Recalibrating the standard for salesmen


Recalibrating the standard for salesmen

By Jerry Stapleton, for SBT

It’s been more than four years since I wrote my first column for these pages. In my inaugural piece, entitled “Death of the salesman,” I spoke with passion about the need for a fundamental transformation of the salesperson away from traditional selling, which I called Vendor/Problem-Solver selling.
The basis for my argument was simple: traditional selling had become obsolete and was no longer bringing value to customers or to the salesperson’s own company. “A salesperson, in order to contribute value, has to be viewed much differently by customers” I said. “He or she has to be viewed as a Business Resource.” I then went on to define the difference between the Vendor/Problem-Solver and the Business Resource.
The theme of “Selling as a Business Resource” has been — and remains — the foundation of every column I write, my recent book and my consulting work. This hasn’t changed.
What has changed — or, more accurately, evolved – as a result of my firm’s ongoing work in the trenches with salespeople, is some (not all) of how I define the difference between “Vendor/Problem-Solver” selling and “Business Resource” selling. I’d like to re-calibrate, so that we retain a reliable standard for what we mean by “Business Resource.”
And, like I did four years ago, I ask the questions: How do your salespeople sell? And, in turn, how do their customers perceive their value?
First, we must accept the premise the customers perceive the value of salespeople based on how they sell, not what they sell. Subconsciously, customers place salespeople somewhere on the pyramid shown in Figure 1.
For salespeople to create value for their customers — and their own companies — they must act in a way that causes customers to place them in the Business Resource part of the pyramid.
Whether a salesperson is likely to be viewed as a Vendor or a Business Resource can be determined by looking at nine dimensions of the salesperson. Some of those dimensions are proficiency-based, others are mindset-based. Either way, they are what define the salesperson. Figure 2 summarizes the dimensions. I briefly expand on them below.
1. Mode – Operating in “seek mode” is almost synonymous with being a Business Resource, while the “tell mode” of operation is what defines the Vendor/Problem-Solver. Traditional salespeople believe that their job is, in its simplest form, to educate and inform customers. As a result, they “seek” only long enough to find an opportunity to tell. But “tell” is their basic mode of operation.
2. Control – Can we control a customer’s purchasing process or buying cycle? Technically, no. Can we influence it? Absolutely yes!
The Business Resource attempts to influence the customer’s process by steering the customer to next steps. That can come down to something as simple as what the salesperson says at the end of a customer interaction. Where the Vendor might say, “What would you like from me?” (Where the answer, incidentally, is all too often the familiar, “Why don’t you send me a proposal!”), the Business Resource is more inclined to say something like: “Based on what we’ve talked about, may I suggest how we might proceed from here?” That’s steering, compared to the Vendor’s preference for reacting.
3. Self-perception – “The customer is always right” is an outdated Vendor mindset. (It’s still a valid service mindset.) It’s a result of the salesperson seeing himself as an advocate for the customer.
Such customer advocacy usually translates into the salesperson taking on the role of free technical resource for the customer or pushing the home office for better pricing.
The Business Resource sees herself as an advocate for both companies, seeking truly mutually valuable relationships with customers. Vendors feel like they’ll win customers’ favor by extending resources to them without asking for much of anything-even information-in return.
4. Focus – “Selling is about finding and meeting needs,” says the Vendor. The Business Resource, on the other hand, understands that customer needs come from the customer’s business issues.
Where the Vendor is guided by the principle, “The more I focus on the customer’s needs the better I can serve that customer,” the Business Resource is guided by the principle, “The more I focus on the customer’s business the more value I can bring that customer.”
5. Awareness – “Find the decision-maker!” It’s a phrase that everyone in selling seems to live by. Not so the Business Resource. Why? Because the Business Resource has a high level of “organizational awareness.” As a result, he or she knows that, because of political realities that exist in every company, “decision-maker” is a meaningless term.
The Business Resource deciphers each account’s political structure, making determinations about which contacts have, for example, a high title but low influence, or which ones have a low title but high influence.
6. Credibility – In order to be successful a salesperson must establish credibility with customers. The Vendor/Problem-Solver looks to his own technical competence as his source of credibility. The Business Resource seeks to establish “executive credibility,” which requires not only technical competence, but a broad base of business competencies as well.
7. Decisions – The Vendor works on gut feel and instinct when assessing a sales situation and making decisions about it: “This one’s in the bag, I can feel it!” The Business Resource — mostly because she sells with a process — relies on objective criteria for her decision-making. She never stops asking herself three fundamental questions: 1. Should we pursue this opportunity? 2. Can we win it? Will it be good business?
8. Value orientation – How a salesperson perceives the value of his or her own offering has everything to do with how the customer will perceive its value.
Customers perceive the value of the Vendor’s offering as “price plus value-added goodies” because that’s how it’s communicated to them by the salesperson — “total cost of offering.”
When customers assess the value of a Business Resource’s offering they perceive, instead, the aggregate value of doing business with the salesperson’s company – “total value of relationship” – because that’s how it’s communicated to them.
9. Accountability – When the Vendor loses a sale he or she says, “We lost because … (fill in the blank with “price,” “our company’s poor reputation,” etc.]”.
The Business Resource takes full responsibility for winning and losing. If, for example, the Business Resource “loses on price,” she immediately concludes that either she failed to communicate value in a compelling enough way or she failed to recognize earlier in the sales cycle that the customer would never buy on anything but simple purchase price, so she should cut her losses. In short, the Business Resource always says, “I was outsold!”

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These are the nine dimensions of the Business Resource salesperson. Where do your salespeople – or you – weigh in on these dimensions? The answer will tell if you’re ready to participate in this new era of selling or will be left on the sidelines.

Jerry Stapleton is president of Stapleton Resources LLC, a Waukesha-based sales force effectiveness practice. He can be reached at 262-524-8099 or on the Web at

April 18, 2003 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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