Hit and Myth in the Sales Biz


If the real world followed the script of a warm-and-fuzzy movie, good products would sell themselves. Sadly, fantasies don’t close deals.

The Kevin Costner movie Field of Dreams was a huge financial success, but it left behind a phrase that has helped to inflict financial mayhem on many businesses: “Build it and they will come.” While the idea worked magically for a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield, it tells us nothing about the importance of building quality into sales programs and sales teams. Without that quality, simply assembling the parts of whatever it is you’re selling isn’t enough: The customers won’t come, and translating good products and services into a great — and highly profitable — business isn’t likely to happen.

Our world is more complicated than Hollywood’s. The simplistic and erroneous belief that products sell themselves is particularly common in companies that sell technical products, but it happens in every industry. For their own good, it’s time product-focused companies dumped the Hollywood mindset and talked earnestly about the importance of sales.

Scoring Touchdowns

First, let’s talk about sales vs. marketing. While often lumped together, each has a distinct function that, hopefully, works hand-in-hand with the other. Marketing establishes visibility, desire, branding, and a sense of a product’s value with potential customers. Sales builds on that customer conversation — and, most important, gets the signature on the order.

Think of it in football terms: Marketing carries the ball to the 10-yard line, but sales scores the touchdown. And it is very definitely a team effort, because sales without marketing would be inordinately expensive. Just imagine, for example, asking every person in Ohio if they would like to buy a new and fancy rear-view mirror whose safety advantages have never been explained to them. Well, you might sell a few, but the effort required, and the cost involved, would be enormous. Crazy! Same thing with marketing: Alert all those Ohioans to the mirror’s advantages, and you still won’t sell very many without skilled salespeople to close the deals. Also crazy!

I’ll leave the topic of marketing to its experts, but on the subject of building a sales program, I’m happy to share the three basic requirements — and the secret ingredient for establishing a great one.

• Good sales skills. Just as many people labor under the misconception that writing a column must be easy, since they wrote research papers in school, others assume selling involves nothing more demanding that talking, smiling, and taking customers out to eat at expensive restaurants. Wrong! Selling is a skill that has to be learned and mastered. Just as teachers aren’t thrown into a classroom and told to figure it out as they go along, neither should salespeople be expected to learn by trial and error.

It’s important to hire trained and experienced sales reps, or to thoroughly train the ones you do hire. Better yet, provide an ongoing sales-education program for the entire team. It will increase sales and reduce turnover — a double win.

• Thorough preparation. Customers today are smarter and busier than ever before. They have little time and less inclination to teach every sales rep who comes through the door the basic goals and needs of their business and industry. Reps have the Internet, bookstores, and libraries, so there is no excuse for not understanding a customer’s business priorities.

• Inner motivation. The difference between “should do” and “done” is the essence of motivation. A good sales meeting or motivational speaker can whip up the energy of a sales team, but it probably won’t last. Motivation is like deodorant — you need some every day. The best salespeople are motivated from the inside. They have an inner drive to make one more sales call, one more presentation. Bear in mind that few professional salespeople are motivated from the outside, like when a boss screams, “Sell 10 more widgets this week or clean out your desk.” Genuine motivation is essential — and it has to burn like a fire from within.

• The secret ingredient. These days, there are lots of fine companies with great products and services represented by motivated sales teams boasting extensive product knowledge, yet they are still not achieving their sales potential. What else can they do? It’s simple: Focus on building customer connections throughout the entire sales process.

At its most basic level, connecting is a natural part of the human condition, something we do every day with family members, co-workers, the woman behind the counter, and the man on the subway. At a deeper level, however, connecting becomes more difficult, because it forces businesses to stop focusing on their great and wonderful product offerings and redirect the focus to building rapport with potential customers’ needs, wants, even their dreams.

So it’s important to get out and really listen to your customers. The deep and broad connections that result will help you understand how they see their situation — and it will let them hear loud and clear how you can solve their problems. Be warned: You won’t really know what a customer values until the moment comes to close the deal. Fact is, people don’t always purchase what, at the start of a sales call, they might claim to want. Dishonesty? Not at all, just the human condition. How many folks claim they plan to eat healthy, yet when given a choice between a dry soy patty and a juicy hamburger, opt for the latter? On second thought, don’t answer that question — it might prove embarrassing!

The Next Level

This process of building a customer connection can go even further, as sales organizations look at connecting with their “customer’s customer” too. Think of the “Intel inside” stickers found on so many computers. Intel went beyond connecting with computer manufacturers and built a connection with its customer’s customer — you, in other words, the end user.

“Build it and they will come” is a simple thought that inspired a beautiful movie and a nomination for Best Picture of the Year. In sales, however, without that extra and essential input I’ve been talking about, the notion that a well-built product sells itself wins Worst Idea of the Year. If companies continue to produce wonderful products and also focus on connecting with their customers — establishing them, then developing, expanding, and leveraging them — they really can reach their own fields of dreams. Happy selling!

Michelle Nichols  is a sales consultant, trainer, and Vistage speaker based in Houston.

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