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Three Roles of Sales Leaders

There are three roles of a sales leader in creating a climate for change:

  • Challenge the status quo.

  • Create and communicate an exciting vision.

  • Support, encourage, and recognize those pursuing that vision.

Getting what you need for your customers may mean initiating change at your own company. That will mean that you will have to make a case for why your proposal is essential to keeping your customer's business, and perhaps the business of other customers.

You may need to demonstrate how your customer's business is unique, how it has changed, or how the current solution doesn't fit the present needs of the customer or is more costly or slower than what your competition offers. Your business case will need to describe projected revenues under several scenarios. You may want to seek input from your design or engineering people as you get further along to demonstrate feasibility and costs and to garner their support for your proposal. You will probably have to sell your proposal more convincingly up your own line and across to other departments than you will to your customer. Your customer will probably quickly see the advantages of what you offer. You may find that your company is protecting its vested interests. Some companies are receptive to new ideas, but others prefer the status quo. In the latter, you will need to do more to help your idea prevail. You can make a good case if you offer convincing data and win the support of one person at a time. Find an influential person you think would be receptive to your idea. Once you win him or her over, you will find less resistance when you go to the next person and say that so-and-so is on board.

Some battles you will win, and some you won't. The key is to make sure you do a thorough analysis and then build support. Knowing when to forge ahead is a matter of experience, balancing the likelihood of selling your idea in your organization and the potential payoff with the time you'll need to invest.

Challenge the Status Quo

Sales leaders look for opportunities to do things differently when they see a potential benefit for the customer. They can play within the rules to accomplish what they see as necessary. One of the salespeople I know came in to take over an existing customer account. The customer had $50,000 worth of unused products that he wanted to return. The vendor didn't normally make refunds, but the salesperson looked at the situation creatively and came up with a solution that was agreeable to both the customer and the company. Rather than just going back to the customer and telling the customer what couldn't be done, he looked for a way to keep the customer's future business and maintain support within the company. This wasn't a big challenge to the status quo, but these types of initiatives can spell the difference between keeping and losing the customer. Lose a customer here and a customer there and it adds up. Even one is one too many if there is a way to reasonably accommodate the customer's concerns.

Create and Communicate an Exciting Vision

Quality is delivering what was promised to the customer. Most companies strive to deliver a quality product or service. Not all succeed. While it is not the salesperson's job to deliver the product, sales leaders leave nothing to chance. They may not oversee every step of the delivery process, but they are not going to be surprised by a call from an upset customer complaining about a late or wrong shipment. They want assurance that the product or service is delivered on time and as promised. They stake their credibility on it. They will get to the right people if there is a problem and convince them that it is in everyone's best interest for them to quickly rectify the problem. They won't fix it themselves except in rare cases, but they will make sure it is fixed. Especially for new accounts or new orders, they will keep oversight of the customer's order throughout the process, or have someone they trust do it, and head off a problem before it occurs. Again, while this is not written into their job, they know that customer goodwill, referrals, and future sales are going to depend on everything going without a hitch.

It's not enough just to have a great vision. That idea has to be communicated to people in a way that they can understand and internalize so they can act on it. It is a matter of building a base of support for implementing the vision. Communication needs to take place in a variety of ways and forums to reinforce the message. Once may not be enough.

Support, Encourage, and Recognize Those Pursuing That Vision

Regardless of whether you are working on a short-term sale or a long-term, bigger sale, you need to ensure that people who work on the proposal are able to contribute according to their unique talents. This means that you must create the kind of environment where people are willing to go beyond the day-to-day ways of doing things so that your team can make a difference for the customer.

How do you create a growth environment? Here are three ways.

  • Do what you can to ensure that you take advantage of the skills and motivation that people bring to the table. What skills or attitudes do you need on your sales team for it to be successful? What unique skills can each team member contribute? Ask.

  • Make sure that people communicate effectively, whether that is through face-to-face meetings or through video or audio conferences, with E-mail, instant messaging, briefings, or memos.

  • When you win a new account, make a big or unusual sale, or lose a sale, debrief the event. What helped? What didn't? Capture the relevant points so that people won't make the same mistake again.

NNR Aircargo Service (USA) Inc. is an international air cargo shipper. NNR won an account with a large medical equipment manufacturer with worldwide distribution and has provided service to that manufacturer for a number of years. The customer told NNR he liked their service because they are "proactive, finding ways to remove the roadblocks to inefficiencies that other shippers may accept as the way of doing business." I asked Andy Hadley, global accounts manager, how his company knows enough not to accept the status quo. He said: "We sit down and listen to customer requirements. At first, most of the time, you hear, ‘Everything is fine.' But then we ask, ‘Is there something that your current supplier isn't doing that you expect?' In this case, the customer said, ‘Our present supplier won't deviate out of their norm; there is no flexibility.' We saw that as an opportunity, and we told them we could do it the way they wanted. This particular company sets the bar high for us, in terms of what they expect, but we like that because we're able to jump over it. We've got a good process in place now, but we always have to be willing to step back and change it. We have to remain flexible."

Flexibility in meeting customer needs was the key to success in this case. It is a competitive advantage that NNR Aircargo relies on. That flexibility relies on an attitude of being open to doing things differently than the "normal" way. Too many suppliers get caught up in doing things their way and aren't open to customizing their service to the customer. Larger companies especially can find it difficult to do things differently from the norm because they often focus on standardizing service and being efficient. That stance gives more flexible companies an opening into the account.

Salespeople can fall into the same trap when they have a predetermined agenda for what they want to sell the customer. When the customer responds with a different need, they argue for their solution instead of trying to understand what the customer really wants. It's an easy trap to fall into. But if you're going to be successful, you have to be able to put aside your attachment to a certain solution and find another one that still works for the customer. Listening and empathy are key to being able to do that.

Sales Leaders See the Reality

Leaders are always watching for changes and opportunities that their customers can take advantage of. They do this by interacting with customers; listening to feedback from the people closest to the customers, the sales and service people; working with the engineers and research people; and looking at trends in business. The leaders may not always be the first ones to identify the opportunity, but if they aren't they will encourage others to do so and then listen to their ideas.

Know What Customers Need Before They Do

Sales leaders know from years of experience and understanding what works and what doesn't. They know never to wait to be told something that they should already know. Companies don't thrive by simply meeting their customers' needs in the current marketplace. That quickly becomes a competitive disadvantage. Getting out ahead of the market—knowing what customers need before they do—is a strategy that leaders use. That strategy drives decisions that affect everything the customer does, including growth, personnel, and products. Understanding what customers need before they do requires having a strong presence and understanding of their business while being able to step back and look objectively at their situation. Your objectivity, coupled with your expertise, will allow you to see things that people who are close to the problem and who don't possess your expertise won't see.

" We're not interested in just planting our flag in every country to say we're global. If you stay at that first level of functionality—you make washers, people have dirty clothes everywhere—you can go anywhere in the world. But the second questions is ‘How can we go in and make money?'"

—Lloyd Ward, chairman and CEO of Maytag Corporation

What Followers Want from Leaders

What are the two most important qualities that followers want from leaders? James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner conducted a study and published their findings in their book The Leadership Challenge. The two qualities that followers most wanted from leaders were honesty and competency. Note that both of these qualities relate to trust. In effect, people want to be led by someone they can trust, someone they know will do the best thing and not lead them down a path that goes nowhere. Customers want the same thing. They want to trust their salesperson to handle their relationship with honesty and competency. They want a leader.

Prove Them Wrong

The next time you are faced with a situation where people aren't convinced you can accomplish something, rather than arguing, sulking, or retreating, prove them wrong. Tap into the enormous reserve of knowledge and strength that lies within you, develop a plan, and then move ahead smartly with a focused determination to accomplish your goal, always maintaining a positive attitude.

" Probably the biggest thing Lou Gerstner did for our company was get us focused on our customers. He started by building a mind-set that says everything we do helps our customers compete more effectively and win in their marketplace. That's the foundation."

—Ned Lautenbach, senior vice president of sales and distribution, IBM

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