Death of a Salesman

How changes in technology and customer behavior are redefining the sales rep

"He's a good sales guy." During my career, I've heard that description used hundreds of times-by managers, recruiters, and even smart, high-priced consultants. While the exact definition of "good sales guy" will vary depending on who you ask, it generally encapsulates the outward-facing qualities that have always been valued in sales: high energy, confidence, strong communication skills, not physically unattractive, and of course, a firm handshake.

All of those are fine qualities, and any sales rep who lacks those traits faces an uphill battle. (I can't recall the last time I saw a low-energy rep beat his or her target.) But as our markets, products and services become more complex, and as technology changes customer-buying behavior, relying primarily on charm and personal relationships simply isn't enough.

At a recent sales conference I attended, a senior manager at one of the world's leading technology companies talked about how technology and the pervasiveness of the Internet has made customers much more informed about products. "We're at the point where the sales reps have to be smarter than the customers they're selling to," he said. And he was talking about the company's telemarketers, not their field reps. (See our August cover story, "Precision Sourcing," to read about how private equity firms are using their associates to prospect for deals.)

Indeed, there are entire user groups on LinkedIn dedicated to financial services products that offer unfiltered comments on everything from customer service to ease of use. Buyers can do a half hour of web research, jump on a conference call with the sales rep and end up driving the entire conversation. This is as much a possibility for an investment bank as it is for a provider of virtual data rooms.

Another dynamic that salespeople must contend with is an overall lack of time. On the TV show "Mad Men," every pitch to a client involves a face-to-face meeting with all the decision makers in the room, at the dinner table or standing at the bar. Today, two-hour martini lunches are a distant memory, and getting the decision maker to spend 15 minutes on a conference call is a tall order. What that means is, every time you have an interaction with a client, it needs to have value. Otherwise, you may be relegated to the unread inbox or, worse, you're deleted and forever ignored.

For existing clients, the challenge is keeping track of all the changes in their market and within their corporation. In the current economy, strategies can turn on a dime, and executives change roles and companies as frequently as pro athletes change teams. That's why maintaining your contact list through services like LinkedIn is so vital, because it helps you track job shifts and, more importantly, enables you to identify and establish secondary relationships to hedge that risk.

So what have I sold you in this column? Simply put, the true definition of a good sales guy in our markets, in 2012, is more complex than cool, more like Carter, Topher Grace's character in the movie, "In Good Company," than Don Draper from "Mad Men." Establishing a strong contact list isn't a destination; it's a never-ending journey. And leveraging technology is no longer a luxury; it's the price of admission.

This helps explain why I'm getting more calls from financial services clients, who want to educate their sales teams about the markets we cover. As I write this column, we're wrapping up our third live training session for a global financial institution, and earlier this year, we conducted a web seminar and developed training materials for a client's army of field sales reps that has already produced a tangible return on investment. These are just some of the services we provide that can turn your good salespeople into great ones.


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