The New Sales Function

Everyone seems to agree that we live in the era of great change. Everything around us is changing - as textbooks say - and every manager worth his/her salt knows this. But, there are certain areas, this belief in change does not reach. One such area is sales, though this is the most customer-facing of all business functions and where the impact of market change is the greatest.

Let me explain. The businesses try to handle change with a great inward focus. The thought is something like, Change is more IT; Change is Diversity in workplace, modern reward management and miscellaneous improvement in HR; change is also the way the board meets over video conference. All such things are change. But, ask a CEO what change means for the sales team, he would normally only say that we live in a more competitive world, but will assert that his/her salespeople are completely geared up: After all, why are you in sales if you are not competitive.

The problem is that the changes facing the sales function is the sum of all the parts of change. Competitiveness is just one aspect - it was always competitive to sell - but now what we have is global competition, similar products at lower prices from across the world. The simple faith that cheaper prices mean lower quality does not hold true anymore, and everyone knows this. Besides, the customers know more - so it is no longer a game of making the call before the competition did. Also, there is IT, simplifying many functions for the customers and eliminating many tasks of the salesperson. More feet on street - a sales philosophy peddled by some gurus even to this day - appears naive and out of touch in the Internet age. Sales today is a all new ball game and most managers refuse to see it.

Take the sales role, for example. There are lots of missing parts today. A salesman, even a decade back, would have spent time taking down orders, processing payments and updating stock records at the point of sale. Most of these functions are history now. IT took it away. So, the sheer number of sales people makes little difference - better IT can free up far more sales time than extra people. And, in an organization which has done this, the sales role has indeed moved up the value chain.

Like what? Today, it is far more possible to access databases, research and know about the customer beforehand. Time spent here should ideally replace the time spent in taking down orders etc. Better research is far more effective than traditional success ratio thinking - make 200 calls a day and you will get at least 1 lead, stuff like that. It is easier and cheaper to write an email, and it is instant and hassle free, immediately after a discussion. So, the sales role has shifted from the sales clerk to the sales strategist - and this is indeed the only way one can sell things today.

Also, think what is the task of the salesman today. In my mind, they are there to avoid price competition. Today, it is possible - in more cases than not - to source a cheaper and BETTER product globally. The role of a salesperson is to swing this balance by adding relationship value to the product. People still want to buy from people - feel more comfortable about it. In many cases, I shall pay a little extra to buy from someone I liked. This is where the sales people come in - to put a human face in the product and avoid the trap of price. [In this regard, I think sales people sits at the opposite end of business thinking than price comparison websites]

Unfortunately, most sales training today still is fairly mechanical, and they fail to recognize this big change of reality. Relationships, in most cases consistent and ongoing, are still to make a splash in sales thinking. While it is recognized that relationships are important, the discipline has been usurped by the marketers and IT, who, having never had to face customers in person, have put in an impersonal spin on the whole relationship management agenda. And, sales remained, well, sales.

However, hardships in the market will change this. Companies are more squeezed today, as are customers. Certainly, sales is at the forefront - a good salesman makes a difference more than ever. Hopefully, organizations now will accept the truth - that they need to see the sales function in a new light.

An inadequate appreciation of the changes affecting the sales function leads us to train the sales people wrongly. The sales technique best-sellers mostly date back to 1970s and 1980s, and deal with products like insurance, brokerage, electric appliances and encyclopedias, products and services which by itself has undergone massive change since those


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