Sales are the lifeblood of any commercial organization – until products are sold, they are just costs. Selling is the magic breath that gives life to every other business activity.
‘Sales’ is the starting point and a primary consideration in almost any business plan. It is sales that generate the resources to hire people, purchase materials and pay the bills. Whatever sector you are in, sales matter – even in not-for-profit organisations.
In the lexicon of business, selling seems to be one of the more emotive words. In the UK we are often disparaging about sales. We have negative perceptions of sales people. We are reluctant to be involved in selling and don’t want to be sold to. Yet, in Germany, for example, sales people are held in high regard as professionals who can successfully bring suppliers together with customers.
It is said that ‘people buy the salesman not the product’ – a puzzling statement at first sight but the key to it is the question of confidence. We are more inclined to buy from people with integrity who understand what we want and that we feel we can trust – trust to give us reliable information or trust to make things happen and deliver on their promises.
The genius of marketing is to structure demand and the buying process so that in many cases products sell themselves.
With branded consumer products – promoted and explained through advertising – people know more or less what they are getting. They are happy to help themselves from the supermarket shelf or from the on-line seller. With necessities, price, convenience and location – whether that’s your shop or your Google ranking – may be the main thing.
With non-essential or luxury items, the buyer will have a notion of what they want, desire or crave. Price may be a factor but the drivers are principally the features, style, aura and cachet of the product. The retail experience itself may be a source of satisfaction.
On the face of it, selling tangible goods should be straightforward. You can compare prices, features and benefits – showing how the product stacks up against similar products. But increasingly, the line between products and services is blurred. Phones depend on networks, devices are bundled with software, functionality is tied to subscriptions.
The complexity of many products makes it hard to understand what is being offered. This is particularly the case with technology, financial services and the wide variety of consultancy services. We need explanations in terms that we understand.
On-line articles, product reviews and comparison websites help in setting out the issues. But often, there is no substitute for being face-to-face with a sales person who not only has the specific product knowledge but who also takes the time to enquire about our needs and to explain how things meet our specific requirements.
Selling services often demands an extended and more active sales approach, especially in business-to-business situations. The service you are selling may not have a strong brand or any brand at all. The service may be highly tailored, rather than an off-the-shelf product, with delivery that differs from client to client.
In many cases you may be selling solutions to problems. A large part of the service may be defining the issues and designing means to overcome them or find ways around them, perhaps restructuring a whole supply relationship.
In order to formulate a proposition the salesperson has to be not only creative but also able to enter into the customer’s world seeing things from the customer’s point of view. This requires more than market, technical and product knowledge. It requires an ability to listen, engage, build trust and work collaboratively with the client – in a word, to empathise.
Selling is a more comfortable proposition for salesperson and customer alike when the focus is on the customer’s needs rather than ‘the products that I’ve got to shift’. And this focus on the client rather than the transaction is far more likely to lead to a continuing customer relationship.