Jonathan Farrington interviews Phil Kreindler, CEO of Infoteam Sales Process Consulting
JF: Your latest B2B market research suggests that customer satisfaction with vendor salespeople has decreased significantly?
PK: Infoteam, most recently in cooperation with the Harvard Business Manager, carries out recurring international research projects with customer executives who regularly buy products or services for €75K+. The purpose of this research is to identify what customers say is important for them in selecting a vendor, solution or service, and highlight areas in which they feel there is need for improvement. This is compared and contrasted with what vendors believe is important.
In 2004 only around 1 in 5 (18%) were unhappy with the professionalism and responsiveness of the B2B salespeople who came to see them. In 2014 nearly half (45%) were dissatisfied.
JF: What has changed?
PK: In a word, customers. In the last 10 years customers have become more professional, better informed. The procurement process in most organizations has become more sophisticated and customers have usually researched your organization, your offer and your competitor’s offer before your sales people walk through the door. They are also busier than ever so they have high expectations of sales professionals and their responsiveness.
Another factor is the lack of self-reflection. Ironically, 78% of vendors believe they already differentiate themselves effectively through their sales approach, while only 25% of customers agree. And very few vendors (11%) seek to identify sales process deficits after losing a sale. So a key source of information for continuous improvement is lacking – not good in times when products and services look increasingly similar and how you sell is becoming a key competitive differentiator.
JF: What’s driving responsiveness in customer organizations?
PK: There are two main drivers behind the demand for responsiveness. Firstly there are huge pressures on customers to move quicker to get their products and services to market. The second factor is that customers have recognized that buying takes too long and that it’s slowing down the business.
Let me give you an example of how one of our clients has taken on board the need for greater responsive. Their customers make laser eye surgery equipment. Once a potential improvement has been identified everyone in the supply chain is under pressure to deliver new designs as soon as possible. They cannot wait months for their suppliers to submit proposals for a new design. Until recently the Engineers working for our client were rewarded on productivity alone so they had little time to work on new product designs. But in response to innovation demands from their customers, they have started to factor in speed and quality of response as well. They are now focused on delivering the right quality responses as quickly as possible.
JF: Have customers finally realized that procurement is too slow?
PK: Frédéric Sebban, Chief Procurement Officer at Alstom Grid and chairman of the 2014 Procurement Leaders Zurich Forum is a man who has built a reputation on bringing functions up to speed and transforming their capabilities. He told delegates at the forum that that when he came into his role the organization was too complex and there were too many procedures in place. Speed and simplicity were watchwords. He said that one of his first tasks was to simplify the structure and processes that surround procurement to help make the company and his procurement function more responsive to the increasing demands that are now being placed upon them.
Being responsive in the Sales Process gives customers a taste of what it will be like to work with you. But to understand why responsiveness is so important you need to know what Procurement in your customers’ organization is really like. One of the customers interviewed in our research said: “Procurement is more about selling than buying. Typically one side of their business wants the most sophisticated and expensive solution and they want it now, while other parts of the business want to buy the lowest cost solution that will do the job. Procurement has to keep both sides happy”. If sales people give procurement the right information quickly, and in a format that they can easily use internally, they can create a competitive advantage.
JF: What recommendations do you have to become more responsive?
PK: Before we talk about the detail let’s take a moment to think about why sales people may not be responsive. It’s very rare they choose not to be. So why is it? Most will tell you they don’t have time – and that’s because they are being asked to fill in forms and do admin rather than selling. A Key Account Manager in one of the vendor interviews lamented “Every hour spent meeting a customer seems to require 1 hour in front of the computer putting information into the CRM system. But if I don’t put all the information in, I don’t get my commissions on the deals I close”. If you don’t give sales people the time and space to be responsive they can’t be. It is the responsibility of management to make sure sales people have that time.
Here are some areas you can work on to become more responsive and positively influence the customer’s experience.
- Interview customers to find out how they define good selling, and integrate the findings into your definition of «sales excellence».
- Enhance your sales process in the areas that matter most to your customer. A good sales process helps you win business and become more responsive.
- Interview customers after each win or loss to identify what the sales team did well in the sales process and should be repeated, as well as what did not meet expectations and should be changed in future.
- Take more time during the interview process to really understand how candidates interact with their customers by reviewing their communication in a recent win.
- Develop industry-specific Sales Playbooks. The objective of responsiveness is to deliver customer-specific information with the minimum delay. But that takes time. A Sales Playbook contains good examples of all the tools of a pitch; approach email, appointment one pager, questions for a needs assessment, a management summary and relevant case studies. All you have to do is tailor it to your specific customer.
- Set your organization targets for response times. It may well be that responding to clients disrupts peoples plans and schedules but with no customers nobody is going to have a schedule. And it’s the responsibility of management to make sure Sales people have the time to be responsive.
JF: Where has this approach delivered tangible results?
PK: Allianz, one of the world’s leading business insurance providers undertook a sales transformation program based on what brokers (their customers) said they wanted. Following a recent win the broker was interviewed and said the team “outperformed all competitors” and promised they would be involved in more future bids.
Elavon Merchant Services, an international provider of online credit card payment transaction services incorporated customer feedback about the sales person’s professionalism into all of their sales opportunities. Following a recent win, the customer said the main reason they chose the company was that their professionalism was “head and shoulders” above the competition.
Vodafone, a leading provider of mobile telecommunication services invested in a “Way of Selling” program focused on the professional preparation and execution of first meetings, the clarity and focus of proposals and presentations, and continued engagement following contract signature. The result is that one region has already experienced an increase in win rate of 20%.
JF: Any final comments?
PK: Differentiating on product or price alone, is increasingly difficult today, so the professionalism of the individual salesperson is often the reason customers buy. Our research shows that there has been little progress in vendor performance measured against customer expectations in the past 10 years, with significant decline in many areas. This creates a very interesting window of opportunity for those organizations willing to examine their own practices, listen carefully to customers, and integrate the learnings into how they sell. The B2B organizations that will sell more are the ones that listen to what customers say about sales professionalism and respond effectively.
You can also listen to the audio version of this interview here:
Information about the author:
Phil Kreindler – 24 years experience in B2B sales performance improvement consulting, coaching and training, co-author of articles in Harvard Business Review in 2006 and Harvard Business Manager in 2008 and 2014.