How to recognize the right salesperson

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

By John R. Graham

What does it take to be the type of salesperson who produces positive results year after year? Just ask any sales manager or salesperson this question. Each one will have a ready answer. Not surprisingly, it usually mirrors the way they think of themselves.

But that aside, we all seem to think we know what it takes to be a sales pro. "He's a great closer." "She won't quit until she gets the appointment." "Martha is relentless when it comes to follow-up." "You can count on George to up-sell every customer." "There's no one in banking that Richard doesn't know." "He's great at cold calling." And "No one can hold a candle to Liz when it comes to building relationships." On it goes.

But there's more to quality selling performance than even outstanding traits. And there's more to it than even spotting the right traits. What's often missing in identifying sales excellence is a profile of behaviors. These form a constellation of qualities that separate the average from the extraordinary salesperson.

Being friendly, personable, and attentive are helpful, of course. So is being aggressive and persistent. But even more critical are such easily identifiable behaviors as these:

1. This is the salesperson who invests time understanding customers rather than simply "qualifying" them. The difference is as wide as the Grand Canyon. This is the salesperson who asks lots of questions to gain an in-depth understanding of the customer's operation with the objective of uncovering what is being done well and where there are unresolved -- and often unidentified -- problems. Never even thinks about asking, "Who makes the buying decisions?" or "When do you expect to place the order?" Such issues will be addressed normally through the information gathering process.

2. This is the salesperson who uses knowledge to attract customers. Although there is something to be said for relationships fostered on common interests and other forms of compatibility, more is needed today; frankly, much more.

The primary task for salespeople is getting customers to want to do business with them -- and no one else. The right salesperson recognizes that products and services change, as do customer needs. Therefore, this salesperson builds a knowledge bond with customers that is based on bringing their expertise, ability to analyze problems, and articulate solutions to bear on customer issues.

It's easy to test this behavior. Customers often ask, "Even though it has nothing to do with what you sell, could I run something by you?" The attraction is knowledge.

3. This is the salesperson who stays close to customers because buying decisions take longer than ever. The right salespeople know that customers are unpredictable when making buying decisions. For example, they have made presentations and six months or a year later, the customers call and indicate they are ready to move ahead.

They have also discovered that writing off a customer too soon can be a major mistake. After one or more meetings the salesperson decides this particular customer isn't going to buy. Then a year or so later, a competitor gets the business. More often than not, it is failing to stay in contact with the customer that causes the problem. The customer perceives the lack of contact as a lack of interest.

4. This is the salesperson who expects prospecting to be company-driven. This one is a hot potato! While the right salesperson is always alert to spotting new business opportunities, he or she refuses to spend valuable selling time simply trying to get through someone's door.

Customers are turned off by the "office or home invasion" techniques used by so many salespeople today. Their actions are blatant indications that making the sale is more important than anything else -- including meeting customer needs. When the salesperson is "invited in," the atmosphere is welcoming, professional, and non-defensive.

5. This is the salesperson who becomes one with customers. When talking about their customers, the highly competent salesperson unconsciously uses "we" rather than "they." Nothing is contrived. It's so natural, they don't realize what they are saying. They so completely put themselves in the customer's shoes, they become one with the customer.

A marketing firm's president was telling a colleague about his work with a particular client. After a few minutes, the business associate asked, "It sounds as if you have a financial interest in the company." The marketing executive was taken aback by the comment. "What makes you say that?" he asked. "You kept saying 'we,'" came the response.

6. This is the salesperson who exhibits a commitment to the future. Everyone knows what happens to a beagle when it ventures out on a busy street. It's sure death because its nose is down on the ground. Many salespeople have the "Beagle Syndrome." They are only concerned about what's happening today and they fail to see what's going on around them.

When a salesperson says, "It's just become a rat race" or "I hate to get up in the morning," this isn't burnout as much as it reflects a long-term misunderstanding of what selling is all about.

The right salesperson prepares his customers for what's coming and how to cope with change and the unknown.

Whether you call this "the right salesperson" or just "a good salesperson" makes no difference. It's the selling behaviors that are important, that set the competent apart from the run-of-the-mill sales rep. It's what they do that separates the average from the peak performer.

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm in Quincy, Mass., 02170 (617-328-0069; fax 617-471-1504); j_graham@grahamcomm.com).

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