Addressing the UK’s sales shame

21st March 2019 |   Shaun Thomson

To boost productivity it’s vital for companies to embrace an “everybody sells” approach and to harness the “hidden sales force” that is an energised customer service department.

The UK is suffering a productivity crisis. Start-up companies and total early-stage entrepreneurial activity are still booming, but the number of high-growth companies in the UK has been steadily declining in the past three years. Britain has also endured the worst decade for productivity growth since the 18th century, according to staff at the Bank of England.

There is clearly a problem with UK companies scaling and achieving structured sales growth – and we believe a big contributor to this issue is the stigma surrounding “sales”. We need to face this problem head on: why does this shame exist, and how can businesses and industry change perceptions, so that their turnover and overall country productivity can benefit?

Last year we commissioned research from Censuswide to obtain insight into why the sales industry is so poorly perceived, the business and economic impact of this, and what we can do to overcome the hurdles. It surveyed over 1,000 respondents, including over 500 senior managers. The results were eye opening.

Impact of “sales shame”

Nearly a third (31.1%) of UK managers believe that sales shame is negatively impacting their business growth; plus over a quarter (27%) of UK managers also believe that this sales shame is holding back the UK economy.

The problems span sales recruitment and perception. One in eight (12%) of UK managers have an open sales role they are struggling to recruit for. The key attributes UK managers are looking for in a prospective salesperson are good communications (40%), confidence (38%) and a great personality (27%). However, when asked what characteristics they would traditionally most associate with salespeople, “pushy” topped the list with 50% of respondents, followed by untrustworthy (23%) and impatient (18.5%).

In the UK, sales has always had a bad reputation. Sales staff are stereotypically seen as junior and transient, and as such, industry and academics rarely view sales as a “real” profession. If sales is ever taught at schools or universities, it’s done within a marketing module in a largely theoretical and passive way. Participants never have any collateral such as research on sales to share with their classes, let alone pedagogy.*

Resolving the problem

Businesses have a huge role to play in resolving the problem with sales. Giving someone unrealistic targets, with no guidance on how they can achieve them, is just going to perpetuate the issue. Sadly, many businesses just think if they change the name from “sales” to “exec” then they can carry on the status quo. No wonder 45% of the respondents feel like sales titles are changing, but the roles have stayed the same.

The fact is a business can have the best recruitment strategy, the most talented marketing professionals and leanest accounting practices, but without a great sales function it’s all for nought. Great salespeople are critical, but a companywide sales culture can multiply their efforts.

Sales culture at every customer touchpoint
Enabling this requires a company to embrace and herald their sales function, enabling a sales culture to permeate across the whole business, coupled with a clear customer-experience strategy, whereby everybody in the organisation has a role to play in sales – especially if they have a role that involves contact with customers.

There is clearly a problem with UK companies scaling and achieving structured sales growth – and we believe a big contributor to this issue is the stigma surrounding ‘sales’.

A consistent, positive experience enhances sales – every customer touch-point matters. Businesses of all sizes need to map every type of customer journey, proactive and reactive, and the departments and staff that have a role to play to maximising the opportunity. Nowhere is this customer engagement opportunity more pronounced than in the customer service department.

So how best can you harness the opportunity of this “hidden salesforce”? Once they have been re-educated on the role of sales and feel part of a pro-sales organisation, there are a number of tactics and best practices that can be implemented.

Pro-sales role

Training must start with their role and how it ties into the wider sales function. For customer service staff the key is tying it to what drives them. Whereas salespeople are motivated by “closing” customer service staff are motivated by “helping”. By educating customer service employees that they can help customers through making smarter buying decisions, it helps guide them into this new pro-sales role.

Customer service staff may have a stereotypical view of what “selling” constitutes, but this can easily be overcome. Customers don’t buy products to do a business a favour; they do so because it adds value to their lives. If the customer service team believes in the company they work for, and the products or services that customers buy, it makes this transition to selling even easier.

The next step is to train customer service staff on selling strategies. With their “helping” lens, it makes sense to apply to the tried-and-tested “identify the pain” and “listening” approach. Bad salespeople push their product and talk about themselves; good salespeople identify what the prospect’s problems are, listen to them, and then hone a solution that adds value. Customer service staff already have a natural skill for sales; armed with a systematic process they can use their existing skills to identify a huge number of new business opportunities.

When a customer service person asks a customer about their problems, their thoughts and their challenges, they tap into their desires. Businesses must ensure the customer service team are empowered to craft compelling questions – actively listening to customers – identify buying signals and given the tools to turn buying signals into revenue.

Embracing an “everybody sells” ethos is good for staff, business and customers. If you are dealing with a business that has taken the time to examine all parts of the customer journey and enhanced it accordingly then you will have a better experience, of that there is no doubt. By adopting this approach businesses can ensure that they can achieve structured sales growth – and you can bet our productivity will be boosted as well.

Editor’s note: While this view will undoubtedly chime with readers, it is worth noting that there are now some well-established university sales courses, including some that are focused on work-based learning. In particular, the Association of Professional Sales has been instrumental in initiating sales apprenticeship programmes at levels 4 and 6. The Journal, too, has since its inception been committed to building bridges between academics and sales leaders. For further information in this edition, See “Our View” opposite and the article “Transitioning from sales training to sales education”.
CEO at Sandler Training

Shaun Thomson is the CEO of the Sandler Training organisation in the UK. Thomson originally trained as a Chartered Civil Engineer at the University of Birmingham; then, after completing a Masters degree at Strathclyde University, he moved into the corporate world of IT and Telecoms. He has worked with Apple, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, EDS and IBM. His last corporate post was with Fortune 500, Lucent Technologies and its spin off company, Avaya, taking it from start-up to a $35 million turnover.