Think on: The changing role of salespeople - and what to do about it.

By Bill Donaldson, from "Winning Business" Reported April - June 1998

If you're a salesperson, sitting in your car in a dreary service area of the M6 and thumbing through this magazine while contemplating your next call on your mobile phone, think on. Perhaps your company could replace you with a telephone operator to do the same job or a different and perhaps better job for your customer? The use of direct marketing and the telephone is growing rapidly and offers an alternative to the high cost of personal selling. Small accounts may no longer justify the high cost of a personal salesperson's visit. Salespeople and sales managers must respond.

Today, salespeople have to add value in their role and provide benefits, for both their own organisation and for their customers, that can't be provided by other means and this role is becoming increasingly difficult. Although salespeople have always relied on the back-up of others in the organisation, for example in distribution, production, inside sales and so on, the competitive imperative means sales operations have to integrate all customer contact activities to provide better service and value for its customers. This is not a threat for salespeople but a great opportunity to enhance the status of the profession and to provide a more worthwhile and rewarding role for the individual within the organisation. The salesperson's job has moved from shifting product to one of dealing with key accounts, organising team selling and being responsible for customer account management. The salesperson has additional tasks of co-ordination within their organisation and integrating with the customer's organisation.

Some of the problems are perennial. Selling activities account for most of the marketing budget across most categories of goods and services. The cost of an individual salesperson continues to rise. The CIM/Rewards Group estimate that in 1997 the cost of the average salesperson was 49,699 per annum, 50,896 if you have a mobile phone and 43% do. Yet the face-to-face selling time actually spent with customers and prospects is less than 30% of working time and can range from as low as 6% to 40%, seldom higher.

Sales managers must ensure that their salespeople are effective and efficient but the competition, in terms of efficiency, is hotting up. Serious questions need to be asked and answered. First, what role do we expect salespeople to perform? Recently I came across a whisky firm whose salespeople's main task appeared to be that of monitoring competitor's prices in retail outlets, clubs and bars. While market and competitor information is vital, other staff, retail audits or independent agencies could more effectively monitor this job. At 200 per call it is certainly not a good use of salespeople's time. In another company, selling photocopiers, salespeople spent only 20% of their time in appointments the rest was in canvassing and telesales. This is best handled as two separate jobs. This raises the question of whether other means can achieve the same result more efficiently? Finally, how can sales operations be integrated between personal selling, telephone and other forms of communication to achieve the firm's sales and marketing objectives?

Be clear about the salesperson's role

The essential nature of selling in a marketing~oriented, competitive enterprise has several indispensable functions - providing information, persuasion, and creating, building and sustaining relationships. Only this last role provides true competitive advantage for the personal salesperson which other means of communication cannot match. The first of these, the information role, is perhaps the most obvious. Where market opportunities and customer needs have been correctly identified and interpreted and the product/service package offered at a suitable price in the desired location, information needs to be imparted to existing and potential customers via some means of communication. At various stages in the buying process this communication is most effectively achieved by face-to-face personal contact but the telephone is a realistic alternative and with six telephone calls to one personal call, more efficient. Evidence suggests that the public is more comfortable with telephone selling. A BT/Channel Four study into direct response TV suggested that response rates of 380 per million viewers in 1993 rose to 1800 per million viewers in 1995 and 19% of TV advertising now carries a telephone number. Information is a two-way process from salespeople to customers and with the needs of prospective and satisfied customers being conveyed via salespeople back to management responsible for marketing decisions. Increasingly, this is combined with a customer support or service role to look after customers and protect their on-going relationship. This is the information task of salespeople.

A second role salespeople must perform is that of persuasion. In a competitive economy most commercial enterprises appeal to prospective customers faced with an abundance of choice. As a result adoption of marketing-oriented activities is no guarantee of a sustained competitive advantage. Prospective customers will have to be convinced that their needs have been correctly identified by the product and company represented, to their benefit over any competing alternative. Telemarketing utilising an efficiently managed database can achieve much of the persuasion role. For example, C.E.S. is involved in selling packages for major sporting events (e.g. Ascot, Wimbledon, British Grand Prix and Open Golf) to large corporate firms. Trade directories are used to identify companies, their size, telephone number and the names of the Managing, Marketing or Sales Director. They adopt a blanket coverage approach telephoning 200 prospective customers per day, of which 50 express some degree of interest and the outcome of this is usually two deals per week. All staff at C.E.S. work in teams to help encourage and motivate one another and on the same area, such as selling packages for Royal Ascot. This is one possible approach, which seems to work for this company in this market.

Today, the personal salesperson's most vital role is creating, building and sustaining profitable relationships. Relationship marketing predicates an intimacy between the firm and its customers and because of their boundary-spanning role, the field sales-force of a company is the vital link between the firm and its customers and a prime platform for communicating the firm's marketing message to its customers and the voice of the customer to the firm. However salespeople and sales managers, although the emissaries of the firm's marketing message have, in the past been orientated towards "closing the sale" as the main driving force behind the sales management efforts of the firm. Relationship marketing has shifted attention from "closing" the singular sale to creating the necessary conditions for a long-term relationship between the firm and its customers that breed successful sales encounters in the long run. This shift necessitates a re-appraisal of existing sales management practices and the sales philosophy and culture that has driven the development of the sales management field in the past. The role of the salesperson is continuing to move away from the traditional aggressive and persuasive selling, to a new role of "relationship manager". The new reality of relationship marketing directs salespeople and sales managers to develop long lasting relationships with their customers based on mutual trust and commitment. Each selling occasion is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between them and their customer, and increase the loyalty of the customer to the firm.

It is incumbent on management first to identify the job it requires to be done, secondly to match the best people with the most appropriate skills to these jobs and finally to provide the correct organisational system. Market research, the identification of prospects, generating awareness, making initial contact and generating realistic sales leads is seldom best achieved by one salesperson. It is necessary to man a call centre, operate a web site and invest in computerised response systems. The emphasis on development selling must shift to building relationships and activating change. In industrial situations particularly, business is not often won, it is only lost. It is not therefore the abilities of salespeople but the organisation's ability to react to a variety of environmental circumstances and to seek and develop competitive advantages that precipitate and encourage change. The effective salesperson is an agent in this change process.

When to use the telephone

Telemarketing is interactive communication with customers over the telephone which can provide the ability to target specific contacts quickly and at lower cost than a person to person sales call. Telemarketing can also be used to prospect and qualify leads and for a range of service support activities not merely order taking. Further, those customers who are small, make only a marginal contribution and are perhaps geographically remote, can be handled more effectively and more efficiently than in person. The telephone is obviously far quicker than a personal call and has at least four key benefits:

  1. A low cost substitute for personal selling. As a rough guide five to six personal calls can be replaced, in cost terms, by relatively long telephone calls. On average, each telephone call is estimated to cost one tenth that of a personal call mainly due to the absence of travel and waiting time and this is clearly a more profitable approach for small accounts with limited potential. The telephone can be used productively with other forms of promotion and communication such as TV and radio direct response or mail order catalogues. Marks and Spencer, for example. estimate that 25% of their business will be conducted in this manner by the year 2001. To repeat, catalogue selling is not new but the speed and service that can be provided using today's technology will greatly increase business done in this way.
  2. To supplement personal selling calls. Salespeople themselves can increase their personal productivity by using the telephone wisely. Time and effort previously wasted by calling on accounts when not required could be replaced by a telephone call which if the customer requires can be followed up personally. Generally, it can be expected that most salespeople will increase their ratio of telephone to personal calls and overall, fewer person to person calls will be required.
  3. As an alternative to direct mail especially if a 0800 number is used. Advertising and promotional campaigns can be targeted at encouraging customers to call for additional information, service or to place their order. In some cases these sales leads will be followed up by personal selling. Companies like BT, of course, use this medium extensively but other consumer goods firms such as Kelloggs and Procter & Gamble encourage consumers to communicate any queries, complaints or suggestions they may have relating to products or services the company provides for customers. The efficacy of this medium can be verified by the fact that response to advertising with 0800 numbers is significantly higher than those adverts without such a number.
  4. The most significant developments in the use of the telephone has been in providing better customer support and service than other forms of communication can provide. Integrating telephone activity with computer based technology has had a dramatic impact on many different businesses.

How to go about telephone selling

Like any management activity, telemarketing requires management of the process not merely the activity itself. Five stages can be identified in this process. The first stage in the process is to set clear objectives. This means being explicit about the role of telephone selling and clear as to how it fits with other forms of communication. Objectives can range from identifying leads, qualification of prospects to order taking and service activities. Clear objectives of which activity, response times, orders to calls and so on need to be set and measured as part of setting objectives.

C R Smith is a window and conservatory company employing over 1000 people in Scotland and now expanding in other areas of the UK. Although they have used telesales in the past, the company now operate two field sales operations, one a team of canvassers, the other salespeople to obtain orders and contracts. The canvassers distribute the company newsletter, a quarterly publication called C R Homes, and follow-up with a personal call to ask house owners their views on the publication and, of course, whether any of the products are of interest now or in the future. The aim is to obtain appointments with genuine leads for the sales force. While this may be considered hard sell and intrusive, research has shown that most consumers prefer this to the unsolicited telephone call and in the majority of cases find the publication of interest. While the canvassers are set specific appointment targets, the work is flexible and hours can be made to suit part-time mature people. The company is looking for individuals with a pleasant manner, experience and a certain maturity who can empathise with the customers on whom they call. The canvassing team is a combination of male and females, of different backgrounds, who range in age from 25 to retirement age. The canvassers, some of whom have previously been in telesales, say they prefer this approach. So far, separating sales prospecting from sales generation has proved innovative and successful.

A second stage is a clear written plan for your sales operations. To alienate existing customers with over zealous selling by telephone is to be avoided but equally missing opportunities to cross sell to existing customers is to miss potentially the most lucrative sales prospects. Most consumers are happy to be contacted by existing suppliers but do not like cold calling. Likewise, to have several people, seemingly uncoordinated, contact the same customer on different issues is equally damaging to reputation and credibility. The telephone operations plan should include de-duplication and address / contact verification and whilst using a variety of call strategies and different means of customer contact still requires careful planning and co-ordination. This avoids multiple contacts at different times and ensures effective use of the telephone in a customer friendly way. From a sales perspective, scoring and propensity modelling are some of the techniques now being used. This has important implications for sales and marketing strategy since what can be observed is reverse market segmentation based on a bottom up approach using an identification of individual customers in a more sophisticated way.

The third stage is recruitment and training of staff, another vital component. While certain aspects of selling by telephone are similar to personal selling, other aspects are quite different. Like personal selling good communication skills, empathy and an ability to respond in the correct manner by asking questions will be helpful but a different approach and different skills are also needed. A key to an effective and efficient telemarketing operation is to obtain the early involvement and participation of other sales staff and functions in the organisation. In particular, competition between different departments or functions must be avoided and preferably there should be some interchange of staff to appreciate what each other does, how and why.

The fourth stage and most important of all is to sell the idea to customers. In any telemarketing operation the customer should be better served bythe operation, the system should be designed to meet their needs and there are benefits to the customer in operating in this way.

Finally, there is a need for measurement and control. Before introducing coy telesales or telephone support operation it should be critically tested and appraised to remove and avoid any pitfalls. Targets for performance should be set, effectiveness and efficiency measured and monitored and adjustments made as necessary. Response times, the number of complaints answered by first operator, comparative sales and service levels are some of the areas that should be measured and monitored.

Management of call centres or telernarketing operations has become a subset area of sales management. It requires an effective contact management plan, careful call list preparation and development and very often prepared scripts for staff to respond to customers in the correct manner. Further, it is a management responsibility to ensure that what is promised is delivered so that customer expectations are met and if possible exceeded. Efficient call centre management, again using today's technology, should be able to provide management reports and statistics far in excess of any manual operation. The net result should be improved customer service, well-motivated staff and a more efficient operation.


Managing an effective and efficient sales operation is one of the important challenges of the 90's. There is no quick fix but the professional salesperson will have to adapt. The new Institute of Professional Sales (IPS) has the remit of enhancing the profile of the sales function, promoting best practice in the area and developing education and training for members to improve their professionalism and competencies. A sound operation rests on in-depth understanding of customer needs and is characterised by buyers and sellers becoming more interrelated to achieve shared goals. In this new reality of marketing it is of the utmost importance to identify individuals within the firm who, owing to their boundary-spanning role, will mediate a 'two-way' dialogue between the firm and its customers.

Greater openness between buyer and supplier creates an atmosphere which allows buyers to have a greater understanding of a supplier's plans, minimises surprises and permits them to be more responsive to the selling organisation. Relationships typically suit both parties but are not mutual admiration societies and often involve extensive negotiation, conflict and the desire for favourable outcomes, a process of negotiation. The salesperson, as an inter-organisational link, is more rather than less important in this process. This is likely to be reflected in a change of title from salesperson to account manager and this change is more than semantic. These trends will continue.

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