The Entertainer

In the seventies Sales Representatives left their caves and set off to hunt their commercial prey armed with little more than a bag full of good stories and bad jokes. Life was so much easier then! If a sales call lasted forty minutes, at least thirty minutes could be devoted to a friendly chat.

Salesmen entertained their customers over a mug of coffee, made them laugh with their predictable but amusing stories, compared sports results, swapped office gossip and left clutching an order… before moving on to the next unsuspecting customer where the same well-rehearsed, entertaining routine was performed all over again.


The Informer

By the eighties, things had progressed a little. Salesmen, now called “Representatives” and “Sales Executives” had evolved and developed good projection and presentation skills to explain the features, advantages and benefits of their products and services.

Clearly the main function of the eighties Sales Executive was to inform – in fact many were regarded as “walking technical handbooks.” Sadly, Sales Executives’ ears did not develop and evolve as well as their tongues. They did not listen, they simply “waited to speak” whilst taking a breath in between sentences. If customers “interrupted” they were swiftly dealt with using a range of questionable, heavy-handed techniques, tricks and gimmicks inspired by books like “How to develop a killer instinct”, “How to get the customer to say yes” and “55 different ways to overcome objections!”

The planning skill of The Informer was poor. He believed that he could “play it by ear” and that customers needed to be “told”. However, customers did not share this view; often resisted and, later in the day, badly mauled Sales Executives would gather at local watering holes to lick their wounds.

The eighties created dozens of white-suited management gurus. Often sponsored by leading politicians, who had recognised the value of being seen with these new superstars, the gurus filled conference halls and arenas and “enter-trained” Sales Executives and their managers with their misguided and aggressive “Close-that-sale!” philosophies.

Their language was often combative. Sales Executives were told that customer objections were “unjustified” and needed to be “overcome” by following a number of fool-proof steps. They dismissed the possibility that objections might actually be genuine customer concerns that needed to be understood and handled and resolved sensitively.

Customers did not like The Informer’s projection approach. “Selling” became a dirty word conjuring up //images of aggression, manipulation and deceit. Not surprisingly, customers saw themselves as adversaries and “dug in” to defend themselves against verbal attacks. The Informer, however, carried on talking… to an audience of one and a market of none!


The Problem Solver

The last twenty years has seen the development of a much softer, more skilful approach – consultative selling – with an emphasis on problem solving and a full understanding of the customer needs, concerns and aspirations through well-crafted open questions, active listening and summarising skills. Unlike their predecessors, Problem Solvers have shown a genuine interest in the customer’s business.

During the last twenty years many more women have moved into sales and marketing. The female of the species had always been accomplished in these “new” consultative techniques and was naturally able to adopt a more collaborative and less combative style when working with her customers and colleagues. With their empathy, listening skills, intuition, excellent conflict-resolution and relationship-building women used their skills with great effect and left many of their male colleagues wondering (and worrying) about their traditional role in a rapidly changing world.

By the end of the last decade, 40% of sales jobs were in the hands of women with many at the top of the league tables. No longer did women in sales have to be twice as good as men to go half as far!

So here is a summary of this evolutionary story so far – it took over thirty years for the gossiping Entertainer (who liked talking about others) to evolve into the boring Informer (who liked talking about himself) to evolve into the consultative Problem Solver who had finally learned the value of talking to customers about themselves.


The Business Partner

Here we are in a new decade with some unique and challenging times to deal with. So what are the main “pain points” in business today?

  1. Customers are looking for added value – they want more than efficient and effective products at the right price. They expect their suppliers to help them reduce costs and/or increase sales and demonstrate the bottom-line implications of their proposals.
  2. Customers are less loyal. They are no longer prepared to tolerate service that falls short of their expectations. In today’s marketplace customers expect their suppliers to exceed expectations at all stages of the sales and service delivery process.

Many companies today have recognised that the best way to exceed customer expectations and add value to key accounts is to recruit and develop sales people capable of operating as exceptional “business partners”, rather than ordinary suppliers.

So what characteristics do Account Managers and Directors need to perform their new role of “business partner?” They need to:
  • Be collaborative not just competitive
  • Understand what is keeping the customer awake at night
  • Focus on the front-end of the sales process not the back-end (closing)
  • Talk about return on investment not products and services
  • Say relatively little (as the customer is doing most of the talking)
  • Position themselves as trusted advisors
  • Work with the customer’s interests in mind as well as their own
  • Play it long – genuine relationships take time
  • Understand what the customer’s expectations are
  • Follow-up and stay connected, even if they do not win the business
  • Be in the customer’s heart, not in their face

Account Managers today need to be top-right on the four-square matrix below.

They need to have high relationship management skills and a high level of understanding of the customer’s business needs, problems, pressures, priorities, fears and aspirations for the future.

Strategically, the objective here is for your company to be perceived as the top-right Partner and for your competitors to be perceived as the Suppliers, Friendly Faces or Outsiders.

There are many indicators that would confirm if your organisation is making good progress towards this “Partner” status -you may like to think of one of your key accounts and use the checklist below to see how many of these “indicators” actually exist today…


Tick these 20 indicators if there is evidence of them within the key account:

  • The customer gives you access to confidential information.
  • The customer agrees to a rolling contract, not fixed term.
  • Joint activity e.g. project teams, joint board meetings, joint action plan.
  • There are Multi-level contacts between your two organisations.
  • .The customer accepts new products and services with little resistance
  • You are involved in their strategic planning process.
  • Reverse hospitality – the customer invites you to their events.
  • The customer provides a written testimonial and acts as a reference.
  • The customer shows you a range of projects and invites you to pick.
  • The customer gives you referrals.
  • They treat you as a dotted-line member of their team.
  • Price resistance lowers as they see the value of your products/services.
  • There are no nasty surprises – someone somewhere will tip you off.
  • They give you last minute opportunities to improve your proposals.
  • Changes in their (or your) personnel do not affect the relationship.
  • You are copied one emails.
  • The customer treats your organisation as “industry experts”.
  • Your people work within the timings of their business year.
  • Independent research confirms that you are exceeding expectations.
  • Your contacts “fight your corner” in front of their colleagues.

So in conclusion, the winners will be companies who can achieve these ten things:

  • Recognise that they are in the financial services business i.e. improving the profitability of their customers
  • Produce compelling evidence that they are creating value, not cost
  • Explain the financial benefits of going ahead with their proposal – and the financial consequences of not going ahead
  • Understand that customers are not really interested in their suppliers’ businesses – they are interested in learning more about their own
  • Stand out from competitors (rather than standing up to them) by becoming experts in the customer’s world
  • Recognise that “profitability” is a downstream consequence of customer excellence
  • Find solutions to problems the customer does not (yet) know they have
  • Understand that the best way to sell more products and services is not to keep talking about products and services
  • See account management as a multi-level team sport based upon an “our customer” (not “my customer”) culture
  • Continue to evolve as effective business partners