This article was written by Ed Hatton and first appeared in January 2011 Shop sa, the official magazine of the Stationery, Home and office products Association. The Association is fortunate to have a journal of this quality serving its members; it is a great and informative read.
Developing the sales team to gain a major competitive advantage
When you evaluate your business, listing your competitive advantages, or the even more specific Unique Selling Propositions (USPs), are they all price, product or service related? Are they sustainable?
About now some readers of this article may be thinking “Oops, I know I should look at that one day…” or “In my business everyone is the same, price on the day is the only difference…” If either of these thoughts reflects your position I suggest you stop reading and examine why your customers buy from you. If you really are a me-too business with no differentiation in the eyes of your customers, and yet you are still making sales, you are taking huge risks. If you don’t know why customers buy from you, then a change of circumstances outside your control, and perhaps even outside your awareness could have catastrophic consequences for your business.
Most competitive advantage positions relate to a product or a particular type of service. FedEx’s famous “When it absolutely positively has to be there overnight” or Debonairs “If it’s cold you don’t pay” are examples or service differentiators and Pastel’s “Nine out of ten Accountants recommend Pastel” or Audi’s “Vorsprung durch Tecknik” suggests product excellence. Price is often used – “Lowest price or we will refund the difference” is the essence of many price based differentiators. Commentators have used these slogans to show examples of USPs, and if your company can find a real and sustainable USP or two it will be in an exceptionally powerful position. Many companies have to settle for a more limited competitive advantage – being noticeably better than the competition even if that advantage is not unique.
How about developing the sales force to deliver a competitive advantage?
A team so professional, so knowledgeable and so able to solve customer needs that customers choose this company primarily to secure the services of the sales team. Services can be copied, product advantage is usually fleeting and the lowest price is the hardest of all to sustain, but the best sales force in a sector is a USP in the true sense of the word. What needs to be done to get to that position?Firstly the sales team needs to be experts in all your products. They need to know the technical details, shelf life, risks of using, price options and packaging details and how and when the product is used to best advantage. They should be skilled in showing the advantages of the product, and able to advise customers how to use the product to satisfy needs. They should know what other products in the range can be used as substitutes, and have a fund of examples of successful and unsuccessful applications of the product in the field. And then they should have the same knowledge of every competitive product, with their areas of similarity and difference, strength and weakness. How many organisations can say, hand on heart, that everyone in their sales team complies with every point in this paragraph? And yet it is so easy to achieve.
Secondly they need to be the most professional salespeople in your field. This means that they need to know all about their customers, to be famous for never making a commitment they don’t keep, and for being genuine advisors rather than hard sell pushers. They will confirm discussions and actions from every meeting with a customer and schedule calls which the customer welcomes. Their understanding of the customers’ strategy and competitive situation will be sufficient for them to add value to that position. They will dress appropriately, speak the customers’ language fluently, joke and party appropriately and be seen to enjoy what they do.
Crucially they must respond to customer needs. Here is a simple test: How early in the sales cycle do the salespeople demonstrate the product? If close to the start of the cycle they may be product focused. If much later in the sales cycle they are likely to be uncovering needs first and responding to them. There are wonderful courses and books on needs satisfaction selling. The best sales team will understand both the techniques and the thinking behind this skill, which is more effective if the salespeople have to have a good grasp of business principles and the business practices appropriate to their products, whether that is in IT, finance, production or marketing. A sales team with enquiring minds is a huge advantage.
Golden opportunities to become the best in the business
An often-ignored aspect of needs satisfaction is ensuring that the customer enjoys successful use of the products. A superior salesperson will continually probe for effective use, making suggestions and calling in technical resources where necessary. A key question to ask here is “how could my customers’ usage of our products be improved, and how can the sales force be seen to be the drivers of that improved performance?” If the sales force is selling to resellers there are even more opportunities to become the best in the business. The salesperson now has the opportunity of satisfying both the needs of the reseller and the end user. Helping the reseller’s sales team to be more professional should be a golden opportunity to drive reseller loyalty.Clearly the sales team need to be very skilled in the techniques of selling. They should speak and write well, be good presenters and able to demonstrate benefits not features. They should be skilled negotiators, unafraid of canvassing or closing. Business ethics are important Lastly the sales force should demonstrate great business ethics and standards. They need to be honest enough to tell the customer if their product is not right for them, and knowledgeable enough to recommend and alternate. They need to be able to admit fault and not try to push blame on others. They must never disparage their employer, its products or its allies. And if something goes wrong with a product delivery I suggest it should be the salesperson who advises the customer in advance.
The company must play its part too. Sales managers should manage the effectiveness of sales, not just the turnover. An up to date CRM system makes a huge difference – so long as it is used as an aid to sales performance rather than a stick to police call rates and quotas. The right training in solutions selling, product knowledge, business principles and customer relations should be available. The company attitude to the sales team must be one of respect for professionals rather than of negative attitudes and jealousy. The sales force themselves can be the catalyst to change negative perceptions by becoming the best. People will notice when sales increase.Can your company develop your sales force to generate a true competitive advantage? Don’t even try if your company regards salespeople as a necessary evil and pays them as little as possible. But if you have a good and respected sales force and you want to make it a great one then take each point in this article and plan how you will help your sales team to become the best.
About Ed Hatton
Ed has mentored and advised entrepreneurs for many years from his consulting company The Marketing Director. He is known for his successful work with start up companies and in helping SMEs to grow and develop. He is a speaker and writer, the person behind the advice column The Start Up Coach in Entrepreneur magazine, and contributes regularly to other publications. More details are available here or contact Ed by e-mail
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