The changing face of sales Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2009

Your sales team is one of the most important parts of your company, as its members are the face of your organization and the first people most of your customers will interact with.

To form relationships with potential clients to close the deal, you need to develop the right team with the right education, knowledge and characteristics. To do that, sales education programs are growing in popularity and have become an important part of training people in a changing sales environment.

“Sales education focuses on business-to-business sales because it lends itself well to relationship building,” says Dan C. Weilbaker, Ph.D., McKesson Pharmaceutical Group professor of sales in the department of marketing and editor of Journal of Selling and Major Account Management at Northern Illinois University. “That relationship and trust between the customer and salesperson is important.”

Smart Business spoke with Weilbaker about how technology has changed sales education and how to align your business strategies with a new kind of customer.

What does sales education focus on?

There is a major focus on the importance of asking relevant questions and then listening actively to the customers’ responses. A lot of people may think that salespeople are good talkers, but it’s the contrary. The good salespeople are the ones who listen well. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to know your product and be able to talk about it, but it’s also important to listen to the customer.

How has sales education changed with the advancement of technology?

At first, sales was more transactional. A customer would come in, and the salesperson would tell him or her about the product. The customer would ask questions like, ‘How much is it going to cost me? How long is it going to take to get to me? Are there any special deals?’ If the customer liked the product, he or she would buy it, but if not, he or she didn’t.

As time went on, customers became more professional and were even trained in product purchasing. The Internet allowed buyers to get as much information as the salesperson had. But buyers needed help in creating solutions to their problems, so transactional selling morphed into solution selling. The salesperson asks good questions, listens to the customers, identifies their problems and then provides them with the best solution. Characteristics of the sales consultant then started evolving to accommodate this change.

What does the future of sales education look like?

It’s moving toward consultative selling. Buyers are now college-trained individuals who are not only looking for solutions but are also looking for the salesperson to be a business consultant and to look at the purchase from an enterprise level. What impact does purchasing this product or solution have on our entire operation?

They’re taking a macro view of the impact of each individual purchase, and the cost of ownership versus the cost of product is beginning to form in their minds. I could buy a more expensive product, but it would save the corporation money because it would make cuts in areas that the cheapest product did not.

How can businesses align their strategies with this new customer base?

It takes different kinds of salespeople who have to embrace a different way of selling. The number of people needed for transactional selling is declining, and a lot of that is being replaced with technology.

Instead of hiring salespeople, some companies have tried to script or codify routine sales practices using technology to reduce costs. Salespeople need to ramp up their skills to either be a solution or consultative seller, or they’re going to be out of a job.

You have to determine where you fit in the mix. Are your buyers still transactional? If they are, you can start changing some of your sales into direct mail, Internet and other scripted forms. But if your customers are more interested in solutions, you need to develop your sales team with that different mindset.

What characteristics do sales consultants need to be successful in today’s market?

There are several:

  • The ability to listen and hear what the customer is saying.
  • The ability to ask good questions that lead to real issues instead of the fluffy questions salespeople sometimes focus on. And asking good, solid, probing questions to find out the real problem, not just the surface symptoms.
  • Creativity and good problem-solving skills.
  • A good work ethic — this is the least teachable skill.
  • Being able to take rejection. This is the major reason for high turnovers with salespeople.
  • Knowledge of your products and offerings, as well as the competition’s products and offerings.
  • An understanding of the client’s business.
  • Adaptability to any situation. You can’t just go into a sale with a script, you have to react to the customer’s current needs and have a good knowledge base so you can shift gears in an instant.
  • Being open to coaching and training.
  • Most of these skills are learnable, but sometimes a salesperson might come in with one skill that’s already more developed than others.