Friday, October 23, 2015

An Open Letter to New Salespeople

An Open Letter to New Salespeople
Maybe the word "slimy" comes to mind.

Last week I had the opportunity to interact directly with a young person thinking about a career in distributor sales.  They were put off by the image of being a “salesperson,” but because of the experience of one of their friends, they were taking a fresh look at the industry.

Their questions revolved around a handful of unknowns. 
·      Is sales a position that taints your ability to do something else later in life?
·      Do customers see salespeople as valuable or as sleaze-ball characters to be avoided?
·      What is this commission thing all about?
·      Do I need to be a natural born salesperson?
·      How hard is the job?  It seems like a lot of people “used to be salespeople but quit. 

For the benefit of everyone just starting or considering a distributor sales opportunity, allow me to answer these questions.

Does Selling have a future?
The answer is unequivocally yes.  A quick look around the executives of both distributors and their manufacturing partners points to a large percentage with selling in their resume.  Selling provides an opportunity to understand customer needs.  And without a product which fills some need or solves some problem, there can be no customers.  And without customers there can be no business.

How are salespeople seen?
The distribution industry is not a “one and done” selling process.  Salespeople develop ongoing relationships with their customers.  The very best sellers are seen as skilled problem solvers.  Often they act as an important extension of the customer’s own staff.  The attitude of the customer is often reflective of the seller’s attitude.  When a sales guy arrives prepared and armed with well thought out products/services tailored for his customer, customers respond in kind.

The commission thing…
Everyone has heard of some family acquaintance who worked on commission and went broke.  This is rarely the case in distribution.  The nature of customer buying habits and market dynamics indicates 99 percent of all selling territories produce revenue in good times and bad times.  From the worst recession to the best of times, a territory might fluctuate by 30 percent.  The secret is to live within your means, bank the upward swings and prepare for downward shifts if the economy should fall into recession.  Further, as you build customer relationships, develop your problem solving skills and increase your efficiency, the whole thing moves in the upward direction.

Natural born salesperson?
There might be such a person.  Most of the folks who claim to be “naturals” don’t stand up to the scrutiny of their description.  Looking back on experience with hundreds of experienced sellers I might have met two “naturals."  The rest have perfected their skills over time and some of the best salespeople start off conversations with, “I am not really a salesperson, I just really like to help my customers and they appreciate my efforts by directing business my way.”

How hard is the job?
I believe selling is the hardest easy job on the planet.  Here’s why I make that statement.  I like meeting interesting people.  I like seeing manufacturing facilities.  I like time spent solving problems.  If I were to wake up and discover I won a Billion Dollar lottery, I would still want to meet new people, see innovative manufacturing plants and devote time to solving problems.  All of these things are so incredibly interesting, it’s hardly like work. 

All of this brings me to a set of core beliefs I have about distributor sales.  This is the short list.

I believe….
1.   The actions of successful salespeople mostly appear different when on the outside looking in.  The projection of their personalities often overshadows the mundane stuff that makes them successful.  Keeping good records, organizing schedules and studying customers are rarely visible to anyone outside their immediate family.

2.   You don’t have to be wonderfully organized to be successful, but if you’re not, expect to work extra hours and occasionally feel stupid because you wasted hours “trying to find” something important which could have been easy to locate if you had just kept up with your notes and filing.

3.   Sales work is mostly solitary and independent of others; you might be attracted to the freedom.  But, many people working independently overestimate the number of hours they actually work.  Further, the ability to intermix personal and professional hours creates an environment where wasted time is often counted as “working hours.”

4.   Most successful sellers work more than 40 hours a week.  The really successful ones often don’t count hours of planning, preparing and learning about their products as real work time.  Working closely with these folks for over three decades, I have discovered many of them count this as “happy time” getting ready for the big game.

5.   There are no “natural born” salespeople in our industry.  Those of you who have the gift of gab, and most would say I do, may actually be at a natural disadvantage in going to the top of the sales heap (read The Challenger Sale.)  Top salespeople often tactfully challenge their customers.  Sometimes they make unpopular recommendations but work hard to provide strong justification to their recommendations.

6.   A few salespeople fall into lucky territories.  They aren’t required to learn the important activities necessary for their own success.  I see them as older, forty and fifty-somethings who have somehow been forced to change jobs…and they struggle.  If you get off to an early start because you inherited a great territory, don’t be complacent in learning important skills.

7.   The keystones of selling success are tied to product knowledge, application skills and customer knowledge.  You cannot really add value to your customers if you don’t know your products and services.  But that’s not the end of the equation.  You must know how your products might be used; including short comings and potential pitfalls.  Finally, if you don’t know your individual and specific customers including their problems, challenges and opportunities, you can never really be much more than a human search engine.  Back in the old days, human search engines were valuable.  Google took away that value.

8.   Salespeople are honest and honor their commitments.  Simple as this sounds, it goes against the human nature of some to say, “I don’t know."  Others state they will be back next Tuesday with an answer and don’t show up until Thursday.  Customers notice.  In addition, many sellers don’t really listen to their customers.  Taking notes focuses your attention.  Referring back to notes a week later to clarify a point adds to the salesperson’s credibility.

9.   Good salespeople demonstrate that lightning strikes twice (or even three times.)  And, typically when they move it is to more freedom, better money and other personal/lifestyle rewards.  It is not unusual to find this kind of person at the top of the sales heap in multiple companies.


I believe in the distributor model.  Regardless of all the hype about Amazon taking over the world, I believe the future holds a place for sellers who bring value to their customers.  In the future, we may refer to the group as something else; perhaps solution provider will be the term of choice.  Regardless of title, the opportunities will abound. 

And, feel free to contact me if you have a career question; helping you be successful turns my crank…..

1 comment:

DanOB said...

Frank, if you look up sell in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, almost all of the definitions have negative connotations.
1 : to deliver or give up in violation of duty, trust, or loyalty and especially for personal gain : BETRAY--often used with OUT - ie - sell out their country
2 a: to give up property to another for something of value.
b: to give up in return for something else especially foolishly or dishonorably - ie - sold his birthright for a mess of pottage
c: to exact a price for - ie - sold their lives dearly
3 a: to deliver into slavery for money
b: to give into the power of another - ie - sold his soul to the devil
c: to deliver the personal services of for money
4 : to dispose of or manage for profit instead of in accordance with conscience, justice or duty - ie - sold their votes

Is it any wonder that folks are worried about a career in sales? When I first started in sales I would put emphasis on the engineering part of my title. Hurrying and softening the word sales and then emphasizing the word engineer when introducing myself as a sales engineer. About 8 months in to my career a customer gave me a book on selling. On the first page it stated that you have two jobs to be successful in sales. First you need to convince people that it is in their best interest to trust you and do business with you, and second you have to ensure that it is in their best interest to trust you and do business with you. There isn't anything at all negative about that, and from that point on I stopped de-emphasizing the word sales in my title.