What’s Changed Since I First Started Selling?
What’s the point of writing a piece on how things have changed since you first became a salesperson?
By definition, that’s a backward looking perspective, and if you’re a salesperson not entirely focused on the future, you might as well find a new career now, rather than wait until someone politely tells you “your strengths lie elsewhere”.
Out of curiosity though, I tried to think about what is different about the way Sellers sell today, compared to when I first started selling. Not as easy as I thought. The first thing I realised was that pinpointing exactly when I started selling wasn’t obvious either. Was it my first IT sales job with a quota, product set and a list of Clients? If I think about it, prior to having a job with a ‘sales target’, I had been selling ideas to people with budgets as a Marketing Assistant. Before that, I’d been selling clothes in a fashion retail store on Saturdays. So maybe that was when it started.
If that was the start point, what’s changed? The products? The remuneration? The target market? Of course yes – all of those things changed for me personally – but as I started to think back on it, many of the people who bought clothes in that retail store only ever bought their clothes on a Saturday, and would browse in the store until I’d finished serving someone else, despite other staff being available. So did that mean there was some sort of advantage to buying from me? If so, what was it? Because there were far more experienced staff who knew the clothing range better than I did and who knew immediately what other sizes were in stock ‘out the back’. I certainly had no control over the pricing, and couldn’t offer anyone a discount. Frankly, in a fashion retailer on a busy Saturday, my expectations of a shop assistant are pretty low. I expect a spotty kid, with unpolished grey shoes that were once black, a poorly fitted shirt with the tail hanging out at the back and an attitude that says “I’m so bored; I just might come and harass you because leaning against this rail is mildly more boring than a conversation”.
So I pictured myself in that role. The analogy didn’t make sense. I remembered I used to wear a blue double-breasted wool blazer, bought with my staff discount. I’d had some shiny Armani brass buttons sewn onto it by my Mum (recovered from a family friend’s cast-offs), and treated it as if it were ‘the real thing’. I had a pair of black, soft leather winkle-pinkers I’d bought with paper-round money for 4 weeks’ wages (sure to impress girls at the local Youth Club Disco on a Saturday), and a pencil tie suggesting my allegiance to the ‘Rude Boy’ fashion, as opposed to the Pringle and Gallini-toting ‘Dressers’ of the era. Those were the only two ‘smart’ fashion options in those days. The alternative as a Cure-following Goth with make-up, or a scruffy ‘headbanger’ would have seen me kicked out of the shop quicker than you could say “Kajagoogoo”.
So now I was getting somewhere. When I started selling, I used to dress smartly and my shoes were always shiny. Hardly an epiphany, and oddly enough, still a good rule of thumb 25 years later. Ok, so that isn’t what’s changed.
A little later in my selling career (now with a ‘real’ sales job and a target), I was selling bar code scanners and hand-held terminals for stock taking and point of sale terminal. “ePOS” (or electronic Point-of-Sale), as it was known in the day. I was new in the role so naturally the Company gave me a set of Clients where I could do no damage if I screwed it all up. In those days, bar codes were just becoming recognised as a genuine means to aid retailers and the market for devices to manage the process was booming. The big supermarkets were the territory any sales person wanted, but instead I got lumbered with what we used to call ‘corner shops’: small chains of 20-30 shops, selling anything from “Sunblest” bread, to Tennant’s Super. Unlikely to provide sufficient sales to get me that Lotus I so desperately wanted, in a market where volume sales were the Holy Grail. It was traipsing around these insalubrious locations that I realised alcohol and tobacco were high profit, but also high theft items (whether by staff or by shoplifters). Controlling those particular stock items from delivery to the point of sale was even more important to the small retail shops than it was to the supermarkets.
I went to my Sales Director with a proposal that he ‘give me’ the Off-Licenses as a defined territory. He thought I was mad. Off Licenses weren’t even a defined Client category for the Company, because despite the UK having more than 17,000 of them, they didn’t use bar code scanners so why would you want them as a sector? You’d have to start from scratch. He quickly drafted a revised Account List and sent me out the door so he could talk about “Self-Scanning” with the Safeway Account Manager.
I tried for weeks to get an appointment at Thresher’s Head Office. No-one would talk to me. I did the same at Victoria Wine, Unwins and even the much smaller Oddbins – all to no avail. The standard response was “we don’t use bar codes and we won’t buy your products”.
Finally one day at a trade show, I spoke to a guy from Threshers (a very junior IT Manager with no interest in bar code scanning, but who was collecting freebies for his kids in a plastic bag near the big ePOS stands). He said that the only way I could really talk to him about their business, was if I understood them better than he did – which just wasn’t going to happen. He’d been a Branch Manager, so no-one knew more about their 1,572 shops than he did. I asked if I could get some unpaid work experience shadowing someone in a Branch Manager role, but he explained that a recent regulation called “Health & Safety” would mean more paperwork than anyone would ever want to fill in – especially just to humour a sales representative.
The next day, I walked into my local ‘Offie’, and asked for a Saturday job. The guy made me fill in a form and told me I would start that weekend. For the next 6 Saturdays I was paid £3.20 per hour from 11am to 10pm, for standing behind a till serving old ladies their “Mayfair 100s” and punching prices denoted by the yellow stickers on 4-packs of Carling. During those 6 weeks, I watched around £4,000-worth of unpaid for stock, walk out the door without anyone from Head Office ever knowing. My colleagues would sign for deliveries, hand the driver a carton of Silk Cut and then put 3 cartons in their rucsac in the back room. The rest would go on the shelves. Family members would come in and buy 4 cans of beer, but 8 would get put in the plastic bag. It was insane.
A week after my short Off Licence career, I faxed an assessment to the IT Manager at Threshers. It took a few phone calls to Head Office just to track down his fax number because he was so low down the food chain, but eventually I got his details and sent him my appraisal.
Two days after I’d faxed my letter, I received a phone call. Mark (the IT Manager), wanted chapter and verse on how I’d found out in such detail what was going on. I explained about my part time job, what I’d done and how I’d observed what I’d seen, and then asked him if he thought my local Off Licence was a 1 in 1,572 anomaly? He agreed that seemed unlikely. Mark asked me if my employer knew I was doing it and I said yes. He then asked if I had any ideas about how they could prevent or limit what I’d seen. Of course I did, and of course I would be happy to meet and talk him through it.
Four weeks after that, I got invited to make a presentation to the Chairman of Threshers and his Board. About 8 weeks after that, I received the largest non-Supermarket chain order my Company had ever received. It was for 4,000 hand held scanners and 1,000 hand held terminals. I bought my Lotus Esprit 2 weeks after the cheque cleared.
Writing this story, I realised that here was another key observation: the differentiating factor wasn’t the product, and it wasn’t the Client. It was the fact that I had managed to understand the Client’s issues, even though the Client themselves hadn’t even known that there was an issue. So understanding my Client was important then too? No epiphany on the horizon it appears, despite every sales training company trying to claim they just invented the concept of Client Empathy.
A few years later I was working for one of the world’s largest software companies. We sold things that defied the prevailing imagination of most retailers. In this instance, I was selling a small piece of software that sat upon a device called a Palm Pilot. The Palm Pilot was cool, and everyone wanted one. It fitted inside a suit jacket, had a large screen you could touch and write on with a small plastic pen, and it did some very cool stuff. It retained your diary, your phone book, your notes and would surely mark the end of handheld technological advancement. Everyone knew it. The Filofax would soon be no more.
The software was equally bleeding edge. It allowed a firm to place a scaled down stock list onto a Palm Pilot, which they could then give to a sales person, eradicating the need for ring binders filled with pages of stock lists, photos and carbon paper triplicate order pads. But the coolest piece was yet to come. When the sales person finished their week out on the road, instead of faxing pages and pages of orders from the local branch to Head Office on Friday each week, they could plug this device into a thing called an acoustic modem, attach it to a telephone, and simply dial the fax number. The device would then do some black magic and automatically send beeping noises down the phone line. That beeping was received at the other end by a computer, which would collate an order file, and then process the orders. The Company had called the software a “Portal”, because it was the door to another world.
Not only was this a great way to demonstrate how forward-thinking the seller’s Company was, it also meant orders were processed daily at the end of each evening and without the inevitable errors from poor handwriting or fax anomalies. Who could fail to want one?
I took it to my Client, a household cosmetics supplier known for it’s stance against testing products on animals. They were one of the UK’s largest independent retailers with over 800 shops, and were considering expanding into Europe. But in addition to their stores, they had 500 sellers who did ‘parties’; basically they’d take samples into people’s homes where anywhere between 5-10 neighbours would get together over a coffee and try out the new ranges. The sellers were never technically savvy, were often housewives trying to earn extra housekeeping money whilst the kids were at school and more often than not, they hadn’t written much since leaving school.
Cue the Palm Pilot and the “Portal”. The demonstration and sales pitch was so successful, Patricia (the IT Manager) phoned me a week afterwards and said her Boss would be signing the order today, and that I should go down to Littlehampton to collect it in person. I’d never met anyone so senior, and this lady was the Founder and Managing Director of the Company.
I sat down and the MD bestowed me with compliments about the “Portal Pilot” as she called it. She explained this had the potential to be one of the most significant orders she’d ever signed with an IT provider, and was certainly in monetary terms, her highest IT purchase outside of mainstream computing and ePOS. I was elated. I drove that £2.4M order back to my firm’s Head Office feeling like the King of Petrol.
When I handed the order across to our order processing Manager, he looked at me, shook his head and said:
“Sorry Piers, you’ll have to send this back. The software’s not available. It’s only in demonstration version and – well, frankly, no-one thought we’d actually sell it. It was more of a gimmick than anything”.
I queried how such a thing could appear on our Product & Price List, only to be told that unfortunately the Company sometimes did things that whilst not entirely understandable by us employees, must have made sense to someone in our US Head Office.
I called the IT Manager. She was incensed and made it quite clear that not only would she not tell the MD on my behalf, but that I should get in my car straight away and drive back down from London to do so face-to-face.
The curly dark-haired lady stared me in the face. I felt like I was looking at the Headmistress, about to be expelled from school. I can remember it so vividly, I can quote her directly:
“Piers…the retail industry seems like it’s very big. But it’s not. I know a lot of people in retail, especially in the UK. I suggest you take a very long, hard look at what your employers have done here, because it reflects on you. I mean, it reflects on you personally. Your career may well end up being defined by what you do next”.
For the next 2 weeks I felt sick every day I went to work. I felt dirty and unclean in a way I hope never to repeat. It was the first time I had ever experienced what it really feels like to know that you’ve done something not only unethical, but also professionally immoral. No-one had died. No-one had even spent any money and lost out. But somehow I knew that this was the ebb of my selling career. I had to act to save my own sanity, so a couple of weeks later I handed in my resignation.
Less than a month later, I was working for another global Company – the one I’d chosen as my saving grace. It was like I’d been cleansed. Whereas my previous employer had promoted sales at any cost, now I was being asked to consider my Clients’ needs, and to do so in a way that benefitted not only me, my employer and the Company, but also my Clients and to my surprise, their own Clients.
About 4 months into the new job, I found myself sitting in a very plush car belonging to Andy, a Client Executive, having just conducted a brilliantly successful demonstration of a thing called the “wireless internet”. It was a concept in which I’d become a specialist sales representative. Andy and I had been to a retailer headquartered at Stockley Park near Heathrow, and as we drove around the Perimeter Road, we reflected on the possible outcome of our meeting.
The guys we’d presented to, had said that they were going to sponsor and support our proposal to James, their IT Director. If James liked it, he’d suggest to Pat (the Vice-President of IT), that they conduct a pilot installation at a trial store. Andy had never reached that level within the organisation, and was visibly drooling at the prospect of maybe getting a meeting in the months to come. Pat was a direct report to the Chief Executive Officer, and Andy had never met either man.
Suddenly, the car phone rang. Andy answered and after confirming who he was and that yes, he had indeed just left the HQ at Stockley Park, the lady’s voice said:
“Andy, is Piers Grundy in the car with you?”
“Er…yes”, said Andy. He looked at me quizzically. I shook my head and stared at the small black car phone speaker, equally bemused.
“Hi Piers. This is Patricia…I’m the Vice-President of IT”. My heart sank and for a minute I had to will my bowels not to let go. Pat wasn’t a man, Pat was Patricia, the lady whom I’d let down so terribly less than 6 months before. Memories came flooding back of a time and place I’d managed to forget.
“Andy, would you mind turning your car around and coming back to our offices. I’d like a chat with you and Piers”. Then she hung up.
We turned around and I recounted in gory detail how it was that I happened to know the person who had recently been headhunted as our Client’s VP of IT. I was distraught, knowing that not only would I lose Andy any chance of getting his deal, but that it just might mean I’d have to rewrite my CV and contact the headhunters all over again.
As we sat in Pat’s corner office half an hour later, she looked across at us both and then turned to Andy, smiling.
“I’m going to put your solution into one of our stores for a trial, Andy. If all goes well, we’ll probably roll it out across the estate. My guess is, you can expect us to sign an order well before your year end. I know how important that is to you guys”.
If I’d been standing, I’d have fallen over. As it was, I simply fell sideways off the chair. The elbow I’d had pressed so forcefully into the armrest slipped, and sent me sprawling onto the carpet, the chair landing unceremoniously on it’s side on top of me.
I picked myself up from the floor, apologised, and sat back in the chair.
Pat smiled at me in the way a dog-owner looks at it’s charge after the animal’s wrapped it’s lead around a lamppost and can’t get free. Andy simply sat there turning his head from me to Pat and back again with his mouth open, trying to get his brain to digest the words she’d just used, and then equate that to my farcical behaviour in the office his Client’s most senior IT Officer.
Pat smiled again and then looked at me.
“Piers, we phoned to talk to you not long after our last meeting in Littlehampton. The man on the phone (your Sales Director I believe?), said you’d left the Company but that he’d send us your replacement. We told him not to bother, but that as a result of the way in which the Company had treated us, we were cancelling all our contracts with them. I think our annual spend with them was around…£5M”.
She went on to explain that my decision to resign from my former employer so soon after talking to her Managing Director, had been received with mixed emotions. She said that both she and her Boss realised that I had been put in an awkward position, but that their own Company valued trust and integrity beyond any other facets, and that they expected the same level of commitment from their partners and suppliers.
I can honestly say, that was one of the most important lessons I have learned as a salesperson, and it’s not something that has changed.
Nor has my attempt at ensuring my shoes are always polished. I don’t always succeed as well as I’d like on that front, but I still think Clients differentiate from whom they would like to buy based upon some really very basic criteria, including (but not exclusively):
– Impression, be that the way you dress, the way you present, the way you write an e-mail, or simply the way you shake hands. I still think that ‘Old School’ stuff counts as much today as it did decades ago.
– Empathy, not in an esoteric way but in a basic, grounded, demonstrable and genuine form. If you cannot show your Client that you genuinely care about the things that are important to them, sooner or later you’ll be found wanting, either because the Client stops taking your calls and goes to your competition, or because your boss suggests “your strengths lie elsewhere”.
And finally, but by far and away most importantly,
– Trust and Integrity. These are the cornerstones of a successful sales person. I think they probably always have been, but in these times of banking scandals, media impropriety and politicians’ expenses, is there a more valued characteristic in business? I would argue not.
I’m not claiming to be a great salesperson. I’m not even claiming to be as good as many of my peers and colleagues. I do think I try to be a an ethical salesperson though, taking the time to think about how my Clients perceive me, how they value me and how they trust me.
Companies’ change and so does technology. My first employer was bought out a decade ago, and the Company who bought them, have since been acquired by another global giant. The technology they sold will soon be superseded by RFID tags. The Palm Pilot was usurped first by Psion Organisers, then XDAs and today if you don’t have a phone that can store your entire CD collection, your life’s photographs and still do your shopping without so much as a beep-scan-beep, you’re out of touch. And as for the “wireless internet”, they even gave it a funky name to sound more like a stereo upgrade.
What hasn’t changed though, are the core values bestowed upon IBMers by Thomas Watson, on GE by Thomas Edison, and so it’s perhaps no surprise that these firms consistently rank amongst the world’s most admired companies. I’d say that what has changed are the tools we use to compliment the value we bring. Retain the latter, and change becomes so much easier to embrace.
Good luck, and most of all, enjoy what you do as a sales person.
This is a Guest Post by Piers Grundy