Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

I HAVE BEEN in the Philippines long enough to appreciate that personal relationships count for a great deal. This appears especially true in selling. I have been told on numerous occasions that to succeed in sales, it is important to be able to call on a large number of personal contacts or be put in touch with companies and clients through close friends and associates. True though this might be, most salespeople will exhaust their contacts within one or two months of joining a company and will have to start calling on clients who they do not know or have not had previous business dealings with.

Filipino salespeople will usually consider the opening phase of a sales call to be of critical importance. The opposite is often true in western countries where getting down to the business in hand is much more important than making small talk. I believe it has much to do with comfort levels. Certainly, my sales engineers like to know who they are talking to!

Unfortunately, the way this often pans out is that my sales engineers meet with those people who are most willing to meet with them. In other words, they will choose to hold sales meetings with customers who have time on their hands and are comfortable sitting down and making small talk with a salesperson. These are rarely the people who make major decisions.

Just last week, I decided to accompany one of my sales engineers on a sales call to an important client. We know the contractor has been awarded a major contract and they will have to source materials locally. We also know the project proponent has stipulated top quality materials. The value of this sale is significant so it is important that we get in to meet the right people before any purchasing decisions are made. My sales engineer has been talking for some weeks about his contact in this company; how he has been holding regular meetings to discuss the project and requirements.

I’m not trying to put my sales engineer down. However, on arrival at the company, we met with an individual who is relatively unconnected with the buying decision. Sure, he is an engineer and, yes, he was knowledgeable about the project. It is just that the buying decision was most definitely outside of his purview and he was unlikely to have any influence. We spent a scant 20 minutes with this engineer; a lot of small talk, discussions about sports and politics and a few vague answers to questions about the project. I pushed hard to secure the names and contact details of the senior engineers on the project; clearly he either didn’t know who they were or was unwilling to part with the information.

Now I have no doubt my sales engineer has a very good relationship with this man. However, this is of no value to me or the company. In fact, it is of little value to my sales engineer either since if he continues to deal with this “junior employee” he will miss out on the opportunity of meeting with and influencing the decision maker.

On return to the office, we discussed the call in detail. I asked what next steps he had planned. My sales engineer seemed nervous about the idea of contacting the senior project engineer. In fact, he told me that he believed he would not be able to get an appointment and asked me to step in on his behalf. I will recount that we got the appointment we wanted and things are now proceeding swimmingly. However, this slightly misses the point.

Had I not stepped in, my sales engineer would continue to set appointments with the people he feels most comfortable with. In some cases, these may be people who attended the same schools, have the same level of seniority, come from the same social background, earn a similar amount of money, etc. However, note that none of these criteria necessarily dictate the ability to make or influence a buying decision.

When setting an appointment, it may seem easier to get a foothold by meeting a relatively junior employee. And perhaps, working upwards, the decision maker. Too often however, I have seen hands appear dictating the need for third party commissions to be paid. Do the decision makers know about this practice? Generally no; and if they did, most would refuse to participate in the practice knowing it adds to the cost of the purchased product and more often than not, leads to a substandard, inferior or unsuitable purchase.

I’ve been here in the Philippines for nearly 30 years. Am I going to change these practices easily? Probably not! However, salespeople must understand that the lower you start in a target company, the greater the likelihood of dealing with someone whose motives for helping you achieve the sales has less to do with choosing the right product and more to do with personal gain. Even if it is outside of your comfort level, far more will be achieved by setting appointments with those who can really influence the decision making process.

Terence A. Hockenhull is a long-term resident of the Philippines. He is an accomplished sales consultant who currently holds an executive sales position with an Italian geotechnical company.