6 September 2019:
By Andy Hough, Founder and Co-CEO, Association of Professional Sales
Do a web search for the term, sales professional, and you will see a host of articles about the skills and attributes that are needed, and what is required to gain them.
Often the authors who write these articles are trying to address two key needs for many salespeople: how to improve their image and how to find an edge to win their next deal. But developing the skills to be a professional salesperson who can build trusting relationships with their customers, demands dedication, time and energy. It’s not a quick fix.
In this article, we consider the necessary characteristics to be a sales professional, though it’s not for everyone. Most organisations that represent their professions believe that about 50 percent of people who work in their field choose not to join a professional body. Of course in some closely regulated sectors, like accounting, that is less of an option.
After reading this article you may, or may not decide that the necessary work is worth it, but if you think we are off the mark, tell us.
Ethical behaviour is the foundation for any relationship between seller and buyer. It shows potential customers and existing clients that you will behave to the highest standard of personal integrity. You will make the right choice for them ethically and legally, and the right choice for the circumstance, not the financial decision that only benefits you as the seller. You will not discredit competitors and you will not behave unprofessionally by making decisions that are legally and morally incorrect.
A sales professional will always focus on the right outcome for the customer by creating a win-win solution so that both parties come out ahead, and with a significant contract that will survive the test of time so seller and customer build a strong, lasting business relationship. To do this a good seller should, for instance, gather baseline figures to demonstrate a clear return on investment.
Sellers should reflect their buyers
In the modern world of high-level business-to-business selling it is important that you can call on additional people in your team who have the skills and characteristics that match your customers’ requirements and, for example, their diversity. This gives your customer greater engagement and confidence that your are focused on their individual needs.
Professional salespeople are emotionally intelligent. They understand when to hold back, when to lay out fresh options, and when to take the initiative and push ahead because their customer is confident that their solution is the best. They keep negotiations relaxed and efficient, sharing information while researching their customers’ businesses and needs. Communication should be informed, relevant and aimed at reaching the best outcome.
The importance of providing value is often talked about in relationships between buyers and sellers, but little understood. Providing value does not mean that everything must be a complicated transaction. It may well be an on-going relationship, for instance a regular order that need to be shipped into a customer’s manufacturing process – not precisely strategic but a fundamental part of their operation. Being able to deliver just-in-time services shows you can fulfil you customers logistical requirements and that you can meet their manufacturing challenges. All of this demonstrates that you deliver value. At the other end of the scale you might be working on a high-end IT solution which increases your customer’s speed to market. To do both well, you need to understand your customer’s business.
Salespeople must manage their own time effectively, be efficient with the tasks they do, and be motivated to develop their skills, knowledge and behaviour. A seller must be motivated to run a detailed portfolio of their customers with information about their needs, aspirations, financial metrics, and manage the organisation and ecosystem around them for the best customer-outcomes.
The impact of technology and consumerisation are constantly changing the way we sell. Online and high street consumers expect more and so do your customers. You may be working in the business-to-business, corporate environment, but think of your customer as an individual consumer, not as an anonymous corporate buyer. How do you give them the same engagement they might expect with Amazon and the same security they would expect with a consumer review website, like Trustpilot?
People who fail to prepare, prepare to fail! That old adage is even more relevant today. All successful sellers are conscientious and focus on detail. They research, prepare, and develop a clear understanding of their customers and prospects using a range of data and information. They are completer-finishers, writing up meeting notes, using their organisations’ digital systems to ensure that information is shared accurately so their manufacturing base or their service-delivery base knows what is coming down the pipeline. Many people fall into sales but stay because they find it rewarding and exciting. To stay ahead of the competition they need to develop their skills across a whole range of different demands from deal size and complexity to a different product offering, or to grow through becoming a manager and a leader. You must want to be in the profession, in order to be professional, and I would argue successful.
Investing in yourself
Understand where existing skills need to be refined and new skills need to be learnt. This means you need the time to think and reflect on your performance. Read and study, and talk and learn from your colleagues.
The ability to listen and ask relevant questions is one of the most important selling skills. Understand the organisations you are working with, their processes and challenges. Asking thoughtful, relevant questions will allow a sales individual to understand what they need to deliver, when and how.
Sales education now comes in many forms. It can come from a training company giving you a certificate for completing their course, or qualifications from a university or professional body like the Association of Professional Sales.
Be part of a professional body
Accounting, Procurement, Marketing, Finance and Human Resources have their own professional bodies. Sales should be no different. Being part of a globally-recognised body that fulfils standards and develops qualifications is a mark of somebody who wishes to be recognised as a professional.
Now you have read this, can you afford to say that professional sales are not for you? As sellers we need to be more sophisticated in the way we present our goods and services to potential customers because we are all far more discriminating about how we buy. These days even corporate buyers look for an authentic experience in terms of ethics, emotional intelligence and customer-centricity. Are you confident you can offer your clients a first-class buying experience?
About the APS:
The Association of Professional Sales is the leading authority for salespeople, a not-for-profit organisation reinvesting in the sales profession to build standards, trust and education. The APS is engaged with MPs to promote ethical, professional selling across UK businesses and has worked with the government, business leaders and academics to establish sales apprenticeships up to degree and master’s level. We are also campaigning for chartered status to give skilled, ethical salespeople the same recognition as other professions like accountants, architects, and engineers.