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November 12, 2007

New Perspectives

Salesperson Communications and Customer Value

by Professors Larry Chonko and Buddy LaForge

CARING thoughtware and customer value was the focus of our last article. Such thoughtware can be applied to independent contractors in direct selling. After all, independent contractors present, deliver and service value in the direct selling marketplace.

Direct sellers must always keep in mind that the salesperson is whom the customer forms a relationship with. Just as relationship selling begins with identifying prospects, so, too, does value creation.

Direct salespeople, like all other sales representatives, must secure customer leads, assess customer reactions to products, maintain an image, develop customer goodwill and reach hard-to-find buyers. But direct salespeople must realize that they don’t work in the same business climate as other salespeople. For example, at trade shows, customers form their judgments quickly. For direct sellers, those judgments, positive or negative, may have already been formed before a salesperson makes contact.

Two critical questions for direct sellers when it comes to communication and value creation are:

  1. What image do direct salespeople project in their first contact with a customer?
  2. How can direct salespeople improve their productivity by avoiding the less desirable traits of salespeople?

Developing customer relationships and creating value require approaching sales settings from the customer’s perspective. Customers want value and friendly service. The two questions seem to imply that salesperson communication can undermine company value-creation efforts.

Most communication behaviors are manageable if the salesperson adopts the CARING thoughtware that customer value is paramount. Sadly, some people seem to behave contrary to the need to communicate effectively and create customer value. In the classroom, we have taught students about the different types of salespeople. There are many ways to segment a salesforce—this is just one example.

One type of salesperson can be labeled the Grunt. These salespeople are brief and blunt. Their vocabulary seems limited to one-syllable words. They speak in a low tone. They often express, verbally or visually, unhappiness, signaling that they would rather be somewhere else. Grunts do not provide a very positive sales atmosphere, do they?

Another group of salespeople might be called Charles E. Woodcocks. Woodcock was a railroad employee in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He was fiercely loyal, a company guardian. He was also defensive, impersonal, with little sense of humor. The company is never at fault. It is hard to imagine that kind of person being perceived by customers as providing much in the way of customer value and customer service.

A third group of salespeople might be called Roadrunners. They are always in a hurry. As time passes, they become tense and tend to take their frustrations out on customers. They are short-tempered and can be sarcastic. They want to complain about all aspects of life. Customers don’t want to hear about salesperson problems. They have problems of their own. Salespeople must remember they are in customer homes to provide solutions and value, not add to customers’ misery.

A fourth group of salespeople is called the Twitches. You’ve seen the type—tapping fingers…or a pen. They cannot sit still, always appearing to be harried. These behaviors are very distracting. Direct salespeople must keep in mind that they are in a customer’s home or place of business. They are imposing, or can be viewed as such, if their behavior is not focused on demonstrating value for the customer.

Another group is the Apathetics, salespeople who have no concern for customer needs or feelings. They are aloof, seemingly always bored and numb to most everything. And then there is a sixth group of salespeople called the Untouchables. These are people who, themselves, are never at fault. They make excuses for everything. They have little imagination and creativity. Their sole reason for being seems to be to place responsibility elsewhere.

Untouchables are often unaware, or they just don’t care that, as they make excuses, they’re really painting a poor picture of their company and detracting from perceived customer value. Untouchables are almost the opposite of the seventh group of salespeople, the Evangelists, who exhibit great zeal for the sales job. They are the “everything is beautiful” type, and their products are so wonderful that they just can’t understand why people don’t buy more of them. Sometimes their zeal is a cover-up for a lack of product/service knowledge and other things customers want to hear.

For direct sellers, a critical question is, “What can be done to help salespeople like these improve their communication skills and their value creation?

Salespeople must plan, and a key part of that planning is the mirror test. The salesperson should make a presentation in front of a mirror and observe body language. Second, they should record the presentation and listen to themselves to observe voice tone and quality. Many professors who teach selling do. They videotape student role-plays so feedback to the student can include a “seeing/hearing is believing” component.

In addition, to plan effectively, salespeople should know the company—how it creates products, how it services them and so on. They must be prepared to demonstrate products, allowing customers to participate. But more important, salespeople must remember that relationship selling is activity oriented, not results oriented. Engaging in the right communication activities will produce the desired results.

When salespeople do not obtain desired results, they may struggle with seeing the value of their efforts. They must understand that relationship selling is about customer contacts and customer value, not necessarily making a sale today. And they must understand that it might be their own communication behaviors that are creating the biggest obstacles to building successful customer relationships.

That’s why it’s critical for direct selling companies to provide education and evidence that salesperson behaviors can be important sources of communication, whether positive or negative. And they must instill in their salespeople the sense that building relationships requires a maturation period. Initial contact with a buyer must include the promise of delivering some value to the customer; that value can come in the form of information, a new technology, a promotional giveaway, or just the feeling that a new friend was made.

In preparing salespeople, direct sellers should seek to take advantage of people’s strengths and avoid the personalities described earlier; this may even be something given consideration in recruiting. As a potential buyer, a person being recruited will exhibit his/her personality in the process of being recruited. Therefore, those doing the recruiting should keep in mind the ineffective personalities and observe the traits of people as they “sell” products or the business.

The direct selling business is about numbers, but perhaps there should be a little less concern about numbers in the short run and a little more concerned about getting “the right people on the bus.” If direct sellers get the right people to create and deliver value, then the numbers will be there in the long run. Direct sellers may need to be more discriminating in their recruiting of customers, who are simply going to buy products, and their recruiting of people, who will make valuable contributions to the downline as salespeople, either as part-timers or career people.

The types of salespeople described earlier are likely to be unaware of their ineffective behaviors. Apathetics, for example, are apt to avoid contacts, and direct selling is, after all, a contact business. And Grunts seem like many retail salespeople, willing to interact only if the customer forces the issue.

Untouchables seem always uncomfortable with themselves. If anything isn’t perfect, they focus on assigning blame. That kind of negative behavior is something to avoid in business prospects.

Twitches always look busy, but are not likely to be well-prepared because their busyness is in nonproductive activities. Roadrunners are similar, seeming to furiously prepare at the last minute for appointments, but are disorganized.

Evangelists and Charles E. Woodcocks would seem to be OK if their energy can be channeled, but their zeal can also be viewed as a turnoff by many prospects…chasing them to the competition.

All these types of salespeople have one thing in common—they are poor communicators. This is a serious problem, given that the cornerstone of relationships with customers is constant and prompt communication undertaken in a cordial but professional manner.

Direct salespeople must adopt the viewpoint that every customer is their customer, whether they buy from them or buy from a competitor. To build relationships they must engage in frequent and informative contact through a variety of media. The reality is that salespeople sell more by communicating frequently with customers.

If customers consider salespeople to be more than salespeople and see them as friends and experts, they are more likely to call them when they have a need that the salespeople’s products/services can fill. Relationship selling is a philosophy amenable to direct selling, but not all people are amenable to that philosophy. It assumes that, over time, customers will make some decisions to buy the salesperson’s products, but not necessarily as a result of every contact.

Over time, customer relationships must be nurtured so that salespeople increase the likelihood that customers will behave in that way. It relies on information accumulated over time. It relies on maintaining communication with customers. It requires salespeople to constantly seek to provide value. But it also relies on salespeople who don’t turn away customers through such traits as those discussed in this article.

Raymond (Buddy) LaForge is the Brown-Forman Professor of Marketing at the University of Louisville. Larry Chonko is the the Thomas McMahon Professor in Business ethics atthe University of Texas at Arlington. E-mail your questions and comments to