New Years Eve

Shortly after Christmas, my grandfather used to bug me to create a bundle of New Year’s Eve resolutions. He’d say, “if you don’t have goals, you don’t have anything.” He surmised that if I concentrated at least annually on my strategies for improvement, some of them would stick, and a better grandchild would result.

Businesses do the same, but usually more formally. Businesses create strategies of improvement which filter down into purchasing initiatives the clever telephone salesperson can fulfill. But our contacts usually won’t disclose these initiatives unless we ask. Back in my field sales days, I’d often call on large businesses, and I’d keep my eyes out for the posters, the small signs in the cubicles, or the CEO’s recorded speech on the public monitor articulating the vision. Often these initiatives had clever names, 1 x 2000 seventeen years ago, or Vision 2020 today. The salesperson that hitches his or her star to a named initiative with a helpful solution is golden. In my field sales days, I’d notice the signs, and then bring up the initiative in conversation. The telephone salesperson, blind to the posters and signs, and deaf to the CEO’s recorded exhortation, must probe.

Few customers will open-up directly about their company’s initiatives unless you have a good relationship. You build the relationship by having a good business curiosity. What makes this customer tick? How do they compete and survive in the marketplace? If the salesperson has been responsive, the products and services supplied have been of good quality, and they have asked intelligent questions, the salesperson can probe for these golden strategies.

First, check out the company website and press releases. Often the corporate marketing department will splash initiatives online, especially those targeted at their customers. Second, is there someone else you can ask besides the buyer? Perhaps a user of your product, someone in the quality department, or someone else you’ve befriended. A simple, “do you folks have any big initiatives I should know about?” may get the information. Third, ask your buyer. “Amy, to serve you better, I’m curious if you have any ongoing initiatives I should be aware of? Tell me about your corporate strategies this year.”

Any proposal that hits the desk of higher ups that mentions the CEO’s strategic project get serious consideration. Funding follows named initiatives, and quotes that reference these C-level pronouncements get preferential treatment. “I’m sorry, excuse me, pardon me, can I sneak by you?” There is nothing sweeter than your proposal proudly going to the front of the funding line.

The prerequisite salesperson requirement is curiosity. Do you care what is going on in your customer’s world, or is your focus on telling someone about the latest product or service your selling organization has created? The highly successful telephone salesperson positions this latest product or service as a way of addressing the customer’s named initiative, and hitches his or her proposal to the Vision 2020, or whatever clever name the customer’s public relations team created.

Rarely did my grandfather follow-up a year later to see how my resolutions performed. We were on to the new. Business customers are the same, initiatives are abandoned, new ones created, the marketplace dictates change. Continue to ask, to probe and keep current– the golden customer initiative is just a few questions away.

Under the Weather

I grew up in the Midwest, and we have extreme weather because we are far from the modifying influence of any ocean. During the summer, we can soar to over 100-F; during the winter, we can bottom out at 20-F below zero. Wouldn’t it be great if we Midwesterners could take a big stick and stir together this hot and cold to create a nice, pleasant annual temperature?

Most telephone salespeople go through the same cycle: first they are red hot – closing sales left and right. Then nothing seems to work – they go cold. It’s all part of being in a sales position of course, and the larger the average sale, the more dramatic the ups and downs. For the sales manager, it is hard not to intervene when sales are down, because it’s the sales manager’s job to deliver consistent revenue. Most managers are always on the hunt for anything that may stand in the way of the monthly goal. But should you intervene? Is it really a problem, or is it a statistical bounce time will cure on its own? Just like a warm spring surely follows the coldest winter.

Consider, is the problem department wide or limited to a representative? If it is department wide, what has changed? A recent price increase perhaps, or a product revamp or maybe your customers know a new release is coming, and they are waiting.

If the problem is not department wide, check activities. Has the affected sales representative done calls consistently? Look at talk time, has the average length of call dropped which may indicate a quality issue? Look at the pipeline, is the pipeline consistent over time, or has there been fall off in prospecting? If there is an activity issue, has the representative been tied up on a larger proposal, or distracted by a non-sales project, or perhaps extended vacation?

Second, is it a territory issue, perhaps a large customer has reduced purchases unexpectedly, or something economically is happening in the territory?

Third, listen to some calls. Spend an hour observing, and ask the representative to attempt a wide variety of calls, from prospecting to calls deep in the sales cycle. Is something different? Has the salesperson adopted a mannerism unconsciously that is impacting performance?

Finally, put it all together. Is anything wrong? In most cases, it is simply the highs and lows of the normal sales pattern, and a warm up will soon follow. But the investigation may uncover a problem, and in this case, intervention is warranted.

After all, everyone complains about the weather, but sometimes the sales manager can do something about it.

Make Your Selection

I recently visited a rest area along the interstate and decided to get a beverage. After the vending machine read the chip of my credit card, it said “Make your selection.” I scanned the contents, and realized I didn’t recognize many of the local brands. I hesitated, then selected a drink with colorful packaging. When I opened the drink in my car, it wasn’t at all what I expected.

When a manager selects a new salesperson, it is much the same way, we can be deceived by the exterior packaging into buying what’s unknown inside. Take the typical resume. Anyone who is serious about applying for a job can message even mediocre experiences into a polished resume. And who among us has not been deceived by the physical appearance of a candidate as they presented themselves for an interview, and jumped to conclusions about their sales ability?

The easiest way to get underneath the packaging to see what is inside is to conduct a disciplined selection process. First, use a telephone interview to screen out candidates who won’t be a fit. Ask the salesperson to sell you on inviting them in for a face-to-face interview. If they can’t do that, they won’t be able to sell your product or service either. Second, conduct a behavioral based interview and see if the candidate has demonstrated the behaviors in the past they will need to be successful in your job.  Ask questions to see if they have done their homework to learn about your organization, and your products and services. If they don’t have a curiosity about what you do, it is unlikely they will be interested in exploring your customer’s needs either.

Next, consider a personality profile test. We use Caliper at Business Performance Group, but your human resource department may have a similar assessment. Compare your candidates to the ideal profile for your position. Okay, no one is a perfect match, but major deviations should generate serious concerns. The ideal telephone sales profile is different from the ideal face-to-face profile: telephone salespeople don’t have visual clues, the job is more repetitive, and the customer base is typically far larger.

Finally, ask the candidate to shadow one of your current salespeople. Do they ask your salesperson thoughtful questions, or do they look bored, disinterested and unengaged? Does your salesperson think the candidate will be a cultural fit? Does the candidate seem interested in your products and services, or do they seem mildly bored with your literature and online information? Is this just another job for the candidate, simply because they need one, or are they applying because they want a career?

As a manager, if you select the right team, your job will be challenging, but doable. If you select the wrong team, it will be impossible.

Now, make your selection with confidence!

I Like Your Style

Many telephone salespeople I know don’t pay much attention to dressing stylishly during the week. After all, the customer can’t see what they are wearing, and it’s more important to be comfortable. But regardless of the type of clothing they select, each telephone salesperson has a personality style; systematic, direct, spirited or considerate.

Systematic salespeople tend to follow a selling process, and generally expect their customers to follow a distinct buying process. Direct salespeople get to the point, and don’t cherish small talk. Spirited salespeople are animated and infuse each sale situation with emotion. And considerate salespeople are concerned primarily about the customer as a person.

Customers too come in these four shades. Problems can occur when the style of the buyer is mismatched with the style of the seller.

For example, if a salesperson is direct and their customer is considerate, the customer may be put off because the salesperson does not take the time to build sufficient rapport before talking business. But the shoe may be on the other foot. If the salesperson is considerate and the customer is direct, the customer may feel the salesperson is wasting their time with needless relationship building. Or, if the salesperson is spirited, they may overwhelm the systematic customer with their possibly scattered approach, bore the direct customer with their stories, and scare the considerate person with their emotion. Of course, a fellow spirited would fit hand in glove.

Therefore, it is good sales practice for the salesperson to flex their style to the style of the buyer. This is an absolute requirement when introducing yourself and your organization for the first time, and becomes less necessary as the relationship is established and flourishes. For example, a systematic salesperson may need to dispense with the ruffles and lace and get right to the point with a direct customer, tolerate the emotional side tracks of the spirited customer, and reveal some personal details to the considerate.

I have used HRDQ’s “What’s My Selling Style?” for years as an assessment for salespeople to learn their style and to determine the style of any customer. ( The instrument can be taken online or on paper, and in just 40 minutes it can provide insights into why customers react like they do.

I recall giving the assessment to a customer service team who was struggling with cross- and up-selling. It turns out many on the team were considerate, and many of the purchasing agents calling them were direct. In the past, the customer service reps thought the direct customers were impatient, and perhaps upset. Once they realized it was just a different style, they were comfortable recommending cross- and up-selling items. Sales flourished.

And that never goes out of style.

How to Master Phone Sales

One of my goals in life was to pilot an airplane, so I began flight instruction with eager anticipation. Once airborne for the first time however, I found myself struggling to stay ahead of the airplane, and relying more than once on my instructor in the right seat to keep us safe. After a few hours, I became more and more comfortable. Much later, when I had been pilot-in-command hundreds of hours, each maneuver felt as comfortable as walking.

Mastering phone sales takes the same dedication, and has the same beginning struggles. Your mind will be filled with many do’s and don’ts, stuffed with product information, and potentially prepared for all the wrong objections. It takes time for your reactions to be natural; practice for your recall to bring up timely information; and dedication to cope with the embarrassment you may occasionally experience while learning.

To master phone sales, first create a call outline for each type of call. This call outline should include your call opening, compelling reason to call statement, open- and close-ended questions and your close. A call outline is not a script, rather it’s a map of how you expect this type of call to proceed. Batch your calls so you have at least 10 conversations using this call outline before you move on to something else. Take good notes, and make changes in the outline as you gain experience. No pilot ever takes off without referring to written checklist.

Second, remember you are talking to another human being. They aren’t expecting a performance or a show, they are expecting a conversation. The best way to encourage dialogue is to ask good questions and to truly focus and intently listen. Incorporate all the conversational extenders you use when talking to a friend or family member – for example, reflect what the customer just said to encourage the conversation to continue. If the customer just told you they were busy because their department was merged with another, you could reflect by saying “you found the merger was challenging.” Most customers will agree, and then give you even more information.

Third, remember when calling business-to-business, it is all about the customer’s business first, not yours. If what you are selling doesn’t address your customer’s business issue, what you are selling just won’t fly. Because of this elemental law of business sales, your first goal is to uncover the need. Therefore, don’t throw the product out there until you are parachuting into a need.

Fourth, keep great notes. Oh, I know, as salespeople, we’d rather talk than write, and English may not have been your best subject in school, but your notes will give you plenty of ways to keep subsequent calls with each customer unique, personal and customized. Relationships are built this way, and once you have great relationships with your customers, you’ll master phone sales. No goggles and scarf needed.

Okay, you are number one on the runway, take off!