Ask a packed room of industry professionals who wants to be a salesperson, and only a few hands sheepishly will go up. There is much confusion today about the role and need for sales. Many contractors, engineers and architects are moving into a seller-doer model. Some are working hard to strengthen their customer-focused culture. Regardless of what “sales” is called, industry firms are embracing the customer and focusing on how they win profitable work.
The funny thing is, no one wants to be called a salesperson — not business development, project executives, pre-construction, estimating, superintendents or even the president. Yet everyone will be quick to espouse the importance of sales to the company’s long-term health. The top line on the financial statement says “Sales.” Somebody has to sell a project before anyone in the firm can get a bonus. Call them what you want, but every firm needs salespeople.
It is not a bad thing to be a salesperson; it is just the industry is a bit embarrassed to be part of the process.
The real source of power in any organization comes from the relationship with the customer — the external focus of the firm. Salespeople should be recognized and supported. Instead, they are frequently treated as the proverbial redheaded stepchild at the family reunion.
Logic would tell you that everyone else in the firm should support sales. The company would be a big fireplace where the salesperson can come in from a hard day in the field to dry his or her boots before striking out again, before first light.
SALES BY A DIFFERENT NAME
In the construction industry, salespeople are often referred to as other things, such as “rainmakers.” Good salespeople are usually tolerated in the organization and paid well because they are scarce. You may have heard the old rule of thumb, “80% of sales come from 20% of your people.”
Good salespersons are even rarer in construction because most of them are seller/doers —technical experts who are developers and maintainers of client relationships. A seller/doer must provide superior service. Doing begets selling and vice versa. Sales is a role in the company, not a job title.
Clients must never perceive they are being “sold something.” A good salesperson helps them buy. That means helping customers make good decisions about what and how they are buying construction services. Salespeople are listeners, problem-solvers and educators.
Helping a client to buy means guiding it through the decision-making process. Sales is not about pushing a customer to pick you and your organization; no one wants to be pushed. Selling is a bit like fishing. You have to present the right bait in an attractive manner in order to get a bite; knowledge and patience are required. You cannot make a fish bite, just as you cannot make a client buy. Learn to think through the buying process from the perspective of the customer. Explore with the client what the business purpose of the project is and how that defines a successful project. Your job is to help the client make an informed decision.
GOOD SALESPEOPLE ARE OUT THERE
Good salespeople are hard to find. They must have deep technical expertise, know how to read people and build value. They need to understand construction and the selling process. However, that is just the beginning of what a salesperson needs to be successful. Salespeople should also:
- Have a rare combination of behavioral traits, such as being assertive, qualitative, empathetic, intense and likeable by clients and your team.
- Be visionaries by keeping their eyes on trends.
- Be experts in their technical knowledge and industry conversancy.
- Be marketing-minded by knowing how to make the phone ring.
- Have a solid reputation in the industry. Today salespeople need to be almost famous in their field.
- Maintain relationships after the first project.
- Be likeable. Clients work with people they like.
- Act as a learned peer, not as a subordinate to the client, by bringing a different set of skills but an equal amount of value.
- Have intellectual breadth and be able to converse on the industry as well as on a variety of other topics.
- Be direct by providing feedback without unnecessarily ruffling feathers. Many customers need and appreciate candor.
- Act as counselors, coaches and guides. Walk the path with the customer and know selling is not something that is “done” to the client.
- Possess a sense of humor. They can laugh at the natural stresses in business and at themselves.
- Make phone calls and return messages promptly.
- Work hard. Clients appreciate hard work over all else. Salespeople are not afraid of working hard. They will roll up their sleeves and dig in to help. They will work behind the scenes getting information ready for a customer.
- Follow up with clients by being organized and good at keeping track of commitments and conversations.
- Focus on quality by guaranteeing the value promised in the selling process and working to ensure it is delivered consistently.
- Be empathetic and look at the world through the customers’ eyes.
- Get involved by engaging in in the industry and their firm. They have a point of view about what needs to happen and controls the outcome.
- Show loyalty to clients and colleagues by keeping confidences while supporting people and ideas.
- Have delegation skills. Because successful salespeople strongly want to control outcomes, skills in delegating may not come naturally, but effective salespeople work toward skill improvement.
Then there are those rare individuals who make huge contributions to their own companies and customers. These are a different breed of salesperson altogether. These are the elephant hunters. They are the ones in the know and are able to find and win significant customers and projects. They have all the skills above, but they also:
- Have an acute sense of smell. They know the deals to chase, but also how much to invest, who else to get involved in order to ensure success. They are not afraid to walk away if an opportunity loses its shine.
- Know when to say no. It is easy to get over-committed — internally and externally. They have a good sense of when they should engage in a new venture and when their plate is full enough. If they get too busy, they know there is a risk of missing commitments.
- Have more than a bread-and-butter focus. They are willing to take a risk without a firm commitment of the outcome.
- Know the value of services. Super-salespeople value the services their company provides and educates the customer. They track cost-benefit analysis and make sure that customers know and value the services that are provided.
- Are able to command a room. They have a presence about them that people notice. They do not seek the center of attention, but rather, given their intellectual depth, people remember them.
- Raise the bar. These salespeople set a new standard of performance for colleagues to follow. They change the expectations of what is considered to be good performance.
- Envision success. “As a man thinketh, so shall he be.”
- Build great relationships. This salesperson genuinely cares for his or her customers and it shows. He or she gets to know customers on a professional and personal level, thereby building trust and mutual respect. This goes beyond being thought of as a “nice person with whom to work” and becomes that hallowed role of “trusted advisor.”
A WORD ABOUT THE TELEPHONE
A computer consultant was giving a talk the other day and explained to a group of novices that the Internet was similar to linking all the people in the room with a wire. What a novel idea. The first commercial telephone exchange opened in New Haven, Conn., in 1878. The Internet of course was invented recently by Al Gore.
It would have made a lot more sense if the Internet had been invented first. Then we would be amazed at the recent invention of the telephone where we could actually talk to people directly in real time. If you want to demonstrate customer care, pick up the phone. Frequently.
Another great option is to get in your car and drive over to see your clients. Is that faster than email? No. Is it more effective? Absolutely.
BECOMING A SALES PERSON
What steps should someone in the organization take to become a salesperson? A few ideas include:
- Demonstrate personal competence and willingness to work hard internally. Senior people in control of projects will notice your hard work, and given the shortage of that today, you should be sought after.
- Develop intensity in your efforts and become a mini-expert quickly.
- Develop opportunities to get in front of customers, ask questions, share what you know and become acquainted for the long term.
- Develop industry knowledge.
- Identify and follow up on a potential customer that has a need for the services your firm provides.
- Use every opportunity to talk to people in the industry, especially if they are buyers or influencers.
- Always make clients feel that they got more than they paid for, and they will buy more of it.
- Work hard so you are respected by the client and will be referred to other people it knows.
YOUR SALES CAREER
David Campbell, a renowned psychologist and career guidance vocational counselor, was one of the early leaders of the Center for Creative Leadership. David has a good philosophy about life. He says that life is not so much about endings and specific goals, but instead it is a journey and should be enjoyed accordingly.
He makes the point that there are a series of paths in life, each of which has branches that twist and turn in amazing ways. Each path is governed by a gatekeeper, and the ability to go down a path is determined by the assets you have to get through the gate. Each gate has its own requirements, such as education, experience, talents, relationships, good health, personal characteristics, intelligence, persistence and good work habits. Build your assets, always.
Happiness is a function of choices. It matters less about whether you take a specific path, but having the choice to take the path does matter. Not all goals need to be specific. The end goal might be some misty idea, such as a quality of life, having an impact on the industry or making a difference in the lives of those around you. Having goals allows you to get started and track your progress along the way. They set the foundation for success in your career and personal life. As the saying goes: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The same is true in sales. The key is to get started, then keep it going. Make sales one of your choices. If you are like many seller-doers, you do not have two days a week to invest in meeting and cultivating customers. Sometimes you can stand out from the crowd in how you use small blocks of time.
Steve Darnell is a managing director with FMI Capital Advisors, Inc. He can be reached at 919.785.9281 or via email at email@example.com. Cynthia Paul is a managing director with FMI. She can be reached at 303.398.7291 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.