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Management: A painful sales learning experience

Apr 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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It's painful to watch. Many senior managers and owners, on the one hand, pay lip service to the notion that buyer motives and buyer/seller relationships have changed dramatically, while their method for dealing with the scenario is vintage 1980. As Mark Twain said, “I'm all for progress. It's change I can't stand.”

Specifically, let's deal with many companies' care, feeding and attempted reinvigoration of their sales force. The most basic error is the assumption that an organization's sales are entirely the responsibility and product of its salespeople. Like it or not, most print buyers don't see it that way.

Buyers look to the team

Until five or six years ago, when surveyed customers identified an employee by name, that employee was a sales representative in about two-thirds of the cases. Today, there's irrefutable evidence that customers view the relationship with a supplier as transcending the sales rep — although the buyer/rep relationship shouldn't be underestimated. In current surveys, the perceived importance of the customer service representative and even the receptionist and delivery person is patent; they are mentioned by name frequently. Equally significant: Whenever a sales rep is mentioned by name, it is more often than not in combination with a customer service rep or someone else in the organization.

Clearly, an increasing percentage of those who buy, specify and use print view a supplier's performance as a team effort. This should be considered as a fundamental shift in buyer perceptions that doesn't necessarily indicate a diminution in the role of the salesperson. Today, no more than five or 10 percent of those to whom we refer to as “print buyers” spend a majority of their time buying and coordinating the manufacture and distribution of printed materials. As a consequence, they tend to view a relationship with a supplier as more of a company-to-company issue. They have a perceived need for a safety net given the fact that they might lack the time, inclination or expertise to devote a great deal of attention to the print portion of their overall media and communication responsibilities. It's important that the sales rep be well liked, but this shouldn't be considered the sole link in the relationship with a customer.

A recruiting delusion

Overcoming history might be the greatest challenge for management in the graphic arts industry. Few owners and managers disagree with the notion that every employee in every department is in a direct position to win and lose accounts. Despite this, many companies continue to see the mythical multimillion-dollar sales rep — someone willing to “jump ship,” bring most or all of his or her accounts to the new employer, and do this with a lifetime commitment — as the solution. This recruiting mindset reflects an underlying assumption that the salesperson is totally responsible for his or her sales at the former employer.

I've witnessed interviews with many of these alleged saviors. It is rare that the recruited rep is asked about the percentage of sales opened vs. the sales that were inherited or assigned. It's an important question, a first step in an effort to establish whether the recruit is, in fact, a salesperson or a glorified customer service rep allowed to operate outside the office.

The traits and attributes of successful graphic arts sales reps have undergone 180-degree changes since the 1980s.

Ego-drive once was an important attribute of a successful salesperson. It might still be true in some industries, but in the selling of print and print-related services, customization provides value. Today, a salesperson needs to be introspective, not adopt a “one size fits all” posture. No two sales opportunities or scenarios are the same.

It was once sufficient for a sales rep to be liked. These days, it's important to be both liked and valued. That requires a knowledge of a client's business needs and the ability to suggest ways to increase the effectiveness and productivity of a client's print, not simply reduce costs.

Not many years ago, a salesperson was valued if he or she didn't spend time in the office, provided complete and accurate job specifications, and required minimal support. Today, a rep should have the ability to quarterback a team serving the needs of individual customers, often with complex and customized services.

The cost of a poor sales hire is immeasurable. It encompasses opportunity costs, burden on internal departments, and reputation in the buying community. An important first step for many companies is to assess the wisdom of trying to solve a sales volume challenge through the same means that were used in 1980, despite profound, fundamental changes in customer needs and behaviors.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at