Executive Suite: The Carnival Barkers

Recently, a dear friend of mine took a position at a major company selling investment products. She fretted over the company materials that described the best products for their business and individual clients, despairing that she would not master the content sufficiently. But the people in charge didn’t care about that. They wanted to see her list of names, phone numbers, and email contacts. They wanted her to set “X” number of appointments pronto, and make five sales as quickly as possible.

But wait, she thought, I won’t know what to say when I get on these appointments. The people in charge didn’t care about that either. They would be happy to send a seasoned pro along on any call to wrap up the deal. So what is going on here?

This is it: The company wanted carnival barkers, not concession-stand operators. They wanted salespeople—door openers—not people with technical knowledge. Investment companies are littered with people who have the technical mantra down cold. They know the products, the percentages, the actuarial tables, and all the rest. These companies need carnival barkers who will line up people to see. And that is what printing companies need as well.

Look at your salespeople. Are they on the phone, beating shoe leather, and bringing in orders? Or are they in their offices, sending emails, and checking on how their job is running in the plant? Are they focused on selling or service?

The Correlation

I have been consulting and advising the owners of printing companies for more than 25 years. Here is one thing I learned: a salesperson has to have a certain, minimal threshold of technical knowledge to sell. Below that line, she will look foolish. But beyond that minimal level of expertise, there is no relationship between how much she knows about printing and how much printing she sells. Beyond that point, it is all about sales skills.

Technical knowledge is wildly overrated in print sales. Sure, you’ll hear the production and customer service people complain bitterly about poorly done specs, unrealistic promises, and woeful gaps in technical knowledge among salespeople. And, in many instances, they will be right. But, remember, the foregoing transgressions are what make those production people’s jobs harder and often that is the basis of their complaints. The unvarnished fact is that many exceptional salespeople are very weak on the technical front. There is a very good reason for that. They are into selling, not producing.

I once met a young African-American woman in an airport. (Stay tuned and you will know why I mention her race.) She told me she sold cars. As it turned out, she was running 1-2 in new car sales in the suburban—largely white—dealership in which she worked. I was amused.

“So how much do you know about cars?” I challenged her in a quippish but not disrespectful tone.

Looking me dead in the eye, she said, “I don’t make them; I sell them.”

Case closed on that one. If I had been on the sales lot with her, I am afraid she could have reached into my pocket and taken my money with minimal protest.

Read my lips: When it comes to sales, do everything possible to find salespeople who sell printing services, not print people who want to sell it. It is easier to teach printing to a salesperson than it is to teach sales to a print person. If tech knowledge is what sells printing, then your top production person should lead the league in sales. But he doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t even want to sell. You know why? Because it’s too hard. You can’t have a bad week or month in sales and still head home with the same paycheck.

The Context

Which leads me to context. Make your company as sales-friendly as humanly possible. Not just to clients and prospects, but to your own salespeople. Selling is almost impossible to do in a negative environment. The reason is very simple. Because the job itself is filled with negativity and uncertainty. There will be legions of no’s in calling for appointments before a single yes hits their doorstep; myriad no’s before a really good estimating opportunity arises, and lots of no’s before a job is awarded. And were that not enough, there is constant uncertainty—uncertainty over when the next job will be gotten, how well it will be done, and whether there will be more jobs coming from this source.

Salespeople do not need more negativity. An occasional kick in the duff may be in order for some who are lazy, feeling sorry for themselves, or contributing to the air of negativity by complaining, but in general you want as supportive a sales environment as you can get. You want a sales-positive context.

It Starts in the Executive Suite

The positive context begins with you. Here are some things you can do:

1. Celebrate every sale with an email or memo to the salesperson.

2. Make your sales meetings upbeat and positive, going beyond scoreboarding (reciting the weekly or monthly sales numbers) and talking about sales issues and how to meet them effectively. Bring in motivational speakers.

3. Meet with your key management people and discuss ways to make your context more sales-friendly.

4. Meet with—and, yes, confront—people in your company who complain about salespeople and who contribute to a generally negative environment. It’s zero tolerance for negativity.

But What about the Carnival Barkers?

So should you go light on the carnival barkers? Give them an accountability waiver because their jobs are so tough? Methinks not.

If you have constructed a positive sales context, you have the right to expect a quality effort from your salespeople. You won’t have to worry about the good ones. They will sell in that environment. Some of the less-talented but hard-working ones will become “keepers.” The malingerers, however—easy to spot in an otherwise bright context—need to clean out their desks. Looking for their replacements is something we will discuss next month. PN

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