No Easy Answers

percentageWhile sales tips books, articles, and websites may have their place within a robust sales strategy, Dave Stein maintains that they should never replace sales training or process.

There is no question that there is currently an abundance of websites and books focusing on sales tips. All you have to do is type ‘sales book’ into the Amazon search facility to get an idea of the thousands of books that have been written on this subject. Many new ones are published each month, and each one has a new approach or a silver bullet – something that the author will use as a draw to try to get people to buy his or her book.

While they often have some value, these books, articles, and websites are increasingly being used as an alternative to sales training or a proper sales strategy, and that is becoming a real problem. Sales leaders who are looking to improve the productivity and effectiveness of their sales force often depend on tricks and tips and consider that to be sales training. Some of them will even allow their salespeople to subscribe to pay-to-view websites or to buy sales books and then expense them to the company. The sales manager is then effectively off the hook regarding providing proper leadership.

If sales managers tick the sales training box in this way, they never spend time on assessing their sales strategy. They fail to look at the challenges, issues, and problems that they are facing as sales leaders, and that their organizations are facing. And, more often than not, they wind up missing the most critical step of all, and that is building, installing, implementing and using sales process.

Research, certainly over the last couple of years, has proven without a shadow of a doubt that sales teams that work through the utilization of a process sell much more efficiently. However, when there are sales tips out there tempting sales leaders and salespeople by promising that this is the new quick answer or the silver bullet that will enable them to win now and forever more, many naturally go down this route. The number of books being sold indicates that lots and lots of salespeople and their managers are approaching sales books and sales websites as the answer, rather than taking the more expensive, more difficult and more challenging – but ultimately right – option, which is the sales process and sales methodology route.

And these books and websites may indeed provide some help that can last for an entire career, or for just a week. But by choosing that route and not putting in the hard work required to go the process direction, it’s not benefitting the salesperson, it’s not benefitting the sales manager, and it’s certainly not benefitting the company for which they both work.

There’s already at least one website – and there certainly will be more – offering subscription-based access to the articles and insights of more than 100 top sales experts. Think of the situation where the salesperson is sitting at their desk and has to make a difficult phone call to a prospect. Maybe they don’t know what to do if they get voicemail. So they log onto this website and get the opinion of 100 different sales experts on what they should do if they get voicemail on the other end of the line.

The first impression of a service like this might be that it’s great. But there are some problems. First of all, who knows how much time the salesperson is going to spend going through all of these articles or video clips? Also, the salesperson is going to get conflicting information so they’re probably going to wind up being confused about what they should do. Even if they’re not confused and they settle on one expert’s approach vis-à-vis voicemail, I don’t believe that the salesperson is in the position to decide what’s best for them. They’re probably going to take the shortest and quickest route to a solution. So they may be doing the easiest thing rather than the right thing.

The reality is that if salespeople have this tool at their fingertips any time they run into a problem, their sales managers are skipping the vital step of developing the infrastructure, the methodology and the associated processes that are the answer to sales effectiveness.

And there’s no question that this is becoming increasingly common – it’s not shrinking, it’s growing. There are more sales experts with more sales tips websites and more sales tips books. The problem is getting worse and not better, and this is a real concern.

Of course, sales tips do have a place within a proper sales structure. The right way to do it is by a committee – in a larger company this might include somebody in the training department, someone from the ranks of the sales organisation and maybe a sales manager or two, while in a small company it might just be the sales manager and one other person – to decide which of the sales experts are aligned with the challenges that their organisation’s sales team face.

This requires self-assessment and an audit of a range of areas, such as how customers are buying, how the company is selling, where the gaps are, when the salespeople are losing, why they’re losing, why they’re winning. Some sales tips will not be applicable at all to the company.

Let’s say one of the sales team’s problems is gaining and maintaining access to high-level senior executives. It would be wonderful if the sales manager or the salesperson found an expert who had some very significant and relevant tips and tricks to get and maintain access. Those tips and tricks could be incorporated into the company’s sales process by buying copies of the expert’s book or by distributing articles from that person concerning that particular area. Those tactics could easily and efficiently be integrated into the overall sales approach.

And there are some great experts on particular areas. For example, Jill Konrath, in the US, is excellent on the subject of getting on the phone and getting access to decision makers. I know of companies that have incorporated her training, skills, articles, and book into their mainstream sales process and are using it to great effect. That’s an example of the right way to do it. Leaving it to the salespeople to figure out how to get access to senior executives is guaranteed to cause problems. You might have ten reps, all with a different approach. In that kind of scenario, you’ve created a monster rather than solving a problem.

Opting for the integration route, an organization could perhaps have the advice, sales tips or tactics of four or five, or maybe even 10, experts in each different phase of their sales cycle. Strategically, this would be done by comparing the approach of the expert to the specific problems and challenges that the company has to overcome. This should not be done helter-skelter by allowing salespeople to make their own choices; that’s absolutely the wrong way to do it.
At the moment everybody’s under pressure to make numbers, especially salespeople. Now is not a time when people feel inclined to sit down and think about the right way to do things. Very few people are going to say: “I know it’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to be a significant investment. It may not work immediately, but I’m going to sit back and make sure things are going to be done the right way.” They’re going to look for the quick hit, something that’s going to bring in numbers this quarter. And I completely understand that, and maybe that’s the right thing to do in the circumstances like this. But when it comes down to building an organization that will be successful in the long term, quick-fix solutions are not the answer.

The facts speak for themselves. Sales tips books and articles have been available for a whole generation. Recent research by CSO Insights and Sales Benchmark Index indicates that 40pc of business-to-business salespeople don’t make quota. The research also shows that companies with formal, institutionalized sales strategies are consistently more effective than those that don’t have them.
Dave Stein is founder and CEO of ES Research.

This article first appeared in Marketing Age magazine.