A recent review of a book by Ram Charan informs us, astonishingly enough, that the professor thinks salesmen should take the time to get to know the needs of their customers before they recommend products to them. How innovative. My mind couldnt help flashing back to the days when I was a young salesman, fresh out of school, eagerly trying to grasp the basics of the oil industry.
When I returned to my district office after a day of occasionally unsettling customer contacts, I noticed a gentleman who actually had his own desk, unlike the rest of us who sat down wherever we could to write orders, do paperwork and use the telephone. I soon learned that this quiet man, surrounded by manuals and files, was Jack Keroush, the representative who handled our largest account, aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney. He was the highest-ranking salesman in our division, and we approached him with awe and respect.
Jack knew a lot about petroleum products. Whenever we had a problem, we went to him for help. He taught us about lubricants, some of it in formal NLGI courses, and he also taught us a lot about selling. He was the first to explain to us greenhorns that a survey should be made of a customers facility before we even thought about making specific recommendations. He emphasized that competitive products currently in use there must never be assumed to be the proper ones. Simply using a cross-reference chart to install our own brands was an unthinkable sin in his eyes.
That was a good education, but only a beginning. When I moved from sales into management, I learned that Keroushs expert approach wasnt as unique as I had thought. There are a lot of good sales people out there – including some who dont fully appreciate just how professional they are. I have been lucky enough to have some of them work for me.
Strangely, there are people who think that all salesmen are like those who sell door to door, or who hawk cars with screaming voices on television. Arthur Millers play Death of A Salesman summarized that view; its pathetic traveling salesman, Willy Loman, represented more than these people ever wanted to know about such an activity. In their minds, selling is what one does only if one cannot meet the requirements of a more honorable profession.
Professor-turned-consultant Ram Charan also said in his recent Wall Street Journal Q&A session that the present focus of selling is all wrong – salespeople should determine what a customer needs. (Hmm, I thought we were doing that.) In What The Customer Wants You to Know, published by Portfolio, Charans sales tips are as follows:
Know how the customer makes money. Learn the customers decision-making process. Build many relationships with the customer, not just through sales. Focus on the customers business needs, not product features or price. Show how your offerings meet customer needs.
These tips are all good, although certainly not new. But it is useful to be reminded of the basics of selling now and then.