3 Questions to Ask Yourself When Hiring a Sales Person

I know of no more challenging aspect of being a sales leader than making good hiring decisions. Leading sales pros requires very different proficiencies than just being a top sales performer in your own right. One of those skills is the ability to assess talent.
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Before you can be great at something, you have to be good at it. Before you can be good at it, you have to be bad at it. And before you can be bad at it, you have to try. This pretty much sums up my experience in the hiring-manager dimension of my career. I became very good at finding, evaluating, and hiring outstanding salespeople only because I used to be so horribly inept at it. Experience is the best teacher.

Fortunately, I’ve had several mentors who’ve imparted their wisdom to me. This blog post is about paying that wisdom forward to you. My greatest boss, teacher, coach and mentor, Glenn Yaffa, was the Executive Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates until his retirement. Glenn taught me to ask myself three questions as I considered a candidate for a sales role on my team.

1) Can they do the job?
Yes, skills and experience are important. However, the bigger idea here is “Can they execute? Can they deliver results?” Being effective in a sales role requires the aptitude to get the job done year after year without excuse. Certain challenges will always be present like unplanned price changes, inventory shortages, inconsistent quality, gaps in the portfolio, and competitive pressures. Even so, when you reach the end of the fiscal year, will this person offer up every excuse in the book to justify their failure or will they exceed all expectations because that’s who they are?

Don’t hire “Talkers.” Only hire “Doers.” Let me illustrate. I recently had a coaching session with a salesperson employed by one of my consulting clients who, for three consecutive years, had fallen well short of expectations. I asked him to make a list of the things keeping him from reaching his sales goals. As we stepped back to look at his lengthy catalog of “obstacles,” I pointed out that not one single item was within his control. His mindset, in essence, was, “It’s not my fault.” This is exactly the type of person you do not want to hire. Without further intervention, this guy would always be categorized as a “Talker,” not a “Doer.”

Contrast this with some of the stars on my former sales teams. These rainmakers saw the world from a completely different perspective. Their attitude was, “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me” and “My job is to ‘find a way’ no matter.” What a contrast! There are people out there whose internal “will to win” far exceeds any external expectations. They are worth their weight in gold because they know how to execute. They take full responsibility for outcomes and never make excuses. Job number one for a sales leader is to fill your team with “Doers.” No amount of training, incentives, or threats can fix a “Talker.” You must learn how to discover the difference as you evaluate your candidate pool.

2) Will they do the job?
What you want to find are people who are hard working, self-starters, and able to operate with little to no supervision. The idea that you have to motivate salespeople is a fatal mistake. Find people who want to succeed because that’s how they roll, not because someone is compelling them to do so. To discover if a candidate WILL do the job, ask lots of questions about their achievements to date. Ask them, “To what do you attribute your success?” Get them talking about how they overcame obstacles to get the job done. What you are looking for here is the will to win, and asking lots of questions about how they have functioned in previous situations is the best way to discover it.

3) Are they a great fit?
Never underestimate the importance of “fit.” Sales leaders are the keepers of the culture and, as one of my business heroes likes to say, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast!” The key to establishing and curating a solid sales culture is being clear with yourself and the team about the values and guiding principles that define who you are as a group. A great example of a winning team culture is the “work hard, play hard” mindset. Another one is “we like to win.” Do team members like each other? Do they respect one another? Do they value excellence? Are they committed to continuous self-improvement? Bringing a new salesperson into an existing high-performance team is risky business and an important responsibility of the team leader. Salespeople like to look around at the other members of the team and see similar values. Contrary to popular belief, selling is a team sport; there’s no place for lone wolves. You owe it to your stars to bring in other stars and nothing less. We’re not talking about everyone being exactly the same. On the contrary, there should be an array of diversity among team members so they can draw upon each other’s strengths.

Like so many aspects of the business world, practice makes perfect. Building a sales team that consistently delivers outstanding results starts with the hiring process. Take your time. Be patient. Don’t allow the pressure to fill an open role cause you to rush the process. Be diligent, ruthless, and thorough in judging the capabilities of prospects. Don’t rely too heavily on résumés and interviews. Above all, trust your gut. A good rule of thumb in avoiding hiring mistakes is, “When in doubt, don’t.” If you have any reticence about moving forward with a new sales person, that’s your gut trying to keep you from making a big mistake.

5 Ways to Tell If Your Sales People Aren’t Working

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Having lead dozens of salespeople and read thousands of sales call reports over the years, I have developed a highly receptive “BS detector.” Effective salespeople typically have winning personalities, which can be a double-edged sword. They have that perfect combination of being great listeners and smooth talkers with a highly persuasive way of interacting with other people. I’m not talking here about smarmy hucksters, but rather people who truly have a gift. An adept salesperson is often a very caring person. They can engage in small talk with ease and they make other people feel important. However, these same talents and tendencies often have a negative side. When things start to lean towards hyperbole and – in the worst cases – fabrication, you could be dealing with a completely different animal.

One of the jobs of a sales leader is to coach and teach people how to reign in some of these “gifts” and show a little restraint. It’s gratifying to see how time and maturity have a way of softening the edges and refining the nuances of dedicated salespeople. Exuberance is moderated with experience. The innate talent for moving others is raised to a high art.

But how can you tell if your salespeople are just plain full of it? Let me save you some time and trouble by providing you with five telltale signs you’re being taken for a ride.

1. Complaining about all the hard work.
Whenever I hear a salesperson blather on about how much work they have to do or how many hours they’re putting in, a big red flag goes off in my brain. Being a salesperson IS hard work. The profession is characterized by hard work and long hours. If you feel the need to tell me about it, you are most likely not doing it. This is a classic sign that a salesperson wants me to think they’re working hard. I’ve had the pleasure of leading some remarkable and highly successful people over the years and not one of them ever complained about how much they were working.

2. Making excuses.
You’d think this would be a little easier to spot but it can be very subtle so you must pay close attention. Excuses come in all shapes and sizes, but they all add up to the same thing: failure to take responsibility for your own outcomes. These people always have a convenient explanation for why something didn’t get done or some deadline didn’t get met. If you want to be a distinguished sales leader, accept results only – never excuses. Something either did or did not get done. No explanation needed. No explanation expected. I don’t need to hear why. Just come right out and say it. “I didn’t do it and I have no excuse.” Now, doesn’t that feel better? This can be used in all aspects of life, not just the profession of selling.

3. A vocabulary of empty buzz words.
Listen closely to the language of your salespeople. Do they have go-to phrases championing their supposed productivity? Such mendacities include “pushing for,” “trying to,” “waiting for,” and – my favorite – “working on.” Then, of course, there’s the granddaddy of them all: “hoping for.” For crying out loud, there’s a whole book written on this one! It’s called Hope is Not A Strategy. It’s your job as a sales leader to eradicate this baloney. What we want to see are words and phrases like, “met with,” “received an order commitment from,” and “closed the deal with.” Anything other than that is just fluff.

4. Lengthy call reports.
I’m really not a fan at all of sales call reports. Results talk; BS walks. “Are you on track to meet your sales goals?” That’s all I need to know. If you must have call reports, better to have a short & sweet but veracious one than the War and Peace of claptrap. As Shakespeare would have said, “Me thinks thou doth spew forth too much.” One of the most reliable signs you’ve got a slacker on the payroll is the flowery and empty chatter of a lengthy call report. Teach your reps to include only the most relevant info. Salespeople who aren’t’ working very much love to tell you how much they are and the call report is their favorite vehicle with which to do it.

5. They never seem to have enough time.
In his must-read book, The Four Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris said it best: “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant.” Wow, it’s hard to add anything to that! No one has any less time or more time than anyone else. Don’t use lack of time as an excuse for not getting things done. The profession of sales is one of the highest paid jobs around. According to US News, the average salesperson earns $65k per year. From my own experience, I know the very best make well into six figures as a base salary with bonuses as high as 25-30%. If you are being paid this kind of money, there’s only one thing your company wants in return: profitable results. Learn to manage your time well and prioritize. Narrow the focus of your activity on only the most important things.

All of this comes back to hiring the right people to begin with. Outstanding sales teams are built one person at a time. Get some training for yourself. Learn to be very good at assessing talent. Rely heavily on your HR team because this is their area of expertise. Beware the trap of falling in love with the job candidate in the interview. These same people who charm you from across the desk could easily be your worst nightmare. Don’t rely too heavily on resumes or even the interview itself. If there’s any truth to the adage that the person you interview is not the same person who comes to work for you, it is especially true of salespeople.

To Sell More, Stop Doing This

It’s very tempting to focus on trivial, easy-to-measure things like the number of sales calls made each day, week, or month. But routinely keeping a tally of this useless, hollow metric may be the single biggest mistake sales leaders make.

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Keep in mind whatever you measure you get more of. It’s seems simple enough but if you want to get more of something – anything- start measuring it. But, the idea that more sales calls equates to more sales is completely unfounded. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the primary reason most sales teams under perform. The false assumption being made is you can sell something simply by getting in front of someone one time and making a great “pitch.” If that were true, then yes, you should make as many sales calls as you possibly can. But, any salesperson of substance knows this is simply not how it works.

If you begin with the end in mind, the ultimate goal here is to have lots and lots of customers who are truly engaged with your products and brands. To get there, it takes multiple, high-quality interactions with customers before you can fully engage them. Building rapport and relationships is a time consuming process. By emphasizing a certain number of sales per day, you are actually inhibiting or working against this goal. Here are 4 reasons why:

The first problem with measuring the number of sales calls is it does not differentiate between high quality opportunities and low quality opportunities. Not all accounts are equal. This trite and tired metric of number of sales calls can really only measure one thing: effort. But, you can’t take effort to the bank. You can’t pay your bills with effort. You can only take revenue to the bank. “Effort” in and of itself is not a useful metric. What a great recipe for disappointing sales results: treat all customers as if they have the same value and measure the number of sales calls made on this homogenous customer base.

Secondly, the idea that making your salespeople work harder will lead to more sales is ridiculous. If you hired good salespeople to start with, they are most likely already working hard. Putting more pressure on your sales team or requiring a higher volume of work from them will actually hurt your sales – especially from your existing base of great customers which, by the way, is your best source of new distribution and revenue. Instead of focusing on the volume of work being done try looking for ways to improve your sales process and your sales approach.

Third, filling out call reports is a process-heavy task. By “process heavy” I mean time consuming. Time is THE most precious asset a salesperson has. Measuring results, by contrast, takes no time at all. Give your salespeople SMART goals, measure their progress against those goals, and stop worrying about how many sales calls it takes to reach them. There’s a name for salespeople who consistently miss their sales goals: unemployed.

Lastly, measuring the number of sales calls doesn’t tell you much about what’s really going on in the accounts or the marketplace. What if some of those sales calls you tracked were with the wrong people in the account? What if the primary buyer wasn’t present? What if the buyer was present but didn’t like your salesperson or her “pitch?” At best, this metric will give you a false sense of success. What good is a call report jam packed with a bunch of attempted and unproductive sales calls?

From the time you put an account on your target account list until the time they actually buy could be several weeks or months. We call this the “sales cycle.” There’s no set number of “touches” that it will take for them to finally buy (completing the sales cycle). Under-estimating the length of the sales cycle is a huge pitfall most companies make every day. “It takes what it takes” to get a customer to buy something. And whether or not that customer continues to buy from you regularly has everything to do with how they were treated along the way.

So what should you measure? Leading indicators like the number of customers who buy more than one SKU; sales per point of distribution (velocity) and how long a customer has been buying from you. Track real time sales results by sales rep, customer segment, channel of trade and product group. Thank goodness we live in an age when keeping your finger on the pulse of these powerful sales metrics is as easy as a couple of mouse clicks. CRM (Customer Relationship Management) tools allow you to do it 24/7– even on your mobile device. Things that used to be difficult to measure no longer are.

Isn’t it so much better to focus on sales activities that make the most sense rather than something that can easily be measured? Measure what matters. Ignore what doesn’t. Hire great sales people and let them do their job. Stop slowing them down with useless metrics and meaningless call reports. Focus on results, not effort.

Not all Accounts are equal. Not even close.

Very rare indeed is the salesperson and even rarer still the sales leader with the disciplined habit of ignoring most customers.

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They are also the best sales pros on the planet. I’d also say they are the bravest. In order to follow their internal compass and hold fast to their fervent belief that the good truly is the enemy of the best, they must endure a daily barrage of criticism from their bosses. But year after year, they receive their full bonus and grow sales at a greater rate than anyone else on the team so they stick to their guns and continue to prosper.

A quick story from my own experience. Early in my sales career, I took great pride in the fact that I “knew everyone” in the market – especially within my own sales territory. They knew me and I knew them. Lots of them. I would wake up every day with one mission: find a customer who wasn’t doing business with me and go “close” them. Opening up new accounts was the rush. Far more thrilling than the drudgery of servicing the accounts I’d already sold. I believed my sales manager when he said, “No one ever sold anything from the office.” I measured my own success by the volume of my work.

Then one day, I was on the phone with the big boss of a competitor who was thinking of hiring me. Sitting up straighter in my chair, I challenged the interviewer to “ask around about me.” Typical of my ego in those days, I volunteered the fact that I thought there was no better salesman in the territory than me. Unmoved, he replied, “There are better salesmen than you. Several of them.” It was like a punch in my gut and all I could think of was to ask, “Who? Give me a name?” And so he did.

Now, the punch line of this story is I had never heard of this man. Didn’t have a clue who he was. I then launched into a self-indulgent tirade slathered in righteous indignation. “How could he be such a great salesperson if I’d never heard of him? Why have I never run into him? I’m on the street every day!” That day I set out on a mission to find this man (we’ll call him Bob) and find out what made him, allegedly, so much better than me.

I did indeed find out why Bob was so much better than me and it caused a profound change in my selling style and philosophy that has stuck with me to this day. While the rest of us undisciplined fools were running around the marketplace like headless poultry chasing down anything that moved and naively confusing activity with achievement, Bob was in his office. He was studying, analyzing, and preparing. While I and my hapless peers executed a “fire now-aim later” approach, Bob practiced a ready-ready-aim-aim-aim-fire” style. Bob was a big game hunter. While I saw 10 customers in a day (and sold 6 or 8 cases), Bob saw maybe 2-3 customers a week. But since he had prequalified them as being the very largest customers, he often walked out with orders of 1,000-2,000 cases at a time. Bob understood that not all accounts are equal. Not even close. If fact 80% of the business was being done by 20% of the customers. Bob ignored the 80%, and, instead, focused his time (including preparation time) on the 20% exclusively.

I had never heard of Bob before that job interview and he had certainly never heard of me. Up until that time, I behaved like most salespeople do today. I placed a high value on things like effort, # of sales calls made per day, # of accounts sold, and hard work. I was the busiest person you ever saw. And, in case you didn’t notice, I would tell you about it.

Bob, by contrast, placed the highest possible value on his time. He was very miserly with his time because a) he understood it was limited and b) he expected the maximum return for it. By taking extra time to prepare to sell, his closing ratio was 8-10 times higher than mine. By narrowing the focus of his customer base to only the most attractive accounts in the market, he sold 10-20 times more than me. He blew away his goals every year and received his full bonus every year.

It is a sad (but true) indictment on the typical sales department that we tend to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity. We know this because we like to measure the quantity of work (# sales calls, # of days in the field, etc.) rather than the quality (the end result). How you reach your sales quota should not be nearly as important as IF you reach your sales quote. But, ask most sales people today and you’ll hear horror stories about being micro-managed by their sales leaders. I’ll save this for another blog post, but whatever you measure you’ll get more of. Want more sales calls? Measure # of sales calls. Want more sales? Measure results.

Ignoring 80% of the customer base is very difficult. No question about it. But it is the absolute key to dramatically accelerating salesforce performance! If salespeople are to sharpen the focus of their sales activity to only the most attractive accounts, their sales leaders will have to insist on it. Salespeople who operate this way on their own are extremely rare. Left to their own devices, most salespeople will behave more like the “Ben” in this story than the “Bob.” Moving from Ben’s intuitive approach that says, “Just do it” to Bob’s more systematic approach that considers account sales potential as a key determinant to success must be done intentionally. It won’t happen on its own.

We’re talking a major shift in sales culture and sales philosophy here. So, a good next step is to ask yourself: do you want good results or do you want great results? It is not only possible to accomplish more by doing less, it is mandatory. Time to start focusing on results instead of dedication. And, as always, I’m here to help if you need me.

To build a great sales team, start at the bottom

Some sales leaders believe the key to generating high levels of performance from their sales team is to threaten, bribe, cajole, and berate them. “Leading” by fear and intimidation is hardly what I’d call leading. In fact, if you are currently part of such a sales culture, I advise you to leave immediately.

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The idea that salespeople need to be motivated is preposterous. To watch some sales leaders in action, you’d think that salespeople are the laziest, stupidest creatures on earth and need constant supervision. If this describes your company, your problem is not the salespeople; it’s a lack of leadership skills and hiring practices. If you have salespeople who need to be motivated, you not only have the wrong salespeople, you have the wrong leaders.

The truth is great salespeople don’t need anyone above them telling them what to do or how to do it. Sales teams aren’t something that needs to be “managed.” There are really only two things they need from their leaders: stay out of their way and remove any barrier that prohibits them from taking exceptionally good care of their customers. Yes, I said “their” customers. Great salespeople are like franchisees. They take a winning product line and the proven systems of the franchisor and build a wildly successful business around it.

Oh, we’re really getting to the center of things now, aren’t we? To those sales pros and leaders who “get” this, no further explanation is necessary. To those who do not, no explanation will suffice. So, I guess there are really only two potential audiences for this blog post: salespeople who need to jump ship and find a company that “gets it” and business owners and executives who care about long term top line growth.

Great sales teams are built from the ground up; one sales pro at a time. One of the reasons this is not more widely accepted is because so many companies are doing it wrong. It’s a matter of perspective. Most companies are product focused rather than customer focused. The idea that if you build a great product, customers will automatically follow is only partially true. In fact, it’s a very small percentage of companies (think Apple) where the products are so exceptional they hardly need “selling” at all. For the vast majority of companies, there’s so little differentiation and so much competition (craft beer or wine, for example) that having a sales team is essential.

So you’ve got what you think is a great product or portfolio of products and now all you need is a hotshot sales team to sell it? Terrific. And, here’s where things go horribly wrong. I’m speaking directly to business owners and executives now: don’t believe the “conventional wisdom” of what a sales team is and does. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking sales are generated by whip cracking and carrot dangling. Don’t use a top-down approach to building your sales team. Here’s a common scenario: A company gets to the stage where they need a sales team so they find some “sales manager” type person and ask him/her to start hiring. But, unless this directive is accompanied by a solid strategy of what constitutes a great salesperson and how to hire them, what you typically end up with is a posse of old-school, transactional sales people who aggressively pitch products to customers. This is not the way to gain lots of customers. And the customers you do gain via this approach don’t “stick.” This is a top-down approach.

Run of the mill salespeople who have never been properly trained in the modern ways of selling are a dime a dozen and the turnover is very high with these folks. So, of course, the notion that they need to be “managed” just gets perpetuated. And since the customers you gain by using them don’t stick, you have to keep turning the heat up; quotas, commissions, bonuses, threats, and all sorts of trickery to “motivate” your sales team.

Instead, start at the bottom. What every business truly needs are customers. So, that’s where you should start. If you want to know what customers want, ask them. You could also ask a great salesperson. Start with one great salesperson and build up from there. Find salespeople who know how to deliver for the customers. Then find sales leaders who know how to hire and lead great salespeople.

If you’re not consistently meeting your sales goals now, consider this an invitation to start looking at this from an entirely new perspective. Taking the time to understand how great salespeople acquire and retain lots of customers could be a huge game changer for your company. And who knows; you might even find with 3 or 4 great salespeople on the payroll, you no longer need that high-priced sales manager.

3 Part Formula for Sales Success

As a consultant, I see a lot of companies, teams, and sales people struggle with how to sell more and to do it consistently. Many books have been written about the subject and millions of dollars spent on “training.” But like a lot of things in life, the answer is much simpler than you think.

Early in my sales career, I learned a few truths that stuck with me for 30 years. One of those aphorisms was that every salesperson has only two assets: his time and the good will of his customer. If you want to be successful in sales, you must immediately start placing the highest value possible on how you spend your time and improve the ways you interact with your customers. The 3-part advice I’m about to dispense follows this reasoning very closely. Part 1 has to do with former and Parts 2 & 3 with the latter.

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1)    Who to Call On

Achieving annual sales growth of 6-8% is for weenies. If you want to enjoy 20-30% annual growth, you’ve simply got to stop calling on so many customers. You must wake up and understand the 80/20 Rule is not only real; it’s the absolute key to becoming a Rainmaker in sales. One third of your success as a sales person comes from the understanding that not all customers are equal and, in order to achieve high levels of sales performance, you must sharpen the focus of your time and activity to only the most attractive and responsive accounts. When time, money, and people resources are limited, you must aim precisely.

 

My firm, and our tech partner, Equinox, specialize in the wine, spirits, and beer business. We wake up every single day completely perplexed why more companies aren’t taking advantage of the sea of data that exists nowadays. Zeroing in on the exact accounts you’d like your product(s) to be placed in is not only possible, but also compulsory if you want to build quality distribution and lots of it. And for Pete’s sake, do not leave this up to your distributors! They’ve got enough on their plates and you might as well get used to this fact: if it’s important to you, you’ll have to do it yourself.

2)    How to Call On Them

Here’s where I will lose most of you. Most of you, but not all of you, thank goodness. There’s a very good reason too many companies are selling less than they’d like: their salespeople are doing it wrong. Let’s see how many of you stick with me after I unleash this truth on you: “The more you act like a salesperson, the less you will sell.” If I’ve already lost you, read this book and get back to me: To Sell is Human by Daniel Pink. For those of you still with me, repeat after me: “A sale is merely a by-product of a much larger relationship.” If your salespeople haven’t been trained to create that “much larger relationship,” we should talk soon.

You can either keep treating every customer interaction as a “transaction” to be executed (ending in a “close”) or you can follow a slower but much more effective process where, by adding true business value to each relationship, you build distribution that “sticks.” Most, if not all, of your salespeople (and maybe yourself) have never been exposed to let alone trained in the more modern methods of achieving sales success. You don’t have to believe me. Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s a free country. But, if you’re ready to take your sales to the next level, this shift in approach is critical.

3)    Everything Else

Have you ever heard anyone say that the “real work” begins once the sale has been made? Ever heard the expression, “service after the sale?” For certain, making sales is only part of long-term sales success. Keeping the sales you’ve made is the other part. Salespeople are notoriously bad at providing service after the sale and it’s not entirely their fault. Thank goodness technology has made it easier than ever to maintain great customer relationships. Leveraging CRM tools help you monitor, track and engage with customers as often as you’d like. What good is making lots of sales calls and selling lots of product if the carpet just keeps rolling up behind you? Where’s the value in achieving 100 new points of distribution and losing 30 off the back end due to lapsed usage? As they say in the world of finance, getting “rich” is not about how much you make but how much you keep.

In the wine, spirits, and beer business, there is no shortage of things to do to provide great customer service. The “Everything Else” of which I speak includes maintaining inventory consistently, shipping product at the right price, training servers and wine stewards, and investing in promotions. It also includes the old-fashioned practices of being highly accessible and supremely dependable. Just doing what you said you’d do helps you beat out 90% of your competitors! And all of this is so much easier today thanks to technology. For further reading on this topic, click here.

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t already noticed, it’s getting tougher and tougher to build a wine, spirits, or beer brand in the US. There are way more brands vying for attention from fewer and fewer distributor partners. A good place to start turning things around for your brand is to take a hard look at your own company’s sales culture. Then assess how well you are taking advantage of data, technology, and best practices – services that are just a phone call away. The “great separation” is about to begin. Take steps now to make sure you’re on the winning end of it.

4 Signs Your Company’s Sales Culture is Stuck in the 80’s

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Let me say right off the bat I have no problem with the 80’s. I was in my 20’s all through that decade and I look back fondly on the era. Perhaps you do, too. But, if your (or your company’s) sales approach, tools, and processes are still the same as when Madonna ruled the airwaves and you carried a Walk Man everywhere, I suggest take a good long look at the calendar. It’s been 30 years for crying out loud. What worked then won’t work now. So, here’s a quick test to see if YOUR sales culture is stuck in the 80’s.

1)    You focus on products and product knowledge

There’s no question every salesperson should have a solid working knowledge of all the products in their portfolio. But if your company’s sales training places a heavy emphasis on product knowledge (along with the accompanying belief this will improve sales), you’re seriously delusional.

There are two problems at work here. The first is that many buyers see the things they buy as commodities, meaning completely interchangeable. This is why there’s so much pressure on price. If all products are the same, the only differentiation is price.

The second problem is buyers don’t need sellers to tell them about their products’ attributes. In 1985, they did.  But, thanks to Al Gore, any savvy buyer in 2018 can (and does) conduct his own research – right from his desk. The idea that buyers need a live person to fly to their city, rent a car and hotel and then appear at their desk in person just so they can talk about their products is insane. What an incredible waste of time and resources!

2)    You use phrases like “push” and “pitch.”

Whenever I hear the word “push” in the context of sales and marketing, I reflexively expectorate in my own mouth. Are you kidding me? High achievement in sales has nothing to do with exerting force or being aggressive and everything to do with building relationships and adding value. If I have to explain this to you, I know what to buy you for your birthday: a calendar. The year is 2018. And for heaven’s sake, read Daniel Pink. Read Seth Godin. Read Malcolm Gladwell. You’ve missed a lot of great books in the last 30 years. I suggest you get busy. And unless you’re presenting a major business deal to a group of angel investors or you’re a guest on Shark Tank, you’ve got no business using the word “pitch.”

3)    You measure number of sales calls made

Whatever you measure, you’ll get more of.  Which would you rather have: more sales calls or more sales? Beware of the lame assumption there’s somehow a correlation between activity and achievement.  Nonsense. Fiction. Healthy, profitable sales are the byproduct of a much larger relationship. Why not measure the number of engaged customers you have? We’re talking about people who repeatedly use your products on a regular basis. Do you know how many of your customers have been with you for 2 years or 5 years or more? Do you know the lifetime value of each customer? Do you know what it costs to acquire a new customer? Now, these are great things to measure. Stop measuring sales calls. When the horse stops breathing, it’s time to dismount.

4)    Lots of time spent preparing presentations

Whenever I rail on about the futility of presentations, I always receive wide-eyed responses of indignation- but only among those that are “stuck in the 80’s.” The fact of the matter is most salespeople just don’t know any better. No one has ever taught them differently. I like what Jeff Thull says in his brilliant book, Mastering the Complex Sale. Jeff says that most presentations are a waste of time because they’re plagued with three fundamental problems: content, timing, and audience. They present too much, too soon and to the wrong people. It’s amazing how much time some salespeople spend preparing presentations. Just like I mentioned above about the focus on products and product knowledge, there’s this mistaken assumption that success in sales is about giving people information. It might have worked in the 80’s but it’s virtually pointless in 2016. That time would be better spent discovering needs and designing solutions collaboratively with the client. The “modern” way of selling is not about peddling information. It’s about engagement and adding true business value.

If you’re bothered by anything I’ve said here, it’s not entirely your fault. Well, most of it is your fault because you haven’t taken the steps necessary to improve and hone your skills in order to keep up with the times. But, it’s not entirely your fault. Most companies who employ sales teams not only perpetuate the outdated sales methods of the past but reinforce them. The good news is it’s never too late to “upgrade” your skills. I’ll leave you with this one final thought: “If you can’t change the company you work for, change the company you work for.”

Eight Traits of Great Salespeople

Ben Salisbury headshot

I didn’t set out to have a career in sales. Like many people, I just happened into it. But I stayed with it for thirty years. And for just over half of those years, I was a leader and coach of salespeople which, for anyone who’s done it knows, is an entirely different ball of wax and requires a completely different set of skills than being an individual performer.

Just as in any other line of work, there are varying degrees of proficiency in the field. You’ll find a wide assortment of great salespeople, horrible salespeople and everything in between. Unfortunately, the general stereotype of a salesperson is not a positive one, which is a shame because the vast majority of people who make a living in sales are darn good at what they do. It’s not fair to them that all salespeople are lumped in with the hacks of our profession. I feel especially bad for great used car salespeople (and I’ve met many) because the bad ones ruin it for everyone else.

So, what separates good salespeople from bad salespeople? Another question is do bad salespeople even know they are bad? I’d say a big part of the reason salespeople get such a terrible rap is because their own companies have trained them to do the wrong things (if they bother to train them at all). They simply don’t know any better. It’s like when I get bad service in a restaurant. I don’t blame the server. I blame the management.

I’m reminded of what really bad salesmanship looks like whenever I walk into my neighborhood big-box home improvement store and I’m welcomed with the universally loathed greeting, “Can I help you find anything?” Not only are these unofficial greeters NOT store employees but they are the world’s worst salespeople. It’s the classic bait and switch. Drape a standard-issue apron on your chest, masquerade as a store employee and attempt to “hard sell” any hapless fool who walks through the door on the features and benefits of your windows (or attic insulation or whatever super-high margin product is being pushed that day). Wait- you mean you weren’t really serious when you offered to help me find something? Of course you weren’t. Hack.

But I digress. This post is supposed to be about what makes a great salesperson so extraordinary. I will, therefore, happily focus the rest of this space on the eight traits, I have found, to be universal among the very best salespeople. A quick side note: As many championship teams have proven time and again, you don’t have to be a great basketball player to be a great basketball coach. I take no small comfort in this truth because I was never a very good salesperson myself – maybe just slightly above average. But as a long time coach of salespeople, I’ve learned to spot a great one when I see one and understand entirely what makes them so special.

So, without further ado, here is my list of eight traits of the greats:

 

They are supremely dependable.

Great salespeople keep their commitments. Period. They always do what they say they’re going to do. Always. Whenever buyers are given the opportunity to rate, rank or otherwise recognize their best vendors, this quality of “dependability” is universally at the top of their list. I mean, look at it from a buyers’ perspective. Most salespeople over promise and under deliver. In response, buyers tend to steer the bulk of their business to the most dependable, trustworthy salespeople. It’s not rocket science, but it is oh so hard to find people like this!

 

They are hard working, self starters

I always chuckle (audibly) when I hear sales managers ask how to “motivate” their sales people. Here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice: don’t worry about how to motivate the members of your sales team. All great salespeople hold themselves to a much higher standard than you could ever dream up for them. Hire people who are selfmotivated and then get the hell out of their way. Want something to do? Look for ways to make their paths as smooth as possible.

 

They excel at building and maintaining relationships

We’re talking, here, about genuine relationships. Not the highly manufactured “hi-how-can-I-help-you?” nonsense you get from the apron-clad store greeters. Great salespeople truly do care about people in general and their customers specifically. You can tell because they are also great listeners. When I’m on this topic, I always think about a one particular person on my team (who, eventually, succeeded me as the leader). When Lou (his real name) talks to you, he gives you his total and complete attention. He looks you right in the eye and makes a deep, sincere connection. When you talk to him, you feel like you are the most important person on the planet. You feel like he really cares because – guess what? – He DOES.

 

They keep good records and are very organized

Great sales people take a lot of notes. In order to deliver on the first point above (being dependable), they know they can’t trust anything to their memory. Whenever I hire someone for a sales role, I do my best to test and probe to find out what their organizational skills are like. I know, from experience, that being a salesperson is a very tough job with a lot of details to track. Only a super-organized person can perform well in the role. To be fair, there are certainly lots of great salespeople who are not very organized but they are no picnic to manage. Go for the organized ones if you can.

 

They are very disciplined in the use of their time.

Here’s where we really start to separate the wheat from the chaff. Bad salespeople are notoriously “all over the place.” They tend to measure success in terms of hours worked, number of sales calls made, and the size of their to-do list. In fact, you’ll know you’ve got a “dud” on your hands if they’re always complaining about how hard they are working. Great salespeople have a lot to do too, but you won’t hear them complaining about it. The salespeople who get the most done are very stingy with the use of their time and allocate it in a way that will provide them (and their company) with maximum return. They never confuse activity with achievement. They want to be measured by results, not methods. They are the measure-twice, cut-once types (credit to another former team member, Colleen B for this gem). To great salespeople, time IS money and they are thrifty stewards of it. And, lastly, they know when & how to say, “no.”

 

They are highly coachable

You can always tell a bad salesperson because they already know it all, their sales manager is a moron, and they’re always talking way more than they’re listening. Truly great salespeople, however, are intellectually curious. They are always looking for a better, faster way. Humility in a person is such an attractive trait not because it makes them a more pleasant person to be around (which it most certainly does) but because it puts them in a constant state of readiness and openness to new ideas. The good news for sales leaders is this one is very easy to ferret out during the interview. Just get the candidate talking about themselves and their accomplishments. If you can’t get a word in edgewise, then cut the interview short and move on.

 

They are great team players

Most people don’t consider sales a team sport. But it’s very rare to be a professional salesperson and not also be part of a sales team. Most companies have many salespeople grouped into teams of five or six with a common manager. Great salespeople not only enjoy being a part of a team but also thrive among like-minded peers. They feed off each other, support each other and, together, elevate the atmosphere as well as the performance. Great salespeople are very others-minded and look for ways to cheer on the group. Sales leaders carry a great responsibility to not let the locker room be poisoned by a non-team player. Like cancer, it will kill the team from the inside out. Do your best salespeople a favor and learn how to spot this trait during the interview process. It’s your job to keep these bad apples off the team.

 

They have a positive attitude

I probably could have listed this one first since it is so important. Glass-half-full people make better salespeople every single time. Positive people lift up everyone around them. Being a salesperson is a very tough job! You can’t survive, let alone thrive, without keeping a positive attitude. Great salespeople are also very supportive of both the team leader’s and the company’s policies. They don’t take things personally. They bounce back from failures and setbacks. They wake up every day just knowing it’s going to be a great day.

 

So that’s my list. Are there any other traits of greatness? Absolutely. And I’d be thrilled if you’d add some of your own thoughts and experiences to the comments section below so we can all benefit from your perspective. Or, feel free to email me at ben@salisburycreative.com

 

One final note to all the wonderful salespeople out there who are shining examples of how to do it right: keep up the great work!

Selling is Dead

tombstone

Selling is Dead

Man, it feels good to say that! I have wanted to say it for a long time but, you know, when you work for a big company and your business card says, VP of Sales, you have to be careful about expressing such decrees. Someone might get offended. One of the nice things about owning your own company is you’re completely free to say what you believe. Even better when you’ve got a blog…

So, yes, what you might call “traditional selling skills,” if not dead already, will continue to die a slow death. I don’t plan to dive into all the reasons here so I will name just a few: the unlimited access to information via internet, the attitude of Millennials buyers/consumers, the power of Social Media, Big Data, etc. Techniques like overcoming objections and closing techniques will become even more obsolete than they are already.

I remember the first time I came across the following statement in the book, “1ndispensable” (not a typo) by Joe Calloway: “The old days of getting the appointment to make your presentation and then waiting to overcome objections are so yesterday’s news it hurts.” It hurts. Yes, that is totally it. When you finally mature enough in the sales profession to see how “yesterday’s news” this selling style really is, it literally hurts to watch. The sad part is it happens a million times a day right here in the year 2015. Well, I’m sorry but someone has got to say something and it might as well be me. Spoiler alert: many of you will not agree with me because you’re married to an outdated and dying paradigm.

What I offer you, instead, is a more modern way of selling (if you even still want to call it selling). It’s more like co-creating than it is selling, really. Let me explain. It takes an incredible amount of arrogance to launch into a speech about your company and your products when you have not yet taken any time at all to learn what is important to the buyer and what their needs/pain points are. This is one of the reasons I’m so thankful for CRM systems like ZoHo, Salesforce, and SUGARCRM. These tools train you to collect lots of details about the Accounts and Contacts you’ll be approaching later. Key word is “later.”  The modern sales game is more about seeing how much you can learn about someone rather than how much you can teach them about your products’ features and benefits. (BTW, I’ll have to leave this to another blog post but, companies who over-invest in product knowledge training for their salespeople are failing to see how the world really works. Nobody gives a rip how much you know about your product. Yes, it is important to know about your company’s products but that only gets you to the starting gate. Product knowledge alone won’t lead to more sales. Unless it’s coupled with modern selling philosophies, it’s potentially a waste of time and money.

I feel a rant coming on. Be careful not to confuse activity with achievement. Whatever you measure you’ll get more of. Go ahead- measure how many sales calls a week your sales team is logging. You know what you’ll get? That’s right, more sales calls. But if you want to get meaningful, sustainable results, start measuring the number of truly engaged customers each rep has. How many raving fans of your products has each sales rep cultivated? (Don’t think this is measurable? Let me guess: you’re not currently using CRM in your sales processes). Show me a salesperson who is “just-so-very-busy” and stressed out and I’ll show you someone without a disciplined system of operating. Lots of sales calls rarely equate to lots of sales. It just feels that way because you’re so darn busy and sweaty.

High quality, well-qualified, “sticky” sales are a byproduct of a much larger relationship. And relationships are formed by learning and inquiring about people. That’s right- real people. People with opinions and preferences and prejudices and experiences and influences.  You don’t learn about people by talking and presenting. Acquiring and then keeping customers is not easy and they both take time. Study your customers. Take the time to learn about them.  Don’t even think about approaching them until you’ve done your homework.

Here’s some good news: it is easier than ever to learn about your customers and what makes them tick. Between Linked In, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, it’s amazing what you can learn about people if you put your mind to it. If you have a CRM system, not only can you use it to help with your research, you can record everything you’ve learned. So what kind of tidbits should you be looking for? Some of it is obvious. Things like where they went to college, how long they’ve held their current position, what they used to do and where they used to work. You can find connections and contacts they have in common with you. You can also learn about their hobbies and interests. To go much further, however, you’re going to have to start reading between the lines. What do they read? Who do they follow? Who/what are some of their key influencers (both people and ideas). And, of course, nothing is more valuable than what people say. Read through their Twitter and FB feeds. See what they are saying and doing.

Now, let’s get this out of the way. Some of you might say, “So what? Just because you have this information doesn’t mean it will help you make a sale. What’s the point? Sounds like a giant waste of time to me.” To this I say, “Thank you.” Thank you for helping me make my point that traditional selling is drawing its last breath. The fact that you don’t “get” what I’m sharing here puts you squarely in the midst of a dying breed of “salespeople.” But, it’s not too late for you! Keep reading.

Once you’ve done your homework and you’re ready to make your first sales call, be aware that it may take many “touches” with this customer before they are ready to buy anything from you. The goal of that first sales call should be to learn even more about the Account and the Contact(s) – things you were not able to find out on your own prior to the call. There will be plenty of time later to talk about your offerings and solutions. But, the first or second interaction is hardly the time or place to do it. First and second sales calls are about asking questions, listening, and taking notes. These notes, of course, will be logged into your CRM system for future use.

Now I know that many of you reading this post are thinking, “You don’t know my situation. I have a lot of pressure on me to make my quota. I don’t have the time to sit at my computer all day and research potential customers. While you’re sitting there Googling, I’m out on the street selling. No one ever sold anything sitting in their office.” As a former leader of scores of salespeople, I’ve heard this refrain many times. I guess the kindest most respectful way to respond to this is to simply say, “You’re quite incorrect.” Apart from the fact that you most certainly can sell things (and lots of them) from your desk, the evidence for what I’m suggesting is overwhelmingly stacked in my favor. Sales made in the traditional way (presentations to strangers focusing on your products) do produce the occasional sale. However, those sales don’t “stick”- let alone, reproduce. The proverbial carpet is always rolling up behind you! Sales made in the modern way, not only stick, but give birth to other sales. The great NBA coach Pat Riley famously said, “The will to win is important but, the will to prepare to win is vital.”

And that’s all I’m really talking about here. “Winning” customers and sales is all about winning over people. And, to do it right; to do it effectively; to do it in a way that makes your efforts compound upon themselves over and over again is to accept the idea that “traditional selling” is dead. Allow yourself to, at the very least, become willing and open to the modern ways (and tools) of professional selling. We’ll save some room for you at the top.

Too good to be true can still be good

Marlborough 20

When I was young, I remember my Dad telling me that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Wise counsel, indeed, but it sets you up for failure in one particular way: not everything that looks too good to be true is. Its just that its “newness” spooks us because it’s so unfamiliar to our existing frame of reference. I just finished reading David McCullough’s book about the Wright Brothers. Here were two guys who everyone truly thought were bonkers – even AFTER they’d proven all skeptics wrong! There’s just something in human nature that won’t allow us to accept “new” ideas readily.

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from a personal business hero, Howard Schultz, the venerated Chairman and CEO of Starbucks. He advised, “Don’t just give people what they ask for. If you offer them something they’re not accustomed to, something so far superior that it takes a while to develop their appreciation for it, you can create a sense of discovery, excitement, and loyalty that will bond them to you forever.” Chairman Schultz was a man of great vision. He created something people didn’t even know they wanted.

All of this brings me to my point which is in order to make great leaps forward in your business, you’ll have to suspend some of your current (and often deeply held) beliefs long enough to entertain new ideas that don’t fit neatly into your up-to-this-point experience. I guess the good news here is since most people won’t do this, it makes success easier for the few of us who will. I have a vivid memory from my early days in sales, working for a wine & spirits wholesaler in Houston, when I first saw a Bell Curve being drawn on the blackboard. I loved the concept immediately- that there were basically three types of people in the world: the few people at the top, the few people at the bottom, and the vast majority of the people right smack in the middle. I have desperately tried to stay out of that middle ever since.

Another favorite quote comes from Timothy Ferris’ book, The 4-Hour Workweek: “Most people will choose unhappiness over uncertainty.” Again, super good news for those of us willing to take some risks and blaze new trails. So, if you’re one of the few at the top of the Bell Curve, please read on. Otherwise, please hit “escape” or delete and go back to your comfortable world of business-as-usual so I don’t waste any more of your time. You will certainly never be lonely there.

If you’re still with me, I’d like to ask you a few questions: How good of a job are you doing keeping your existing customers engaged with your brand (and by “customers,” I mean restaurants, fine wine shops, etc)? If one of your products gets a great score in the press or your company is launching a new brand or line extension, do you have a way to quickly and easily let ALL of your existing customers know about it? To what degree are you augmenting your existing sales efforts and investments with technologies like CRM software (Customer Relationship Management), Email Marketing and Key Account Targeting?

Among the many things I’ve learned after 30 years in sales and sales leadership, is the fact that most salespeople confuse activity with achievement. Flying and/or driving from customer to customer and conducting face-to-face meetings, albeit expensive,  will always have value. Always. But guess what?  It is not the only way to sell.  Yet, for hundreds of companies in the wine & spirits industry, it’s still the only way they do it (outside of the burgeoning DTC market). This is 2015. We live in an age of big data and instant accessibility to just about everything. There IS a way to extract serious value from the data and corresponding insights but it requires a willingness to accept new ideas.

What I suggest is keep doing what you’re doing if it’s working for you. But, consider there is something you can do in addition to what you’re currently doing that can dramatically accelerate your sales performance (and at a tiny fraction of the cost). I mean, why not leverage every available sales vehicle instead of just a few of them?

Our industry is very much behind other consumer products industries when it comes to sales automation and leveraging technology. Ironically, our industry (especially the wine business) is far more competitive than any other CPG category. So, the industry that needs it most is also the most reticent to adopt it. I guess it’s because it looks too good to be true.