The sales process of the future

Technologically enhanced, socially connected and fearsomely well informed about customers and markets, today's salespeople are a different breed from the pushy types who banged on doors and invaded shop floors. Ben Lobel looks at how the sales process is evolving.

Today, companies have to contend not only with difficult economic conditions but the subsequent tensions in the sales team caused by slow trade. It seems inevitable that sales approaches will continue to evolve to win business in a world of dwindling budgets and cash-strapped consumers.

Perceptions of standard sales practices have certainly changed over time. Andy Mabbutt, managing director of Feefo, an online merchant review system, has been in the sales game since the age of 18 when he started pushing telecoms solutions in the late 1980s.

‘Traditional sales approaches back then were cold calling, door knocking, trawling the streets with samples and wares,’ he remembers. ‘We were taught in those days to be completely confident, to walk into a room and act like you’ve already got an appointment with someone even if you’ve never met them.’

Mabbutt recalls that the advent of intercom systems posed a threat to his intrusive tactics – but not for long. ‘I was told by a more seasoned salesman that you needed to muffle your voice to make people think there’s something wrong with the system so they’ll eventually give up and let you in.’ But then CCTV arrived to spoil the party. ‘I remember covering my mouth and a voice coming back saying “If you take your hand away from your face we might be able to hear you clearer”.’

Demise of door-to-door

In the mid to late 1990s the traditional sales methods started to be considered old hat and door knocking wasn’t seen as professional. ‘There came a point when people were getting sick to death of strangers walking into receptions and demanding to see the managing director,’ says Mabbutt. ‘So rather than cold calling, you would send letters and mailshots out and hope people were interested in those.’

Telesales became a trend of note. ‘It was accepted to pick up the phone and make hundreds of calls every week. It was a numbers game, make 100 calls, get five appointments, but at least you wouldn’t be going in cold.’

Today of course, technology facilitates such communications. Says Mabbutt, ‘A lot of our sales are done remotely; the old days of getting in a car and seeing someone are gone. We had a conference call the other day with participants sitting in the US, and in the UK in Leeds and London with all the decision-makers on the same 30-minute call. It was effective because everyone who mattered could see our demonstration simultaneously. We’re spending less on travel and being cost-effective in how we deploy the sales team.’

Kristy Davies-Sumpter, director of KDS Business Solutions feels that the core sales skills in any sector will always be the same, just conveyed differently. ‘It’s always been about using the right questioning techniques and actually listening to the customer, but the approach is perhaps different from days past. Now, companies have to be more customer-centric in terms of looking at the solution a prospect needs rather than trying to sell them everything they’ve got upfront and shoehorning it into their requirements.’

Certainly, many company owners feel the days of a conventional sales pitch are long gone. Chris Gee, sales director at serviced apartments company Silverdoor says that Google has changed the sales dynamic. ‘These days if I’m looking for something I know where and how to find it in seconds. You no longer have to convince people of the benefits of certain goods or services because they already know what they want; all you can do is help people get to where they want to be.’ Gee adds that the word ‘salesperson’ isn’t even used in his company, preferring ‘account manager’, and that he will soon change his own job title to remove connotations of a pushy approach.

Genteel sales tactics

It follows that the right salespeople to fit into this plan will eschew aggressive methods that might once have been considered the norm. Mabbutt says, ‘We employ people now who aren’t “traditional” salespeople. We’re trying to convey a human touch and we’re having more success.’ Mabbutt says that sales per enquiry have improved by 75 per cent since employing these tactics, and that the enquiry to confirmation timeframe has improved from 13 weeks to 7 weeks. ‘Having a person calling a busy individual and using a genteel approach is still very effective; people switch off when they hear old-school sales pitches.’

While many people find aspects of the ‘old-school’ sales technique off-putting, some find the erstwhile approach of constant face-to-face contact with clients a necessity. Simon Richards came into gritting services company Gritit in December 2011 as sales director and looked to overhaul many of the practices he saw. ‘I noticed that the team were very desk-based, focused on telesales and email, and I don’t believe in that. I believe in the old-fashioned “customer is king” ethos, that you should spend as much face time with your customer as possible.’ As a result, Richards’s sales staff are now only allowed in the office on a Monday, when a weekly sales meeting is held, and for the rest of the week they are expected to be in the field with customers.

While Richards favours an old-school sales approach, Gritit embraces modern practices too. The company uses the latest technology to facilitate the sales process, using proprietary software to monitor and manage job dispatches, pre-notify the client of a visit, post-notify electronically, and produce an exhaustive report of the logistics of each job. ‘It all adds up to the excellent service the customer demands,’ he says.

The advent of CRM

CRM systems have become integral to many a modern sales team. Professional Polishing Services, which offers stainless steel mechanical finishing, put a bespoke CRM system in place to better manage correspondence with suppliers and customers. Managing director Kirsty Davies-Chinnock says, ‘The majority of our customer base are repeat clients and each company can have several different people placing enquiries and orders. It became hard to keep track of the transactions.’

The technology introduced made all conversations with clients available to Davies-Chinnock’s staff via a shared system. Davies-Chinnock says that turnover has increased by around 10 per cent since the technology was put in place, from £1 million to £1.1 million. She adds, ‘As the system is only in its first year, we anticipate it will help facilitate further growth by allowing us to identify our customers’ needs and ensure that we react quickly in giving them the solutions to their problems.’

Stephen Wright, commercial director at the Institute of Sales and Marketing Management, says the new breed of CRM system has been crucial in analysing data and providing the salesperson with the right information at the right time. ‘The risk is either ignoring this change and losing out to your more informed competitor or managing the data badly and becoming overwhelmed and inefficient due to the volume of unfiltered information you are trying to assimilate,’ he adds.

Sales through social media

Wright contends that salespeople have far more opportunities today to communicate with their target market via social media such as LinkedIn and Twitter, but these channels are not necessarily used to their full potential. ‘There might be a lot of interaction on these platforms but very few resulting sales.’

Davies-Chinnock uses YouTube to display videos the company shoots of the finishes it offers. ‘We can now inform people that if they’ve got some material that’s not flat and won’t give a uniform finish, they can look at how it’s physically done via video, which adds another dimension to the sales process.’

She also tweets links to interesting industry articles. ‘We don’t need masses of followers on Twitter, we need people who are interested in what we’ve got to say. Via LinkedIn we can introduce people to other industry contacts. Rather than using social media as a direct sales tool, it’s about spreading value, being helpful and not forcefully selling.’

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