In two previous posts in this series on sales professionalism, we focused on what sales professionals care about and what they know. Ultimately, though, caring and knowing won’t mean a hill of beans unless they are translated into action. What sets true sales professionals apart from their less accomplished peers is what they do differently, and what that means to their customers. Here are four things sales professionals actually do that make the professional difference.
Take responsibility for customer results. One of the most important hallmarks of a profession is a concern for the results to be generated for the client, so professionals take responsibility to ensure that the results they sell to customers are actually realized. This means staying with the complex sale through implementation to ensure that things go smoothly and that problems receive the attention and resources they deserve from the salesperson’s own company. A couple of years ago, I had a tooth removed. The dentist sent me home with explicit instructions, but to him, the job was not done. He called me at home that evening to see how I was doing, and then again over the weekend. That’s what I mean by taking responsibility.
Taking responsibility also means confronting the inevitable tough issues head-on. Sales professionals “run to the problem” (a wonderful phrase I first heard from Carl Rapp)—they respond to customer needs immediately, in fact they seek out sources of dissatisfaction. They’re not afraid of bad news, because they know it’s inevitable in a complex system sale, and it’s better handled early than later.
Responsibility for results is forced onto salespeople more than almost any other profession, because our compensation is so closely tied to it. Those with a professional spirit and approach, however, realize that long-term results are dependent on more than selling products now—those products have to continue delivering results for their buyers. In fact, what I’m really talking about here is having an ownership mentality, of having an attitude of co-ownership of the results to be produced.
Prepare. The customer’s time is valuable, particularly at higher decision-making levels. Sales professionals respect the value of their customer’s time by taking time up front to prepare for sales calls and meetings. In surveys, one of the most common complaints executives have about salespeople is that they waste their time—and it almost always comes down to a lack of preparation.
Most salespeople don’t plan. Some “natural born” salespeople resist planning because they’re confident that their skills will allow them to go with the flow and find a way to win the deal no matter what comes up. After all, most sales campaigns don’t come off exactly as planned, so why waste time writing when you can be in front of customers? The majority, though, see the value but just don’t do it. Probably the biggest disconnect I see in my training classes is the gap between intention and action when it comes to sales planning. Almost unanimously, salespeople understand that planning is important, but there are too many pressures and temptations to just go with the flow instead of setting aside time to plan.
There are so many details and factors to consider when pursuing a complex sale, from coordinating internal resources, to navigating several layers of the customer’s decision process, to remembering hundreds of product details and competitive factors, that anyone who does not write down and think about them is at an automatic disadvantage against a competitor who does plan. As the old saying goes, “you’re either working your own plan or someone else’s!”
Preparation includes learning about a customer’s business. In a previous article, I wrote about the four “PROs” of sales knowledge. With the exception of product knowledge, all of them require specific knowledge about individual customers, all of whom are unique in their own way. Product knowledge only has to be learned once, but customer learning never stops. By taking the time to learn about customers, you differentiate yourself, you improve the quality of your questions, and you become more expert than anyone else they see.
Communicate. This isn’t about being eloquent, which is surely valuable but not a prerequisite of professionalism. It’s about ensuring complete transparency. If the defining feature of a professional/client relationship is mutual trust, surely surprises and a misreading of intentions eat away at it. It’s the sales professional’s obligation to keep this from happening, by promptly, consistently and honestly communicating with the customer. A friend of mine has spent a year as a Global Account Manager for a European multinational. Recently they told his Managing Director that since he has been on board the once rocky relationship has been transformed because of his “straight talk” about what he can and can’t do for them. Interestingly, that straight talk must also be directed internally; sales managers don’t like surprises either.
But even straight talk takes a back seat to listening, which very few salespeople do consistently or well.
Learning by reading can only get you so far; you have to talk to the customer. This is the only way to get specific information that will help you in this sale. For example, reading won’t tell you about technical issues they’re having with one of their critical business processes, or about attitudes toward your solution, or what competitors are offering.
Listening is also crucial in setting the right tone for the relationship; it will set you apart, and it will earn you the right to be listened to when the time comes. Listening is a gift to your customer—one that they rarely receive from anyone, let alone salespeople. But it pays off for you as well, by making it more likely that you will find additional needs and opportunities.
Think Long Term. Sustainability applies to sales as well as the environment. The best sales professionals think beyond the immediate transaction and consider every sale to be a link in a long and mutually profitable relationship chain. It’s far cheaper and more profitable to retain existing customers than to constantly look for new ones. To a sales professional, every opportunity in the funnel is part of a larger picture of the customer plan. Even “hunters” are more effective when they have a bit of a farmer mentality, because the manner in which they hunt will affect their long term success rate.
In practice, long term thinking means patience, which can be a rare commodity under the press of quotas and demanding sales managers—patience not to push too hard; patience to listen even when the solution is obvious to you; patience to ask a couple of additional questions before going into your pitch. It also means the patience to pass up an opportunity where your solution is not the right fit for the customer, because it will avoid problems you don’t need and will generate a tremendous amount of trust for future transactions.
From a career perspective, long term thinking means professional growth, taking advantage of every training opportunity, keeping up with the latest trends and events in your industry.
Honestly, none of these are a big secret—but neither are they common. The relentless push for quarterly earnings performance translates into tremendous pressure put on salespeople to produce results now, so it’s almost a given that the average salesperson will cut corners. The fact that so few salespeople actually take time to do these things is actually good news for those sales professionals who do…and for their customers!
It’s hard work to be a professional, but in our final article, we will examine how everyone wins—the sales professional, their employer, and the customer.