Continual competition and evolution at the salesfront
Educationalist Jurek Sikorski, a former sales and marketing director in the life sciences and pharmaceutical industry, highlighted the continuing evolution of selling, from traditional face-to-face customer contact plus use of print advertising and promotional event marketing, through to today’s online marketing channels. However, he stressed: “These channels all play a part in generating sales leads but salesmanship still needs to convert the leads, which is a very different skill from marketing. And making it easy for customers to buy on and off line and providing exceptional follow-up service is fundamental to building sales.”
Aki Stamatis mentioned the competitive nature of his sector – workplace design, fitout and furnishing – and felt sales evolution was being driven by the changing requirements of 21st century businesses. “Our industry has changed dramatically from being focused on product-delivery to giving consultancy advice on the modern workplace, which today can be the hub, corporate image or growth engine of many businesses.”
David Bloxham of GCS Recruitment Services explained that phone contact was still the predominant sales comms link in his sector, but increasingly email and social media were becoming key channels to assist in building accounts and client partnerships.
However, whilst technology advancement had added and enhanced market communication channels, the personal approach of team members remained the most important aspect within GCS’s business, where ‘the product’ sold by his operational team was “matching people to people”.
Getting the right people within GCS and for customers was vitally important. “In our Thames Valley market we are constantly in competition for the best people. If we have the best recruitment sales team in Reading, we ensure that our customers recruit and engage with the best candidates themselves.”
Alex Tatham, MD of IT distributor Westcoast said the skillsets and requirements of his sales teams had radically changed and evolved over the past 20 years. “Oddly, our sales teams are probably less IT skilled now than they were, largely because the people they speak to are more knowledgeable and aware of IT.
“To me, the sales process, though competitive, is fun. I feel great when I grow sales, because the business is growing sales, and that’s my job.” Although a trained accountant and plainly interested in the figures, Tatham announced: “I much prefer to sell stuff because the key goal of my business is to grow sales.”
His passion for sales was fuelled by the vibrant and ever-advancing IT world. “There are always new and different customers too, so you have to tailor your sales team, with the right skillsets, technical levels for particular customers and how they want to be sold to. It’s about matching your salesforce to the customer need and then meeting that need with all your might.”
Richard Perriman said that as a global logistics services provider selling predominantly B2B services there had been a fundamental change in how these solutions were both packaged and sold in the past 20 years. Customers were ultimately looking for broader more complex solutions and on a global scale. Therefore, the marketing aspect had changed dramatically as had the salesmanship.
Nick Hicks noted the banking world’s privileged ‘helicopter view’ through its involvement in most business sectors. “Arguably, your growth is our growth.” Yet, the banking market had shifted from selling products to a consultancy role, understanding client requirements, and suggesting tailored solutions.
“Our (HSBC) objective is to be totally relevant to our client base and prospects. Our approach is far more targeted, with much more of a personal touch getting to know the business intimately.”
Hunters, farmers and ferocious gatekeepers
Bloxham: “Our best sales people are both ‘hunters’ and ‘farmers’. They are people that can make a good impression, and continue to make a good impression, in order to build interaction on a long-term basis. That’s what clients want – someone they can call, who understand their needs, and can provide what they want.”
Stamatis: “A lot of sales people in our industry are hunters, and having killed the sale want to move on to the buzz of the next kill. They are not necessarily the best at relationship farming, which they see as dull.
“That’s our sales struggle. We are having to learn not to kill things, but to foster them and let them grow through account management, relationship creation and constantly adding value, rather than just reacting to a client’s next supply request. Staying relevant and connected to a client long-term produces a very different mentality, and requires a different sales animal to one using the traditional transactional approach.”
For a lot of businesses today the way forward is about creating the basis for repeat business through a sophisticated non-product focused sales-service approach, he suggested. “Are you listening to your client’s needs or just there to tell them what you want to sell them?”
Ricky Lane said Grant Thornton’s people operate as both ‘hunters’ and ‘farmers’ – “servicing a client portfolio base while also going out looking to build relationships with new contacts.”
Diana Richards mentioned the difficulty in arranging customer meetings. “People have cold-call gatekeepers, or they have done their online research and simply want to know what deal you have to offer.”
Perriman: “With the introduction of voicemail filtering and gatekeepers, reaching the decision maker has become increasingly difficult.
“The challenge is to build value very, very quickly in a phone-call and to get an appointment.“
Is the sales process becoming more remote, less personal?
Internet-led commerce, price comparison sites and social media were double-edged swords for the sales world, the Roundtable agreed, but not ones that businesses could afford to avoid – or not exploit.
Perriman: “Social media and online data sources have created many new opportunities, but have conversely changed the landscape of the traditional methods used historically. The personal approach remains ultimately essential.”
Bloxham noted that while technology greatly assisted the sales process, “… understanding a client’s needs can only be done through personal conversation, not social media or email.”
Perriman: “We do experience more and more use of the tender process which does remove the people equation from the sales process in many cases and does make it harder to determine the real needs of the customer”.
Stamatis queried the role of professional buyers in the sales process, and pondered the levels of logic and emotional choice that should be involved within transactions. “Removing people out of the sales process and creating an automated buying system drives price, but does it drive value? Is that intelligent buying?”
Stamatis and Tatham suggested good buyers and sellers had an empathy with the overall transaction process and the motivations of those involved.
Is salesmanship being priced out?
Perriman: “Ultimately our fundamental belief is that people still buy people despite an increasing emphasis on using price comparison technology within the process which can remove the personal element. However, going back to my earlier comment regarding the key skills of experience, listening and empathy, exceptional salesmanship has to be the prevailing factor.“
Hicks explained that although HSBC’s global reach was a key differentiator, all banks had similar product suites and pricing today was totally transparent, so sales differentiation was difficult and largely came down to the people involved and tailoring solutions.
Perriman: “Price is the headline in many business sectors. Yet in our own lives we don’t make many decisions based solely on price. We buy what we want and justify the price to ourselves afterwards.”
Stuart Rolfe: “It’s not all about price. People like dealing with people, particularly when buying a valued asset like a car.”
Could it be curtains for car sales?
Hicks: “If I want to buy a new car, by the time I walk into the showroom I am ready to buy, because I have been on the Internet and will probably know as much about the car as the sales person – but I still want to see it, touch it and drive it and be guided through the process.”
Perriman said that technology has absolutely helped to educate buyers and made them more aware of alternatives. But as with any car or service the key is to align the budget with the need.
Rolfe accepted that most people now do pre-purchase online research: “If people are coming into the showroom today it‘s very likely for one reason – to buy – and that’s when the sales personnel need to do their job properly.”
Is ‘sales’ held in high esteem?
Perriman said: “In many ways, more now than ever, as increasingly customers are realising that their supply chain is business critical and the value to unlock the full potential and create a differentiation can only be achieved through partnership, experience and knowledge on a global basis.“
Sikorski: “Sales people are often seen as not asking questions, listening and understanding. They are not actually perceived as people who can help the customer’s business.”
David Murray: “Too much talking, not enough listening?”
Sikorski: “Exactly so.”
Bloxham countered that external perception. Within the sales industry, and his field of recruitment, good salesmanship was much sought after. “In recruitment, we have to sell ‘the product’ and ‘to the product’ as a two-way process. We have to operate as a middleman, taking on board a range of views and needs, and the art of such selling is highly thought of in our business.”
Tatham pointed out that sales teams consisted of people with normal human sensitivities, and poor public perception was not something they dismissed lightly.
Anyone got a sales degree?
While Stamatis explained: “In our industry sales people are key; they bring in the work and you can’t design and deliver a project without a customer”, he also noted that there were no university degrees in salesmanship.
Sikorski admitted: “Very few business schools teach selling today, but we (Henley Business School) are changing that offering a sales workshop and a four-day ‘Winning and Developing Customers’ open programme.”
“Lawyers, accountants and similar professionals find the concept of selling difficult because it has never traditionally been required as a part of their roles Mike Wilson accepted. “It’s very challenging to promote the sales mentality of ‘minders, grinders, finders’ within professional service firms. Our sector has lots of minders and grinders happy to do the technical work, but not enough people who are at ease with networking and selling services.”
Speaking from personal experience, Perriman mentioned that sales skills training was generally lacking in many industries, with learning ‘from the job’ quite normal. “Yet, the ‘trusted adviser’ aspect only comes from a thorough understanding of the sales process,“ he explained, “and through a thorough recruitment process and continual training our approach is to ensure our team have the right skill set.“
Richards said Wilson’s words resonated in the academic sector which had been “quite lazy” about selling its own services. “We have a very strong brand at Henley Business School and that has carried us through some difficult times, but during the recession there was a complete regrouping in executive education with a move to get much smarter.”
‘Smart’ selling is the way forward
Sikorski suggested the art of selling in today’s ‘smart’ sophisticated markets was in “… helping the customer to buy.
“That means starting out by understanding the customer, knowing what they really need and then delivering the solution that is right for them – which might be something completely different from what the customer originally imagined they needed or what you thought you would sell them.”
Rolfe explained that Ridgeway now employed local business development managers (LBDMs) throughout its operations, to support the marketing stance and strategies of the manufacturers within its prestige automotive brands portfolio. Additionally, Ridgeway’s LBDMs utilised website and social media contact along with e-comms and cold-calling to generate and progress sales.
“The brand-owners have an investment in our individuals as much as us. Targets are set to get past gatekeepers and make appointments so that we can sit face-to-face and build relationships.
Richards: “Today it is not about selling product off the shelf and relying on brand, but understanding the touchpoints across a business and becoming trusted advisers and consultants.”
Lane said that, there was no “silver bullet” and that professional services firms used ‘”a range of online channels such as social media, the external website and thought leadership pieces” as well as more traditional methods including cold-calling, database research and collaboration with other intermediaries such as banks and lawyers in holding business events.
“The thing is we are operating now in a market where there is almost perfect information for buyers, and the buying decision is a lot more sophisticated.”
“A lot of our key perfomance indicators (KPI) are around getting meetings, getting to know businesses and understanding their challenges rather than targeting specific sales. We don’t go out with a preconception of what service the business will want from us. Our aim is to become their long-term trusted adviser by listening to their challenges and then working with them to scope out a bespoke and tailored solution.”
Wilson said Blake Morgan currently concentrated on a more traditional approach to sales and marketing – networking, business events, training and profile raising. Good reputation, referrals and strong customer relationships also continued to sustain organic growth. However, no doubt influenced by young talent within the firm, work was increasingly being gained through social media activities.
Bloxham noted that sustaining corporate reputation, business networking and community involvement assisted sales growth by setting a company apart as “People who care about the people that we work with.”
Sales growth could be achieved by selling more or new products and services to existing clients, or by selling to new clients, commented Hicks. “Surely it should be both, over the years we’ve seen the dangers of reliance on one or two clients.”
He noted how delivery models had entered some sectors. “With today’s omni-channel approach to delivering products and services you can’t afford to do one thing well, you have to do everything brilliantly.
Sector-specific work tendering was now a legal market feature Wilson added, and pitching was not only against competitor law firms. “The market is now more open with alternative business structures (ABSs) involved too.”
Tatham: “Surely, the way to win a tender is to ‘write it with the customer’ in the first place.”
Sikorski agreed, highlighting that the key to good tendering was to truly understand the potential customer’s needs. Generally, such needs were based on reducing time and costs, improving efficiency, sales and profits, and “often forgotten, but very important today” adding value to the customer’s brand.
Analysis to support sales growth . . .
Sikorksi stated that Henley Business School taught eight essential selling skills, within a nine-step successful selling process, including the six important sales metrics. “Because what you measure is what you manage, and what you manage is what you grow.”
Tatham agreed that good measurement reporting could drive sales growth: “We use the line ‘Ensure that we can inspect what we expect’. It does help boost salesteam confidence to know that we can measure what we ask them to do.”
Hicks highlighted the importance of understanding the costs of incremental sales growth. “The cost of client recruitment in one channel can be small, but that client life expectancy might be equally small; the cost of recruitment in another form could be very high but the revenue generation through the lifecycle will be materially more.”
Sikorski: “The cost of acquiring customers might be colossal, but if the lifetime value of that customer is 10 times the cost, then the initial outlay can become irrelevant. There is too much focus on cost of acquiring and not enough determining the lifetime value of a customer”
Bloxham noted that the TV250 position of GCS had fallen this year despite the company having its best year ever in sales (net fee income). Company turnover (the TV250 listing criteria) had fallen, he explained, because more candidates had been placed in permanent positions. “It’s a decision that every company faces. Are you growing good sales for your type of business?”
GCS has also recently opened a new office in New York, upgraded its systems and invested in training in order to boost future sales growth ambitions. “On the ground” support for clients was also an important consideration within sales growth strategy, Bloxham added.
. . . and a lack of analysis?
Murray queried if anyone analysed their market competition.
Tatham: “Not really, we just beat them.”
Lane: “Whilst we keep an eye on the competition, we don’t agonize over how they go to market, we just aim to be the best that we can be.”
Rolfe said Ridgeway simply accepted “… there are no bad cars out there any more.” However, at new car launches, Ridgeway did invite its sales executives to drive market competitor cars and rate them against the Ridgeway proposition.
Hicks: “Where you have product or service innovation, market supremacy rarely lasts long and others catch up and innovate mimicking market leaders.”
Sikorski: “Businesses need to understand that today you may have an advantage, but it can be gone in a heartbeat because there are always followers, imitators and innovators that will catch up and leapfrog and offer improved value propositions.”
Lane: “The only true competitive advantage today is the ability to change and adapt within the market.” Being able to predict change through KPI measurement and analysis is the key to long-term success and staying ahead of the competition.
Stamatis: “Though we may be interested in what our competitors are doing, what surprises me is how little interest there often is in understanding what our clients really think of us.” Working in a customer information vacuum was no route to success.
Tick-box feedback forms and questionnaires didn’t really “engage with the client and provide the ability to design your business to do what your client wants.” Creating a relationship whereby clients give honest and accurate feedback was the ideal.
Tatham said Westcoast did exactly that – “We do speak to our customers about what we are doing and how we can respond better to them to gain more business.”
Bloxham stressed the importance of talking to the right people at different levels within the client’s organisation.
“Your customerbase is quite often your best sales force,” Lane commented. Happy customers, who are happy to promote your products and services, will speak to their peers, leading to referral work and beneficial reputational awareness within the market.
Sikorski: “The key thing is how to migrate the customer from suspect to prospect through to becoming loyal, because loyalty creates a lifetime customer. It’s about building fans and customers for life, not just transactional customers.” Referral marketing, product trialing, and customer advisory panels could all follow. Customer loyalty measurements such as Net Promoter Score and Customer Effort Score, are powerful metrics that provide significant insights and offer greater prediction of business success in growing sales and profitability, he added.
Creating and retaining customer loyalty was actually a company-wide task not just a sales objective, stressed Richards. “It’s vital that company operations throughout are on point all the time, doing an immaculate job for the customer. ‘All problems may be fixed by growing sales,’ but you have to support that statement in practice.”
Lane: “There is a counter argument to the saying, of course. Simply growing sales without profitability, or the right customers, or sales that detract from your brand value, and so on, can produce problems. Businesses need to align themselves with customers that share their values and represent what they stand for so you are not diluting the messages you send to both the market and your people.”
What makes a great sales person?
Rolfe said Ridgeway had its own internal process for sales training, but recruiting the right person was also important. Supported by the brand manufacturers, Ridgeway used outsourced recruitment profiling to source appropriate candidates.
Bloxham and Sikorski said psychometric testing and neo-profiling were often used nowadays. Predictive analytics and biodata methods were also popular.
Hicks: “The counter argument is that you end up recruiting to one candidate profile which does not necessarily cover the spectrum of your market. Is that the only profile that can work for you and your customers? My experience is ‘Don’t recruit people that are all similar, it rarely works.’”
Bloxham agreed that diversity within a sales team was important, since customers had different personalities. “I know there are consultants within my business that will get on better with certain clients.” While sales training was important, innate personality and communication abilities were too, with sales still essentially a people business.
Perriman felt the key was the ability to listen to, understand and empathise with the customer’s issues, and through their own experiences, thereby enabling the right solution to be determined.
Lane: “You need to care, have an element of curiosity to ask the right questions, but more importantly to listen to the answers.”
Sikorski: “We are all salespeople. Every person in every organisation sells, whether it’s persuading a colleague about a new idea for improving a product or service or convincing a colleague to do something. But we can all improve in our selling, and selling skills can be taught.
“Demonstrating self-confidence is the number one skill because all the other skills are underpinned by persistence which is all about demonstrating self-confidence. And selling skills enable the sales process to succeed.”
Incentives and gongs . . .
Murray invited comments on staff incentivisation to promote and reward sales growth.
Basic salary plus percentage commission was the standard model, but as Perriman pointed out “Financial reward only turns on some sales people. Regularly achieved commission can simply become part of an individual’s perceived salary, so fails to be an incentive.” Personal recognition among peers and within the business or industry can be a bigger driver, he suggested.
Grant Thornton shared success stories, not limited to business development, to internally recognise excellent performance and “create heroes” within the organization said Lane. The GCS sales team sounds a gong revealed Bloxham and Richards team had used an airhorn. Tatham mentioned bells and whistles, but reminded the Roundtable that any incentive scheme had to have a ‘carrot and stick’ element to it.
Non-payment of an incentive bonus had to be an option if performance did not meet expectations. Equally, secondary bonuses should be possible for outstanding achievement. Westcoast also had a team sales structure, with 20% of commission dependent on team performance.
“We try to make the work fun, interesting and achievable,” Tatham added, but Westcoast operated in a highly competitive market, and results needed to be achieved.
Equally, achievement of performance standards had to be set against that fact that many customers didn’t like a change of account manager.
The type of working environment could actually be an incentive to performance, Stamatis mentioned, while revealing that Fourfront had moved from individual sales commission to a team and also group-based commission structure. “We try to foster an attitude of a functional family that is interested in how everyone is doing.”
Grant Thornton was establishing the same culture through its shared enterprise model, revealed Lane. “This model encourages collaboration as a team, across all services lines and geographies, to provide the best solution for our client, rather than thinking solely about an individual relationship or piece of work.”
Ridgeway worked on a team commission basis too, said Rolfe with rewards for orders, sales and prospecting functions. One team, for example, would be going to the Christmas market in Prague as a reward this year.
Bloxham noted that social media and company emails could heighten the celebration of performance recognition. GCS also adopted a meritocratic approach to individual staff performance linked to career progression.
Research had shown that achieving a successful business was very much about teamwork, mentioned Sikorski. Sharing helped team bonding, but equally sharing the experience and knowledge of successful performance, and even failure, was a way of improving the chance of successful future sales. Using successful team members as coaches or to present case-study seminars was also an option.
Richards: “It does depend on the type of culture of reward or punishment within an organisation, of course.”
. . . incentives or inducements?
Murray mentioned days past when the entertaining of customers was lavish and widespread. “But now, with the anti-bribery legislation, what impact has there been on customer incentivisation?
Perriman exampled: “Building long-term relationships with customers remains as important today as ever. However, with time pressures it is increasingly difficult for people to create those opportunities.”
Rolfe agreed that invitees were even refusing driving experience days.
Wilson noted that finding available time in busy lives was also an issue for everyone, but the likely concern was anti-bribery legislation. There was a balance between creating opportunities to build relationships in an informal setting without it being seen as extravagant.
Lane said entertaining wasn’t actually intended to have an undue influence on a customer’s buying decisions; it was simply another channel in which you could build a better-rounded relationship with them.
Hicks: “It is a really delicate area, because you do learn a lot about clients when you are not talking about business matters. But, rightly so, there is significant rigor about this nowadays and corporate entertainment/hospitality has to be appropriate and recorded to meet ethical standards and legislative requirements.”
Bloxham suggested entertaining budgets were now being used for more work-related activities, such as business seminars.
David Bloxham: Managing director, GCS recruitment specialists
Nick Hicks: Area director, HSBC
Ricky Lane: Senior manager – advisory team, Grant Thornton
Richard Perriman: General manager business development, Horizon International Cargo
Diana Richards: Executive education, Henley Business School
Stuart Rolfe: Corporate sales general manager, Ridgeway Garages
Jurek Sikorski: Business development lead, Henley Business School
Aki Stamatis: Chairman, Fourfront Group
Alex Tatham: Managing director, Westcoast
Mike Wilson: Regional senior partner, Blake Morgan
David Murray: The Business Magazine managing editor and publisher, chaired the discussion