Getting The Edge In Professional Selling — Terence A. Hockenhull

THE COMPANY I currently work for sells a wide range of construction materials. No, we do not sell cement, hollow blocks, and rebar; rather, we offer sophisticated materials for major infrastructure. We are a unique company; we have been in the industry for over 100 years, and many of our products were developed by us. The fact that they have now become commonplace is testament to their value and importance in major construction.

How sophisticated is your sales team?

A check on the Internet a couple of weeks back showed at least five companies in China not only offering the same products but offering them under our brand name. Two other companies in the Philippines now manufacture these items and since they, like us, have to meet exacting specifications in the Department of Public Works and Highways’ Blue Book, it is little wonder that these products are considered commodities.

Commodity selling is interesting. By its very nature, there is rarely any consideration given to product quality. Clients’ sole interest appears to be availability and price. So, if a vendor can turn up with a cheaper product, no surprise that the business is lost to the competitor until such time that prices are matched or beaten.

What is interesting about this is that commodity products are difficult to sell (unless one has the cheapest price!). Yet salespeople apparently gravitate to this type of selling for the very reason that success is predicated on price. Certainly, describing a commodity product is not required, nor is it necessary to understand how it will be used. The perception might be that it is easy to sell commodity products; the reality is very different.

For those who have been in sales for some time, the term “solution selling” might be quite commonplace. So, too, might “complex selling” and “consultative selling” seem. But, do we really understand what they mean?

I have just had a meeting with one of my sales engineers who is involved in selling large quantities of materials for a major project. His initial approach to the client (in this case a contractor) was to offer our products at the cheapest price he could get me to agree to.

We discussed the seven-figure sale, and we are in a position to undercut any of our competitors on price. However, to do so will eat away at our margins and, frankly, devalue our quality product.

It turns out that the structure required can be built much more economically if odd-sized units are used. Since we also manufacture and we can supply within a very short time frame, we have already found one way of lifting this out of the realm of a commodity sale and into a complex, consultative sale. Further, we have other complementary products that can be used to cut costs and enhance the structural design. We now offer a complete solution that our competitors cannot hope to compete with.

The trouble of course, is making sure the sales team has the skills and sophistication to compete in sales like these. Consider, for a moment, that a simple purchase of a commodity (since price and availability are the only two factors used) can be accomplished by relatively junior staff member. In our office, the decision of from whom to purchase stationery supplies is made by our receptionist.

Once we move into the realm of complex selling, the level of decision maker is higher. More people are involved, the decision to buy takes longer, and finally, more interaction with the salesperson is invariably required.

Salespeople cannot be expected to jump into this sales model without training, an excellent knowledge of products or services, and a clear understanding of the client’s needs and requirements. However, the truth of the matter is that it is much easier to close these types of sales simply because a unique, non-commodity solution is being offered. Providing it is what the customer wants and he cannot get exactly the same solution from another vendor, the sale should be in the bag without all of that nasty haggling over price.

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.