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Five ideas toward greater selling success

Five ways toward greater selling success

By Troy Harrison

“I don’t understand it,” the salesman said. “I’ve been selling to that guy for 15 years! I’ve taken him to football games, bought countless lunches, we’ve been to each other’s houses. And now,” the salesman wailed, “he’s buying most of his stuff from someone else! I mean, what the heck?”

This salesperson (let’s call him Bob) is a veteran salesperson who works for one of my clients. I’ve known him for years. Bob’s a very charismatic person, an absolutely fabulous rapport builder (to a degree that I’ve always envied), and he builds deeply personal relationships with his customers. He’s the kind of guy that if you met him out in public, you’d immediately tab him as a salesperson, and probably a great one. And you’d be right. Or at least, you would have been about 10 years ago. Today, not so much, and there’s a big reason why.

The sales world has changed. It’s changed in a big way, and some salespeople are struggling to keep up. Bob went through my training a few years ago, and, to be honest, he wasn’t impressed. He told me, “Look, sales is simple. I just wing it. Customers buy from people, and specifically, people they like. My job is to be liked and be their friend, and if I can be that, they’ll buy from me.” Essentially, he viewed sales as a friendship contest – and to be fair, for much of his career, it worked for him.

Today, it doesn’t. My client (his employer) asked me to interview a couple of his key customers – customers who once made up a big part of his volume, and now only bought incidental items from him. In interviewing him, I found that the reason customers had stopped their purchases was that Bob just wasn’t useful. Their comments basically boiled down to this:

“Look, I like Bob. We all do. He’s a great guy. If we didn’t like him as much as we do, we wouldn’t buy anything from him, but we feel a certain obligation. But the truth is that Bob isn’t much help to us. Whenever we have a technical question, he has to call someone else and have them get ahold of us. His competitor can answer questions on the spot, so we buy most everything from him.”

I found out that the competitive salesperson also spends a lot of time keeping abreast with industry developments that affect his customers; Bob asks about the son’s soccer team. The competitor is constantly refreshing his knowledge of the customer’s business and introducing new products and services; Bob makes sure to bring doughnuts for the women who work in the office.

When I took that information back to my client, he sighed and said, “So, what should we do about Bob?” You see, Bob has been a loyal employee for a long time, and his employer felt the same way as his customers. They like Bob (and so do I), but Bob no longer contributes value. Bob is now into the “mercy buy” phase of his career. The orders he gets are mercy buys, and his job is a mercy job. I advised his employer that if Bob wants to remain vital in his sales career (and he’s not close to retirement age yet), he’s going to have to embrace some changes. If you resemble Bob in any way, you might need to embrace them, too.

1) Embrace sales process. One thing that sharp salespeople do today is that they are always conscious of sales process, and they keep their customers involved in a sales process at all times. There’s no better way of building a relationship with your customer than to always be selling to them – requalifying them for new products or services, presenting and constantly working to improve the customer’s condition. The “just wing it” salesperson is behind the eight-ball in this respect.

2) Become a business resource. Bob’s competitor won business not because he was more likeable than Bob – in fact, both customers made it clear that in the “friendship sweepstakes,” Bob was in the lead by half a lap – but because he could be a business resource for his customers. Customers know that the competitor is good for more than buying a good lunch – he’s good for helping them solve their problems.

3) Always have a call objective. Most of Bob’s sales calls were centered around simply reinforcing friendships and staying visible. Meanwhile, his competitors pick his pocket because they are going in with a call objective, working to constantly advance the status of their business relationships.

4) Develop customer expertise. The most valuable knowledge is customer knowledge. Bob’s competitor worked to build his knowledge of his customers on every sales call. In fact, both of them remarked on the competitor’s ongoing questions. “It’s like he’s always trying to learn more about us,” one said. Bob is a friend who talks about the Chiefs football team; his competitor talks about the direction that his customers are going in.

5) Make good use of the customer’s time. Both customers remarked on how time-efficient the competitor is. “He does something positive for us on every visit,” one said. “Granted, he’s not as personal. We like him, but he’s not our friend like Bob is. But we know that every time he’s here, something good will happen – and Bob stopped doing that long ago.” Your customer now expects a return on his time investment with you. How are you going to generate that?

By the way, it’s not only veteran salespeople who fall victim to this kind of selling and its consequences. I’ve had young salespeople with the “friends first” sales focus, and they lose business for the same reason.

Today’s customer demands more than a buddy. The customer demands a resource – and if you can’t be that, your competitor will.

Troy HarrisonTroy Harrison is author of “Sell Like You Mean It!” and president of SalesForce Solutions, a sales training, consulting and recruiting firm. For booking training, consulting or to sign up for his weekly E-zine, call (913) 645-3603, e-mail or visit

This article originally appeared in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Industrial Supply magazine. Copyright 2015, Direct Business Media.


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