The Future of the Sales Representative
I am sitting in a Restaurant in Reibeek West having a toasted sandwich and a fruit juice as I type this article. The reason I share that with you will become obvious a little later but it is not unusual for me to be doing something similar.
I am never late! In my trade as a speaker I cannot afford to be late. Having an audience waiting while I rush in to a hall and try to set up while there is an undercurrent of disapproval is not the best way to start a presentation and is likely to result in very poor evaluation forms at the end. The only way I know to be on time every time is to arrive ridiculously early and then wait for my turn to speak. I usually like to listen to the other speakers so that I can refer to their presentation in a humorous way when my turn comes along but on this occasion it wasn’t possible so here I am in a local restaurant with my toasted sandwich.
As I sit here typing away I note with some interest the stream of sales reps popping in for a cup of coffee or a bite to eat while they wait for their next appointment. How do I know they are reps? Well, this is one occasion where the stereotype fits perfectly. Each one is in their mid 50s, open necked shirt, sensible black shoes and sitting in the smoking area of the restaurant. They are each carrying a well worn folder bulging with brochures, diary and price lists and each of them have a sad look in their eyes.
The life of a Sales Representative has changed a lot over the last few years and the people I am looking at right now don’t seem to have kept up. Each has a cellphone in constant use but that seems to be the only technology they have with them. I am not sure how successful they are in their business and I will not be asking them, but they all have a look that suggests that they know they are dinosaurs in world that has left them behind.
“Nothing happens in business until someone sells something” (Charles Handy) and the process of selling hasn’t changed for years. We still have to create brand awareness, identify a prospect, uncover their needs (their problem), find a way to satisfy those needs, convince the prospect that your solution is the best way to solve their problem, ask for the business, deliver and get paid. The next stage is always following up on the sale, asking for more business and getting referrals to keep the process going. In the background we need to be keeping the CRM system up to date, raising and delivering quotes, proposals, invoices and requisitions from the stock room. The sales rep will still have to produce daily, weekly or monthly reports and deliver on his KPIs.
That hasn’t changed and will not change in the foreseeable future. What has changed over the last few years is the way we handle each stage of the sale.
Creating Brand Awareness used to be the domain of the Marketing Director and the sales representative just went along with the process. This is no longer enough and probably has never been appropriate. The Sales Representative is at the pointed end of the business and nobody knows what the customers want better than the people who speak to the customers on a regular basis. The Sales representative must be working closely with the customers finding out where their business is going in the future and how the company can work towards better solutions to next years problems. Creating Brand awareness doesn’t just happen with expensive advertising any longer. Now we all have a responsibility by working with the various social media websites to “drip feed” the appropriate messages. A few months ago I was working with a company whose entire marketing strategy is based on Twitter. They sell specialist alcoholic drinks at the high end of the market and their customer demographics suggests that twitter is the best way for them to be in regular contact.
Identifying your next customers no longer happens because you drive past a potential, or pick up the yellow pages. Most of your customers, and your competitors customers for that matter are on Linked In. Searching for potentials happens on your screen not in the car or on the Golf Course. You will also drive your potential customers to your Facebook business page and keep them informed with regular articles, quotations, and video clips that expand their thinking. Facebook is the third biggest country in the world after China and India, and you have access to billions of potential customers on your cellphone.
Uncovering customer’s needs can be done face to face, in fact, that is still the best way to form a relationship. But face to face meetings are time consuming and there are better ways to use your time. Skype is brilliant. I would still encourage you to have at least one face to face meeting with a customer but after that you should be finding other ways to stay in contact on a regular basis. The old idea that you have to visit a customer every month or so, is long gone. You can have face to face meetings with anybody in the world without moving from your laptop. I organized the Global Speakers Summit in Cape Town in 2009 and on my committee that met every week, I had people from the UK, US, Singapore, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. We could not have done it without Skype and while the service was a little erratic then it is much better now.
Presenting a proposal may well be more problematic. In the past I have said “If you want to win, Take it in” . If you want to be successful, present your proposal personally if you want a better chance of closing the sale. This is no longer the case. I have attended many sessions based on conference calls and have very successfully secured business while I am in another city to the decision maker.
Follow up calls, getting referrals and repeat business can just as easily be achieved with Skype or a conference call.
Now let us consider the administration for a Sales Representative. The main administrative focus in selling should be your CRM system. A good system will manage your relationships, record your phone calls, emails, quotations and invoices. A good system should also prepare and deliver your weekly reports and manage your KPIs with no additional input from the Rep. Many of the good CRM systems are storing the information in the cloud so it is easily accessible on your iPad or smart phone from anywhere in the world where WiFi exists.
Modern Sales Reping has become a shirt, tie and boxer shorts job. The idea of working from your lounge after you have sent the children off to school is no longer a dream and as long as you have brushed your hair and put on a smart shirt and tie for your Skype meetings, what you wear under the desk is up to you.
The Sales Rep is not dead, far from it, but the job has changed and we will need to be quick on our feet if we are going to keep up.