THE SELLING DILEMMA
I didn't want a big play once in a while, I wanted a solid play every time.
There is a dilemma that exists within selling, and it has been around for some time. On the one hand, as I will explain within this chapter, salespeople are a dire necessity to many within our society. Unfortunately, however, it has become fashionable to attack those who choose selling as a careen The problems within selling have been accentuated by the many advances in technology and the perceived need to transfer that knowledge to the customer. This in turn has made many salespeople fit the stereotypical mold the public has held for so long of a profession they know little about: "Salespeople talk, but they don't listen."
I had been mildly aware of this problem but did not pay much attention to it. Then one day while I was shopping in the local mall with my family, a chance meeting with an old friend made me sit up and see the dilemma for what it is.
It was a cold winter's day, and we were looking to get warm, while killing some time and keeping our kids from climbing the walls. The moment we arrived at the mall, I learned that we were not the first to come up with this idea, but we nevertheless marched onward to the toy store. While our kids were playing with the floor items, my wife and I milled around with other parents, keeping one eye on the time and the other on our kids. A friend from college whom I had not seen for many years walked up and offered a warm hello. We feverishly went about catching up on each other's lives. Children were pointed out, wives introduced, houses and mutual friends discussed. Finally I asked my friend what he was doing professionally. The family seemed well dressed, and the stroller their child was in was top quality. He seemed to be doing well. Strangely enough, when I first asked him what he was doing, I could not make out his response. I asked again, and he began to explain.
"I work with people finding solutions to various situations within their organizations," he replied.
I scratched my head trying to figure out what he meant, then asked, "What does that mean exactly?"
This time, a little bit nervously, he responded, "I assist computer users in understanding their needs and recommend products to address these needs."
Well, some would take the hint and drop the topic right there, but I didn't. I could tell he was doing well, so why wouldn't he tell me what he did? I could not believe it would be illegal. Not this guy. So I reloaded my question one more time: "What do they call what it is you do?" I asked.
He looked down at the ground, stuttered and stammered, and finally whispered nervously, "They call me a salesman."
Oh my! Horror of horrors. I certainly saw no need to try to pursue this point any further. The look of shame on my friend's face resembled that of a molester being led in handcuffs past the TV cameras. My mind flashed a picture of this person being led out of the toy store with a coat pulled up and over his head. Through the crowd, whispers would be heard, "Caught the guy selling. Can you imagine?"
Oh, don't worry. I didn't leave him in this state. Imagine his relief when I told him that I teach salespeople!
My question is, What happened? Why is there this defensiveness, even shame, about being in sales? Every profession has its stereotypes, but the public's perception seems especially tied to these sales stereotypes.
RESPECTING THE ART OF SELLING
Sometimes it becomes almost fashionable to attack various professions. I must admit that I too have been caught up in the latest casualty of perception. When lawyer bashing began, my first feeling was that of relief. I thought, "Finally! Another profession is taking its lumps." How hypocritical! Yes, there are lawyers (unfortunately very visible ones) who discredit their profession. Does that mean all lawyers are bad people? What about the law? Is that unnecessary too?
Former ambassador and attorney Sol M. Linowitz writes in his book, The Betrayed Profession, "First we need to respect the law, then we can respect lawyers." I do not believe that anyone really thinks our society can exist without laws, and so we will always need professionals to help interpret the law. Linowitz's book was an inspiration to me with its reminder that the real problem in the legal profession is the respect for the law, not the degradation of lawyers.
I look at selling in a similar way. Before we can respect salespeople, we first have to respect the art of selling. But selling is a profession that is shrouded in mystery. What do salespeople do all day anyway?
My father once told me a classic tale. Many years ago, he was in business with his brothers. They ran a heating and air-conditioning company. Every couple of months, their insurance agent would visit. As my father tells it, here was a pretty relaxed person, driving a big Cadillac, with golf clubs neatly loaded in the trunk. It did not take long before my father decided he too wanted to be pretty relaxed, drive a Cadillac, and play some golf. Good-bye heating and air-conditioning, and hello insurance company. It is a decision he has never regretted, but the reality of selling was far different from his initial perception.
The perceptions people have of salespeople are rather amazing...of fast-talking individuals wearing fancy suits who cannot get their stories straight. This is not to say there once was not a time when the planet was infested with these creatures, but it is the '90s! Times have changed. Once upon a time, doctors applied leeches to sick people, but it is my impression those times are also behind us. Professions advance and become more sophisticated. So has the profession of selling.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
In this book, I talk of change of new systems, new processes, and new techniques. I believe change is necessary. This is not, however, an indictment of all the old ways. On the contrary. The past was far better than we knew. With the advance of computers and technology, something very dear was lost: a generation of tremendous salespeople.
I have a vivid memory of watching the changes occur within the insurance industry. I consider myself fortunate to have sold when there were no laptop computers. In fact, no office then had its own personal computer. If you wanted an insurance policy illustration, you went to the general office, provided the ages and names, and waited. Often you did not go on a call with an illustration in hand, rather, you went to an office with a pad of paper, an application, and a rate book. Customers talked of problems and needs, while salespeople talked of concepts and solutions. In those next few moments, something occurred that has since become rare: People sold and they sold based on who they were, not how computer literate they were!
It was tragic to me to see so many talented and tenured salespeople become casualties during the computer revolution of the late '70s. These people had ten times the product knowledge of their competition. They had experience and business savvy that was light-years away from those they were now competing with. What they did not have was pages and pages of illustrations and proposals. They could not quickly manipulate an interest rate or a payment amount. Then again, most of them would not have, even if they had the knowledge. It just was not how they conducted business. They were the true heroes of the selling profession.
I am all for technology and was one of those "young whippersnappers" who fought his battles with his computer. In retrospect, it set my selling abilities back years. It forced me to become a computing machine. Remember, machines have no feelings. I lost who I was, and I lost the empathy I once displayed with customers as well. We do have our technology now, and it's here to stay. Used properly, it can mean better customer service and improved efficiency. Those who are careful to blend technology with character continue to display the honor within selling.
I have a rather biased view of salespeople, but hear me out. Of course, there are problems within the selling profession. There are bad salespeople in this world, just as there are bad doctors, engineers, accountants, architects, and the list goes on and on. Some of these professions have gifted people who become necessary to our very existence. We all probably know of a kind doctor who took the extra time to get to know us and reassure us that the fears we were feeling were okay and expected. He may even have saved our life.
This type of example could be drawn out for just about any professional position any profession, that is, except sales. I do not understand why. How can we be so nearsighted? When will we wake up and realize that most people need a push once in a while to help make a decision? Left on our own to discover what we really need and the urgency with which we need it can have devastating consequences. Even those who preach sales every day forget this lesson from time to time.
About two years ago my wife and I purchased a car. Our experience provides a classic example of why we as a society desperately need good salespeople. When we walked in the car showroom and got hit with, "What's it going to take to get you into a car today?" I told my wife to step aside and watch me go to work.
I informed the salesman of my profession, gave him a stem lecture on closing techniques, and winked at my wife. It was time to see her man in action!
By the time we had settled on the car and the price, the salesman was nervously looking at the floor. He asked me about a number of add-on options, and one by one I said no. In the middle of this list, he asked me about antilock brakes. "How much is that little feature?" I asked. "Sixteen hundred dollars," he replied. I looked over at my wife, and once again with that smug, "nice try" expression, informed the salesman that the antilock brakes were unnecessary. "Yes sir" was his reply. The sales trainer wins again...or does he?
It may be of little consequence, but guess who rides in the car we bought? My wife and three children. Chances are we won't ever need the antilock brakes. What haunts me is, what if we do? You see, just like you, the smug guy who walked into that car dealership three years ago needed something that was lacking: I needed a salesperson.
Look at the poem, "Who Am I?" in the back of the book (see page 345). If you like it, copy it and put it up somewhere you will see it regularly. Every now and then when you need a little boost after a tough day or another thoughtless comment, take a quick glance. Remind yourself with pride who you are and what you do. We need to remind everyone who sells of the honor they carry within the profession they represent.
Unfortunately, salespeople are guilty until proved innocent. If the last contact with a salesperson was on the used car lot, the assumption is, regardless of person or product, the next encounter will be the same. Add to this the lack of understanding by salespeople of what it is that their real job is (I will take this up later), and you have the makings of a mess.
WHAT CAUSED THE PROBLEM?
Let's start with what caused the problem and then I will tell you exactly what can be done about it. I believe there are three major contributing factors that have created the current sales dilemma.
The first factor centers around the way salespeople are drafted into organizations. Many companies create what I refer to as a "hiring mill" approach to recruiting that is, a mass hiring strategy. This philosophy of recruitment makes certain assumptions. Assumption 1 is that Salesperson A, regardless of experience or training, will sell a major amount of product to family and friends within a rather quick period of time. If there is talent once these simple sales have been completed, the salesperson will begin to move into real prospecting. If there is not the kind of talent within the salesperson that would allow this person to make it in sales, he is counseled out of selling and replaced with another person, hungry and eager to get the job. Dozens of bodies are regularly moved into the sales bullpen, given a crash course, and told to sell. If one or two survive, wonderful. Even those who don't will probably account for a good chunk of product moved rather quickly. It almost resembles a pyramid scheme when you think about it. Countless times I witnessed this approach to hiring within the insurance industry and have interviewed numerous others in different industries who tell similar stories. Something important is not taken into account: the long-term effect this approach has on the customer and salesperson.
Regarding the long-term effects on salespeople, something is robbed from these people that is hard to replace: confidence and self-esteem. It is disheartening to see the familiar pattern develop. It starts with an ironic, cruel sense of invulnerability. In the first few weeks of a new salesperson's career, sales are typically very good. While others struggle, the newly hired are flying high, usually because of the immediate and easy selling of family and friends. Their production can be two and three times higher than that of a veteran. Just as many of these salespeople are lulled into believing their own sales immortality, the initial business dries up and the tailspin begins. The honeymoon is over. Some can pull out of it, but many cannot. Is there a more disheartening feeling than that of failure within one's profession? Unlike most other careers, this is a feeling that seasoned salespeople will tell you never really goes away.
In many instances, individuals are hired away from fairly stable jobs they have held for many years. These jobs are sacrificed for another stereotypical portrait of sales: little work, high pay, flexibility, and reward. Haven't you wondered about the flyer on your car from time to time: "Earn thousands of dollars a month. Work flexible, part-time hours!" This is another interesting stereotype that is lacking reality. The funny thing is that when you get right down to the heart of the matter, one of the aspects of selling that the public hates is the perceived simplicity of it. "How can that !#$% make that much money and not even have to work hard!" Sadly, when this same person gives in to temptation and falls prey to these hiring mills, he finds out far too late how misguided this notion is.
The hiring mill approach has negative effects on customers, too. Have you ever wondered what happens to customer accounts once a salesperson leaves the job? In many businesses, these accounts, now termed "orphaned," and handed off to (you guessed it) new salespeople. The product that was sold probably required little expertise from the salesperson and he therefore most likely showed little imagination. The lack of longevity creates a direct correlation to the lack of expertise. Two months later, a new voice calls on the telephone. This voice might even sound a little bit desperate because this person would not be calling if there were uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters, or friends to call. The expertise is still lacking, but the pressure is not. Often more is sold, the customer is eventually "orphaned" again, and the process continues.
Ironically, it is training that has become another contributor to the sales dilemma. Training is often spotty, not taken seriously, and a mere formality for most organizations. This problem manifests itself in many ways. I will focus here on just one aspect: prospecting. People who have not been trained to sell properly understand little other than "get in front of bodies and sell!" You see, the deficiency in selling has created an obsession with prospecting. That would not bother me so much if salespeople were taught to prospect. Unfortunately, the deficiency in prospecting has created an obsession with cold calling and telemarketing. Although these techniques, in moderation, are necessary, they are widely overused. The funny thing is that as much as many customers dislike this approach to selling, often salespeople hate it even more! Careers are often snuffed out before they ever have a legitimate chance of beginning by the soul-numbing, cold-calling grind most new salespeople are forced to endure.
Another major contributor to the sales dilemma hits at the core of how salespeople are motivated: numbers. Often salespeople are given two things when they head out to the field. The first is a territory a geographical section, that is to sell in. The good news is that no other salesperson from the same company can come into that territory to sell. All leads are passed on to the salesperson responsible for that territory, offering exclusive rights to sell in that location. The bad news is that this same salesperson can't sell to anyone outside that territory, regardless of relationship or request from the customer.
The second thing a salesperson is given, before heading out to sell, is a target number: what the company numerically expects from him. A salesperson unable to reach that number can be put on a corrective action plan and ultimately fired. Those who can exceed that number are often rewarded with rewards, like trips. If they can continue to exceed these numbers, or even achieve numbers significantly higher than projected, depending on the company, they can receive any number of lucrative incentives, including offices, secretaries, money, and status.
The challenge is intense. The lure to continue to produce at these inflated levels can be fierce. The temptation and pressure to produce numbers at the risk of breaching ethics can be overwhelming.
By the way, guess what happens to many territorial salespeople when they overachieve and hit all their bonuses? That's right: Their territories are typically cut down in size, and their expected numbers are increased. The climate is created for desperate actions on the part of the salesperson.
HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM
Clearly the current situation is not good. A selling dilemma exists, and I believe you now have an idea of what has contributed to creating the problem. As a salesman and a sales trainer, I would not be writing this if I were not prepared to offer suggestions of what can be done about it.
The hiring mill problem can be remedied. First, study the numbers closely. The national dollar figure from various personnel departments offers some rather startling information. It costs roughly $15,000 to $20,000 to hire and fire an employee in this country when all the numbers (training, advertising, start-up, etc.) are factored in. Just some of these numbers represent training costs, opportunity costs, customer relations, and management time.
One thing that always impressed me about the New York Life Insurance Company was their apparent conscience when it came to hiring. Although I was hired at the age of twenty-one, I was one of only two salespeople under the age of twenty-five in the country working for this company. This was a smart move when you think about how many peers a twenty-one-year-old has who are in the market for life insurance. Let's not forget that little thing called a "need," which ethical salespeople use to sell with!
New York Life represents a great case study proving the success of organizations that avoid the hiring mill temptation. Insurance companies use a standard measurement system, the Million Dollar Roundtable, which sets a monetary standard for success. All the insurance companies have the same monetary level for their salespeople to reach, and although it does not necessarily indicate vast wealth, it does represent a minimal level of success. New York Life has a sales force of approximately 7,500 agents. (Some of the larger insurance companies can have 25,000 to 30,000 agents.) Throughout the history of "the Million Dollar Roundtable" (well over sixty years), not only has New York Life led the industry in placing more agents than any other company in this club, the organization's total number exceeds that all the other companies together! The lesson? Hire selectively, with a conscience, and remember quality versus quantity.
With regard to the deficiencies in training salespeople, I devote most of this book to the correction of this problem. I will say now, however, that we have to stop focusing on how to close and how to prospect and get back to teaching people how to sell.
The final issue dealing with the pressure of producing company-driven numbers is a difficult one. On the one hand, the company-driven numbers approach has been proved to gain significant results. The problem is that it satisfies everyone except the customer. I believe the necessary change will have to be cultural. I have mulled over this problem for many years. A buying experience I recently had inadvertently provided the answer.
I was shopping for a car, bouncing from dealership to dealership, and I met with a peculiar salesperson at an Infiniti showroom. He kept asking me odd questions: "Are you comfortable?" "Did I explain that well enough to you?" Even when we struck a deal, the questions continued: "Are you satisfied with my approach to working with you?" "Do you feel all right with the deal we struck?" Why so many questions about his approach to selling?
I probably would not have figured it out if there was not a slight problem with my car. The next day when I went to pick it up, my salesperson greeted me with a look of despair. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me the car had been scratched. With the problems that confront this world, I though to myself, things could certainly be worse. Still, I was taken aback at his level of concern. He assured me it would be fixed immediately in a quality manner, and then came more questions. "Is that okay?" "Will a quality loaner be satisfactory while it is being repaired?" Yes, I thought. Relax.
When I went to pick up my new car and its new body work, I was once again greeted by my salesperson, who wore a much happier look. He boasted proudly, "Isn't it a perfect job? Are you happy with its appearance?" At this point I was starting to enjoy his immaculate approach to making sure I was 100 percent happy. As he ran (yes, ran) from the showroom to get a couple of papers yet to be signed, the manager brushed by me for a moment. "Happy with Fred?" he asked. Totally, but I was curious.
I mentioned Fred's unusual obsession with making sure I was happy and then learned the reason. At Infiniti, the sales force makes a certain amount of money for each car sold. Nothing unusual there. However, the bonus system is directly tied to surveyed customer satisfaction numbers. Each salesperson's bonus is strongly affected by the individual's customer satisfaction rating. So long "Buyers' Remorse," hello "The Customer is Always Right!" Could we not all learn from such a program? We need to stop rewarding successful salespeople by continually shrinking their territories and moving the finish line. It creates desperate actions on the salesperson's part and, worse, demotivates and burns out our best salespeople.
Finally, we need to tell a lot of our salespeople to loosen up! It's not as important to be serious as it is to be serious about the important things. There are many more important things in this world than making every sale. The monkey wears an expression of seriousness that would do credit to any great scholar. An important point to remember, however, is that the monkey is serious because he itches. Most of us in selling need to be reminded to ask ourselves from time to time, What can we take less seriously?
THE CUSTOMER'S RESPONSIBILITY
The customer is not without fault in the selling dilemma. I have spent fifteen years training and teaching salespeople how to approach selling in a consultative manner. I attempt to inspire those around me to believe that if they learn their craft and do the things necessary to earn the customer's business, they will not have to be burdened with an unnecessary price war. I tell participants over and over again that price is only one of many factors in gaining a customer's business. It is not the most important factor, and we need to remind ourselves regularly of this.
Ironically, when salespeople become customers, they are guilty of the same offense that confronts them on a daily basis. If you do not sell cars, think about the last time you went to purchase a car. You probably played this sort of perverse game and thought, "How much can I get this car down to?" And, "If they do not meet the price of the other dealership, I'm history!" Are we not guilty of forcing the salesperson to participate in the exact game we so much oppose? Oh, and by the way: This is a game many of us are only fooled into believing we actually win.
When working with a salesperson, we need to add more to our buying criteria, which ultimately heavily affect price anyway. Need you be reminded that you get what you pay for? We need to add customer service to our buying criteria. We need to add integrity, we need to add dependability.
We need to remind our customers (and remember when we are the customer) that we are purchasing a partner, not a price!
Finally, as customers, we need to resist the temptation we put upon salespeople. We loathe salespeople who are dishonest dishonest, unless, of course, it might benefit us in some way when we are the customer. If you do not respect a lack of honesty in your workplace, why ask others to be dishonest? When a salesperson says he cannot do something you are asking him to do, take no for an answer when you are being sold. Stop pressuring salespeople to engage in activities that are dishonest. If a salesperson gives a little wink and promises to do something that might not be "100 percent legit," you be the one to say no. Many ethics violations within selling are actually initiated by the customer. It needs to stop from the customer. It needs to stop from the salesperson. In my opinion, if you are honest most of the time, you cannot consider yourself ethical.
At this point, we have looked at the system within selling and at solutions that involve this system and customers. It is my hope that by reading this book, you will gain a deeper understanding of just what your responsibility as a salesperson is.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert L. Jolles