Some joint research with YouGov, to be published today, showed that 70 per cent of UK business decision makers have admitted that their organisations do not have a systematic approach to engaging with customers and prospects. Presumably, for the majority, there’s a randomness about the way every individual sales person goes about their work that would not be tolerated in any other sphere of professional endeavour.
No industry does particularly well, but manufacturing, with much talk recently of the pivotal role it will play in increasing trade and rebalancing the economy, fares worse than most. Just 16 per cent of respondents in the sector say they have a single, commonly used and widely understood sales methodology. Organisations in which the culture is shaped by engineers are either short of vital methodological skills that any modern business needs, or they hire sales people to manage business development, and don’t look too closely at what those people are doing.
Most people I speak to in the mechanical engineering, energy and finished goods segments don’t express much surprise. They know it’s a problem, but have always assumed that selling just isn’t something engineers do (or ever could do) particularly well, and neither can they recognise whether it is done well or badly in their organisation: revenue alone is a pretty poor indicator of the soundness of the sales process.
But when I stop to think about it, it really ought to be surprising. Because what do the engineers, production directors and accountants who very often lead those companies admire most? They set great store by process, the mastery of difficult but acquirable techniques, the application of theory to practice and, of course, problem-solving. And those are the very attributes that comprise just about the best definition of professional selling there is.
Any idea that good sales performance is the preserve of natural persuaders and extrovert personality types, or that it is a mere ‘soft skill’, are deluding themselves - possibly in order to excuse themselves from having to get too close to it.
A professional sale, like any scientific process, can be boiled down to stages.
- Investigate, through structured and logical questioning, the needs or ambitions of the potential customer.
- Explore and extend those problems and desires and the implications of those, in the mind of the buyer.
- Create, in a consultative conversation with the customer, a detailed factual picture of what the world will look like when that problem is solved.
- Finally, introduce your product, service or solution as the means to fulfil that vision in the most precise, quantified, measurable and business-like way possible.
Each of those stages comes with a learnable set of behavioural skills attached; skills whose execution owes nothing to personality or confidence and everything to understanding, practice, reinforcement and integration with the business processes of the company. Sitting alongside the personal skills that are needed to execute those stages accurately, there ought to be structure and tools for charting where the sale is heading, who the key influencers are and how their needs and desires fit into the overall picture, as well as an honest means of appraising how far each individual sales conversation is truly advancing towards the goal of bid shortlisting and ultimate success. (And by the way, a CRM system is, at best, a mechanism for recording a tiny slice of that information – it doesn’t constitute a process or methodology as we should understand it.)
No business with an eye on survival can afford its sales effort to be any less rigorous than its engineering processes – or for decision-makers to walk around in blissful ignorance of how it’s done.
David Freedman is the Associate Director from the leading sales performance and training consultancy, Huthwaite International.
The views of the writer do not necessarily represent the views of the Institution.