When push comes to shove, everyone loses

During sluggish business periods, many companies try to jump-start sales activity by "pushing" specific products/services on their customers.

Many routinely do so through monthly or quarterly sales contests where a specific product/service is promoted, and sales teams and individual salespeople are enticed to "push" it with incentives such as bonuses and trips for the team and salesperson with the highest volume.

Consequently, management is often "pushing" salespeople to get the product in front of customers despite the reservations of many salespeople that, oftentimes, it's not what the customer needs most (or even at all in some instances).

Having overseen hundreds of salespeople while holding various sales executive positions, I know that "pushing" your salespeople is often good. However, I've also learned that "pushing" the exact same product/service on all of your customers is not. And one specific example of this misguided tactic jumps to mind.

Sometime back, a consultant who regularly works with us told me of a client of his whose business focused on winning and supplying government contracts with maintenance supplies. And each month, this company conducted a "product of the month" contest where field salespeople were required to show and push the specified product during every sales call, without exception.

One September, the particular product being pushed was de-icing pellets used to keep walkways clear of snow and ice during bad weather. The consultant recalls that a salesperson from this company pushed the pellets to a buyer at an installation in the desert southwest that rarely had snowfall.

Nonetheless, this buyer ordered dozens of units because his own budget was of the "use it or lose it" variety. That is, the following year's budget was determined by the amount spent during the current year, and any leftover budget would be considered excess and unnecessary.

With the government's fiscal year ending in October, the buyer felt that he needed to spend the remaining budget so as to secure a similar level of funding for the following year. And he honestly intended to make the best use of the order by sending it to a unit at an installation that regularly ordered the product in trade for a product his unit routinely used.

Unfortunately for the salesperson and his company, a general audit identified this needless expenditure and led to a full-blown audit during which every product this company had supplied to this unit was scrutinized. All of the orders were apparently legitimate, except for the last order of de-icing pellets, which was deemed an absolute misuse of funds.

Despite the lack of integrity by this salesperson and his company on just this one occasion, the auditing body concluded that the company was untrustworthy and thus stripped it of its approved vendor status at all of the branch's installations. This was a tremendous blow to the company's revenue as it annually provided millions of dollars worth of products to many of this military branch's installations.

As the above example glaringly reveals, the strategy of pushing a one-size-fits-all product/service can prove terribly costly in some situations, but at the least, is flawed in almost all others for several reasons.

First, as we teach our clients, a salesperson makes a sales call for only one reason: to be of service to his or her customer. If a customer or prospective customer doesn't have a need for your company's product/service or it's not the best solution for his needs, you have no right as an ethical salesperson to push him toward a sale.

Second, each customer has her own unique needs and circumstances that should be handled accordingly. There's no such thing as a one-size-fits-all product/service. But that's exactly what a company is expecting its salespeople to present to their customers when it pushes a specific product/service upon them during a "product of the month" promotion, or something similar.

Third, and most importantly, a professional salesperson spends a great deal of time, energy and effort in building trusting, loyal and lasting relationships with her customers. More than simply acting as a provider, as the relationships develop, the professional salesperson becomes a trusted business counselor - and partner - to her clients.

As with the example the consultant shared with me, all of this good can be quickly undone if a company mandates that its salespeople push the exact same product/service to all of its customers.

This is due to the potential undermining and erosion of trust that may occur within a customer once he learns the specific product/service doesn't best meet his needs. This is neither wise nor professional.

Rather than employing such tactics to quickly spike sales, companies would be better served to train their salespeople to learn how to detect the true needs of customers on the most individual level possible, and then to meet them.

Risking long-term profits and customer relationships for short-term gains like immediate sales and revenue may be tempting, but is very unwise. It's like playing a game of customer roulette, where a salesperson's commissions and a company's profits can increase in the here and now, but cease to exist in the near future. It's a game I recommend companies don't play.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.