Posted February 21, 2019 by John Spence
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This is a guest blog from my good friend Jack Malcolm who is one of the most talented sales and communication trainers in the world. In this article, he describes what it takes to be a professional salesperson. Although many people do not have a high opinion of salespeople, I happen to think that sales is a noble profession focused on truly helping your customer. Take a few minutes to read this article on sales professionalism, I know you will find it very helpful.
When you think of a professional, what is the first image that comes to mind? A doctor or lawyer or first responder, maybe, but certainly not a salesperson. Professionalism is unfortunately not a term that most people would associate with salespeople. Strictly speaking, of course, salespeople can’t be professionals because they are not accredited by a formal body, but I would argue that the ideal of professionalism is not only achievable, but essential to a profitable and personally fulfilling sales career.
Professionalism is not defined by what’s framed on your office wall—it’s a function of mindset, knowledge, and behavior. In other words, you become a professional by what you care about, what you know, and what you do.
What Do Sales Professionals Care About?
The first answer to this question is: more than themselves. The professionalism mindset above all includes dedication to more than simple self-interest. In other words, professionalism is not simply a means to have a lucrative career, or to charge more, or to take advantage of people’s trust.
Although sales professionals owe loyalty to their employer, they must put the needs and interests of their customers first. There are times when their duty to the customer will conflict in the short term with their obligations to their employer, such as when they may be under pressure to move product even though they know the customer would be better off using a competitive solution. They must be able to find an appropriate balance, although I firmly believe that doing the right—professional—thing will ultimately benefit the customer, himself, and his employer.
The sales professional also cares about excellence and professional standards, even though there is no accredited body which enforces them. Indeed, especially because there is no governing body, it is incumbent on those of us who care about the image of our profession that we act in such a way as to avoid giving cause for the continued complaints and jokes. Perhaps if enough salespeople act as if there is an agreed set of professional standards, their actions will become self-fulfilling. But this one also comes back to customers, who have the ultimate vote in whether our professional conduct meets their needs and standards.
Third, of course, a sales professional must care about his or her employer. Taking care of their customers and maintaining their integrity and professional excellence is not a recipe for ignoring the interests of those who are writing their checks. When you truly believe in the value you sell and the superiority of your solutions, there should not be any conflict. When you don’t, well… then remember your first two obligations and find another employer.
What Do Sales Professionals Know?
Success in selling, especially complex B2B sales, requires a surprisingly large body of knowledge; here are three tiers of knowledge that coincidentally all begin with the same first three letters: PRO. Think of them as what you offer, how it works, and why the customer needs it.
Product: You have to know what you sell and how it compares to alternatives, beyond what well-informed buyers can find out for themselves. The “product” includes everything that affects the delivery of value to the customer, and a professional has to know how to orchestrate every aspect of making their offering work within the customer’s system. But product knowledge is only table stakes. You begin to distinguish yourself as a professional when you learn to focus on the customer, which brings us to the next two levels, the how and why.
Problem/Process: You can’t sell “solutions” without knowing a about your customer’s problems, any more than a doctor can prescribe medication without diagnosing a patient. I’ve heard salespeople blather on about their solutions without ever once asking a question to confirm that the customer has a problem or to understand the nuances of their particular challenges. The best way to find and diagnose problems is to know intimately the processes that your customer uses to create value for their customers, and find ways to reduce inputs, take out steps, improve throughput, and improve outputs.
Profit: At the profit level, you become a trusted business advisor by connecting the thread from your product to process improvements to business impact. Armed with a deep understanding of your customer’s business goals and strategies, their business and industry environment, and general business acumen, you can collaborate to spot unseen opportunities to improve their business and quantify your value.
What Sales Professionals Do
Ultimately, caring and knowing won’t mean a hill of beans unless they are translated into action. What sets true sales professionals apart from their less accomplished peers is what they do differently, and what that means to their customers.
Take long-term responsibility for customer results. Professionals take personal responsibility for client results. A couple of years ago, I had a tooth removed. Although the dentist sent me home with explicit instructions, to him, the job was not done. He called me at home that evening to see how I was doing, and then again over the weekend. That’s what I mean by taking responsibility.
The best sales professionals think beyond the immediate transaction and consider every sale to be a link in a long and mutually profitable relationship chain. Another term for this professional spirit is ownership mentality, of having an attitude of co-ownership of the results to be produced.
Prepare and plan. The customer’s time is valuable, particularly at higher decision-making levels. Sales professionals respect the value of their customer’s time by taking time up front to prepare for sales calls and meetings. In surveys, one of the most common complaints executives have about salespeople is that they waste their time—and it almost always comes down to a lack of preparation.
There are so many factors to consider when pursuing a complex sale that anyone who does not write down and think about them is at an automatic disadvantage against a competitor who does. As the old saying goes, “you’re either working your own plan or someone else’s!”
Communicate. The reason salespeople exist is to help customers make effective buying decisions, and their sole vehicle to do that is their ability to communicate. This isn’t about being eloquent, which is surely valuable but not a prerequisite of professionalism. It’s about adding value in every communication, not wasting time in doing so, and clearly delivering the information and insight the customer needs. Do this and you will achieve the defining feature of a professional/client relationship: mutual trust and confidence. As an example a coaching client of mine has spent a year as a Global Account Manager for a European multinational. Recently they told his Managing Director that since he has been on board the once rocky relationship has been transformed because of his “straight talk” about what he can and can’t do for them, and his willingness to simply listen to their concerns.
Why Does It Matter?
As we’ve seen, it’s hard work to to be a sales professional so the obvious question is: why should anyone do it? Put another way, who benefits when salespeople act professionally?
The customer benefits because sales professionals increase their profits, lower their risks, and save them time.
The employer benefits because the sales professional puts a human face on their carefully nurtured brand image. Surveys across a wide variety of industries indicate that the number one reason that customers drop a supplier is the way they are treated by the salesperson.
The sales manager benefits because professionals can be a dream to manage. That’s because professionalism is self-policing and self-motivating—it’s stronger than rules, supervision, and even incentive plans.
Society benefits, because sales professionals are the catalysts of a healthy and productive economy. They spread innovation and improve business in countless ways. Innovations do not contribute to society until customers adopt them. Emerson was wrong: the world will not beat a path to your door because you invented a better mousetrap and it usually takes a salesperson to create the path and show the way.
Lastly (because true professionals put themselves last), true sales professionals quickly become known throughout the industry, precisely because they are so rare. Sales professionals enjoy more trusting relationships with their buyers, shorter sales cycles and higher closing rates, and more referral business. And those are just the measurable ways that professionalism pays off. What’s not tangible but infinitely
more important is the personal pride you get from pursuing excellence in a noble purpose, and I trust you would agree with me that improving the lives of others is the highest purpose of a true sales professional.
Honestly, none of these are a big secret—but neither are they common. The relentless push for quarterly earnings performance translates into tremendous pressure put on salespeople to produce results now, so it’s almost a given that the average salesperson will cut corners. The fact that so few salespeople actually take time to do these things.
To learn more about Jack Malcolm, his books and his area of expertise go to: JackMalcolm.com
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