Over the years that we’ve had the privilege of working with sales teams across the world, it’s often struck me that many of the ‘salespeople’ we’ve worked with aren’t actually selling at all. Though their role titles may tell us differently, a significant chunk of this group could more accurately be described as ‘order takers’. Their ability to generate sales relies more on the customer’s perceived demand for their products and services than any advanced capability in helping customers recognise the value those products and services bring, in a way that’s differentiated from the competition.

Those that operate successfully in the order taker role tend to do so for one of three main reasons:

  1. They work for a business that is so dominant in their marketplace that the organisation becomes the default supplier for purchasers in that market – think Microsoft’s historic dominance in the software field.
  2. They are fortunate enough to have inherited an account where the previous account manager has done such a good job that ongoing loyalty from customers has, at least in the short to medium term, been secured.
  3. The customer has become complacent and doesn’t have the time, inclination or motivation to assess alternative options that could potentially deliver more value – the old adage ‘Nobody got fired for buying IBM’ rings true here.

Whilst many salespeople have historically thrived in the order taker role, our experience tells us that increasingly their days are numbered. The advent of the internet is an obvious driver, offering purchasers not only easy access to information about competitive products in any given marketplace, but in many cases channels to purchase too. Similarly, in many markets lean, agile new entrants are spotting opportunities to disrupt the world of existing suppliers by offering differentiated and/or less expensive products and services.

In recent months we’ve worked with two different business-to-business clients, in two completely different industries, both of whom operate internationally. Interestingly they’ve faced a very similar challenge. Their traditional dominance in certain segments is being threatened by new entrants to the market. In an attempt to capture market share the new competitors have undercut existing suppliers i.e. they are offering apparently similar products and services at a lower price. In both cases we’ve been asked by the client to help their sales teams defend against this attack. Having observed the two salesforces at work we’ve come up with the same conclusion for both businesses – this ain’t gonna be easy! The reason? In both salesforces the majority of people are taking orders rather than selling. In both cases they are doing little to help the customer understand the true value that they as a salesperson, or indeed their offering brings. I could perhaps understand this better if the offering was a commoditised, low value item – but it’s not. Both sales teams have the flexibility to tailor the product and service according to customer need. As a customer why would you choose to purchase a more expensive offering if you believed price was the only differentiating feature?

These experiences have helped highlight the difference between true salespeople and order takers. Whilst order takers are led almost exclusively by the demands of the customer, true salespeople apply influence. Influence to help the customer identify their decision making criteria, influence to align themselves with the appropriate customer stakeholders and decision makers, influence to help the customer recognise the value that their offering brings, influence to accelerate the customer through their buying journey…and so the list goes on. And by the way, influence DOES NOT mean pushing your point of view onto a customer. In this context it’s about increasing the chances that the customer will be persuaded by your requests. In the next two blogs we’ll be looking in more detail at the techniques a skilled salesperson can use to increase their levels of influence. For now though, a question to reflect on – is there more that you or your sales team could be doing to positively influence your customers?

– Dan