Sales 101

John Rossi, YSU Marketing Faculty:
Firms Must Train Sales Professionals to Succeed

April 20, 2018
Firms Must Train Sales Professionals to Succeed

The character of a sales force and its role in executing a firm’s marketing strategy are related to the skills, aptitudes and performance of its salesmen.

Building a competent and knowledgeable sales force and providing training about their industry, markets and the products and services they offer is critical to the long-term success of any business enterprise.

Truly professional salesmen often have a personal need to succeed and want to achieve results for themselves and for their firm. Sales professionals naturally love to compete.

Successful companies have a responsibility to devote time and money to provide the requisite training to enhance their employees’ capabilities, increase their productivity and strengthen the performance of the sales force.

Training programs can be as simple as using the courses public and private training vendors offer. Or firms can develop their own programs tailored to meet their needs.

In business-to-business supply channels, the sales objective is more often thought of as providing a solution that encompasses a specific tangible product or service while providing some combination of benefits, tangible and intangible, tailored to meet the customer’s expressed needs and wants.

The challenge facing both customers and salesmen is that in the era of the internet and information overload, business buyers have a vast array of choices when they seek to buy a product or solution that meets their requirements. Therefore, an important role for the salesman is to simplify the choices and communicate to the buyer all the features of the product or service, prices, delivery options and related elements of the complete solution.

“Product” must be more broadly interpreted to encompass the information, services, ideas beyond the product or service itself – hence “solution selling.”

As a result of this shift in thinking, the salesman’s role becomes more about discovering and clarifying the customer’s situation and problem, creating a plan for how things could be better by working together, and how partnering to implement a solution should result in satisfying the buyer’s expectations and provide the promised benefits.

Product knowledge is where to begin. A sales force should be familiar with all aspects of the product, including its development and quality along with performance data and specifications.

These elements are what most buyers want to know. They are often the same factors the customer uses to compare the merits of one product versus another.

Pricing and delivery are always important elements of a customer’s solution, whether a product or serv-ice. Professional salesmen benefit greatly when they are empowered to supply accurate price and delivery information because this decision-making authority gives them more power to meet objections and close a sale.

This pricing authority and ability to negotiate conveys a professional responsibility and accountability to the salesman. The buyer often reads that as a sign of the confidence the firm has in its representative, allowing the salesman to win trust. It’s a truism that people buy from those they like and trust.

Maintenance and service agreements are almost always part of a complete solution. Service agreements add value by incorporating the buyer’s priorities and help to distinguish the firm or supplier from its competitors. Most important, such agreements provide assurance to the business buyer and reduce the likelihood of buyer’s remorse.

Product knowledge can be acquired through web-based sources and company catalogs as well as marketing and support materials. Product knowledge may also be available in company brochures and advertisements. However, one of the best ways to get firsthand product knowledge is spending several days studying the production process and other functional areas of the firm such as product design, accounting or logistics.

Sales professionals often overlook such confidence-building research and on-the-job training. It is a fundamental and valuable source of inexpensive product knowledge for personnel, particularly new hires.

Apart from training to become a product expert are two other vital competencies a new salesman must acquire: being a company expert and becoming an industry expert.

A salesman’s company and its character and integrity can have a strong appeal in a sales presentation, particularly when the customer is considering a strategic alliance or long-term supplier-partnership relationship.

The customer sees the selling firm’s culture, organizational depth, and expertise in the industry as an indicator of the successful performance of its products and services. Many times the most successful companies benefit from using customer testimonials to support their claims of superior performance or quality.

Buyers often use the seller’s track record to evaluate the likelihood it will meet expectations. When competing against other companies with strong proposals and similar pricing and support, the combination of company beliefs and confidence in the salesman often makes the difference.

Becoming an industry expert is easier said than done. Gaining knowledge of the industry and the competition is another aspect of becoming a professional salesman.

On the frontlines, it’s essential to know the competitor’s strengths and weaknesses, particularly in context of communicating your firm’s benefits and the added value in your proposed solution.

It’s been decades since I used any of my high school Latin. It used to be common to hear “caveat emptor” – Let the buyer beware. In today’s internet-connected economy, the maxim has evolved to “caveat venditor” – Let the seller beware.

The buyer has so much more industry information and research.

Salesmen should assume that the buyer is armed with the knowledge of all the competitors and the strengths and weaknesses of each. It therefore becomes imperative that they thoroughly learn about competing products and services before any sales presentation.

Never discuss the competition unless you have all your facts. Even then it’s best not to criticize the competition collectively or individually. And by all means avoid disparagements and accusations. Doing so serves only to diminish your stature as a sales professional.

Although rare, some firms lack product differentiation and sell commodity-type products. So they compete on price and/or value-added such as customer service or support.

If your firm offers such a product or service, and you can’t successfully overcome the pressure on price by communicating features linked directly to desired benefits, you’re likely to find yourself in the transactional segment of the market.

Transactional buyers are well aware of their needs and focus only on price. Therefore you have to refocus on reducing costs — if you can. You could benefit from responding with a distinctive offer — applying innovative terms and conditions, or by providing value-adding services with a quantifiable value to the customer, such as saving time and labor, or improving profit and return on investment.

Sometimes you won’t figure out a way to succeed in such as exchange. If not, then you may have to consider abandoning this segment, the commodity-type product or product line, or the transactional-type customers themselves.

Sales training that delivers the three key elements of product knowledge, market research, and industry expertise will markedly improve any salesman’s abilities to build buyer confidence and profitable long-term relationships.

Feel free contact me at The Business Journal in Youngstown – sales101@business-journal.com.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.