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A successful sales team needs your support

Jul 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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Definitions change meanings quickly in this business. For example, not too many years ago, when a buyer complained about supplier neglect, it meant that the buyer didn't see a salesperson often enough. Today, neglect most often means the salesperson calls but has nothing meaningful to tell the buyer.

The term “sales support” also has undergone profound change. At one point, everyone shared the same definition of the term: It referred to customer service representatives (CSRs), estimators, delivery personnel and others that had a direct role in supporting the relationship with a salesperson's customer(s). Today that remains the operative definition for most owners and senior managers.

But ask sales reps about sales support, and you're likely to hear a much different definition. Salespeople increasingly view aid from above as being as critical to their success as assistance from CSRs, estimators and other colleagues.

What your sales rep wants

This is no idle observation. It's based on overwhelming feedback from a 1999-2000 survey of graphic-arts industry sales reps, conducted by the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation and Hammermill Papers (Memphis, TN). Regardless of company size, location or type of product, feedback from the 13,000 or so salespeople reflected a fascinating homogeneity.

That feedback contradicts the conventional view that many managers hold of salespeople, to the point that the data's veracity is questioned:

  • The survey respondents, asked about steps that could be taken to improve their sales performance, rank education of themselves and customers at the top of the list. They admit their shortcomings and are asking for help.

  • The salespeople also ask for time and commitment from senior management, especially when dealing with important accounts or high-potential prospects.

Before this discussion continues, let's agree that we're dealing in generalities. Not all sales reps avidly welcome help. Reps with extensive industry experience may be especially resistant to change. Others may welcome change but are unable to implement it, despite their rhetoric and understanding of the challenge. Others may be downright slothful.

But it frequently is the case that, when given support, information and encouragement from above as well as from below, changes in perspective, behavior and performance do indeed occur.

Undoing salesperson stereotypes

My frustration is rooted as much in the attitudes of print-company execs as in many sales reps' behavior. The notion that greed and avarice alone drive sales reps is most disheartening. Many of these individuals were selected for a career in sales because they proved themselves to be articulate, loyal, hardworking and technically knowledgeable while serving as a CSR, production coordinator or in some other non-sales position. But upon promotion to a sales position, these same individuals are assumed to be selfish, greedy employees whose performance is influenced primarily by the almighty dollar.

The fact of the matter is that even a commission plan based on 101 percent of sales will not create a more competent or effective salesperson.

Don't waste talent

There are exceptions to everything, of course. But my frustration is based on the lack of change in industry treatment of salespeople during the past 20 years and the waste in human potential.

Salesforce management attempted through the compensation system runs the risk of creating salespeople that prefer an adversarial relationship with their employers. Instead, all parties, especially customers, are served best by systematic creation of a more knowledgeable, competent staff.

It's fair to ask if this entire controversy is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Are many salespeople selfish and protective of accounts because management (cynically) expects that sort of behavior? Or is that behavior a natural condition of a rare breed of selfish, avaricious individuals who suffer from an elevated love of financial success?

I'm proud to say some of my best friends are print salespeople, and I admire them for their ethics, judgment and competence. They deserve to be treated with respect that transcends adherence to their compensation plan.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. His e-mail is