morning, you guessed it.  I got a call from the fabled GM, who explained that he was just trying to help the poor young salesman, etc.  I explained to the GM that the nonsense they did – which was obsolete when I had to do it in 1990 – broke the bonds of credibility and trust.  I further said, “You successfully converted a buyer into a non-buyer.”

It might sound like I’m just bashing car salespeople.  I am, directly, but indirectly, I’m talking about negotiation itself.  I’ve said for years that the best negotiation is no negotiation.  Negotiation forces the buyer to come up with reasons not to buy in order to have leverage – which I did, and those reasons finally overcame my reasons to want to buy.  That doesn’t just happen in car sales; it happens in all business.  So, what are my negotiation strategies?

  1. Give the buyer a fair price up front.
  2. Don’t say stuff that is insulting to the buyer’s intelligence.
  3. If you must negotiate, take something away. For instance, had they said, “We can meet your price, but we won’t be able to transport you from Love Field,” that would have been fair.
  4. Finish as quickly as possible.

Defeating the Post Thanksgiving Hangover

We’re all familiar with the post-Thanksgiving hangover, aren’t we?  No, I’m not talking about the Tryptophan-influenced food coma.  Nor am I talking about the effect that my late dad’s Thanksgiving punch left the next morning – although both of those can be significant.

I’m talking about the hangover that happens in selling.  More specifically, I’m talking about the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when many customers prefer not to see salespeople, and when many salespeople go into a self-induced sales coma.  Yes, there’s no question – selling is tougher during the holidays, but there’s a philosophy that has stood me in excellent stead over my 27 years in selling.

Every day during this period, someone will be buying what you’re selling in your territory.  Whether they buy it from you or not depends on your own work habits.

It’s true that, during this period, salespeople will hear “talk to me after the new year” quite a bit.  I get it; I’ve been there.  Hearing that can be discouraging, and can result in a salesperson who says “nobody will be buying” right now.  Not true.  “Nobody” and “Never” is hardly ever true in selling.  Yes, there will be productive selling done during this period – so how can salespeople make this time productive?

  1. Collect good info on purchasing times. If your business, for example, runs on contracts, make sure you’re getting good contact expiration data.  With that you can pull data from your CRM system (you are using one, right?) of which customers are going to be in the buying process in December.  Granted, if it’s already December, it’s probably too late for this – but it’s never too late to start building good habits for next year.  Other customers will be doing their “buy budgets” during December.  The point is that, for one reason or another, there will be customers who structurally will be in the buying process in December.  Use your information gathering abilities to find them.
  2. Prospect harder. Remember, “nobody buys” isn’t a valid statement.  SOMEONE will buy – it’s just that your ratios are down.  By “ratios,” I mean the ratios from calls to appointments, appointments to presentations, presentations to proposals, and proposals to sales.  The only time those ratios will be zero is when your inputs – i.e. funnel building activities – are zero.  So if you have to spend a third again, or even half again, as much time prospecting and funnel-building, isn’t that worth the investment?  It’s better than giving up 1/12 of the year.
  3. Ask why. When you get the “holiday objection,” you have three choices.  You can either try to bully your way into an appointment, you can meekly say “okay,” or you can take a third path.  That third path is asking a customer-friendly question.  Something like, “I understand, Mr. Customer, that this time of the year can be a challenge.  Since I like to build long relationships, we’ll probably confront this situation again – so to help me be a better partner to you in the future, would you mind telling me what makes you want to postpone this conversation until January?”  I’ve always been surprised at how many times, over the years, this question resulted in an appointment – because the truth is that there is no real obstacle to meeting on the customer’s part; they just instinctively use the holidays as an excuse.  Play it soft and you might get a potential win.
  4. Schedule ahead. If you do get the ‘talk to me after the first of the year’ response, be respectful of your time and your customer’s time, and schedule appointments for January.  While there will be some customers who put you off and ask you to call them again, many will allow you to pre-schedule an appointment for January. While that doesn’t help you for December, it does allow you to get out of the gate quickly in the new year.

The bottom line is this:  While it can be tempting to go into vacation mode during December, you’re doing yourself, your company, and your customers a grave disservice by giving up 1/12 of the year.  In fact, going into that mode, you really sacrifice close to 1/6 of the year, because a light December usually carries over into an unproductive January.  Don’t be that person.  Stay on your game in December, and you might be that person who is making the daily sale in your territory.

What Can You Really Control?

I had a little lesson in “Control” recently.  I was on a flight that left Kansas City at Noon on a Thursday, bound for Chicago.  I was speaking at 9:30 the following morning in Chicago, so this wasn’t an optional schedule.  Suddenly, things went sideways, and I was no longer in control. Right after boarding, the captain came on the microphone and told us that, due to weather conditions, the FAA had shut down Midway Airport.  Our flight was canceled, as were the two after.  A plane emptied of upset passengers.  I only had one question:  What was the status of the remaining flights?  The gate attendant said, “They are all oversold.”  In two minutes, I’d made a car reservation on Dollar.com and was on the bus to the rental cars.  The story gets better – but I’ll finish it at the end of this article.

I’ve always found it amusing that salespeople spend their careers trying to control the one thing in sales that it is impossible to control – their customers – while neglecting the aspects of their careers that truly are within their control.  Me, I never liked to leave my destiny to the mercies of fate, which is why I chose a car over the hundreds of other people trying to find some sort of a flight.  But, what can we control?  Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Salespeople can in fact control most elements of selling.  For instance:

Prospecting.  One of the most important elements of selling that is within our control is Prospecting.  Successful salespeople have a full and active sales funnel.  Period.  You might think that salespeople with the largest territories, the ones who are the most successful, would be short on Prospecting.  You wouldn’t be farther from the truth.  Those salespeople are especially likely to maintain a full funnel – because they know that accounts can leave without warning, and often through no fault of our own.  Businesses change, companies change – and those salespeople with the large territories know that to keep that territory large, they must continue to prospect and bring on new business.

Attitude.  I know, I know, I know.  “Attitude” is difficult to control – but difficult does not mean impossible.  When I’m talking about “Attitude,” I’m specifically referring to your ability to stay positive, to be open to customer feedback and requests, and to center your activities on your customers while “between the lines” – on sales calls or during work hours.  We all have had things happen to us in our lives that can be detrimental to our personal attitude.  That’s normal.  The key is to be able to push past those moments – or even to use our work as a respite from personal issues.  One thing I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned in this space is that my first marriage ended, and my mother passed away, within four weeks of each other.  During that time, my only real safe harbor was my work and my customers – so I used that for all it was worth.  Sometimes just taking a minute or two to “get in character” was all that was needed before a sales call.

Your own skill level.  This might be the easiest aspect of a sales career to control – and yet, the vast majority of salespeople (80% or more) spend little to no time developing their own skill level.  Look carefully in the mirror and be honest.  How much time in the last month have you spent on skills development?  It doesn’t have to be as extreme as purchasing a product, buying a book, or anything like that (although if you’re not doing those things to develop yourself, you should be).  Sometimes it’s as simple as coming up with a new question, a new way to present, gathering testimonials, looking for case studies, etc.  Dedicate yourself to becoming a better salesperson in at least one meaningful way each month, and your customers and your wallet will thank you.

Control those elements, and you’ll be able to influence the one thing you can’t truly control – your customers.  Because there’s nothing worse than feeling completely out of control.

Which brings us back to the Kansas City International Airport last Thursday.  I had a speaking engagement at 9:30 the next morning (roughly 20 and one-half hours away), and there were 530 miles between me and my hotel, with no chance of a flight on Thursday to get me there.  There was a chance that, assuming weather returned to normal, that a Friday morning flight – early – could have me there.  However, if I banked on that and failed, I would miss the engagement.  That’s not acceptable.

So, since my road trip car was at home (I don’t like to leave it in airport parking), I quickly got on Dollar.com, reserved a car, and started out to catch the rental car bus.  As I did, I passed a man who was about my age, explaining to the gate agent that he HAD to be in Chicago at 10 the following morning for a ‘potentially life altering’ job interview (his words).  So, I stopped, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Hey, I’m about to start driving to Chicago.  If you like, we can share the car and expenses, and I’ll drop you off where you need to be.  You’ll still get there this evening.”

And – I’m not kidding about this – the guy looked me up and down and then said, “No, thank you, I’m going to keep trying to find a flight.”

I’m still not trying to take that one personally.

Well, the story has a happy ending.  When I got on the bus, I noticed a fellow refugee from my flight, a woman in her 30s.  I made the same offer to her, she accepted immediately (apparently I looked safer to her than I did to the guy with the interview), and we actually had quite a nice drive.  I had company, I got there when I needed to be, and by the time I dropped her off in downtown Chicago, we’d each made a new friend.

And I still got to the hotel in time to order the Chicago pizza I’d been craving for days.

The point is this – given the opportunity to take control, I took it, and the result was good. That doesn’t make me some kind of hero – it just works. If you do the same, it usually will be a good result.  I wonder if the guy ever got there for his “life altering” interview.

The Buying Process In Action

For thirteen years, I’ve been explaining that the customer’s buying process is far more important than any “sales process” we might create – and that, if we’re to be successful, our sales process absolutely must harmonize with the buying process.  What I didn’t expect was to get validation from the world of motorcycling.

Two product introductions, however, have perfectly illustrated why the buying process is so important.  As many of you know, I’m an avid motorcyclist, and so I pay attention to introductions of new bikes, and two of the more exciting ones this summer have been Yamaha’s introduction of their new Venture touring bike, and Harley-Davidson’s introduction of eight new models that replace their Softail and Dyna lines.  One company used the buying process the right way – and one, in my opinion, did not.

To refresh your memory, customers buy things in a defined 4-step process. Those steps are:

Motivation:  Something or someone provokes the customer to recognize that they have a need that could be solved by a purchase.

Investigation:  Once the customer has recognized a need, available goods and services are measured against their needs and wants, product(s) are narrowed down and possible purchases defined.

Evaluation:  Price and terms – is it affordable, does it represent good value, are the terms acceptable?

Decision:  The customer buys or doesn’t buy.

In June, Yamaha unveiled their new Venture.  Yamaha has built Venture full-dress bikes off and on since the early Eighties, and their new model is an impressive-looking bike that’s targeted at bikes like the Harley Road Glide, the Indian Roadmaster, the Honda Goldwing, etc.  It’s gotten great reviews in magazine ride reports, and pictures are all over the Internet.

In July, I decided that I wanted to see one.  Now, I’m not a prospect – I love my Harley Road King, and I plan to stick with it for years to come. Besides, I’m not even close to being done customizing it!  Still, I’m a biker and I’m curious.  So I stopped into my neighborhood Yamaha dealer (a month after it was unveiled) and asked about it.  I was told, “Ah, you know the manufacturers.  We’ll have them sometime in September or October.”

This, by the way, is typical of most bike manufacturers.  They roll out a bike a few months before it’s actually in dealerships.  The idea is to drip out information, build anticipation, and whet customers’ appetites for the new bike.  While this sounds good, I wonder how many bikers do what the guy I met did.  While riding my Road King, I happened to cross paths with a guy on a brand new Indian Roadmaster.

I complimented him on his Roadmaster, and he told me something funny.  He was a long time Venture owner, and when he saw the articles on the new Venture, he went to the dealerships – and was told what I was told.  The problem was, he was in a buying mood.  He was Motivated.  And once motivated, many times, it’s hard to shut a buyer off.

Denied the opportunity to continue the buying process on the Venture, he went down the road, ended up in an Indian dealership, rode a Roadmaster (truly a magnificent bike), and presto- his need to buy was satisfied.  Yamaha, the company that Motivated him, never had a shot at his business because they didn’t have the product available.  What’s more, he told me, his buddy did the same thing (went to a dealer looking for a Venture) but ended up buying a new Honda Goldwing.

Meanwhile, in August, Harley-Davidson introduced eight new Softail models.  This was done abruptly, all at once, no slow buildup.  The next day, Harley’s demo ride trucks had Softail models available to ride, and within two days, dealers had them in stock – not as display models, but to sell.  I went into a Harley dealer a week after introduction, and they only had one Softail available – because the others had been sold.

Of course, some Harley riders like the new ones and some don’t – but for those that don’t, the 2017 models are still available and are selling quickly.  The bottom line is this – when Harley Motivated customers to take a look at the new models, the new models were there to ride and be sold.  Harley might not sell everyone – but they won’t MISS any business for lack of bikes on the floor.  It’s doubtful that anyone will be going to another dealer because they’re fired up to buy and Harley is two months away from delivery.

What’s the lesson here?  When buyers become Motivated, more often than not they don’t put their motivation on “hold” until you can deliver product.  For that reason, it’s best to have product introduction and availability as close to simultaneous as possible.  Yamaha’s Venture will probably be a success, but I’ll bet they lose a lot of potential sales before bikes hit the showroom.

Is LinkedIn Losing its Usefulness?

I’ve talked a lot about the evolution of sales over the last 10-15 years.  One of the causes of the evolution is, of course, social media.  What is interesting to me is that social media itself is evolving quickly, and many people aren’t keeping up to speed with this evolution.

This was brought to mind a few days ago when a client asked me if I thought that LinkedIn was losing its usefulness as a sales prospecting tool.  That’s really a great question.  For years, I’ve been recommending that salespeople use LinkedIn to get quality introductions and warm referrals to new potential customers, but even that mechanism is losing its effectiveness for reasons that I’ll discuss below.

LinkedIn was, and still is, the premier business networking site.  I’ve always thought of it as the “visible Rolodex;” in old-school face to face networking, it would be considered rude to ask the other person to open their contact book and let you look through.  However, LinkedIn facilitates this by making contacts visible when two people are connected.  This greatly enabled the process of asking for introductions – if you were a second degree connection on LinkedIn (I know Bob, Bob knows Jane, Bob introduces me to Jane), the intro was usually a fairly simple ask.  For years, my ratio of requests to introductions was between 1 to 1 and 1.5 to one.

That number has been going down, not only for me, but for others that I work with.  What’s happened?  Does this mean that people are getting tired of being asked for intros?  I doubt it; most people I talk to report that they aren’t asked that much.  What I do think it means is that more people are becoming less discriminating in their link requests and acceptances, meaning that those ‘second degree connections’ might not really be a personal connection at all.  Thus, when you see a second-degree connection and ask for an introduction, the person you’re asking really doesn’t have the ability to introduce you in any meaningful way.

I can’t cast stones here; I’ve become far less selective in the past year in my acceptances, and my social media coach tells me that I’m doing the right thing.  Given that LinkedIn has removed the ‘ask for introduction’ button, they too must feel that this is becoming less and less important.

Another issue is what I call “Facebook posting.”  LinkedIn used to be very business-focused in what its users posted.  This, too, has changed.  Political posts now take up a large amount of anyone’s daily feed, whether you’re the one doing the posting or not.  Other non-business posts – even Facebook-style party pictures – are becoming a bigger and bigger part of LinkedIn.  This makes it more difficult for business-focused users to separate the wheat from the chaff, and harder for solid business articles to get noticed.

There are other, more minor issues that can impact LinkedIn’s usefulness to some users, but this article is focused on selling and salespeople.

So, if LinkedIn is evolving, does that mean that it’s not as useful anymore?  Not at all.  It just means that we need to evolve with it.

First of all, the old ‘ask for an introduction’ system can still work – it just becomes more of a numbers game than in the past.  Depending on the size of one’s network, the 1:1 relationship between intro requests and intros is more like 3:1 or 4:1 now.  That means that if you need two intros per week, you probably need to send between 6 and 8 requests.  That means that your network needs to be large; otherwise you can burn out your contacts.

Second, direct prospecting on LinkedIn is showing some promise.  Rather than going through your contacts and looking for introductions, simply targeting the people you want to talk to and sending them a connection request WITH A SHORT MESSAGE ABOUT WHY YOU WANT TO CONNECT WITH THEM is yielding results, although with too small a sample size to put ratios to it yet.

There are a few things that are important about this technique.  First, I’m not a fan of signing up for LinkedIn Premium and then just blasting InMail.  I prefer to connect.  If I send someone a connection request with a short (because that’s all that you’re allowed) note about why I want to connect, and they accept my request, they are typically at least open to the next step in the conversation.

THEN I send an InMail to them explaining how I think I could be of help to them.  A well done email can get a conversation going that results in an appointment.  If you want to use this technique, I wouldn’t recommend sending a “blind” connection request; i.e. one that doesn’t include a small sales message.  If you send a blind request, and then hit the contact with a sales message, they can feel blindsided.  I prefer people to be informed.

A variation on this technique is that, when you see you are second-degree from a targeted contact, to request an introduction from your connection as we used to.

LinkedIn is also getting to be far more useful in job seeking and candidate search.  I’ve used it as a recruiter for several years, and it’s always been a small but high quality candidate pool, as compared to CareerBuilder.  In the last few searches, I’ve found that the quality continues to be high, but the quantity is going up significantly.  If this trend continues, LinkedIn will be the best site to find professional hires within another year or so.

Finally, I have found significant success, for myself and my clients, in getting recommendations and testimonials using LinkedIn’s “ask to be recommended” feature.  Testimonials, I have said for many years, are one of the greatest marketing tools we have.  They allow prospective new customers to see you through the eyes of a happy current or past customer – and that’s a credibility booster that can’t be beat.

Oddly, I recently read an article by another prominent sales “guru” who said that you shouldn’t ask for recommendations; if your customers like you enough, they’ll simply recommend you without asking.  To me, this is horrible advice and comes from being out of touch with what most salespeople face in their work environment.

Sales is a profession built on the idea that we get what we ask for, and don’t get what we don’t ask for.  And, frankly, it might not occur to even the happiest of customers to post a recommendation on their own.  A polite, respectfully worded recommendation request – when you know the customer is a happy one – is not inappropriate or out of line.  And it’s one of the easiest and best ways to gather testimonials.

To conclude, LinkedIn is still highly useful as a sales tool. Its usefulness is just evolving, and we as salespeople must evolve with it. 2-3 focused hours per week on LinkedIn can still be time well spent.

Conceptual Selling: Why Not?

Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed the evolution of selling, from transactional to relationship to conceptual.  We discussed the ‘whys’ of the evolution of selling, and I admitted that, to be 100% truthful, few of the companies I talk to are implementing a conceptual model.

I also promised that, in an upcoming article, I’d discuss the objections to conceptual selling.  Even if company managers have been exposed to conceptual selling, they (in many cases) are reluctant to move toward this sales model.  There are numerous reasons why, and we should discuss them here.  Some have validity – but many do not.

Nobody is doing it that way in our industry.  This is one I hear a lot; in many cases it is true.  There are industries where conceptual selling has not made its presence known yet.  The problem with this objection is this – conceptual selling tends to be one of those areas where early adopters have a HUGE advantage.  For instance, in the world of integrated supply, the companies that first began are now juggernauts, and make it very hard for late entries.

There’s nothing for us to conceptualize.  This is perhaps the strongest argument against conceptual selling; that whatever the company is doing simply can’t be integrated into a larger concept worthy of top management’s attention.  I think that there’s a fear, or philosophy, that smaller product categories can’t incorporate larger ones.  That’s false.  I have a client whose primary business is fasteners, and yet they have successfully created an integrated supply program incorporating the larger consumables and OEM products that their clients need.  Again, it’s a situation where the early adopter wins.

We don’t want to lose our current business.  One of the big ‘fear factors’ of conceptual selling is the idea that, by setting salespeople up to sell conceptually, you lose the right to have your salespeople still sell in your current model, whether that be transactional or relationship.  That’s false.  Usually, a few probing questions early in the process will let you know whether or not the client is open to a conceptual solution – and if they are not, you can simply continue on your old pattern.  If they are, you can steer the conversation to a conceptual one while still retaining your old model as a fallback.

Our salespeople can’t do it.  This is another one I hear a lot, and again, it has a certain validity.  Conceptual selling requires a higher level of sales acumen, a stronger ability to think on one’s feet, and a higher level of versatility in the call.  That said, how do you know they can’t if you haven’t given them the opportunity?  With the proper training and backing, most competent salespeople can succeed at conceptual selling.

There are, of course, others, but these are the ones I hear/read the most.  Let me give you a moment of encouragement.  Conceptual selling is coming, if it isn’t in your industry already.  Period.  And if you’re not ready for it, your competitors will be.  You don’t have to adopt it immediately, but you should be somewhere in the process of building a conceptual sales model.

Are You Tech Savvy or Tech Handicapped?

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve done a technology reboot.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a ‘tech guy,’ by any means.  Hence, when I made my two laptop purchases, I felt that the path of least resistance would be to simply use a sync cord setup to transfer my files from my old laptop to my new one.  What I wasn’t aware of was that it would also transfer all my settings, bloatware, and other nonsense – meaning that after two laptops’ worth of syncing, my current laptop was about as fast as me swimming in a pool full of molten caramel.

So, after some research, I pulled all my files off, and did a clean install of Windows on my laptop, then reinstalled what I wanted.  Not surprisingly my laptop is now performing the way it should.  In the process, I also decided to update my email provider (to Google G-Suite) and my CRM (to Hubspot), and I’ve been pleased with both.  These are great sales tools.  Technology, applied correctly, can be a great asset to the sales process.  The trouble is, some technology gets in the way of the sales process.

Many times, the technology that we think is an asset is an impediment.  Here are a few examples I’ve seen:

Auto Dialers:  Let me be blunt.  I hate auto dialers with a passion.  Yes, I understand – they do speed the calling process, and in so doing, they can increase dials per hour.  Let me tell you this – it’s not worth it.  I’m sure a lot of people do what I do.  You see, if you call me (and I’m not occupied with a client), I will answer the phone, “Troy Harrison.”  In other words, you called me and you’re talking to me.  And after I answer the phone, my expectation is to hear a conversation.  But when an auto dialer gets me, there’s always that ten seconds or so of silence.  Enough time for me to silently curse, knowing that I’ve been hit by an auto dialer again and what comes afterwards probably isn’t going to be what I’m answering the phone for.  So….I hang up.  And I know most executives do the same thing.  So, what are you really gaining from the increased efficiency of an auto dialer?  Do yourself a favor.  Turn the dialer off, use your fingers, and punch in the number yourself.

Autoattendant:  Did you know that sometimes, your most expensive employee isn’t human?  By that, I mean the ‘hello, your call is important to us, please press pound for a company directory’ autoattendant.  Sure, it’s a savings, right?  You don’t have to pay a receptionist, you don’t have to deal with phone coverage on breaks, etc.  Sounds great.  Except…..I always wonder how many potential business is lost by people who, instead of pressing pound, press “disconnect” and call someone who will answer the phone.

A while back, I had a client who had an autoattendant that was particularly tough to surf my way through to get to his extension. When I explained how tough it was to talk to a person at his company, he said, “Sure, but you eventually did.”  I asked him, “Okay, who’s more determined to get to you – me or a paying customer?”  A week later, he had a receptionist.  If you’re in the business of providing customer service or selling, you need a human being for people to talk to.

Cumbersome CRM:  If you’ve ever been a sales manager implementing a CRM program, you know how tough it is to get salespeople to buy in and enter data.  If salespeople see CRM as an extra task, rather than an asset, it’s going to be even tougher.  To have a good, useful CRM, you need a system that integrates and ‘talks to’ the other key tools that salespeople use – particularly Outlook and your accounting system.  I realized how behind the times I was after updating my own systems.  How I use Hubspot, which integrates with my Google calendar and with my Outlook, as well as my Quickbooks system.  I can access any piece of data on my laptop, my phone, and my tablet.  Any email I send syncs with everything else.  I’m loving the visibility.  Hubspot might not be your best solution – there are solutions for companies large and small – but whatever you use, you need to make sure that salespeople have ONE place to enter data and access it.  Create situations where salespeople have to look in multiple programs, or worse, double or triple enter data, and your system is bound not to work.

The key to technology is to be tech savvy (use tech as an asset and adjunct to a great sales program) and not tech handicapped (have tech that impedes your customer relationships and your sales process).  While I’ve made some comments about specific systems, they are the ones that work for ME – they might not necessarily work for you.  Find ones that do, and use them.

The Evolution of Selling: Why?

Last time out, I covered what I saw as the “evolution of selling.”  As I see it, professional selling has moved through three significant phases in recent history:  First, there was transactional selling, where the object was to win the order.  Next, there was relationship selling, where the object was to form a bond with the customer that enabled all, or most, of the orders to simply be routine.  The next evolution – which is here now in some spots but is still ahead of the curve in many industries – is conceptual, where the customer is asked to buy into a concept of purchasing (such as fully integrated supply) where the actual transactions are managed by the vendor.

Since then, I’ve been hit with a number of messages asking me why I thought this evolution was happening, and where certain industries fell on the scale.  That’s the topic of today’s article – I’m going to answer the ‘why’ of the evolution.

The evolution from transactional sales depended on three things:  Product uniqueness, limited information, and a transactional buyer style.  All three of those things have changed or are changing.

Product uniqueness is difficult, if not impossible, to find these days – and where it exists, it seldom exists for long.  Even Viagra (to use one example) gained a competitor within a year, and now there are generics and multiple competitors.  The bottom line is that everyone has product.  Ultimately, pure product feature/benefit based transactional selling ends up being a race to the bottom, with competitors playing chicken over who will accept the lowest profit margin.

Limited information was another key element of transactional selling.  Even if the buyer knew, or was pretty sure, that a like solution to his/her problems could be found (and perhaps a price competition started), it took a lot of work in the pre-Internet days to find the competitor and get a sales presentation.  Now it’s easy.  Need a cost-per-page comparison on that new copier/printer the salesperson is showing you?  A few taps on your smartphone and you’ve got it before the salesperson can even get to the price.

Finally, Buyer styles have changed.  Buyers have less and less time to buy transactionally and review each purchase order and invoice – blanket PO’s and standing orders are the custom of the day.  That means that the salesperson whose focus is on capturing one order for one product can end up being left at the back of the line.

Relationship selling has also been affected by this.  I remember that, in the early 90s, my then father-in-law told me that the best thing I could do to advance my career and build more customer relationships was to learn to play golf.  Full disclosure:  I dislike golf.  Maybe someday I’ll take another swing at it (pun completely intended), but at the moment, I can think of 100 things I’d rather spend three hours doing than playing golf.

When I talk to golfing salespeople today, they often lament that it’s harder to get customers out of the office and on the course.  This is due to the fact that companies have done so much downsizing and right-sizing that important manager simply don’t have time to get out of the office – and when they do, the last thing they want to do is spend three hours with a salesperson.  That means that the traditional relationship-building activities (golf, lunches, dinners, football games, etc.) are going by the wayside – and not coincidentally, sales are being made more by rational business means than by buddy relationships.

This means that the environment has been perfectly prepared for conceptual selling.  Conceptual selling typically removes many of the transactional burdens from the buyer (hence freeing up a lot of time), and presents other operational advantages as well.  It also ends up being more profitable for the vendor, this getting away from the ‘game of chicken’ pricing model.

That said, it’s a fact that very few of the companies I’ve talked to either have implemented, or are implementing, a conceptual model.  We’ll discuss the objections to conceptual selling next time.

The Evolution of Selling

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I called “the escalation of needs,” in which I described the change I’m seeing in selling. Today’s salesperson must work at a higher level, be more savvy, and more polished than ever before. However, based on emails I’ve received about this article, I’m not sure that I made my point very clearly. Maybe “escalation of needs” is the wrong phrase.

When I started my business in 2004, I would tell people that I was a sales trainer, and they would respond by asking, “Do you do product sales or service sales?” My response was always the same – that sales in the modern era was all about service. Everyone had great products, so the sale was about wrapping a great service model around those products and showing why you were the best resource. That was one evolution of selling, but there’s been another, more significant evolution.”

The evolution in the last twenty years has been from transactional selling to relationship selling. The new evolution – or maybe it’s a revolution, and I’ll explain why in a moment – is toward conceptual selling.

Let’s use, as an example, an industry that I spent quite a bit of time in as a salesperson – bearings, power transmission, and industrial supplies (that’s all one industry handled through one distribution channel, not three separate industries).

In the mid-90s, much of the selling was still based on products. Here are the features and benefits of my product, here’s how it fits your situation, please buy it – and as you’re buying the product, you’ll buy it from us. This was reinforced by our company’s emphasis on product training (I once went to a 3-day school on ball bearings), and on the emphasis on vendor ride-alongs to sell their products. Very little time was spent on our service model, and the relationships that were built were specifically between the salesperson and particular contacts at the customer. Not surprisingly, most customers split their business between us and competitors, depending on who had the “best” products. We were selling mostly to mid-level or low-level managers like stockroom or maintenance managers.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, smart salespeople evolved to a service selling model. Salespeople (including me) approached customers saying, “Look, we have great products. I’ll be frank; so do our competitors. You should buy from me because my company has the service eithic and expertise to better take care of your needs. When you’re in doubt, we’ll pick the products ourselves, and when you know what you want, we’ll make sure you get it, on time, when you need it.” This model worked better because instead of competing for transactions, we were competing for customers. And once you won that sale, you typically got a majority (although not necessarily a full share) of your customer’s spend in your product category. Since the company’s processes and people were so integral to the sale, the key relationship was between companies. Most of the time, the contacts remained the same, although sometimes we ended up in an assistant plant manager’s office.

Also in the late 90s came a concept called “Integrated Supply.” In the integrated supply concept, a salesperson approached the corner office and said, “Let’s agree that great service and great products are expectations, not bonuses. What we bring to the table is the ability to handle the entire procurement process for everything you consume in your plant. You’ll still get the great products. You’ll still get the great service. But, you can focus on your core business because you will no longer have to make mundane buying decisions about everything from conveyor rollers to toilet paper.” The concept of integrated supply was sold to the ultimate decision maker (Plant Manager, President, CEO, etc.), and all the supplies came along with it.

In the industrial environment, integrated supply took hold in the mid-2000s, and most large accounts buy this way now. This means, of course, that salespeople who are selling product or service to those same mid-level managers as before are left on the sidelines.
The same phenomenon is happening in multiple industries. For instance, the copier and office technology industry is evolving from product (buy our copier because it’s the best) to service (managed print services where we handle everything from copiers to toner to paper and charge you per-click) to conceptual (let us install software that manages your entire document process, from creation to duplication to archiving). It’s probably happening in your industry – and if you’re not working, or getting ready to work, at a conceptual level, you’re going to get left behind.

That’s my whole point. When selling went from transactional (product) to relationship (service), some good product salespeople got left behind because they couldn’t transition. There are still a number of transactional salespeople out there (and transactional sales processes), and they are struggling. However, that transition was less difficult, because in most cases, the contact remained the same – so the major change was in approach.

Today’s evolution is tougher, because now relationship salespeople are getting left behind. They’re finding that their relationships aren’t with the right people to keep them alive in their customers. A great relationship at mid-level does no good when someone sells the concept of a different process to the mid-level person’s boss.

I’ve been saying for some time that the successful salesperson of the next 20 years will be far different from the successful salesperson of the last 20. Here’s how I see the successful salesperson of the next 20 years:

• Highly polished and professional: The successful salesperson of the future will be able to meet, and win sales, with the top officer in the company. He or she will be able to speak to the CEO as an equal, not as a supplicant. This means more than looking good in a suit.

• Great businessperson: The salesperson of the future will need more than expertise in products and services; they will need to understand how to read a P&L, how to help build and grow their customers’ businesses, and understand instinctively how to address issues like opportunity costs, hidden costs, and other high-level and big-picture issues that officers face.

• Versatile: That said, the salesperson of the future will still need to shift gears and work with the downstream implementers and influencers that will put their concepts to work. Yes, you’re going over the head of the midlevel managers when you approach the CEO – but if you do it right, they never feel like they’ve been disrespected.

• Well trained: Finally, that salesperson will need to be incredibly well trained in all three sales models – transactional, relationship, and conceptual – and know when to use each.

If that sounds like a big challenge, it is. But challenging is different than impossible. Are you up to the challenge?