From the February 2011 issue of Benefits Selling Magazine •Subscribe!

What matters in sales

Most of us have begrudgingly figured out it's useless to worry about whether the economy is getting better or worse. Such high and mighty stuff is OK for Washington, but such information doesn't make much difference in Quincy, Mass., or Eagle Rock, Calif., or any place in between.

The owner of an engineering outfit says his people are "straight out." While that's good news, the economic temperature changes by location, industry and time of day.

Because the cynicism is reaching stratospheric heights, it's time for less pontificating and more observing. Here are several "snapshots" that reveal helpful insights.

Observation No. 1: It's all about survival
A hometown newspaper editor died not long ago, and a comment in his obituary indicated he wrote his weekly column, including his last one, on an ancient "mechanical" typewriter.

Pecking away on that old Underwood was probably something of a personal badge of honor. But why? One writer keeps a 1923 manual Woodstock typewriter, similar to the one he learned to type on in the eighth grade, to remind him it's stupid to cling to the past. What value is there in using an eraser to correct mistakes or carbon paper to make copies? Punching the keys on an old Woodstock clears the mind of such nonsense.

There were those who refused to give up their IBM electric typewriters, arguing they didn't need a "word processor." And there are others who still announce proudly, but pathetically, that they don't want one and "have no truck" with the Internet.

And the beat goes on. As amazing as it may seem, the battle over electronic books and publications ended swiftly and decisively last April with the introduction of Apple's iPad. It was only a few months later that USA Today capitulated and announced it would become a totally electronic publication.

Even more quickly, textbook publishers came on board and in August 2010, Amazon.com reported it had sold, for the first time, more electronic books than printed editions. The war's won.

Insurance executive David Leng of the Duncan Financial Group in Pittsburgh takes all his notes on an iPad using a stylus. He's not alone. Who would go back to reading a map when there's GPS?

Technological sophistication isn't an option; it's a matter of economic survival. Reports indicate unemployment is exacerbated by lack of technological competence. How many millions more have decades to go before retirement?

And just because everyone under age 30 sends 81 text messages a day doesn't mean they are technologically competent. An MBA intern was asked to obtain hundreds of electronic images for a critical project -- and output it all on paper.

Thinking is still required.

Observation No. 2: Pick the title you want
There's a surge of fanciful job titles floating around, particularly on resumes, social media sites and business cards that change by the minute. Many use "creative" titles to impress prospective employers in an effort to gain a leg up in getting a job or elevating personal status.

But one title on LinkedIn stopped me: Visionary Entrepreneur & Enterprise Architect. There's a lot wrapped up in those four words. (The ampersand doesn't count.) It probably took time to think it up. Unfortunately, such words are high-level abstractions, such as love, generosity, dishonesty or countless other vacuous generalizations.

This particular title points to the possibility that "traditional" titles are irrelevant and meaningless. "President & CEO" may be losing its panache, while "Consultant" and "Sales Engineer" are dead or dated.

However, there's one title that comes closest to hitting the target and that's "customer relationship manager." It's descriptive, specific and sets expectations. Come to think of it, that might be the only one that matters. Maybe companies should give it to every employee, including the CEO.

Observation No. 3: Stop "reaching out."
The telephone call with the ineffective salesperson lasted only 23 seconds. In that time, she used reaching out twice. Before she did it again, I thanked her for reaching out to us and hung up.

Reaching out is offensive because it conjures up the image of hundreds of hands and arms coming at you from every angle -- which is exactly what's happening. The term is used in lieu of taking time to think through and explain what you really want before "reaching out."

Observation No. 4: A lesson in disappointing customers.
A final step in getting Ford's house in order is revving up its struggling Lincoln division. Most everyone agrees it's long overdue, particularly since the Lincoln customer is disappearing.

There was a day when the Lincoln Continental owned the luxury market. As a kid, I was wild-eyed when our neighbor Mr. Andrews came home with a never-to-be-forgotten Continental. He was a quiet man, almost withdrawn and rather mysterious, at least as I saw him. He spent his free time tending to hundreds of prize pigeons.

Though his words were few, his flair for classic styling was obvious the day he drove home in that elegant green 1941 Lincoln Continental. It was a car you just didn't see in our working-class section of L.A.

My dream of owning a Lincoln Continental dimmed but never disappeared. Then, the possibility took hold and I found myself in a Lincoln-Mercury showroom. And there it was, a black Lincoln Continental with that elegant and unmistakable bustle trunk.

When the day came to pick it up, I was consumed with irrational excitement. I could hardly wait for the salesperson to hand me the keys. But as he did, that feeling faded and the disappointment was overwhelming. The car lost some of its magical allure when I saw the 19-cent plastic key ring.

Customers don't buy cars, toasters, iPods, smart phones or giant TVs. They buy experiences, and it all begins with the presentation. When purchasing a home or a car, nothing is more symbolic than the keys. If the salesperson makes a big deal of the "key experience," it says, "This company understands what this purchase means to me."

Trivialize it, and there's disappointment and even anger. To a salesperson, making a sale means a reward. Ironically, it means just as much to the customer.

Observation No. 5: Good news from Gap's logo fiasco.
It may be that Gap's management learned a valuable lesson from its recent logo fiasco. In an obvious way, the company may have discovered the value of doing it the right way when making certain changes, particularly something as sacred as a logo.

Even so, there's a far more important lesson in this incident for Gap and the rest of us. Gap is not alone in thinking that it's in business to sell clothes at a profit. Hopefully, those folks have learned that their real business is caring for their most valuable asset, the Gap community.

There are millions of people who have invested themselves in Gap, who see themselves as stakeholders. From their perspective, Gap is their company--and they don't like anyone messing with it, including the company's management, without letting them know what's going on.

The Gap community summarily rejected the new logo and sent a clear message: Customers not only spend their money, but they want to be part of the team. It was a lesson well worth the cost of getting rid of the new logo.

But what was even more amazing was management's response to this full-scale revolt of the masses. They brought out the "spin doctors," who patted customers on their heads. When that failed to calm the crowd, they restored the familiar blue and white logo.

Frankly, it may have been more meaningful if the company had expressed appreciation to its customers.
Perhaps this way: "Let's face it. We often get so busy with what we sell, we fail to appreciate the intense feelings of those who not only love and wear our clothes but who see themselves as the Gap community.

We were wrong not to share our thinking about a new logo with you and we were wrong not giving you the opportunity to express how you felt. You can be sure that it will never happen again. You can also be certain that we see you quite differently today than we did last week."

It's more than a guess to suggest that Gap would have seen an immediate surge in sales as its customers reciprocated as a way of saying, "Thanks. We're glad you understand."

John R. Graham is president of Graham Communications, a marketing services and sales consulting firm. He writes for a variety of business publications and speaks on business, marketing and sales issues. He can be reached at jgraham@grahamcomm.com.

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