As the information technology (IT) world frantically prepares for the year 2000, sales and marketing executives would be wise to do the same. Why? Most sales organizations are entering the new era oblivious to a very serious problem -- the millennium sales bug.
What is this affliction? It's the weeding out of the sales force. This trend has its roots in the Paretto Principle, better known as the 80-20 rule, wherein 20 percent of the country's salespeople produce 80 percent of the sales.
Today, however, companies no longer can afford to employ armies of reps to call on customers for the purpose of providing them with product descriptions, pricing and shipping information that can be made available through less expensive channels such as dedicated fax lines, Web sites or telemarketing programs. These order-taking processes simply don't justify paying high overheads for mediocre sales reps.
As the 20th century comes to a close, it's plausible that only 20 percent of the sales force will survive.
Another attribute of sales professionals is their sensitivity to the modern buyer's needs. They realize that today's buyers are more sophisticated and cautious than ever before and no longer tolerate trickery, manipulation or sales gimmicks.
Instead, buyers look to build partnerships with sales professionals who demonstrate a sincere interest in them and their company and actively help them to achieve success through the use of the salesperson's products, services and ideas.
The new professional
While some may see the weeding out of the sales force as negative, there's a tremendous upside as well. The woeful reputation of the sales profession, brought on by the incompetence of the majority, soon will dissipate. Those who make the adjustment will become more highly regarded in the eyes of the public and also will experience a greater sense of personal and professional pride.
This trend is being bolstered by the ongoing sales certification movement. Under the auspices of the International Standards Organization, Certified Marketing Services Inc., Sterling, VA., now sets sales certification standards, with training of only the highest caliber qualifying for the program.
In addition to sales experience, certification of individual salespeople involves the attainment of a level of training competence and regular improvement upon that proficiency through continuing education. Just as a doctor, lawyer or CPA engages in extensive and ongoing training, so it must be for the salesperson of tomorrow. School is never out for the sales professional.
This certification process also has implications for customer service and customer relationship management.
To qualify, the salesperson must provide the certifying body with character references, as well as a list of his/her customers.
Additionally, the salesperson subscribes to a code of ethics, with service to the customer being the primary precept.
As customers become aware that standards exist, they will expect salespeople to meet the criteria. Anyone who fails to adapt will lose out to better-qualified sales representatives.
Training is vital
As a result of changing market dynamics, some companies see effective sales training as the key, long-term strategic differential over their competitors. According to the CEO at one of our client companies (an industrial equipment manufacturer), "In my field, your prices have to be competitive and you must have a quality product, or you're not even a player. But the reality is that we all sell the same product. The only difference is having salespeople who can outsell the competition. That's why our plan is to build the most competent and professional sales organization in the industry."
This company now is rigorously training its sales force, while weeding out those individual sales reps who are unproductive.
Similarly, we had a client several years ago, a struggling manufacturer of home improvement products, that was having trouble with sales. As is common in that industry, products are sold only to distributors who, in turn, sell to dealers and from there to the general public.
Although the distributor represented 15 other companies, the manufacturer began a sales training program to improve the sales skills of anyone involved in selling its products and services. The reasoning was that if it trained its salespeople, it would instill a certain loyalty, leading to more product sales.
This campaign was so successful that it repeated the training program for a second year, before attracting the attention of aluminum giant, Alcoa. Due to the success of its sales training program, this company was able to dominate the market, leading to the acquisition by Alcoa.
Training is an integral part of sales professionalism and corporate expansion. But not just any training. While some programs are interesting and fun, they often don't prove productive in terms of return on investment.
Many companies are seriously rethinking the type of training they provide. Rather than choosing courses and seminars that consist of information dumping or feel-good sessions, smart companies seek training that provides transferable people and product skills. When the training program is over, the salesperson can use their tenets to boost sales and generate a return on investment for the company.
To survive the millennium sales bug, companies first must realize that to make it in this new age of product likeness, the future depends more on marketing and sales than on any other activity. Therefore, while weeding out the ineffective, low-producing salespeople, they also must invest in their greatest asset -- the undeveloped potential of their people.
Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.