Sales people make fantastic study

Sales people make fantastic study. It’s strange that we don’t even realise that sales is a legitimate profession probably until our twenties: who decides to go into “sales” at University? It’s a bit like the now out-moded aversion to people who are “in trade” – as opposed to a) being gentle-persons of leisure or b) in the professions. Which is absurd really: name another job – apart from rating or selling or managing equities in the City – where in my industry at any rate you can be comfortably earning 6 figures by the time you’re 30.

And yet, let’s face it, most sales people are crap. Apart from the usual paranoia around the “just a suit” and “gift of the gab” themes, you know the complaints: they don’t listen, they’re lazy, they don’t understand their products, they’re not organised and they hate admin (“oh, and they get paid far too much and I can do it much better myself anyway”).

But we all need them. In the brief space available, I shall fire off some of my pet hates and loves about “salesmanship” and some hiring tips.

Selling has been called the art of persuading other people to have your way. Rapport skills are important and first impressions are always the longest (you only have one chance to make a good first impression, so you make all those jokes later!). The key technology in getting other people to have your way is simply this: asking good questions. Bad people pitch too soon, so eager are they to flip the laptop and dip into Powerpoint slides which extol what they have been trained, parrot-fashion, to explain are the features and benefits of their products. How do I know why you should buy my house unless I know what you’re looking for? (which is different from why anybody else would buy it.) Try it now: ask your salesperson to “sell you their house”. 9 out of 10 will tell you how fab it is (i.e. why they like it). Your needs and wants will be pretty much ignored! The Real Business model sales person will reply: “what are you looking for or what’s important?” Get the idea? When I interview sales people, I always assess their questioning technique by seeing how deep candidates dig, not just about my company and products, but about what it’s like to be here, how to be successful, what the issues are, what I’m looking for etc. Bad salespeople ask about the product, the competition and then say “what do you want to know about me?” I always reply: “why should I give you the job?” and of course, they haven’t a clue, they never asked and we finish the meeting. Another excellent sign is whether or not they take notes: no notes, no job. How else can they remember what you (and eventually your customer) think?

A good company will conduct internal workshops to brainstorm, structure and document a formalised approach to sales questioning. You’ll be wondering now how to arrive at what questions to ask. Well, you know what are the “unique” propositions of your product or service (I hope!). I like to define these as a set of features, advantages and benefits – and the value of that benefit to the individual. The classic example is the big golfing umbrella. Feature: it’s big. Advantage: it covers more of you. Benefit: keeps the shade off? Keeps you dry? Hides you? All depends on “what’s important to you about (golf) umbrellas?”

Then you just work back from these propositions, setting out questions that would get the prospect to feel the full value of your offering in their context. (Sounds easy, but it actually takes a long time and often generates heated debate). Plus, there are loads of questioning funnels you’d wish to explore, including economic, technical, emotional, political and so on – the more expensive your offering, the broader the question set. I know people who run specialist workshops to help get at this stuff – usually buried away in Founders’ brains or selling anecdotes.

At the end of the day, selling is about direction, quality and quantity. The direction is who you talk to, the quality is how you do it and the quantity is how often and how much to achieve your targets. To illustrate the latter: (and this how some commoditised businesses work): my sales goal is £500k, this is made up of 20 orders (based on my average sales value of £25,000). I get one order for every 10 leads. It takes 2 meetings and 4 phone calls on average to close an order. Go figure the activity levels to accomplish the goal. Managing time and activity is incredibly important: the vast majority of selling time is spent chasing deals that you won’t win. Depressing thought! When hiring then, I look for hard evidence of analytical and measured approaches to managing selling time effectively, which means looking at processes, diaries, systems etc.

But the odd thing about all this is that you spend a few hours with this person in interview situations – where you’re obviously both selling to each other - and then you entrust this stranger with your single biggest issue. Rather like getting married really: just make sure you take as many references as you can.