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The Quest For The Universal Salesperson

It goes without saying, every professional baseball player knows how to hit, run, throw and catch. However, the skill sets of a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher and a Silver Slugger Award-winning hitter are distinctively different.

This is not all that surprising when you stop to think about it. Yet all too often, members of a profession are viewed as all being the same with no thought given to the unique skills required to perform specific job functions within their profession.

For example, some employers are prone to believing ‘a salesperson is a salesperson’ – they’re all the same. These employers typically hire sales representatives purely based upon an evaluation of an applicant’s abilities compared to the generally accepted profile of the ideal, successful salesperson:

  • Has proficient communication skills
  • Has strong interpersonal skills
  • Exudes self-confidence
  • Is a systematic, innovative closer
  • Is goal oriented (a strategic thinker)
  • Is a disciplined self-manager,
  • Is experienced (sometimes with an impressive track-record)

The problem with this approach is that all the employer has done is qualify the applicant’s ability to ‘hit, run, throw and catch.’

Then, when the salesperson doesn’t measure up to the employer’s expectations (i.e., his/her production is substandard), they assume either the salesperson (1) misled them about his/her prior experience and performance, (2) is burnt-out or lazy, or (3) just can’t sell the company’s product – wrong, wrong and wrong. The answer is: there are virtually no universal salespeople. The mistake the employer made was hiring a Silver Slugger and expecting them to perform as a Cy Young award winner too!

How does an employer deal with this hiring dilemma? There are three approaches:

First Approach: Hire, hire and hire some more. Eventually, by luck, you hope to stumble across the right candidate(s). The problem with this approach is that not only is it costly and time- consuming, but even when you find the right candidate, your compensation package and working conditions may eventually cause them to resign – and you have to start the process all over again.

Second Approach: Out of frustration, you hire the wrong person, live with their underperformance, and try to focus on improving other areas in the business to compensate for the deficiencies in sales. This approach is not only costly, but also leads to prolonged future frustration for the employer.

Third Approach: You recognize that different sales positions employ different skill sets to attain success, and understand that there are two different types of salespeople and three different approaches to sales (excluding order-takers). First, you determine which of the two types of salespeople you require for the position, then hire and train the correct type, offer a compensation package consistent with the type of person hired, and manage and direct the sales efforts.

Obviously, the third approach is most likely to produce the best results in both the short run and the long run.

Salespeople (excluding order-takers) are divided into two very different groups, Hunters and Farmers. Each group has its own distinctive objectives and responsibilities. Generally speaking, Hunters do not make good Farmers and vice versa.

Hunters are new business developers. They are charged with identifying and securing the first order from a new customer. After this order is secured, they move on to identify and secure another new customer. Hunters are new business originators who do not re-contact customers to secure additional orders in the future. Depending upon the company the Hunter works for and the specific products or services sold, they will utilize one of two sales approaches, or a combination of both.

Hunter Sales Approach #1 – First Contact Closer:
This approach involves aggressively initiating customer contact. The closure rate is lower with this approach because there is limited time to interact with the prospective customer. In short order, credibility and confidence must be built and a rapport established; the prospect’s needs and desires quickly assessed; a sense of urgency created; and an emotional desire for the product /service generated (emphasizing the benefits to the prospect). Then, the Hunter will trial-close. If the trial-close is successful, the Hunter moves to secure the order. If the trial-close is met with a hedge, objection or a ‘no,’ the Hunter maneuvers to address the issue, remove the hedge or objection and attempts a second trial-close. This process is repeated until the prospect either becomes a customer or terminates the discussion. The potential for failure is high. This sales approach is often utilized at tradeshows, product demonstrations, car dealerships, when selling vanity items or other impulse purchases, or when selling quick, low-cost solutions to something a prospect urgently wants to fix, accomplish or avoid.

Hunter sales approach #2 – Consultive Sale:
This approach is often referred to as the problem-solving approach to sales, analogous to a physician’s approach to diagnosing a patient’s problems by in depth questioning and examination prior to prescribing treatment. If a doctor were to recommend major surgery based upon a brief interview, most patients would be apprehensive. However, if such a recommendation followed a thorough exam and a series of tests, the recommendation would be more readily accepted. For that very reason, larger sales are more prone to using this approach.

Consultive selling recognizes that understanding and communicating features, benefits and technical aspects of a product or service is only part of the process. It is buyer-oriented and relies on development of interpersonal relationships as well. The Hunter conducts a needs, listening as the prospect relates their problems and desires. Questions are asked to identify a prospect’s needs, wants, concerns and attitudes. Sometimes during this process of asking open-ended questions and evaluating the answers, the salesperson and prospect discover what the prospect really wants is not what they thought they wanted in the first place. Therefore, this process sometimes helps a prospect clarify their true needs.

Subsequent to properly identifying the prospect’s needs, wants and concerns, the Hunter acts as a resource by suggesting possible alternative solutions that have been adapted to the prospect’s specific circumstances. This adaptation process of shaping solutions to a prospect’s needs is a value-added function viewed favorably by large-ticket prospects. The Hunter then helps the prospect evaluate the positives and negatives of each potential solution to arrive at a conclusion. Any resistance is addressed by clarifying understandings and answering questions, rather than treating the resistance as objections to be overcome.

The consultive approach requires aggressiveness to close, but also incorporates patience and interpersonal contact as part of the process of conveying the benefits and specialized solution being proposed. It is typically reserved for large ticket items and intangibles, such as the broad spectrum of consulting services, computer systems, telephone systems, etc.

Hunters excel at generating and qualifying leads, and making persuasive presentations.

Farmers are customer account developers. They receive the hand-off of the customer from the Hunter and carry the relationship forward. Farmers are charged with doing whatever is necessary to maintain the customer’s relationship with the company and seeing that they continue to purchase in as large a volume and as frequently as possible. Farmer’s other responsibilities include troubleshooting problems when they arise, introducing customers to new products/services as they become available, and, of course, securing future orders. Depending upon the company the Farmer works for and the specific product or services they are selling, Farmers will utilize one of two sales approaches, or a combination of both.

Farmer Sales Approach #1 – Consultive Sale:
Farmers will seamlessly continue the consultive sales process introduced to the prospect (now a customer) by the Hunter when discussing new products, proposing solutions to meet the changing needs of the customer, and securing future orders. Therefore, all prior discussions regarding the consultive sales process apply equally to both Hunters and Farmers.

Farmer Sales Approach #2 – Relationship Sale:
Relationship selling is the primary way to secure repeat business. If the customer is buying often enough, the relationship between the sales representative and the customer may become a genuine friendship.

The crucial factor in relationship selling is trust. If trust is broken, the customer most likely will be lost to the competition. If a Farmer sells them something they do not want, not only will the product be returned, but any future sales opportunities may be lost as well. Trust building takes a significant amount of a Farmer’s time, but is rewarded with shorter closes and fewer objections to overcome.

Relationship selling is based on the win-win premise. The Farmer wants the customer to feel they received a fair deal; and although the customer wants a competitive price, they don’t want to put the Farmer’s company out of business. More than just price is on the table, as goodwill and potential future sales are also part of the negotiations – and misunderstandings are usually avoided.

The Farmer takes the time to acquire a deep understanding about the customer’s business and focuses on helping solve the genuine problems they are experiencing.

The Farmer’s sale quota is a serious hazard that has the potential of seriously damaging the relationship between a Farmer and their customer. Farmers are uncomfortable with the urgent need to close that drives a Hunter. They prefer to develop a relationship, realizing the business will come over time (sometimes referred to as the “tortoise-and-the-hare” syndrome).

The risk of Farmers being hired by a competing company and taking the customer with them cannot be ignored. It is a real risk associated with relationship sales—a very expensive risk with far reaching consequences. Strong or continuous pressure from sales management to secure orders may inspire Farmers to consider jumping ship to work for a competitor. They are able to rationalize the decision to leave based upon the belief that management doesn’t have the best interests of their customer at heart.

Examples of relationship selling include suppliers/distributors with territory and route sales, stockbrokers, insurance agents and even lawyers.

Farmers are excellent at bonding with customer’s purchasing representatives, generating long- term repeat business, developing value-added, problem-solving solutions for customers, and cementing customer relationships as a first-choice resource.

So, if you want to hire a salesperson who will be successful . . . follow these steps:

Step #1: Determine whether you need to hire a Hunter or a Farmer (based upon the position’s sales function). Hint: If the sales function necessitates both, hire one of each – you are unlikely to find someone who is capable of being both a Hunter and a Farmer.

Step #2: Screen the applicant to be sure they can hit, run, throw and catch (using the seven criteria listed).

Step #3: Screen the applicant for the proper skills and personal characteristics associated with the sales function (and determine who enjoys performing this sale function at a high level of proficiency).

Screening Criteria:
Hunter – First Contact Closer
Skill Sets include: Aggressive at initiating customer contact and closing; able to build credibility, confidence and rapport quickly; able to rapidly assess needs and desires; oblivious to personal rejection; and able to build emotion, enthusiasm and create urgency.

Personal Characteristics include: Self confident; an extrovert; optimistic and maintains a positive mental attitude; fiercely competitive; energetic; strong work ethic; self-disciplined; image of success and not frugal.

Attracted by: Size of commissions; sales training; emotional appeal of products/ services and glamour of products/services.

Hunter & Farmer Consultive Seller
Skill Sets include: Possesses product technical competency; credible, confident, genuinely interested; organized and systematic; problem-solver; patient; able to create urgency; attentive to interpersonal relationships and aggressive closer.

Personal Characteristics include: Self confident; independent; self-disciplined; competitive, team-oriented; academic; high attention to detail; not impulsive; careful and calculated risk-taker, not high risk taker; status and image conscious; quick to build interpersonal relationships with strangers; and level-headed with the ability to effectively handle confrontations and negotiations.

Attracted by: Personal development opportunity; management opportunity; sophistication of products/services; and prestige or image of company to general public.

Farmer Relationship Seller
Skill Sets include: Possesses product technical competency; customer industry and company knowledgeable; ability to cement relationships over time; advocate for creating solutions to client problems; self disciplined; time management skills; territory management skills; SPIN selling and Customer-Centered selling skills; and big-picture negotiating skills.

Personal Characteristics include: Self sufficient; independent (resents management ‘interference’ with selling environment and changing rules); competitive; patient; cooperative; strong work ethic; high attention t detail; genuine and sincere; strong loyalty to clients/ customers and employer; typically a team player only verbally, doing it their way once management is gone; and entrepreneurial.

Attracted by: Quality of products or services; customer service support; sales support; positive company image perceived by customers; and control of territory and selling method.

Step #4: Create an incentivized compensation package that rewards desired sale activity and that will satisfy the applicant’s personal characteristics if they are successful.

The Bottom Line . . .
The quest for the Universal Salesperson is likely to be as fruitless as the quest for the Holy Grail. But, if you hire the right salesperson for the right sales function, it will produce a win-win result. The company will experience enhanced revenues from a long-term employee (‘a keeper’), and the salesperson will be financially rewarded beyond their expectations and experience the satisfaction and personal high that has driven salespeople for hundreds of years – the sweet taste of success!