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February 19, 2007

New Perspectives

Seven Rules for Becoming a World-Class Salesperson

by Professors Larry Chonko and Buddy LaForge


Buddy: Good morning Larry. I have a little different idea for our column this month.

Larry: What is your idea?

Buddy: I was browsing in a bookstore recently and came across Achieve Sales Excellence: The 7 Customer Rules for Becoming the New Sales Professional by Howard Stevens and Theodore Zinn. Howard is Chairman and CEO of the HR Chally Group. I have had some contact with Howard over the years, so I picked up the book and looked it over closely. Because I was impressed with the book, I decided to use it in my Advanced Professional Relationship Selling class this semester.

Larry: What did you like about it?

Buddy: The book is based on 80,000 interviews with business-to-business (B2B) customers about what these customers want and need from salespeople. It also includes data from 7,200 salesforces from 15 different industries and 300,000 profiles of sales professionals. Howard and his co-authors have synthesized this data and distilled the important points into seven key things salespeople need to do to be world-class.

Larry: That sounds great, but direct sellers are in the business-to-consumer (B2C) market. Would they benefit from information for B2B sellers?

Buddy: That was a concern I had, but one of the purposes of our monthly column is to expose direct selling executives to information they are not likely to be aware of in the operation of their companies. Some of the key points in the book do not apply exactly to direct selling firms, but most do or can be adapted to fit direct sellers. My judgment is that if each reader of our column comes away with one or two new ideas, we have been successful. I think there are several valuable ideas for direct sellers from the book.

Larry: I agree. We do want to expose direct selling executives to new material and hope this material generates a couple of ideas for them. Why don’t you tell me about the important findings in the book and then we can decide if we should write a column about it. How does that sound?

Buddy:
One of the key points made early in the book is that most sales training emphasizes self-improvement topics, such as motivation or time management, and sales process topics, such as how to resolve concerns and gain commitment from buyers. This training is beneficial, but it is directed too much toward the seller and not enough on the buyer. The prescriptions in this book focus entirely on the requirements of the buyer.

Larry: I really agree with this perspective. Although everybody seems to talk about customer orientation, customer focus, customer-centric, and similar terms, much of what salespeople do is really more seller-oriented than buyer-oriented. I see this type of seller orientation in both B2B and B2C markets.

Buddy: I agree. Another interesting finding from their studies since 1998 is the important role salespeople play in purchasing decisions. The research indicates that salesperson effectiveness accounts for 39 percent of customer buying decisions and 22 percent for the total solution offered by the salesperson. Contrast that with 21 percent for the quality of the product offering and 18 percent for price.

Larry: Those statistics don’t surprise me, and I think salesperson effectiveness might be even more important in the direct selling industry.

Buddy:
Let me present the seven rules for becoming a world-class salesperson, and we can discuss in detail the ones most relevant to direct sellers. The first three rules are termed Foundational Rules of Professional Competence and the last four are Advanced Rules of Sales Excellence. Each rule is presented as if the buyer is telling the salesperson what must be done to meet their needs. Rule 1: “You must be personally accountable for our desired results.” The key point is that buyers want salespeople who are oriented toward service and outcomes, not just product features.

Larry: That rule certainly applies to direct selling. Consumers buy products to meet their needs or solve their problems. The best salespeople make sure the product provides the promised benefits and manage the complete relationship with the customer. This puts a premium on after-the-sale service.

Buddy:
I like the attention to after-the-sale service and see this as an area where the best salespeople really excel. Now, to the second rule: “You must understand my business.” The focus is on making sure that salespeople understand the buyer’s business so they can offer what buyers need and can use.

Larry: Although consumers are obviously not in business, this rule applies in direct selling if we change it to: “You must understand my situation.” The best salespeople really understand the customer’s situation and how what is being sold will create value for the customer.

Buddy: That minor change does make it applicable to direct sellers. “You must be on our side” is Rule 3. The important point is that the salesperson must be a customer advocate and represent the customer’s interests to the selling firm.

Larry: John Hauser at MIT has done some work on customer advocacy. He has a model that suggests focusing on product and service quality leading to customer satisfaction, leading to relationship building, leading to customer advocacy. The best salespeople represent the customer’s point of view well within the selling firm. And, it is important that customers perceive salespeople as customer advocates.

Buddy:
As I mentioned earlier, the first three rules are the foundational rules for professional competence. Salespeople who develop these skills will differentiate themselves from most salespeople in the eyes of buyers. The next four rules are advanced rules of sales excellence and can help salespeople move toward being world-class. For example, Rule 4 is: “You must bring us applications.” World-class salespeople are good at showing buyers how to use their products successfully. This application emphasis has an extremely positive impact on buyers.

Larry:
I think this is very important. Customers don’t really want to buy products and services, they want their needs satisfied and their problems solved. Value is created and delivered when the product is applied. The best salespeople show customers how to use the purchased products and services to satisfy their needs and solve their problems.

Buddy:
An interesting concept presented with this rule was on-boarding. Are you aware of on-boarding?

Larry: I have not heard of it, so what is it?

Buddy: The basic concept is to spend extra time with new customers. I guess it means when they come “on-board” as customers. In any case, companies find that customers are much more open to communication in the first 90 to 120 days when they are new customers. Companies can take advantage of this increased communication receptivity by paying extra attention to new customers in the first 90 to 120 days, and use these efforts to increase customer satisfaction and loyalty and generate new sales.

Larry: That makes sense. I guess even we learn things from writing this column!

Buddy: I learn something from every column we write. On to Rule 5: “You must be easily accessible.” This rule means that personal contact is very important in retaining customers, and the timeliness and quality of salesperson responses to customer inquiries and problems are critical.

Larry:
This is so true. Every question or problem a customer has is extremely important to them, and salespeople need to keep this in mind. The best salespeople acknowledge the customer’s message quickly and provide a quality response as soon as possible. If it is a complex issue that will take some time, the salesperson should communicate the plan of action and keep the customer abreast of progress being made. Continuous communication with the customer is extremely important. Many direct sellers have been good at this for years.

Buddy: I have always been amazed at how many problems can be averted or solved by better and more frequent communication. Rule 6 is related to this as well: “You must solve our problems.” The major point is that there are always going to be problems, so how a salesperson responds to these problems is what really matters to buyers. Salespeople should look at problems as opportunities to strengthen relationships with customers.

Larry: I agree. The best salespeople take charge of the problem-solving process until it has been resolved to the satisfaction of the buyer. The process is also a key part of the customer’s satisfaction. Salespeople should let the customer talk, listen closely to everything that is said, apologize or empathize with the customer and not try place blame for the problem. It is important to identify the root cause of the problem, and find a way to resolve the problem that is agreeable to the customer. The salesperson should also provide feedback to the selling company, so actions can be taken to try to eliminate the problem in the future.

Buddy: Those are good points, Larry, but not enough salespeople do these things. Rule 7 is the final rule: “You must be innovative in responding to our needs.” Most buyers respond well to innovative solutions to their problems. Innovative salespeople can differentiate themselves from most other salespeople. In fact, the agility selling column we wrote a few months ago would be a good reference guide.

Larry: This is especially true in today’s environment. Creativity and innovation are becoming increasingly important in all areas of business. Even though there is little attention to salesperson creativity and innovation, salespeople can make a difference by coming up with new ideas and creative solutions to customer problems.

Buddy:
I think salespeople have opportunities to be creative and innovative throughout the sales process. I plan on doing some exercises this semester to get my students to identify creative and innovative approaches at each stage of the sales process.

Larry:
That should be interesting. Let me know the results of these exercises. Buddy: I think our discussion indicates that most of the rules apply pretty well in the direct selling industry, even though some may need to be adapted to be directly relevant.

Larry:
I agree. Salespeople who develop the skills and execute the 7 rules would be successful in any industry. It is also refreshing that none of the rules are sales techniques or gimmicks. All are solid prescriptions for creating value for buyers and building strong relationships with them. These are the types of things I like to emphasize in my sales classes.

Buddy: I do, too. That is why I am using the book in my Advanced Professional Relationship Selling class this semester. I think students will respond well to it, because it emphasizes professionalism in sales. In any case, do you think we should write our column about the book?

Larry: I think we just did!

Raymond (Buddy) LaForge is the Brown-Forman Professor of Marketing at the University of Louisville. Larry Chonko is the Holloway Professor of Marketing at Baylor University. E-mail your questions and comments to professors@directsellingnews.com