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Improving sales force productivity: a critical examination of the personal selling process.

Improving Sales Force Productivity: A Critical Examination of the Personal Selling Process


As sales executives contemplate the role of personal selling in the coming decade, there are a multitude of sobering facts to consider. On one hand, costs of selling continue to escalate, and on the other hand, customers are increasingly resistant to absorbing price increases merely because the costs of doing business are rising. The younger generation, which comprises the most significant portion of the recruiting pool, has been described as less oriented toward traditional work values than their predecessors in the sales force.

American sales managers envy the level of organizational and job commitment among employees in highly competitive foreign firms, while turnover remains a significant problem in many of the nation's sales forces. Meanwhile, buyers are becoming more demanding in their relationships with vendors and would-be vendors. Many firms are paring their lists of approved vendors, such as Xerox which just cut its list of 5,000 vendors down to only 450. For a quick look at what buyers expect from salespeople in today's environment, see Table 1.

In view of this changing environment, a question arises: How can sales executives prepare their sales forces, that is, the infantry troops, for what promises to be marketing warfare at its most intense levels? Recent estimates place the average cost of a single sales call at approximately $200. With selling costs at this level, it is clear that every dollar spent on personal selling must be judiciously evaluated.

In this article, the personal selling process will be reviewed, and areas of wasted effort will be identified for each step in the process. Also, for each step in the personal selling process, activities that will pay off in improved sales force productivity will be identified. See Table 2. A sales manager might interpret this review as a look at "what's in and what's out" in personal selling as we head into the next decade -- an era filled with opportunity for those who are prepared to field a truly professional sales force.

Professional Selling Perspective

To meet the challenges of the coming decade, salespeople and sales executives will have to adopt the perspective of the true professional. Essentially, this means that salespeople must "employ a customer oriented approach that employs truthful, non-manipulative tactics which satisfy the long term needs of both the customer and the selling firm"[1]. This perspective serves as the foundation for each suggestion made in the remainder of this article.

Personal Selling Process

The personal selling process shown in Table 2 is comprised of seven highly interrelated steps. It should be noted that the selling process is broken into steps more to facilitate the discussion than to suggest discrete divisions between the steps. The salesperson's success in any step is heavily dependent on success in all previous steps; for example, it would be extremely unlikely that a salesperson could make a sale if a significant deficiency exists in an earlier step in the selling process.

Prospecting. As indicated in Table 2, the identification of qualified prospects through personal cold calls is declining in most industries. Many buyers are simply too busy to respond to cold canvassing. Furthermore, the increased emphasis on corporate security makes it unproductive to knock on doors. The term "sugging" (selling under the guise of doing something else, usually conducting a survey) has been in the headlines recently. In Europe, anti-sugging legislation has been enacted, and there are fears that similar laws could become a reality in the United States, unless industries self regulate the unethical practice of disguising selling efforts.

To be professional and productive in the area of prospecting, sales executives might consider increasing their usage of computerized data bases, which are widely available from sources such as Business Week, Sales and Marketing Management, and Dun and Bradstreet. Such data bases can be integrated into a comprehensive system, which not only helps identify and provide valuable information about prospects, but also tracks sales activity and directs the flow of information to the prospect. For example, Minolta's Business Equipment Division uses a system called Instalink to manage its pool of prospects from the time the lead is discovered through subsequent steps in the selling process.

Another recommendation for productive prospecting in today's environment is to emphasize the careful screening of prospects prior to pursuing strongly their business. This seems almost contradictory to the traditional role of most salespeople, who have been expected to build volume above all other objectives. In recent years, however, the wave of business failures and the practice of stretching creditors to the limit have caused sellers to be more cautious when it comes to granting credit and liberal terms of payment. To ensure their own survival, sales organizations are putting more emphasis on profitable sales volume, rather than sales volume to anybody, anywhere, anytime.

Another suggestion in prospecting is to prioritize according to expected profitability. This does not necessarily mean the largest accounts or even the ones which return the highest contribution to profit. Salespeople and sales executives must realistically assess the probability of landing the prospect, and factor the odds into the prioritization equation.

Preapproach and Planning

Before approaching the customer, the professional salesperson must engage in a thoughtful process of planning the sales call. This planning process should stop well short of invading the privacy of the prospect. The idea is to gather relevant information about the prospect from public sources or directly from the prospect, not to pry into private matters in an unethical fashion. In his best selling book How to Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, Harvey Mackay introduces the reader to a 66 item questionnaire to be completed by Mackay Envelope salespeople on each customer. An examination of this customer profiling instrument reveals some extremely personal information about the prospect, which should only be gathered directly from the prospect rather than from secondary sources.

Single strategy salespeople will have limited success dealing with a diverse set of professional buyers, who demand sales presentations that reflect a high degree of planning. Professional buyers are becoming intolerant of sales techniques that are associated with high pressure selling. Formula selling, or the Attention-Interest-Desire-Action model, is becoming passe. Also declining in usage -- except in telemarketing and some direct-to-the-consumer markets -- is stimulus/response selling. Such methods are designed to solicit a string of positive responses, followed by multiple closing techniques to gain the sale. The reality is that buyers are becoming more aware of some of these gimmick ridden methods, and they scorn the salespeople who use them. Neil Rackman, author of Spin Selling, asked a group of professional buyers this question: "If you detect that a seller is using closing techniques while selling to you, what effect, if any, does this have on your likelihood of buying?" Over 60 percent of the buyers responded that they would be less likely to buy, while less than three percent said they would be more likely to buy[4]. This indeed offers food for thought for salespeople in the planning stage in the selling process.

To be more professional and thus productive in the planning phase, salespeople should work harder to generate customized presentations, and plan to spend more time confirming buyer needs before launching into their sales messages. The notion of analyzing buyer styles, placing buyers into behavioral categories and then designing the sales message to match the buyer's style is extremely popular but must be used with caution. While such categorization processes can encourage some customization of sales presentations, they may fall short of encouraging a truly individualized presentation -- the ultimate in professional selling.

Approaching the Customer

Dropping in on customers without an appointment is a form of paid tourism that most sales organizations cannot afford. Customers do not generally welcome unscheduled sales calls, nor do they respect unstructured requests for appointments such as: "I will be in town next week, and hoped we could get together ... What's good for you?" Salespeople must present a compelling reason why the customer should grant an appointment and suggest a time for the sales call. They must also resist the temptation to play "bluff the buffer," also called "how to get past the secretary to see the decision maker." These "buffers" are organizational boundary spanners, as are salespeople, and their gatekeeping roles are crucial to most organizations. They deserve professional respect and must also be sold in a straightforward manner.

To maximize the approach step, salespeople must realize that appointments are gained through the use of mini-sales presentations, not merely by dropping in or picking up the phone and asking for an appointment. The use of so-called sales artillery is advocated to prepare the stage for a productive sales call[3]. Such artillery might include brochures, sales letters, and teaser mailings, which lay the groundwork and define the point of departure for each sales call.

A process called prenotification shows promise for improving sales call productivity. The prenotification process involves contacting the prospect, seeking permission to send literature (i.e., artillery), and also seeking permission to follow up after the literature is received. This is all accomplished in an initial phone contact with the prospect. During the next phone contact, the salesperson addresses prospect questions and seeks the appointment. One thought provoking study of this process suggests that sales call productivity can be enhanced through prospect prenotification[2].

Sales Presentation Delivery

For decades, salespeople have been exhorted to "sell the sizzle, not the steak," and to remember that "when the customer says no, you are just beginning to sell." Such advice rings hollow as we move into the next decade of professional selling. While high drama, emotionally charged sales presentations may be quite effective on certain occasions, e.g., trade shows; they are not likely to consistently produce sales unless the rational motives of the prospect have been given primary consideration.

In contrast to the "stereotypical bare knuckle, song and dance personality-plus" sales relics of the past, the contemporary professional salesperson relies more on printed sales support material, audio-visual aids, and sales technologies such as laptop computers. Research indicates that the visual and vocal elements of a sales message are more memorable than the actual content of the message, thus smart salespeople use every clarity enhancing tool at their disposal. By being knowledgeable about their products, the competition, and their customers' needs, the successful salesperson is able to readily adapt to the situation -- without appearing to be a self-serving, transparent chameleon who mirrors every movement of the prospect.

Response to Questions and Objections

Even the best planned sales presentations will invite buyer questions and objections. Buyers have legitimate concerns to be addressed; some are seeking information or clarification, and some seek to negotiate a better deal. Knowing that buyers will raise objections and ask tough questions suggests that successful salespeople should attempt to anticipate those areas of concern and formulate responses in advance of the sales call. In doing this, it is best to leave the trick bag at home and rely instead on solid, justifiable evidence. Certainly, the salesperson should learn more about listening and questioning skills, as opposed to relying on the spoken word to overcome all objections and questions. Sales trainers are finally recognizing the importance of listening, which was identified as the top sales training need in a recent survey[5].

The reality of competition is strongly felt in this stage of the sales process, and salespeople must be careful not to send negative signals through their responses to competitive sales practices. Buyers find it distasteful when a salesperson unduly knocks the competition. After all, if the customer is buying from a competitor (or even considering buying from a competitor), a knock on the competition is at least a partial knock on the customer.

Professional salespeople view questions and objections as an opportunity, rather than as an obstacle to the sale. They are well aware that today's buyers are hardly likely to prolong a sales presentation if they are not interested in buying the product or service being presented.

Gaining Commitment from the Customer

Another popular, yet out-moded, suggestion to salespeople is the old adage "close early and often." This is particularly bad advice if the prospect is not prepared to make a decision, responds negatively to a premature attempt to consummate the sale, and then, following the principles of cognitive consistency, proceeds to re-enforce the prior negative position as the salesperson plugs away, firing one closing salvo after another at the beleaguered prospect. Research tells us that it will take several sales calls to make an initial sale, so it is somewhat bewildering to still encounter tired old battle cries like "the ABCs of selling stand for Always Be Closing."

One time honored thought that does retain contemporary relevance is that "nobody like to be sold, but everybody likes to buy." In other words, salespeople should facilitate decision making by pointing out a suggested course of action, but should allow the prospect plenty of mental space within which a rational decision can be reached. Taken to logical conclusion, this means that it may be acceptable to make a sales call without asking for the order. Salespeople must, however, be cognizant of their responsibility to advance the relationship toward a profitable sale, lest they become the most dreaded of all types of salespeople -- the paid conversationalist.

Gimmicks, such as the standing-room-only close, are less likely to be effective as professional buyers draw weary with the cat-and-mouse approach to selling that is still practiced by a surprising number of salespeople. It is also surprising to find many salespeople who view their customers as combatants over whom victory is sought. Once the sale is made by salespeople who have adversarial, me-against-you attitudes, the customer is likely to be neglected as the salesperson rides off into the sunset in search of yet another battle with yet another lowly customer.

Enhancing the Buyer/Seller Relationship

Our erstwhile gladiator salesperson described in the preceding paragraph does not stick around for this stage in the personal selling process. They prefer to come back later and start at the beginning, renegotiating every transaction without the benefit of a mutually beneficial buyer/seller relationship.

In stark contrast, relationship oriented salespeople are creating strong bonds with their customers that will partially isolate them from competitive pressures, or at least minimize the importance of easily altered and matched competitive variables such as price. Perhaps the best known example of such a relationship is the American Hospital Supply computerized ordering system call ASAP. By using ASAP, hospitals can enjoy a timely flow of critical supplies with less time dedicated to inventory management and the generation of hard copy purchase orders. Furthermore, they do not have to negotiate the details of each transaction with the American Hospital sales representative, which frees both parties to look ahead and better anticipate the needs of the hospital as they relate to American Hospital's offering.


As sales executives look to the next decade, several developments strongly suggest that business firms will depend on personal selling to ensure success, perhaps more so than at any time in the past. Markets are splintering as specialization in business and individual preference in personal consumption drive the economies of the world. This means that firms with well prepared sales forces will be more competitive than those who underestimate the importance of personal selling in a rapidly changing marketplace. Even as profit pressures intensify, computer giants IBM and Digital Equipment are increasing their sales forces by thousands of people in preparation for the future.

The sales forces of the future will increasingly encounter smarter buyers, more influences on the buying decision, more perceived risk on the part of buying organizations, and more random events which will shape future business activity. As a result of these changes, salespeople and sales executives will be held more accountable for their actions, and will be given more responsibility for ensuring the success of their organizations. By discarding the old ways of conducting the personal selling function and embracing the more appropriate relationship based methods, sales executives can field a more professional and productive sales team. The true sales professional must work from a continually evolving knowledge base, and must fully understand that yesterday's formulas for success are merely the price of admission into tomorrow's competitive arena. [Tabular Data 1 to 2 Omitted]


[1]Ingram, Thomas N. and Raymond W. LaForge. Sales Management: Analysis and Decision Making. The Dryden Press, 1989. [2]Jolson, Marvin A. "Prospecting by Telephone Prenotification: An Application of the Foot-in-the-Door Technique." Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, August 1986. [3]Plotnik, Gene. Sales Artillery. Prentice Hall Inc., 1989. [4]Rackham, Neil. Spin Selling. McGrawHill Book Co., 1988. [5]"What Do Trainers Worry About Most?" Sales and Marketing Management, August 1989.

Thomas N. Ingram is Professor of Marketing at the Fogelman College of Business and Economics at Memphis State University in Memphis, Tennessee and Holder of the Sales and Marketing Executives of Memphis Chair in Sales Excellence.
COPYRIGHT 1990 St. John's University, College of Business Administration
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Ingram, Thomas N.
Publication:Review of Business
Date:Jun 22, 1990
Previous Article:Sales in the 1990s: a decade of development.
Next Article:Relationship selling at trade shows: avoid the seven deadly sins.

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