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Expert Assessment: Sales Training is Key to Marketing Success

As published in the American Marketing Association’s Marketing News Exclusives
By Lenann McGookey Gardner


I’m from the poor side of the family—you know, that part of the marketing community that marketers sometimes avoid talking to: the sales side. In my work, I go from company to company, observing marketing programs and sales results, and, truth be told, the picture isn’t pretty.


In college, we all learned that sales is just a subset of marketing and that marketing’s an umbrella term that covers what the product or offering actually is, how it’s priced based on the value it provides, how it reaches the end buyer and how it’s promoted, which can include the personal selling piece, the interaction between humans and prospects.


Sure, a lot of interacting is going on online now, but there’s still some human-to-human selling, too, particularly in sales of complex services and products—and that world got rocked on November 10, 2011. It happened thanks to a book called The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation. Yup, another selling book, but unlike so many books about selling, this one is based on information about what’s really working now in selling.


Authors Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson surveyed 6,000 salespeople representing 90 companies. What they learned makes most sales training out of date—and if the selling piece isn’t working, brilliant marketing campaigns can, of course, fall flat. This is important stuff.


Dixon and Adamson put all of the salespeople that they surveyed into five categories: “relationship builder,” “hard worker,” “lone wolf,” “reactive problem solver” and something they call a “challenger.” Now, for years, salespeople have been taught to build relationships, right? Well, guess which category was the least likely to be successful in bringing in new clients? Relationship builders! The old advice, “Build relationships first and then sales will follow,” no longer holds true.


Which group was most successful? Challengers! These are the salespeople who make buyers think, who hold their points of view even when buyers push back—sellers who aren’t afraid to create some tension in their interactions with buyers. Now, no one is saying that relationships aren’t important. They can be crucial in keeping the clients you have. But building relationships no longer leads to sales nearly as much as challenging buyers does.


Lots of people on the marketing side—and on the sales side, too—tell me it’s increasingly difficult to differentiate their products and services. There’s such a proliferation of options out there that, even if you can find something that’s unique about what you’re offering, chances are it’s not something that matters one way or the other to your buyer. Good news! The same study says that the differentiation can be achieved in the sales process itself. In fact, Dixon and Adamson say that more than half of client loyalty isn’t about what’s being sold, but about how the selling process is done.


So what can salespeople do to distinguish themselves? Survey says:
     • Help buyers understand the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives available to them.
     • Offer advice.
     • Help people avoid potential problems.
     • Help people keep up with new issues, new results and new ideas.


Wondering why your marketing efforts don’t seem to translate into sales? Take a look at your sales training process. If it hasn’t been completely revamped since November 11, 2011, you’re missing opportunities.


Lenann McGookey Gardner, who holds an M.B.A. from Harvard and formerly held sales positions at a unit of Xerox, provides sales training to organizations in more than 30 countries. Contact her at Lenann@YouCanSell.com.
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