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Timeless principles of sales

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Workshop When I first moved into software sales about 20 years ago, my then boss gave me a book to read called How I raised myself from failure to success in selling.

It was written by Frank Bettger, a former baseball player who had quit the sport due to injury and found a new career as an insurance salesman. It could have been really corny but it is full of great advice and anecdotes and I would recommend it to anyone working in sales or customer service.

But here’s the thing. That book was written back in 1947 and is based on experiences from the 1920s and 1930s. Yet pretty much every principle it discusses is still relevant today, from understanding the customer through engaging in dialogue to learning lessons from data accumulated during the sales process.

The difference between then and now, of course, is the impact of technology. I sometimes wonder how Frank would have organised himself if he had a modern customer relationship management (CRM) system. The truth is, probably a lot better than many sales teams do in 2011.

When you think of him painstakingly hand-writing all of his activities onto report cards and calculating conversion ratios and other metrics to optimise the use of his time, it is shameful that one of the most frequently cited reasons for CRM systems not meeting expectations is that sales people do not keep them up to date.

The fact is that throwing technology at a problem is often not enough: process and discipline are important too.

Having said that, technology does make doing the right thing easier. A modern CRM system, for example, usually comes with a range of processes, workflows and context-sensitive entry and update forms built in, so even the least inexperienced sales rep falls into best practice without even realising it. The power and usability of mobile devices, especially smartphones and slates, has made data capture and access much easier, whether it is for summarising a sales call or generating a quote while sitting with a customer.

Capturing and using data effectively is clearly invaluable for individual reps. Where several people are working together on an opportunity, the team also need be able to exchange information, respond to exceptional situations – such as the need for a discount or a contract amendment – or collaborate on a proposal. Frank was all for sharing knowledge and experience with colleagues to improve performance, and today this can be done electronically much faster and more consistently – but how many sales environments take advantage of what is available?

"The fact is that throwing technology at a problem is often not enough: process and discipline are important too."

Accumulated data opens the door to optimising the whole sales and marketing process. Frank found, for example, that most of his deals were closed in the first two calls, yet he was still spending quite a bit of his time chasing cooler prospects with a third, fourth or fifth call, many of which never led to business. He was able to boost his performance dramatically simply by deciding that if the deal wasn’t closed within two calls, he would abandon it and move on to the next one. Obvious, perhaps, but he would not have known to do this if he had not captured the data and done the calculations.

Nowadays analysis of sales data is much more sophisticated. Propensity modelling (if customers bought product A, they are X per cent more likely to buy product B) can be used to determine cross-sell and up-sell tactics. In addition, customer segmentation analysis can be used for targeting purposes, boosting the effectiveness of marketing campaigns and prospecting activity. Technology for using customer intelligence to drive web interaction offers a way to improve online performance too, and this is now accessible even to small and medium enterprises.

Another way in which analytics can help is in minimising wasted time and resources. As well as following Frank’s principle of not expending effort on activities unlikely to lead to a result, analytics can help you to avoid signing unprofitable business. It is amazing how often customer retention programmes make the problem worse by encouraging the wrong customers to renew their contracts. The right analytics can fix this.

And when it comes to knowing your customers and having a meaningful dialogue with them, Frank would probably be in his element with the web and social media. Whether we like it or not, in the consumer space, and increasingly even in the business-to- business sales context, activity is affected by postings on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Right now few have figured out how to really harness this potential force, but for anyone looking for insights in customer needs, wants, likes and dislikes, what better resource to tap into?

In the next section of our workshop on doing better business, we will be exploring some of these areas further. In the meantime, grab a copy of Frank Bettger’s book for an introduction to the fundamentals of selling. ®

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