Birth of a Salesman

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:36 pm

This month, we’re going to examine three issues: the No. 1 skill a salesperson needs, the profile of a top salesperson and the top four mistakes salespeople make.

My thanks to TEC (The Executive Committee) resource John W. Asher III, who over the past eight years has reached more than 250 TEC groups and 400 TEC companies with his compelling message. While a member of TEC, he grew Global Associates Ltd., an advanced technology company specializing in the engineering and manufacture of electronic systems and components, from start-up to $50 million in annual sales.

The No. 1 skill

Did you know that roughly 4 percent of the salespeople in the United States sell 94 percent of the goods and services purchased? Likewise, are you aware of the fact that 80 percent of business-to-business transactions are the consequence of relationship-driven sales?

Given these statistics, which of the following would you conclude is the most important skill a salesperson must possess?

  • Product knowledge.
  • Sales experience.
  • Listening ability.
  • Industry knowledge.

And the winner is … listening ability! This is almost like a non-sequitur. How can you sell your product or service if you’re not in the telling, explaining or persuasive mode? The answer is that if you are in the listening mode, by definition, you are in the question-asking mode. The more questions you ask, the more compelled you are to listen. The net result is a solution provided by you that meets your customer’s needs.

I had the opportunity recently to see a sales presentation involving an $85,000 luxury vehicle. What impressed me was that there was no sales presentation at all. The salesperson kept probing the potential customer about his key issues as they pertain to driving a vehicle. The customer identified several, including safety, winter driving challenges, seating comfort and, strangely, gasoline mileage.

The salesperson finally presented the particulars of a vehicle he felt would meet the customer’s needs. It was almost an afterthought to go through the details of the lease, and the customer showed little interest in this part of the discussion. In short, it was an illustration of great listening and questioning around issues important to the customer, not the salesperson.

Profile of a top salesperson

Asher refers to five factors that he calls "the perfect storm of sales":

  1. Salespeople are "knowledge giants." You can’t trip them up on, for example, a competitor’s claim that their product or service is superior to yours because of this feature or that. They have this aura of competence and absolute decisiveness when it comes to describing a product’s benefit and value features. Potential customers see them as "go to" people in every sense of the word.
  2. They have an aptitude for sales. This can be tested to some degree, if a salesperson’s prior experience doesn’t speak for itself. In the pilot community, we often refer to some pilots having a much better "seat-of-the-pants" ability than others. This is the same thing. "Top Gun" pilots all have it. It’s part of their DNA. The same is true of high-performing salespeople.
  3. They are quick studies to pick up additional sales skills. For example, you can talk to a room full of salespeople about the need for "patience and perseverance." You can talk about the need to focus 80 percent of the sales effort on a few top prospects. You can state that it takes on average "12 touches" to close the sale. Top salespeople get it when others don’t.
  4. They are motivated. If a salesperson scores high for sales aptitude, you can take it to the bank that they are motivated. Otherwise, this is the sales manager’s responsibility. But it’s important to distinguish between two different sales motivational types. "Hunters" love the thrill of the hunt and get their motivational reinforcement from acquiring new accounts. "Farmers" like to cultivate existing accounts and figure out ways to "upsell or cross-sell." A mismatch can be costly.
  5. They are supported by a process. Top salespeople are notorious for not being very good at follow-up detail. So they need strong back-up in the form of customer service, account reps, cost tracking or any other function that can relieve them of tasks unrelated to making a sale. Put them in charge of these things, and you will make a top salesperson a mediocre one.

Common mistakes that companies make

  1. Promoting a top-flight salesperson to sales manager. We’ve probably all heard this management commandment for years, so why is it still an issue? Because companies continue to make this mistake. The point is that the very attributes that characterize a top-performing salesperson seldom meld with those required to be a top-flight sales manager.
  2. Confusing the roles of branding, marketing, sales and customer service. A common mistake is to saddle sales with raising market awareness (branding), obtaining qualified leads (marketing), and doing other in-house "after the sale" chores. For "hunters" in particular, this can be devastating to their sales performance.
  3. Failing to have a repeatable process for sales. This is unique for each company, but it should be documented and reviewed periodically by the CEO.
  4. Misunderstanding the CEO’s role in locating top salespeople. This should be in the CEO’s job description, because he or she has more recruiting clout than you might think.

All told, there are 10 items listed above, including "listening" as the No. 1 salesperson skill that you can use to see how your sales force measures up. It seems to me that these are mostly common-sense observations, but it has also been my experience that there is a tendency to assume that they’re in place when, in fact, they’re not.

Let’s face it. Anything that produces a competitive edge is worth pursuing. Until next month, here’s to making you sales force "best in its class."

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