David Mamet’s boiler-room real estate drama certainly doesn’t display the world of sales in a particularly positive light. The old-fashioned picture that sales is about browbeating uninformed clients into taking things they don’t need has long expired and the industry is becoming increasingly sophisticated. “There have been some major shifts regarding sales,” says Freddie Ossberg, founder and CEO of Raconteur Media. Aside from the current economic climate, this can also be attributed to a more globalised market, technological progress and lower barriers to entry. “All of these things have created an environment where businesses and companies are forced to do more than ever before with their resources. In order to be successful in sales today, you need to sell business outcomes instead of products and services.”
And yet it’s surprising that, while businesses are dedicating more time than ever to clarifying their business objectives, the same attention isn’t often paid to sales objectives. “What’s really interesting is that actually the number of organisations that use a very methodical process for the sales is actually quite limited,” says Harco van den Oever, managing director of Overstone Associates. He refers to a recent survey by CSO Insights on enterprises’ perspectives of their own sales teams – and you might be forgiven, as this was an optional survey, for thinking potential self-selection bias would encourage favourable results. However, this was not the case. “In fact, 60% of their respondents are saying that they’re not using a clear sales process,” he continues.
What is it about sales that means it doesn’t receive the same sort of process management as other areas of a business? “Some of the reasons that I can think of are the nebulous view of the sales organisation and a negative perception of sales,” says van den Oever. He feels that public perception of a sales team may be tainted by the stereotype of the secondhand-car salesman. “I think that’s probably one of the reasons why it’s not really been looked at in a sufficiently methodical way up until recently. And even now I don’t see enough of a structure around the sales process.”
Shaun Thomson, CEO of sales training provider Sandler Training UK, feels part of this is down to executives concentrated on the wrong goals. “The problem with the sales manager’s or business owner’s point of view is they focus too much on the result,” he says. “We’ve got to have the result, there’s no getting away from it. But what we’ve really got to measure with our teams is the behaviours.” Setting one’s sights solely on a total revenue target isn’t enough to ensure the money comes in; instead using effective project management is vital if sales teams are going to be able to achieve annual targets.
It’s important to break targets down into something much more manageable; knowing you need at least one sale a month is only the starting point. “We’ve got to work backwards and say: ‘I know from my experience if I have two second meetings with a fifty-fifty chance of closing the business I’ll get one sale,’” Thomson explains. “‘To get two second meetings, I maybe need to have four first meetings and to get four first meetings, I have to make 40 phone calls.’”
Central to Thomson’s point is that it does an enterprise no good to try to manage something beyond their control; it can’t guarantee that every customer will result in a sale. But it can ensure its team do the required leg work. “Those phone calls, that’s what the management should be measuring.”
This is something that van den Oever concurs with. “Key account management is a critical aspect,” he says. “Opportunity management, call management; those are the building blocks to enable you enable you to eventually achieve your business objectives.” The way an organisation handles its salespeople is also incredibly important – particularly in industries such as law or accounting where the people closing new business have extensive experience of service delivery. “It’s really critical to balance the soft and the hard aspect of your sales management,” he continues. “The hard aspect is in terms of sales objectives. The softer element is all about ensuring the sales person feels an emotional attachment towards what the organisation is doing.”
Essentially, a more sophisticated market requires more sophisticated sales staff. “Unsophisticated buyers don’t exist any more,” states Ossberg. “Unless you can use your business acumen to justify, ‘This is what I think the value and outcome for you as a client would be’, I don’t think there are any chances of doing business.” While in the past, teams could rely on classic sales skills, such as charisma, presentation skills and articulacy, it has become essential for sellers to have the knowhow to understand customers needs and processes. “Previously, it was all about numbers and working hard as opposed to working smart. But now salespeople will have to change from persistent, hardworking and chatty into people who are good at spotting and analysing business opportunity and communicating it clearly.”
However, employing only industry experts can have associated risks. “They have an emotional attachment: an engineer will be really interested in the speed of the turbine,” laughs van den Oever. “But the client is not interested in the speed of the turbine. They’re just interested in how much money they’re going to be saving.” What’s important is being able to to view things from their customers’ perspectives, because, with technological advances and the drive to shop smart, buyer sophistication is higher than ever. “Selling organisations often don’t have enough of an understanding of what else is there for the client to really be able to say, ‘OK, this is what the differentiator is of the product and services I’m selling compared to the competition’.”
Getting inside a prospective customer’s head is more about understanding what is obstructing their goals than trying to tell them why a product should attract them. “Customers don’t buy their needs; they buy solutions to the problems that they have,” says Thomson. Being able to identify what issues customers are facing – whether it’s establishing their place in the marketplace or feeling they have to slash their prices to compete – enables sales teams to ensure they are delivering solutions rather than commodities. He does concede, however, that it’s not necessarily as easy as it sounds. “Sometimes people are in denial about the problems they have or they think they’re so generic that everyone has them.”
But if you’re serious about your sales goals then it’s worth the effort to approach things from your customer’s perspective and ensure you’re putting effective sales processes in place. “I believe this has to be next step,” concludes van den Oever. “There’s so much being done on all other fronts that if you want to stay competitive you have to work on the effectiveness of your sales.”