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Is Part of Your Sales Force On Life Support?
By Jeff Thull, President & CEO, Prime Resource Group

As salespeople, we're always suspected of being vultures coming in for the kill. Generally missing is the most vital ingredient for any long-term relationship- trust.

You've had one bang-up sales meeting after another. You've invested in elaborate trade shows. You've supported expensive lead generation systems . . . and business still isn't coming in. You know in your gut what the problem is the vast majority of your salespeople just aren't performing like they should be. Unfortunately, you're perplexed about what to do about it. It might be time to pull the plug on unproductive and ineffective people.Consider these statistics, after a ten year study, the Caliper Research Organization reported that 55% of 18,000 sales professionals have no ability to sell and should not be in sales. 25% should be in a different type of sales position, and only 20% are properly positioned. These are not encouraging numbers for the average leadership team.

Now consider the widely accepted axiom that 20% of your salespeople are bringing in 80% of your sales. Obviously, the inverse says that 80% of your salespeople are bringing in only 20% of the sales. That means you're riding on the random collision of bodies' nuclear physics theory: 'Put enough bodies in the field and something's bound to happen!' It's a pretty costly way to do business and signals a major problem with sales management's thinking. Wouldn't it be more logical to pull the plug on the 80% who just don't get it?

If it is so logical, why don't more sales managers scrap the life support mentality and get rid of unproductive people? Through years of studying and working with sales and management teams on this question, I have found that most leaders have a bulwark of defenses in place to maintain the status quo. Here are the top five defenses:    

  1. "We only hire experienced professionals."
    (Translation:  "We don't have a system for developing successful sales professionals.")
  2. "The sales force is made up of creative and independent individuals."
    (Translation:  "We can't control them and we really don't know what they are doing.")
  3. "It takes 6 - 12 months to learn this business."
    (Translation:  "It will be at least a year before we can make any judgment as to their productivity.")
  4. "They've got some good irons in the fire."
    (Translation:  "We're not sure how hot those irons are, but there sure is a lot of smoke.  May the god of averages be with us on this one.")
  5. "You just can't find good people anymore."
    (Translation:  "I don't know where to look or what to look for.")

These are familiar statements when sales management is generally focused on 'the numbers,' not the process or productive behaviors. Results are critical, but you can't manage results . . . any more than you can control the output of a manufacturing process by standing at the end of an assembly line and pointing out the defects in the final product. However, you can manage a process and you can manage behavior. The savvy sales manager defines the process and the behavior needed to achieve the desired results, then puts systems in place to continuously monitor, measure, and improve team performance.

Selling has become so complex its very nature has changed. Salespeople need help to meet the demands of the ever-challenging and -evolving sales arena. It requires a systematic approach called Diagnostic Business Development that provides a navigable path from the first step of identifying potential customers, through multiple critical decisions, the sale itself, and into expanding and retaining profitable customer relationships.

This approach to business development has, in many cases, caused a 180-degree turnabout from commonly accepted sales practices.

As salespeople, we're always suspected of being vultures coming in for the kill. Generally missing is the most vital ingredient for any long-term relationship- trust. Rather than blatantly pushing hard to sell, we must stop thinking like salespeople and start thinking like business people.

In other words, once salespeople stop 'selling,' they'll start building quality business for themselves and their customers. When you become a primary resource involved in managing customer expectations, you'll create long-term relationships built on trust and credibility. Think of yourself as a professional-a physician, as an example. Your objective won't be to sell surgery, but to guide your patient to a quality decision. After all, heart surgeons don't feel they've failed if they don't persuade everyone who walked in the door to have open heart surgery.

Your solution may not solve your client's problem-or your client may not even have a problem. So why should you feel you've failed when there is no sale? A salesperson should no more make a presentation to every prospect than a physician should prescribe medication for every patient. Presenting a solution before you've thoroughly defined the problem would be like discussing the details of surgery before diagnosing the disease and before the patient decides they want to do something about it. After all, prescription without diagnosis is malpractice.

Research done by Prime Resource Group shows that when using the Diagnostic Process, the customer will often make the decision of whether to buy and from whom during the diagnosis. You make the sale in the customer's mind once the customer clearly understands his problem, believes you understand his problem, is willing to make the investment to fix his problem, and believes that you can be trusted to provide the solution to his problem.

Where traditional selling advocates that every prospect is a likely customer, and 'goes for the yes,' the diagnostic process gives salespeople permission to 'go for the no.' Most inefficiencies in sales come from spending too much time with too many prospects.  The real skill in selling lies in recognizing the seven or eight out of ten who won't buy, due to realistic observable conditions, and setting them aside temporarily or permanently.

Instead of pressing for a 'yes,' a 'business doctor' will assist the prospect in deciding if a problem exists, and if so, to what degree it's affecting his business. Presenting a solution to a problem the prospect (a) doesn't have, (b) will not recognize, or (c) can't do anything about, is a tremendous waste of personal and corporate resources.

As a savvy salesperson you must also, 'Always be leaving,' meaning you keep your hand near the doorknob and go for the NO. Identify the unqualified quickly so you can move on to the next. The key to the accuracy of this diagnostic qualification approach is that the questions are based on observable facts rather than subjective opinions. The top 20-percenters are always thinking, 'Is there someplace better I can be?' Doing this requires a radical change in the mindset of most salespeople. But the effort is worth it; professionals who use the diagnostic approach are viewed by their customers as valued partners and colleagues.

So, if you want to build strong relationships of trust and credibility between your company and your customers, develop your salespeople in the art and science of Diagnostic Business Development. However, if some people on your team are too hung up in traditional sales lore to change, it's up to you to recognize who's on life support and pull the plug. Sure, it's difficult, but it's the right thing to do to build a solid team of professionals.



Jeff Thull is a leading-edge sales and marketing strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. As President and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies like Shell Global Solutions, 3M, Microsoft, Intel, Citicorp, IBM and Georgia-Pacific, as well as many fast track, start-up companies. Jeff is a compelling and thought-provoking keynote speaker for corporations and professional associations worldwide. He is also the author of the #1 best selling books Mastering the Complex Sale, and newly released, The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale. For more information contact: Prime Resource Group, http://www.primeresource.com, 1.800.876.0378.

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