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Five Simple Clues for How to Recognize a Great Salesperson

by Jeff Thull

To understand what makes a great salesperson it is important to put yourself in the shoes of your customers. Only then will you truly understand how to distinguish between a great sales person who can have a significant impact on the customer's bottom line and the conventional "Commission Seekers".

Begin by asking yourself, as a business-to-business customer, what do you expect from the sales professionals who are asking for your time? This is a question you may not have considered. If pressed you'd likely say, "Well, I expect them to answer my questions, sell me the product or service I need, charge a fair price, deliver on time and follow through on promises." This sounds reasonable for the most part, but as you know, in today's complex business world, the rules of selling have changed. The salesperson whose role once centered on polished presentations and glossy brochures (often self-serving propaganda) must now function as a valued and trusted advisor and be a source of competitive advantage. If they're not, you will likely see your margins eroding as even your most complex products and services are treated as simple commodities.

There are many, many companies that claim to offer the products and services your customers need. Yet, all too often the strategy of the sales force is to battle the competition on capabilities and pricing in order to capture the customer's business. Reality is, that succeeding in today's marketplace is not about price. It's not even about products. Instead, success means being able to understand the very real, very complex problems that customers face and sort through all the available alternatives. The right salesperson should be able to help the customer do so, and to create a solution that the customer would not have been able to come up with on their own.

It is this characteristic, the ability to collaborate with the customer, stimulate their thinking and create revenue-building solutions that they don't have the time or the wherewithal to create for themselves, that the customer should look for in sales professionals who they want to work with. This kind of salesperson is able to provide a competitive advantage for the customer's company. They don't sit across the desk from the customer, spewing information and hoping for a commission. They actually become an integral part of the customer's business, making their life easier and contributing to their measurable success. It is the savvy salesperson who knows that the sales process is not "done to the customer," but "with the customer."

So how do you distinguish top professionals from the traditional sellers? Your ability to spot the top professional is more and more critical to your, your company's, and your customers' success. Look for these clues on how to spot great sales professionals:

1. They diagnose the customer's problem. When a sales professional launches into a description of his "solution" without first establishing a clear understanding of the customer's situation, be wary. A great salesperson never assumes that he or the customer understands the very real, very complex problems the customer faces. Instead, like a good psychologist, he methodically questions and diagnoses until he uncovers the problems and expands the customer's awareness. Once they both clearly understand the problem, and the customer perceives all the ramifications of that problem, then the salesperson is justified in making recommendations. After all, if the customer is not feeling any pain, why would they want to change? Diagnosis takes time and hard work. A credible salesperson proves that he is willing to provide both.

2. They ask questions, rather than tell stories. Conventional salespeople tell stories about their solutions, not to mention proclaiming the superiority of their company's brand, history and reputation. Prospective customers expect to hear these stories and rarely take them seriously. (Think about it: do you?) Chances are your customers will take salespeople seriously when they display concern for the problems they may have and the expertise to solve them. This is demonstrated by asking questions, questions that the customer would not have thought to ask themselves. The true professional's activity is additive to the customer's knowledge as well as his or her own. How else could a sales professional acquire the raw information needed to make an accurate diagnosis and design an efficient solution?

3. They let the customer set the pace. If a salesperson is truly there to serve the customer, he will not rush them, pressure them or manipulate them. The last thing he will want to do is create mistrust or a confrontational atmosphere. Therefore he will let the customer discover, understand the impact of and take ownership of problems before he discusses solution options. This will take a while. Your customer will know they have a great salesperson if they find themselves feeling emotionally comfortable and communicating openly. This state of being is the only way to do mutually beneficial business.

4. They help the customer calculate the cost of their problem. It's not enough for a salesperson to say, "You have a problem and it's costing you money." She must say, "We need to determine how much this is costing you and see if it make sense to pursue a solution." Vagueness is a red flag. If a salesperson shies away from establishing an accurate cost, it's either because a) she doesn't know the cost (or is too lazy to do the work to find out), or b) she's afraid the cost will be too low to justify the solution she's offering. Generally, the second reason is the most likely one.And maybe the customer's problem isn't significant enough to justify the expense. A great salesperson will suggest that and respect that outcome. As a manager, isn't that what you want - salespeople who are focused on accounts where real need exists.

5. They don't let the customer fall into the "creeping elegance" trap. Let's say the customer becomes enthusiastic about the potential value of the solution that a salesperson is offering and they drop into the "as long as we're going to do this we might as well also do that" mode of thinking. A conventional salesperson might let the customer run up your wish list, all the time counting up the extra commissions in his head. A great salesperson will ensure that the customer doesn't expand beyond reasonable financial parameters. He knows that because complex sales by their very nature involve more than one decision-maker, if the customer unnecessarily expands the scope of a solution, one of his or her colleagues could shoot the whole project down. The result could be losing all of the business and the customer loses the benefit of the solution.

A truly good sales professional is worth his or her weight in gold. He will function as a consultant for the customer, a strategic partner, and even an advocate. He will give the customer the competitive advantage. Having salespeople of this caliber will shift your company's relationship with its customers. Instead of their reluctantly dealing with a high-pressure adversary, they will find themselves forming a partnership based on mutual trust and respect - a partnership that is long lasting and beneficial to both businesses.

As your sales force begins to apply this approach, the difference will become apparent. Your salespeople will focus efforts where true need exists. They will form trusting, yet impenetrable customer relationships; and their close ratios will increase. To your advantage, managing their efforts will be more effective; forecasts will be more predictable; and fewer midstream challenges will occur.

Also by Jeff Thull:
Driving Forces of Commoditization
Sales and Marketing Strategies for Era 3: How To Leverage Value To Win-And Keep-Profitable Customers.
The Three Traps of Selling Conventionally in a Complex New World
How to Prevent "Unpaid Consulting" - Timely Advice For Today's Sales Professionals
Is Part of Your Sales Force On Life Support?
The Presentation Trap: Why Making Presentations Can Cost You the Sale

About The Author:

Jeff Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. As President and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies like Shell Global Solutions, 3M, Microsoft, Citicorp, IBM, Georgia-Pacific, and Intel as well as many fast-track, start-up companies. He has gained the reputation for being a thought-leader in the arena of sales and marketing strategies for companies involved in complex sales.

Jeff is a compelling, entertaining and thought-provoking keynote speaker with a track record of over 2,500 speeches and seminars delivered to corporations and professional associations. Jeff Thull's work is published in hundreds of business and trade publications. He is also the author of the best selling book Mastering the Complex Sale - How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High and newly released, The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale

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