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Sales rep: a commercial social worker?

Nov 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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I've noticed a phenomenon in the graphic arts industry in recent years: It involves a salesperson with little or no selling or graphic arts experience, who somehow identifies major opportunities and generates unexpectedly great sales volume during the first year or two. However, this person lacks technical expertise in print and therefore drives his or her estimator, customer service representative and production personnel to distraction.

Perhaps this defies the conventional wisdom, but it is not an aberration. Instead, it is a sign of the times that should be instructive to owners and senior managers involved in the process of hiring and supervising salespeople.

Our organization evaluates salespeople. In recent years, we began to see an unprecedented pattern: successful, typically younger salespeople who had the classic characteristics of a teacher or nurse. They have versatile behaviors, sell by teaching, prefer working as a team, respond to customer needs, and take a long-term view of actions and developments. This is contrary to the stereotypical view of successful salespeople as impatient loners, interested only in short-term results.

Qualities of today's salesperson
Certainly, there are no immutable standards of successful salesmanship. All sweeping generalizations are false, including this one. While some industry specialists still claim that “salespeople by nature have an entrepreneurial spirit,” referring to sales reps' innate desire for independence, I submit that these experts have been spending too much time with self-proclaimed “industry leaders” and too little time working in the field with salespeople.

Print company owners and senior managers do themselves a terrible disservice by assuming that all successful salespeople are born, not made, and share the common motivation of greed and avarice. Recent research does not support this stereotype. Many younger salespeople want to function as part of a team.

To many salespeople, short-term performance compensation is attractive and important, yet it would be trumped by the employer's investment in training to help hone their skills, an investment that carries lifetime value. In general, younger members of the work force value training. They have seen their elders challenged by technology and expect to be retrained two or three times in their careers.

Generalizations lead to missed opportunity
All-purpose “truths” that saddle our industry (ranging from “All buyers are disloyal” to “Every ton of recycled paper saves sixteen trees”) can blind management to opportunities and intelligent decision-making. It's the old story about the dangers of paradigms. As futurist Joel Barker says, “When a paradigm shifts, everybody goes back to zero.”

This suggests that salespeople and applicants for sales positions should not be evaluated as entities separate from the rest of your organization and its culture, or from the needs and demands of your organization's account base. The “fit” with customers is especially critical.

Teamwork for "seamless service"
This issue is growing in importance and prominence, according to feedback from the thousands of buyer surveys our company conducts for print companies each year. With increasing frequency, respondents refer positively to salespeople who are part of a team that includes a customer service rep, a receptionist, even a delivery person. There are references to “seamless service” when someone in the print company is on vacation, ill or not readily available. The buying community recognizes and values teamwork at a supplier. It's only logical that a selling organization should respond in kind.

Our research and the research of others provide evidence that many younger salespeople are sincerely motivated by the concept of a sales representative as a commercial social worker. Yes, they want to earn a generous income. But many also want the satisfaction of making a positive difference in the fortunes of a customer's organization.

Some industry veterans will cynically regard this statement as an unrealistic ideal. That's unfortunate. Many younger, enthusiastic, ambitious salespeople are motivated by this ideal, and they want management's help to assist customers and achieve their respective objectives.

Success requires commitment
Companies seeking to add sales representation should consider setting aside their stereotypes of the successful salesperson. In determining the attributes of the ideal sales rep for your organization, consider the wants, needs, biases and behaviors of the customer base rather than the “truths” of the past.

The support your company can extend to a new salesperson might be a major factor in determining the success or failure of that employee. Ongoing training might be a necessary commitment. One month of orientation in production departments and a list of one hundred former accounts might not assure, or even significantly contribute to, success.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at