To be successful, all great salesmen need a combination of skills. They include personal charm, natural persistence, great relationship skills and a sincere ability to earn their clients’ trust.
Oftentimes, doing well in a job will result in a promotion as recognition of your abilities. However, sales skills may not be the same as an ability to plan strategically and administer a sales team, a theory called “The Peter Principle”. This premise was developed in 1969 by Laurence Peter in his book by that title – he states that “good workers often get promoted to a job they are not good at, reaching their level of incompetence” as their career stalls.
To back this up, the June issue of The Economist reported that after studying 40,000 salespeople in 131 firms, researchers at Voxeu, an online portal, found that when super-salespeople were promoted, “their previous sales performance was actually a negative indicator of managerial success”.
As a result of an outstanding sales performance, a middle-aged sales executive was promoted to regional director, subsequently leading his team to outperform all other regions in the year that followed. He was then invited to his first annual meeting with fellow directors and looked forward to meeting the company’s owner.
He arrived early at the conference room where the meeting was to take place and asked another early participant where he was sitting. The man moved to the end of the table and said “I’m sitting down here – as far away from the owner as I can – he always asks too many questions” and pointed to a chair mid-way down the table. “He always sits there with the executive vice-presidents on either side”.
The newcomer moved across the room and, to the other man’s surprise, sat down in front of the chair the president would be sitting at. He reasoned that it would be natural for the owner to talk to someone facing him rather than to anyone at his side. Being new to the group, and because of his positioning, he knew that the president would naturally engage him in conversation and was ready to discuss how he had beaten all the other regions that year.
His gamble paid off. Not only did much of the meeting focus on his territory’s results and stellar performance, but at the end of the meeting the president asked him to come to his office to learn how he had achieved his numbers.
Disproving a Theory
He knew that the higher up the ladder, the greater demands are likely on one’s time for meetings and deskwork so the new regional director told the president that he did not want to lose control of his own life-work balance. He recounted that he had always enjoyed personal relationships with his clients and his excellent results were the outcome. Early in his career he had subconsciously understood that others were not buying the products or services he represented – they were “buying” him. In his new role he had therefore decided that rather than “manage” them, he would establish similar standards with his team and help each one of them to achieve personal success.
He added that his instincts and philosophy had always been long-term and most of his clients had also become friends: he did not pressure them and they knew he had their best interests at heart. To him, developing a personal relationship had always come first and this approach was now succeeding with his sales team.
He had asked each of his reps what they needed from him and how he could help them achieve the sales targets they had set together. With flexible parameters, he had given them the freedom to achieve those results in their own way, and each one soon outperformed their own previous best sales performance.
By taking the time to get to know their clients on a personal basis, every member of the sales team developed often surprising relationships with their clients. One rep discovered that one client’s husband was an avid gardener and enjoyed growing flowers. On his next visit to that client’s office, rather than talk about business, the sales Rep asked for advice for his own garden. On his next call he brought several pots of rose bushes as examples of what he had learned. Another rep found that his client was an amateur musician and enjoyed traditional jazz. On his next visit, Instead of talking about business they spent the afternoon exchanging opinions of various musical styles and that evening went together to a performance of a well-known band.
Over the next several months the pressure in the office seemed to have been switched off. Sales results improved and staff meetings became more friendly and relaxed. Naturally the Reps were still competing with other firms but they were now dealing with their clients on a more personal basis, developing a sincere interest in them as people and not as potential statistics.
The individual described in this article is an amalgam of a number of successful sales executives the author has known throughout his career. They all believed that helping a friend was more important than making a sale.
One of them claimed that it was more satisfying and much less stressful to “do business with people you like, and who like you” than just scrambling blindly to climb the ladder and earn more money. She said that the secret to a happy life and a successful career is to stick by what you like to do, do it well, and work with friends.