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Rediscovering the art of selling

When times are tough, the difference between order takers and real sales people comes home to roost, says Bob Cowlard

There is an old joke about two shoe salesmen sent to a far-off country to open up new markets. Three days after arriving, one of them calls the office in despair and says, “It’s a complete waste of time. Everybody goes barefoot here.”

At the same time, the other one sends an email to the factory, saying: “It’s absolutely amazing here. The prospects are unlimited. Nobody wears shoes!”

It brilliantly illustrates the difference between Order Takers and genuine Salesmen (and each time you read the title, please substitute, of course Salespeople,) which will immediately strike a chord with anyone who employs them. When times are good, of course, both types can be successful and most companies are none the wiser. The orders keep coming in, and targets are met or exceeded.

It is only when things get difficult, when orders are thin on the ground or actually dry up, that the difference between Order Takers and Salesmen comes home to roost. It can make or break a company.

This may ruffle a few feathers among folk out there, but I reckon that only three out of ten people in sales in our industry are genuine Salesmen. In my experience, the majority are Order Takers. If you head up a company, or are responsible for meeting targets, which type would you rather have on the payroll?

In the good times, when you are taking on sales staff, how can you spot an Order Taker?

To give them credit, Order Takers can be extremely skilled at listening to a customer’s problems and supplying them with what they ask for. But a true Salesman would rather work out a precise solution to meet their needs, and add value for the company in the process. If your Salesman does not add value to a transaction, why are you employing them?

If they can get the “right” prospects on the phone the order taker can move mountains of products. The problem is, the vast majority of the calls or enquiries your company receives will be from people who are not ready to buy. That’s why you need a genuine, proactive Salesman batting for you.

If sales dip, the Order Taker will invariably put the decline down to a poor product, high pricing or bad marketing. The last thing they will do is sit down and analyse whether their pitch is right. The Order Taker doesn’t have the capacity, the raw self-awareness to accept that it might just be down to them and that they need to change.

The fundamental problem, of course, is that they do not understand the sales process. They believe they are there to serve buyers, rather than be out proactively hunting for prospects on behalf of their company - as well as staying close to existing customers. When the low-hanging fruit is gone, Order Takers run out of ideas.

It’s at that point that a genuine salesperson comes into their own. A good sales person looks upon low hanging fruit as bunce. As self-starters, they realise that if they don’t find the prospects to keep the business coming in when times are less buoyant, they might starve.

Before marketing-savvy readers reach for their pens in fury, I will concede that – depending on your company and your product - there is room for both types of approaches in the sales mix. If you have a big marketing department whose sole purpose is to generate calls to your office, then you will want Order Takers handling those calls. They can deal with large volumes quickly and efficiently, and deliver acceptable conversion rates for reasonable expense.

If you don’t have a large marketing department cranking up a daily stream of enquiries, you need professional sales people for whom opportunities are created from dust. These people will be constantly prospecting, building rapport, forming relationships, investing in new contacts - that will become the major customers of tomorrow.

You can read as many books on sales as you like, attend as many courses, but at the end of the day selling is an art. I would go as far as to say that successful selling is just as creative as writing a book or composing a piece of music, and arguably more important. It may not receive rapturous applause in the same way, but salesmanship can be inspired – and indeed inspirational. And without it, companies wither and die.

For those companies with Order Takers currently sitting looking at silent phones, the sky is darkening as the flocks of headless chickens come home to roost. Time to rediscover the art of selling.