Reality shows mirror business — or do they?

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Getting The Edge In Professional Selling
Terence A. Hockenhull

I WAS RATHER surprised to see that Survivor, a reality show I haven’t watched for some years, is now in its 32nd season. Pitting the wits and skills of diverse individuals against each other in some exotic location, one person will “survive,” the others being removed from the game by various challenges, competitions, and a “tribal council” that allows fellow players to vote the least desired person out of the game.

Some contestants seek to curry favor by being nice and helping other team members. Interestingly, few of these “weaklings” last very long, leaving the more aggressive and stronger players to fight it out to the end. The prize for the last remaining player is a cool $1 million.

Reality shows mirror business — or do they?

Tycoon and TV host Donald Trump, before making his bid for the most powerful job in the world, hosted The Apprentice — another reality show where, in order to get ahead, contestants are expected to climb all over their competition. Mr. Trump himself proudly claims his secret to success is running roughshod over those who are weaker or less aggressive.

I’m not sure this paints a particularly true picture. Nonetheless, most successful business people are fiercely competitive, ruthless to a certain degree, and play to win. Competition permeates nearly everything we do. Salaries, promotions, and commissions all go to the top performers. Nowhere is this truer than in the world of selling.

I know a couple of salespeople who both admit quite openly that they don’t give a damn about their clients. Sure, they make every effort to smile, create a good impression, and make the client like and trust them. But at the end of the day, what is important is closing the sale.

Even if the product offered is inappropriate, they will still foist it on their customers, make a sale, and take a commission. There is no question that top performers tend to be more aggressive. It’s all well and good when the sole purpose is to win, meet quotas and targets, and shed expensive inventory. But what about the needs and feelings of the client?

Negotiation is a key skill for professional salespeople. Having done everything possible to persuade a client to make a purchase, the salesperson may have to negotiate with the client to close the deal. It is the job of the salesperson to minimize concessions so that he gets the best deal possible.

The principle behind negotiation is to achieve a “win-win” outcome. In other words, both parties (the seller and the buyer) should feel that they have secured the best possible deal.

Where possible, one party’s concessions should be matched to those the other party has made. Unfortunately, too many negotiations end with one party feeling they have given too much away without anything in return.

It is not just the salesperson who becomes competitive in negotiation. On numerous occasions, I have seen and heard clients push the salesperson against the wall to secure the best possible deal for themselves.

This is particularly true of those corporate clients who spend large amounts of money. They start the negotiation from a position of strength, knowing full well that the salesperson is desperate to close a large order with them. To this end, they will very often dictate terms and conditions, forcing the salesperson to make concessions that reduce his company’s profits and his commissions.

I know of one company that ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of paper filters for use in a complicated manufacturing process. With three of four vendors offering appropriate products, the client played one company off the others. They pushed payment terms as far as they would go, reduced the price so the margins were almost nonexistent, and placed delivery demands on the company that were almost impossible to meet.

One of the salespeople accepted this situation and agreed to sell his product to the client at a small loss. No one was happy about it, least of all his sales manager. Yet, at least his company had won the business with the “promise” of larger orders in the future.

The orders never came because the client-company, having taken everything it could from the first vendor, transferred orders to other companies.

About eight months after this happened, the client needed a specific type of filter produced by only one of the vendor companies. As a sole supplier, the salesperson saw the opportunity to “get his own back.” Limited guarantees, cash payment, no discounts, and extended delivery terms were all forced on the client, who had no option but to agree.

Had the salesperson had a clearer idea of what negotiation was all about, dealings between vendor and client might have been considerably better. Rather than allowing the client to dictate terms on the first order, the salesperson could have negotiated for volume orders, a position as the sole contract supplier, and more agreeable payment terms. Perhaps then, both parties would have walked away from the negotiation feeling they got a fair deal.

I spoke with the salesperson who dealt with this particular client. He told me: “At the time, I was trying to close this deal; all I could think about was the concessions I could make to get the order. It never occurred to me to ask for anything in return.”

He added: “When we were in a position of strength, we felt we had the right to screw this company for everything we could.” Not a very healthy business attitude, is it?

A negotiated agreement should be fair to all parties, be easily implemented, and should stand the test of time. Competitiveness is all well and good. As I say, it promotes the aggressive pursuit of business. Being the “nice guy” and giving away the farm certainly won’t cut it in the world of sales. But then, neither will winning at all costs.

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.