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Born that way or coachable?

coachable

by Frank Hurtte

Let’s look at one of the timeless questions tossed about by distributor managers: “Are great salespeople born or created?” Loving the networking and the strong beverages available at the lobby bar of distributor association meetings, I have been witness to long and spirited oratories on the topic. Based on these unscientific observations, the world seems to fall along two widely separated lines of reasoning.

Historically, and possibly the most popular line of reasoning, goes something like this: Not everyone can be a salesperson. Those successful folks are born with a gift for making people like them, trust them and listen to their points of view. Back in the 1960s, this was called the “gift of gab.” These proponents argue that all a distributor needs to do is learn to identify the trait and convince this natural talent to sign on the dotted line. Once this amazing gift from above hits the pavement, the sales will spew forth and the incoming order portion of the business will take care of itself.

On the opposite side of the argument lies a more progressive group of folks. They believe effective selling is the result of a well-practiced set of skills. Extending further, this group cites evidence that skill-based training and process can be taught to anyone willing to open their mind and modify personal behaviors in the right manner. Skills and behaviors include detailed follow-through, timeliness, planning and asking customers questions. These are tied to motivation and hard work in their vision of a top-notch seller.

Full disclosure here, I tend to be in the second camp. I suspect salespeople are not born but created through practice and acquisition of skills. But being the continual skeptic, I do my best to constantly test the theory.

I am coachable
Recently, I had to the opportunity to interview one of the top-performing sales guys in the world of industrial selling. I’m not going to disclose his actual identity, so we’ll just call him “Bob.” Allow me to share some of Bob’s impressive stats: Two-plus decades of year-over-year sales and gross margin growth exceeding 25 percent. Countless new customers created. Recognized by many manufacturers as the go-to guy for voice of the customer ideas. Simply stated, Bob generates as much business as entire branches. In his spare time, he has coached at both the high school and collegiate levels.

Approaching retirement, or at least a change, this star salesperson is mentoring several younger salespeople. I asked him if he felt his success was the result of being born a salesperson or created as the result of specific skills. He answered, “A salesperson has to be coachable. That is my biggest skill. I am coachable.” This launched a 90-minute conversation.

I discovered that Bob turns to everyone for coaching. Thinking about the whole process, I believe it is a skill that may be missing from the repertoire of many in our business. Join me for the next four minutes as we explore some of this coaching.

Customers coach
One of the simplest bits of coaching comes via the product-centric feedback a salesperson receives from customers just by asking them a few questions. These might be formatted this way:

  • We just took on this new product line; I think it has some value to organizations like yours. What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of the product in your application?
  • If you were me and you were charged with selling this new widget, who do you feel would be most interested in it and why?

In both of these examples, there is no mention of actual selling but rather a simple request of the customer to provide their own expert opinion in a way that provides advice toward selling to other customers. Along the way, the customer may very well sell themselves.

But customer coaching doesn’t end with just products. Let’s look at how the coaching provides information valuable to the ongoing customer relationship. Here, the questions are focused on the specific customer:

  • What do you look for in a supplier to your organization and how would you suggest I modify my approach toward your company?
  • Are there areas where our service might be improved and how would you recommend we tweak what we do to better fit into your organization?

You might get contradictory coaching from customers
During our conversation, I asked Bob if some of this customer-based coaching might be less than truthful or, at a minimum, misleading and thus send a salesperson down the primrose path to failure.

My friend said this: “This coaching thing does require a little common sense and finesse. For instance, purchasing/procurement folks are taught to mislead sellers on all things tied to price. Other customer contacts may have strong personal ties to a competitor; their coaching on some points may be skewed. It’s not uncommon to find people who avoid new technology, so discussion of breakthrough products with these folks might not turn out to be the most solid advice you receive.”

Bob pointed out, coaching is not a one-time or one-person event. Instead, he seeks out coaching from a variety of people at his accounts, ranging from dirty shirt maintenance guys, machine operators and purchasing, all the way to the very top-level guys.

Customer management provides coaching
When we got to this point I was doubly interested. Sellers in the distributor world often seem to lack relationships with the top guys at their accounts. Yet, sitting across the table from me was someone who makes a habit of asking them for advice. Understanding how this works provides three insights:

How do we open doors to customer upper management? Bob asks upper-level players if they will coach him on the best ways to add value to their operations. He promises a sales pitch-free conversation with the top guys, briefing him on problems with their current facility.

What do we talk about? Mostly, the conversations touch on downtime improvement, managing productivity and augmenting the addition of new product lines. Bob sometimes brings research done by publications catering to the customer’s business to demonstrate his understanding of common industry wide problems.

What advice can they provide? According to Bob, the coaching he receives from these higher level folks allow him to line up future resources and discover products that match well with the customer’s future needs. This allows his organization a virtual “first right of refusal” for fee-based services. Should the wholesaler decide not to provide the service, they often have the ability to broker the new service to a close ally, thus further cementing the relationship.

Demonstrating how this coaching thing is interactive, the information allows the seller time to build a stronger relationship with suppliers. Understanding longer term customer direction and positioning to take advantage of these initiatives is often the missing arrow in our supplier’s quiver.

Coaching and supply partners
Armed with information gained from customer coaching, Bob can approach suppliers from a completely different standpoint. The coaching focus becomes, “What do you see as the best way for us to capture this business together?” As a caveat, in some instances, yet another piece of coaching might include something to the effect of, “How do I protect this business from other distributors?”

Bob reports coaching works both ways with supply partners. The sharing of customer direction has allowed several manufacturers to develop products that matched the customer needs more precisely than anything on the market and resulted in hundreds of thousands in additional business. 

Internal coaching provides better efficiency
Based on our research using a sampling of over 50 industrial sellers, the typical distributor salesperson spends less than 20 percent of his or her time actively selling customers. Sadly, a good many spend closer to 16 percent. These very low numbers are not a sign of slackers in the sales team, but rather the results of outside sales resources being sucked into other types of activities. Duplication of effort and lack of communication on the handoff of sometimes simple tasks created some surprising uses of outside sales resources. Further, the more dedicated the seller was to providing stellar customer service, the more likely the actual selling time would drop.

Because the act of requesting coaching from others within the distributor organization has the potential for driving the greatest results in sales effectiveness, let’s spend a bit of time looking into coaching points. Think about the impact of a salesperson asking for the following coaching:

  • Inside sales: What level of detail should I provide you in order for you to create a good quote for my customers? What are the most common reasons for you to pass the quote back to the salesperson for additional work?
  • Inside sales: What information do you need on each of my accounts to allow you to better serve them?
  • Inside sales: How can we be more proactive in expediting orders for my target customers? How often can I expect you to update my customer?
  • Purchasing: What information should be provided to ensure we have the proper stock on hand for a new customer’s needs?
  • Product specialists: Are there products you feel we should take out to specific customers and why?
  • Product specialists: How can we track customers using products that may be subject to revision or some other technology change?
  • Management: When my customers need a new fee-based service, what information would be required to determine if it is justifiable?

Are you coachable?
My conversation with Bob caused me to stop and ponder: Was Bob born coachable or did he develop this skill as a powerful strategic tool? How coachable am I? Looking
forward, I plan to be more coachable.

Thinking further, who should you turn to for coaching? Do you ask customers, suppliers and the rest of your team for coaching? Trust me, I am interested in coaching. Send me your thoughts on coaching and I will send you a postcard from Iowa. The first 10 who share will get a postcard and my latest book.

Frank HurtteStraight talk, common sense and powerful interactions all describe Frank Hurtte. Frank speaks and consults on the new reality facing distribution. He has a new book out – “Plan on Breaking Through – Strategic Planning for Accounts.” Contact Frank at  frank@riverheightsconsulting.com, (563) 514-1104 or at riverheightsconsulting.com.

This article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2019 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2019, Direct Business Media.

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