Chapter 6: Reskilling the Sales Force

Chapter 6: Reskilling the Sales Force


“When you had a sales force that was successful in selling [a specific line of products], moving them to solution sales was difficult.

We had to go significantly revamp the sales force.”
—Sales Director

Many, if not all, of the strategies in this book will require organizations to rethink the kinds of skills that are required for their salespeople and managers. In fact, many organizations are undertaking a “reskilling” of the sales force as a distinct strategy for overcoming the challenges in the current and future selling environment. This reskilling involves determining the desired salesperson profile and integrating it into selection and performance management, as well as into training and development systems.

Competencies Define Sales Superstars

Over the years, we have had the opportunity to conduct many studies in the area of selling skills. These competency studies are conducted using a critical incident methodology in which patterns of behaviors, skills, and attributes are extracted from anecdotal descriptions. In layman’s terms, this means that when you ask a salesperson why he or she is successful, it is hard for that salesperson to articulate the reasons. But, if you talk to many salespeople and ask them to describe what they did in both successful and unsuccessful selling situations, you’ll find commonalties that indicate the presence of selling competencies. In our most recent competency study (Del Gaizo, 2001), we collected over 2,000 of these anecdotes or critical incidents and used them to identify which competencies were linked to successful sales. To have the competencies be more actionable, we grouped them into roles that a salesperson must fulfill. We found five such roles:

  1. Long-Term Ally

  2. Business Consultant

  3. Strategic Orchestrator

  4. Consistent Cultivator

  5. Focused Optimist

When we conducted our most recent research study into sales strategies, we wanted to know how sales leaders thought these sales skills might change in the future—What new skills would be required? What would the next generation of sales superstars look like?

We did not, however, uncover any evidence of “new” roles during this project. What we found was that the roles themselves were the same, but the bar had been raised and expectations for each were much higher than they had been in the past. As with many other strategies in our study, there was no longer any room for philosophical buy-in, the next frontier was consistent execution. A brief discussion of the five roles follows, along with an indication of how organizations in our study are focusing on each to gain an advantage in the marketplace.

The Long-Term Ally

As noted by Keilor (2000), salesperson revenue is correlated to what are considered to be the relational aspects of selling, most notably having a “customer orientation” as opposed to a “selling orientation.” This means uncovering and serving client needs with a long-term perspective. This is reflected within the role termed the Long-Term Ally, which is focused on the interpersonal aspect of selling and of conveying a sense of shared purpose with the customer. To be perceived as a long-term partner to a client, salespeople must be able to develop long-term client relationships, facilitate open and continuous communications, and act as a customer advocate within their own organization. Skills within the Long-Term Ally role were most frequently mentioned by study participants as being critical to future success. Their focus was on the changing definition of “relationships” and the increasing implications of “long term.”

First, there were few if any interviews where the concept of relationship selling did not come up. Without such relationships, transactions become commodity-based: “The Internet is working against us. Open markets are working against us.” It’s short-term gain and long-term loss when relationships are out of the picture. In many cases, these relationships were changing from being personal in nature to being more often characterized as professional. Time and time again we heard that “in the end, it is all about relationships.” While there will always be some truth to the statement “People prefer to buy from those they like,” it appears to be much less of a factor than it used to be. In fact, buyers indicate that a salesperson’s “friendliness” is less influential over purchase decisions than their ability to be “trusted” (see Chapter 9).

The difference is subtle, but mentioned repeatedly throughout our conversations. As one salesperson in our study noted, “We’re moving from personal relationships to strategic account management.” This does not mean that personality attributes are no longer important. What it does mean is that salespeople must be more knowledgeable and must be able to provide more value to the customer then just being enjoyable to be around. This has been particularly significant in business-to-business (B2B) selling relationships. As B2B buyer processes now frequently include decision-making committees or procurement, personal ties between organizations are often broken. The extent to which this happens also depends on cultural differences. In Latin America, the character of B2B selling is still most often viewed as a personal event where face-to-face engagements, building rapport, and social interaction are considered to be paramount to selling success. In parts of Asia, personal relationships, although viewed as separate, are considered a necessary precursor to professional relationships. In all cases, though, salespeople are under increased pressure to provide value beyond just the personal aspects of the relationship.

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A New Generation of Relationship Selling at Diebold

Diebold is a manufacturer of automatic teller machines (ATMs), electronic and physical security systems, and election systems. Its core customer base (for the ATM and security lines of business) lies largely in the banking industry. The sales approach used in the banking industry has historically been “relationship selling,” meaning “building long-term, rapport-based relationships with branch bank operations personnel.” Now, however, as banks consolidate and move to centralized procurement (often using third-party consultants), many of those relationships have disappeared. As one longtime sales representative summed it up, “It’s more difficult to socialize with clients. Now it’s all about whoever gives a better price.”

To compete, Diebold had to move relationship selling to a new level. Relationships are clearly still vital to success, but they are now more business driven, built by consultative selling skills rather than rapport. In this environment, sales professionals must find decision makers and build relationships—before requests for proposals (RFPs) get created. To do so requires more prep work, a continuous presence in front of a client, and a higher level of industry knowledge. It also means holding sales conversations with a wide variety of decision makers concentrating on a wide variety of business is sues, including increased revenues, increased customer satisfaction, and reduced opportunity costs. For example, this might mean that instead of talking about “ATM speeds and feeds,” a salesperson would have to talk about “multichannel delivery strategies, teller compensation issues, and thelike. That way you can provide real value to the customer.”

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The other main focus with regard to the Long-Term Ally role was a bigger-picture perspective on what “long term” meant. The result was a greater focus on post-sales activities to maintain relationships over the longer term. Salespeople were increasingly getting involved in servicing or implementation activity and were much more engaged in post-sales transactions for account maintenance. This focus on lifetime client value was true of business-to-consumer (B2C) situations as well. Even in a transactional retail environment, a long-term perspective is desired. Although it is unlikely in some B2C transactions that the customer will ever deal with any salesperson more than once, they will have a long-term relationship with the brand that should be supported through the discrete transactions with salespeople. As such, interacting with customers as part of a longterm relationship is viewed as a goal of industries of all types.

The Business Consultant

The term Business Consultant is used to describe the role in which a salesperson leverages reputation, product knowledge, industry expertise, and customer insight to provide value to their customer as a consultant and partner rather than just as a vendor. On a more tactical level, being a Business Consultant requires mastery of consultative selling techniques, such as being able to assemble relevant solutions and present, propose, and close sales. The key is that increasingly organizations are trying to elevate their relationships with buyers and buying organizations, which calls for being able to sell to C-level executives. This holds true in the B2C marketplace as well. The goal of a more consultant-like relationship calls for being able to sell value at different levels and address different layers of need.

If we think about one of the strategies discussed previously, “Adopting a Consultative Selling Approach,” it is clear that being able to fulfill the role of the Business Consultant will be critical for organizations taking a more consultative approach. At the same time, it’s certain that being a Business Consultant has become more and more difficult as customers have become more sophisticated. Difficult as it may be, being a Business Consultant is still a desired space for most sales organizations that view it as a real differentiator in the market. As one sales manager noted, “Our approach used to be about as strategic as a paperclip but now we try to help businesses integrate the way they do business, reduce their costs, and help them improve productivity.” To successfully execute on such a tall order, salespeople need to be more skilled at selling on value as well as on selling to higher-level executives. Further, they have to have a solid knowledge base that includes business/industry knowledge, product knowledge, financial acumen, and customer insight. One sales leader noted the challenge in achieving this level of expertise, “The 90s were a wild successful curve, but looking underneath, the sales organization had lost a lot of what had set the company up for success to begin with—a fundamental understanding of key vertical markets. We lost our understanding of the customer’s environment.”

It should be noted that although a solid product knowledge base is critical in providing the credibility needed to be viewed as a Business Consultant, it does not necessarily mean that all salespeople should be product experts. In fact, many of the organizations we spoke with were moving to a model where salespeople were considered product “generalists.” They were expected to be able to discuss the entire breadth of products, at a high level, leveraging product specialists when more detail was required. This often was used when the solutions being sold were highly technical in nature. Having account executives operate as generalists encourages solution instead of product sales, and can promote a focus on relationships instead of transactions. Furthermore, this allows for more pinpointed and strategic use of product specialists who can be invaluable in closing sales. As one information technology (IT) sales manager noted, “The more specialists you have, the more sales you can generate.”

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Par ticipating in the Client Value Chain at Infineon

Infineon Technologies is a German-based company offering semiconductor solutions from pure hardware components over chipsets and software solutions up to complete reference platforms and service consultancy for a wide range of applications. Over time, Infineon has reduced its customer base and put more focus on selected accounts. For the direct sales force at Infineon, this means that “there are fewer customers to call on, but calls are more intense and the sales process becomes more complex.” As a result, Infineon’s sales force is required to “understand more about the market, supply chain management, and the customer’s business models.” By understanding how their clients’ businesses operate, Infineon’s sales professionals aim to form deeper, more valuable relationships with customers—to “add value in terms of complex consulting”—and differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

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The Strategic Orchestrator

When a salesperson acts as a Strategic Orchestrator, they are focused on creating connections between and within the selling and buying entities in order to manage the sales process, expedite a sale, encourage the exchange of information, and make it easy for the customer to deal with the selling organization. At one company, this was referred to as “coordinative selling.” As with the other roles discussed, this had become more challenging as customers’ needs became more complex, selling entities became larger, and customers began to favor “arm’slength” buying processes.

The Strategic Orchestrator role has become increasingly more important to organizations. Of particular focus is the need to utilize influencing skills to leverage internal resources. As one organization noted, “You need to ask yourself the question: ‘How do I get other people to work for me and with me even if they don’t report to me?’” We also frequently heard organizations talk about the need for salespeople to become better resource managers. As one sales manager noted, “It’s about team selling and using the operational excellence of the business. The salesperson needs to pull all of the right levers in order to bring in the right resources.” This can be challenging as organizations merge and grow to include more complex organizational structures comprised of greater numbers of teams, channels, and resources. However, it is absolutely necessary if organizations are to take best advantage of the matrixed sales organizations (discussed in Chapter 3).

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Internal Selling at Infineum

At Infineum, internal selling skills are viewed as just as important to success as external selling skills. To succeed in their marketplace, sales professionals are increasingly asked to act as “resource managers” or “strategic facilitators” in order to bring the organization’s assets to the benefit of a specific client or project. Infineum sales directors see this as “less about selling skills and more on how you get other people to work for you and with you.” By mastering such influencing skills and becoming better Strategic Orchestrators, Infineum sales professionals are better able to manage virtual team constructs and act as advocates for their accounts.

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The Consistent Cultivator

This Consistent Cultivator role is all about the salesperson’s ability to plan and manage the totality of their accounts. Salespeople who are successful at this role are those who proactively manage time and territory and who are diligent in maintaining and expanding their presence in accounts. Given today’s emphasis on new business acquisition (and the mature position of many of the industries in our study), organizations seemed most concerned with doing a better job at mining new business opportunities with current accounts. As a director of sales noted, “We want to have our [global account representatives] work as successfully when they penetrate an organization vertically as they do when they work horizontally.” For the B2B world, this might mean uncovering new buying centers, for B2C it could mean actively exploring new areas of need. As another organization noted, “I don’t want our people to just sit there [on the retail floor] and wait to be approached. I want them to be proactive, be proposing, be selling.”

As selling approaches become more consultative in nature, this can become more challenging. As an example, Krishnamurthy (2003) takes special note of the circumstances that surround solution selling (assembling unique solutions for individual customer needs as opposed to product sales). In its estimation, an account team that utilizes a solution selling model will have to call on three to four times as many people in different functions and business units at a single customer than they would for a product sale.

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Elevating Account Management Skills at Hewlett Packard

As the new postmerger HP has emerged, the focus for the sales organization has been to form deeper relationships with customers—“to sell the value and business benefits of the entire portfolio.” In forming and managing these account relationships, HP relies on a consistent sales process across its major B2B selling organizations. Using a consistent process helps salespeople better penetrate an organization vertically as well as horizontally “being able to dive into the different business divisions, understand the variety of business drivers and challenges, and to explain to each how technology can help them meet those challenges.”

Superior account management skills are expected to help salespeople become consultants in the eyes of their executive level clients, earning “a seat at the strategy table” and uncovering more opportunities to leverage their new breadth and depth of solutions.

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Another trend among organizations with regard to the Consistent Cultivator is a more strategic approach to territory management. Agreed one sales trainer, “We are definitely moving from an opportunistic approach to a planned approach for territory management.” During cycles of economic prosperity, or in cases where technology firms were able to secure longerterm, first-mover advantages, salespeople often were able to fill their pipeline just by answering the phone when it rang. Now, however, such windows of opportunity are often narrower. Therefore, a more proactive approach to prospecting and pipeline management is required. Sales organizations are utilizing technology tools, support resources, and research services to support opportunity qualification and help salespeople be more effective. However, the most important shift is a mind-set change whereby salespeople are expected to be able to understand an organization’s sales strategy and apply it to their own territories. Who should they be spending the most time with? Where will the biggest opportunities be found? How can they leverage corporate and marketing messages to the marketplace? In this sense then, salespeople are becoming more like business managers of a territory instead of taking a more reactive, activitybased approach to territory management.

The Focused Optimist

If organizations were spending the majority of their time thinking about being Business Consultants and Long-Term Allies, they were spending the least amount of their time worried about being Focused Optimists. This role is all about what top performers do to create a positive atmosphere that makes selling an enjoyable and frequent activity for sellers and buyers alike. A combination of persistence and an ability to maintain a sense of optimism keeps them moving forward and causes others to want to work with them. Salespeople successful at this role are motivated to succeed, are able to get and keep the attention of clients and stakeholders, and they meet their commitments to both. As one manager explains, “We want people who, in severe conditions, can think ‘I can make it’ as opposed to ‘this situation is just too hard.’”

What is interesting about this role is that it hardly ever came up in interviews. While a slowdown in the economy may have reemphasized the need for optimism, there was nothing to indicate that this role would be executed any differently going forward than it is today. We interpret this not as a disinterest in the attitudes and personalities of salespeople, but instead as an indication that being a Focused Optimist simply “went without saying.”

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Building PIT Crews at Bell South

Bell South’s small business division faces several very challenging conditions in its business environment: competition has exploded in a deregulated market, while at the same time, new federal regulations have restricted offerings and pricing models; and customer expectations have increased exponentially. “It used to be that customers were just happy if they picked up the phone and had a dial tone. Now they are concerned about other issues like wireless capabilities, disaster recovery systems, and more.”

It takes a highly motivated sales representative to succeed in this environment. Bell South has looked at its sales force to determine the model for salesperson success. This model for successful sales associates has been dubbed the PIT Crew, which stands for Passionate people, Inspirational leaders, and Technical heroes. Such salespeople are “persistent, willing to learn the customer’s business and sell solutions, willing to spend more time preparing for sales calls, and able to execute a deeper level of consultative selling.”

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There also was an increased focus on emotional intelligence, which we noted as we heard more on the idea of salespeople being able to utilize personality traits and conveyance of attitudes. Emotional intelligence, or EI, is a type of social intelligence that involves “the ability to perceive and monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, to discriminate among them, understand the information of those emotions, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and actions” (Mayer and Salovey, 1993). Emotional intelligence suggests that once individuals recognize the meaning of emotions and their relationships, they are then able to reason based on them. Daniel Goleman, in his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ, is more widely credited with popularizing the term EI. Goleman’s book discusses in detail the five domains of EI (self-awareness, managing emotions, handling feelings, motivating oneself, and empathy). Goleman goes on to apply the concept of EI to the corporate world using the key concepts of self-mastery and relationship skills. Several organizations in our study were looking at the topic with greater interest and trying to determine whether it was useful as a selection, awareness, or training and development tool for selling resources.

The idea of having a personality for selling persists in organizations today. A salesperson’s enthusiasm about the selling role clearly transfers to clients and prospects as “I love this job. I believe in this product.”