Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Breadth of a Salesman

Academic journal article The McKinsey Quarterly

Breadth of a Salesman

Article excerpt

Salesforces will need to create value, not just communicate it

But even in the same industry different customers see value very differently

Matching selling strategy to customer type

Suppose a corporate Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep on the job a generation ago were to wake up today. He would find his company changed almost beyond recognition. As he wandered through manufacturing, he would rub his eyes at the sight of strange new machines. "Something's very different," he would mutter. "The shop floor looks like a laboratory. The oil, the grime, and the piles of half-finished goods have gone. There are no rows of people working at repetitive tasks. No one is standing around waiting for instructions about what to do next. There's not one quality control inspector in sight. Where are the supervisors? Who is a worker and who is a manager?"

It is a huge transformation, and more than Rip can absorb on his first waking day, so off he goes in search of something more familiar. First, he heads for the typing pool, only to discover that it no longer exists. Then he tries a succession of other departments. Everywhere he goes he sees new technology, new processes, and above all a radically new approach to work itself.

Everywhere? Not quite. The sales department, where he used to work, remains much as it was when he fell asleep. True, most people now have laptop computers, though many of them seem more decorative than useful. And there are more women in the department; he would now be a "salesperson" rather than a "salesman." But most other things in the office don't surprise him.

The company decides to give Rip back his old sales job, so he goes out with his manager to see if selling itself has changed. He finds that for the most part it is comfortingly familiar. There is certainly a wider range of products, and many of them seem more complex. Competition is intense, and the pace of work is faster. The hard sell now appears to be officially discouraged, but even in the old days Rip preferred to sell through relationships rather than pressure.

He is still expected to fill in call reports, although technology now lets him enter his lies and excuses electronically. Pay is higher than it was a generation ago, but it still comes in the form of base plus commission. His sales manager coaches him in such familiar terms - features and benefits, objection handling, open and closed questions, and so forth - that he feels as though he has never been asleep. In fact, just about everything she says comes almost word for word from E. K. Strong's The Psychology of Selling, published back in 1925. "Well," thinks Rip, "selling will always be selling. I could probably get away with it if I napped for another couple of years."

But he would be wrong. Powerful new forces have begun to change the world of selling. Sales functions everywhere are now in the early stages of a transformation comparable to the one that reshaped manufacturing 20 years ago. According to some estimates, at least half of today's selling positions will vanish within five years. Time-honored territorial structures are disappearing, too. The substance of selling is itself in flux.

Some organizations have already crossed the threshold of this new world. Until a few years ago, Microsoft, for example, had a salesforce that offered software in bulk to corporate accounts in typical business-to-business transactions. Today, its sales reps spend their time organizing and mobilizing networks of independent solution providers such as systems specialists, trainers, software designers, and installers.

Enron's salespeople used to traffic in natural gas. Now they are just as likely to offer sophisticated financial instruments such as options, swaps, caps, collars, floors, and firm forwards. In the past, when you called Charles Schwab, which pioneered telephone sales of brokerage services in the 1970s, you talked with a broker (or salesperson by another name) who transacted your business for you. …

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