“Sales should be treated like a serious business activity that it should be.” That is what Oliver Nnona, CEO of Profiliant Development Resources Ltd, seem to be emphasising here as he touches on many areas of sales that can make or mar organisation’s profit. He spoke with Ofuma Agali.
How would you describe a salesforce?
From a functional perspective, in terms of what a salesforce does, it is first and foremost, a force – just like you define a Police force or a military force or any other force. Salesforce is usually an organisation of people structured with different people doing different things, with respect to their roles and functions. But the underlying factor that makes it really distinct is that they are focused on doing one thing and doing it very well – that is to sell; to take products into the market and bring revenue back to the organisation. So anytime a salesforce is being defined, they are selling something and they are delivering some value for their organisation. I have seen sales forces that delivered outright revenue. I have seen sales forces that delivered a combination of revenues and other forms of values. I have seen salesforces that do not deliver direct revenue but they create some sort of value. So it is an organisation of people classified in a way that their roles and responsibilities work together and all of them are focused on the customer at the centre. There is no salesforce without a customer. There can be no salesforce without a client or customer at the other end. So for a salesforce to be in existence, there has to be a customer and that customer is usually at the centre of all activities – outbound or inbound activities that are focused on that customer. Salesforces seek answers to questions like: What does that customer want? How do we have an organisation that meets that need? What is the best way to organise efforts to meet that need? For instance, if customers are geographically dispersed, then a salesforce will have to follow the customers geographically in terms of the arrangement. If your customers are in different segments, then a salesforce will have to focus on them according to those segments. If customers are in different industry verticals, then a salesforce will have to follow them according to those industry verticals. So the structure is important in any definition of what makes a salesforce.
From an organisation point of view, is there really a difference between a salesforce and a sales department?
Typically, a sales department will have people. And you can have a two-man salesforce or a one-man salesforce. Most small businesses are operating a sales department with a one-man salesforce as long as they go out, meet people and solicit for businesses. Even a lawyer that solicits for businesses is a one-man salesforce. So is a large conglomerate with one hundred people in their sales department. So the sales department fits into the larger organisational structure where you have, for instance, an engineering department, a manufacturing department, a legal department and so on. That sales department becomes one of the structures of the larger organisation. What makes the force are the people who are in the field talking to customers. So the salesforce is a part of the sales department. But in a different interpretation, it is different from the sales department.
So how are they different from other parts of the organisation, especially in situations where organisations think that everyone should sell, with employees having targets to meet (like the banks)?
Now that you have mentioned the word ‘target’, let us look at it along that line. Revenue responsibility is often at the call of a salesforce. So what makes a salesforce different from other parts of the organisation is that usually they are in charge of the customer or client relationship with the single purpose of finding the customer and getting value for the company. So a salesforce will be given a target that is often defined in financial or other numbers with clear measurable objectives. Those objectives are delivered either daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, half-yearly, and so on. They are all measured by timelines. For a salesforce, the performance cannot be hidden. So whenever you look at a salesforce and you check the results of the company, it would directly correlate if the company is doing well in terms of turnover. The salesforce is often held to esteem for that. If the company is doing badly in terms of turnover, the salesforce is often held accountable to be able to change it. So in terms of the difference between other organisational parts, sometimes we find that the salesforce in very large organisations could be the largest part of the organisation in terms of numbers. There are companies in Nigeria with one thousand to two thousand employees and in most cases the salesforce makes about ten to twenty percent of that. So anywhere there is a salesforce, in proportion, they are usually high. That is one of the things that differentiates the salesforce from the other parts of the organisation.
The other one is that the salesforce is made up of a lot of people – a bunch of different animals. They are different in the way that they think and move, so salesforces are usually highly mobile and highly customer-focused in engagement. So while other parts of the organisation may be complicated internally, the salesforce is often the one that is focused on outbound engagement. And somebody can argue with me that the marketing department and the public relations department also talk to constituencies outside. They do. But the salesforce is the only one that often does that with a view to making money directly. So direct revenue accountability is one thing that salesforces do very well. Nowadays, salesforces are being measured on profitability. It used to be that the companies will ask you to just go and make money. But today, you have to make that money and make it in a profitable way, in terms of profit margins. So it kind of throws some kind of complexity into what makes a salesforce a salesforce.
So how it is different from other parts of the organisation? First, they are higher in number. Secondly, they are the ones that have the topline and bottom-line gross profit responsibilities. Thirdly, they are the ones that are highly visible to customers depending on what is being sold. So when customers want to relate with your organisation, they often can equate it with what you say your people are doing in the field. So salesforces are very highly visible. If you are using retail, for instance, a sales canvasser is from a salesforce. The person who approaches you with the request to get the product or buy a unit is a sales canvasser. That sales canvasser belongs to a part of the sales organisation. If you are using telesales for instance – outbound calls where people are called up for conversations about products – that will be a part of the sales organisation. If you are using field salespeople, they do meetings, make presentations and do all those related things. If you are selling via digital, the same principle applies; there is always an outbound team – that is those who are visible more. So the proportion of visibility is higher with the sales team. These are some of the ways that the salesforce is different from most parts of the organisations. There are some other statistics that we could share, things like the turnover. Often, due to the nature of salesforces, employee turnover can be higher in the sales organisation more than in any other part of the larger organisation.
To the layman, how do you differentiate topline and bottom line? These are two words that are often used as if they are the same.
Topline refers to revenue. And that’s where the salesperson has a major impact – I won’t say the most impact. When a company looks at its gross revenue, and they look at the salesforce impact, the salesforce directly impacts on topline. Topline is the gross revenue that you make. But bottom-line is gross revenue with all your cost taken off. So normally for accountants, you find them doing things like cost of sales. The cost of sales is topline revenue minus the direct cost of generating that revenue. But don’t forget there are indirect costs like rent, salaries of people, expenses on telecommunications and all that. So what companies will try to do is to generate a significant topline with a reasonable gross profit. The difference between your gross profit and all your other expenses will leave you with a net profit position. That is the relationship between the topline and the bottom-line. Both are important. What you sell, how you sell it is important. In the past, salespeople were held accountable for topline. What that would do is that they will end up selling with a lot of discounts. So increasingly they give discounts and the turnover is high but by the time all other costs are added, the bottom-line begins to not make sense.
There is something about the evolution of sales. Most salespeople in business-to-business settings are challenged not just to sell but to sell in ways that make profitable sense for their organisations.
Does it really matter whether an organisation has a salesforce or not? And what impact does today’s digitalization have on today’s sales?
Is it mandatory to have a salesforce? No, it is not mandatory that you have a salesforce. But depending on what you do and how you make your money, it may be very important and very advisable that you get people who are constantly engaging with your customer base to help them buy. If you manufacture products, which could potentially be used in different parts of the country but you are manufacturing only in one part, a salesforce becomes necessary for you to take products into the parts where people may be looking for the products but cannot find it. So depending on what you sell, you can comfortably say that most businesses need very functional salesforces to be successful.
Then the type of the salesforce that you need is a different ball game altogether. And that is one of the things that we find in this market. Most of the companies don’t know the different types of the salesforces that they need. It is just like the different types of pain killers. If you go to a doctor and you have muscle pain, it requires a different type of painkiller. If you have migraine pain, that’s a different type of painkiller. If you have menstrual pain, that’s a different type of painkiller. If you have a toothache, that’s a different type of painkiller. At the end of the day, the idea is that if you if apply a one-size-fits-all – we see that a lot – it may not work well. You see a company that, without doing their analysis well, decides that their competitor is using new sales people and then they begin to employ new sales people, buy cars and throw them into the streets. But the first analysis should actually be to find where their customers are and how they buy? If your customers are shopping digitally, then maybe it is best for your salespeople to be equipped to sell to them digitally. Go to where they are making the decisions about how to buy. If you are akin to the fact that your customers are in Ojuelegba, and you are in Maroko drumming up support, you may be missing something.
Our research shows us that most companies will need a salesforce to succeed. Even non-profits, they need salesforces whether they call it salesforces or not, whether they call it marketing forces or not. The key thing that makes it a force that sells at the level of engagement that they do with customers directly is to bring revenue home. Once there is a conclusion that a salesforce is needed, the next step will be to determine what type of salesforce is needed? And there are different types. So finding the right type of a salesforce is your route to using salesforces successfully. The way a salesforce is configured in relation to what you sell or what you bring to the market determines whether you will be successful or not. If you configure a salesforce wrongly, what will happen is that they will struggle to sell, even though you might have the right product.
Now to whether technology matters, technology is ubiquitous anywhere. About 15 to 20 years ago, I was reading constant research and some of them predicted the death of the salesperson. And what has happened is that technology has not removed the sales person. However, it has been integrated into selling. From personal selling to business-related selling to consultative selling, technology has been integrated to make the salesperson more efficient and to give insights to salespeople. It used to be that salespeople sold without insights. Technology has changed that. It used to be that you struggle for one week to provide a single customer. In 5 to 10 minutes spent on a profiling site, you could pull up data that 20 years ago, you would have spent one week doing. What that does is that it shortens sales cycles and increases the efficiency of the single salesperson. So now one man could do the job of a ten-man salesforce. But I still make bold to say that technology can never eradicate the relevance of the sales people.
Most companies that have salesforces or sales teams still record failures. What accounts for this high failure rates of salesforces and sales teams?
One the reasons why salesforces fail has to do with structuring. So if you have not aligned sales with your business strategy, that cannot be fixed by any amount of training, any amount of technology or any amount of prayers. The first step, align sales with your business strategy and you are sure that you have leant your ladder on the right wall before you start climbing. The next one is finding the right salespeople. Do you have the right salespeople who fit the type and the nature of the work that you do? And most times, those organisations that have aligned sales with strategy also begin to get it wrong. You will find that traditionally sales had been the place where people who had nowhere else to go ended up. So because you were paid something and you could survive their conditions, you become a salesperson. I have seen this happening in this country where sales department is used as the last pot of call before people are fired. So at the entry point, the person had nowhere to go. And also the exit point is for those whose employers want to send to hell. And that didn’t go well with the profession. This is one of the things that we have been trying to change in the last years, which is to change the notion that the sales profession is a horrible profession. And people can do it just like you have the legal profession, the medical profession, the accountants and the finance people, who practice their profession from a career perspective.
Another reason is if you have the wrong people in your team – people with the wrong skill sets or people with the right skill sets but with the wrong level of experience. They will not sell successfully. I can give you an example, many times you see a lot of young people trying to sell financial services like private banking. For a successful private banker to be able to sell successfully to a private banking customer, certain things must happen. For instance, most private banking customers are wealthy people. And there is a subject matter area of how to sell to wealthy people, the kind of opportunities that you need to have, how to gain access to them and all that. Someone who just left school is highly unlikely to know these things. But some employers throw persons like this into selling private banking services. If you sell luxury products or if you have private banking products and you throw people who are at a certain age and do not have the right mental composition and not enabled with tools to have the right kind of conversation and do not even have the appearance and the stature to be able to do that, they are automatically doomed to fail. And there is no amount of hitting the donkey that will force the donkey to carry a load that it cannot carry. That is why you see that in some industries, like in the financial services space, they have a relatively high degree of turnover, burning people out. That is one of the reasons why people hate sales jobs.
To the issues of sales managers, when a sales organisation succeeds, it means they are making their numbers. These sales organisations are manned by sales managers who are engaged on a day-to-day basis, week-by-week basis, coaching salespeople, removing obstacles from their way, having hurdle meetings, translating the business strategy into sales numbers, and so on. Sales managers are like the engines of certain sales organisations. It is important to get it right here. You will not take someone who knows nothing about security and put the person in front of your gate.
In this country today, there is a big issue that many organisations face and they don’t even know it. And that is the absence of real sales management skills in what they are doing. People have salesforces, they are running those salesforces, and they don’t have sales managers. Let me explain it with a car. You have a car, the parts are working and the engine is perfect. Without the presence of an experienced sales manager who knows what to do, it will be like you don’t have a steering on that car. So you are accelerating, but nothing is giving you direction or turning the vehicle. That is how the absence of sales management skills – and not necessarily people bearing the title of sales managers – can affect an organisation. One of the things that make a sales organisation succeed is the presence of sales manager who have the experience and grounding to make the salesforce work very well.
We talked about technology before. Today, if you are not using technology to sell, you probably have very high field selling cost and you probably may not be enjoying the efficiency that some of your competitors are enjoying. So technology is no longer an option.
So if one needs to build a salesforce, what are the things that must be done?
If you want to build a salesforce, one of the things to do is to have a roadmap and a checklist of the things that need to be done. Most importantly, you have to have metrics. Metrics, metrics, metrics! Without metrics, you will not be able to measure whether or not you are moving in the right direction. I want to put a caveat about metrics. The single most abused metric is the metric of topline revenue. Most companies start looking at that and even much more look permanently at that, to the detriment of other things. That could be a catch-22 scenario. Over focus on topline could make you lose focus on other things. So a company that thinks only revenue may also not focus on profit. And a company that focuses on both may also not focus on salesforce development. So for instance, the market is enjoying topline growth today, but then the market is shifting so your salespeople are ageing. They are not selling most efficiently and you find tomorrow that your whole industry have a 360-degrees turnaround and you are still using old methods to sell. So there are different kinds of metrics that a company ought to be focusing on to be successful. Metrics is at the heart of most successful sales operations. The other thing that works is an analysis of what you are selling. What are your product and portfolio and who should buy it? Often times, this is where sales and marketing come together. So the first time, sales is being aligned with your business strategy. Next is if you have a marketing budget – budget for advertising, the budget for brand building and all of those marketing communications-related areas – you need to align it tightly with what sales people are supposed to be doing. Your sales and marketing are supposed to work like the air force and the ground force. That is when effectiveness happens. Sometimes, what you find is that the left hand does one thing and the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. The net effect of that is confusion in the marketplace and areas where they could leverage on, they don’t leverage on very well.
One of the things that make sales teams work well is skills & capability. And sales capability development is a major area nowadays. So many companies are hiring individuals into roles and have absolutely no plans of building their capability. So things like product knowledge, which is fundamental to things like sales process and methodology training, sales skills and all of those kinds of things must be taken into account. It is essential that when you are trying to build a salesforce, part of your plans or part of your programme, must be that a significant amount of effort should be dedicated to building a sales capability development programme. What skills will they need to succeed? How will it be provided to them? What is the most efficient way to provide it to them? Because you cannot do everything through instruction-led programmes where they will be sitting down in workshops and still meet your numbers. So that is one of the big areas that we advise should not be taken casually.
I have seen studies in Nigeria that points directly to the fact that the degree of sales capability preparation and resourcing that a company does is directly proportional to the revenue that the salesforce provides. An ignorant salesforce cannot sell, no matter what you do to them, no matter a number of threats, no matter a number of incentives, no matter the amount of pleading or prayers that you do. An incompetent salesforce, cannot sell. A salesforce has to know the reason why it is successful. An incompetent salesforce is succeeding by chance, not necessarily by objective and purposeful means. So that is the place of sales capability in the scheme of things.
What qualifications do one need for sales jobs and why do marketing graduates around fear sales jobs? Do you think there is a problem with the marketing education around here?
I don’t think so. I think there are other things. Perhaps, it could be a lot of things. One, salespeople avoid poorly managed sales organisations. I have enjoyed a successful sales career and if I come back again – if there is a second life – I will like to come back as a sales and marketing person and be in the frontline interfacing with customers. And I know a lot of people – hundreds to thousands of people like me – who get the kick from being in front of customers having that interaction from helping and seeing customers succeed and from winning. We get our adrenaline from beating the competition and winning. If you are not configured that way, a sales job may not be for you.
Again, go back to my earlier statement about people ending up in sales because it was like a dumping ground. Employers look for every other place to put someone and when they cannot find one, they push the person to sales – thinking that perhaps, the person may be able to sell something. But it doesn’t always work that way – where everybody can go to sales and find their feet.
Another thing is that some people are configured in a particular way to be able to do certain things. If you are an introvert, it does not mean that you cannot sell; it just means that you are not the sociable and amiable type who will use a lot of socialising to sell. And I say this with a lot of emphases, we all sell. So you find people that pick up their CVs and start cleaning it up and toning it up and then sends it to one thousand persons, and start calling people up to pitch their personalities and all that. They are selling. You see someone who is in a medical profession trying to get a housemanship and is approaching hospitals, talking to medical directors and pitching himself or herself as acceptable. We are all selling. You find an event person trying to showcase their event activities. The truth is we need sales literacy where people actually practice the act of selling and you will see how it plays out. It is like saying we are all chefs because we cook without thinking about it. You boil an egg without thinking about it. You cook a packet or noodles without thinking about it. You boil yam, add salt and pepper into oil and you eat it; you have made a meal but you never thought about it. So if you ask someone who can boil yam, fry an egg, make noodles if he or she is a cook, they will likely say ‘no’. This is true to an extent. But then at the basic end of it all, you can cook. Sales is like that. We have interactions with a view to convincing people with our view point where we sell them our ideas. So the mental block, therefore, is when people are asked to do this as a means of likelihood, they block it out completely. So one of the things is to begin to help people unblock mentally, to know that sales today is one of the essential life skills.
And I talked about the absence of a structured way of getting into sales jobs. You actually don’t need a degree to be successful in selling. But you need to be intelligent and have a high learning index and a good dose of sales energy to be successful in selling. You might be wondering what sales energy is. It is not the kind of energy that you get by eating food or energy that you get by drinking Red Bull. But sales energy is what we in sales refer to as the ability to withstand rejection. Rejection is the number one reason why people don’t like sales. If all the people that you talked to said ‘yes’ to you, you will see that everybody will rush to sales. If you are HR and you read your policy to somebody, what the person will likely do is agree and move on. If you are a gateman and say “we are closed,” the person will likely agree and go back. But if you are in sales and asked somebody to buy, the person says ‘no’ and you have to find a way of starting a conversation. And even after having that conversation, many sales conversations still end up with a ‘no’. That is what we mean by sales energy – the ability of the sales person to finish a sales conversation, get a ‘no’, dust it up and move to the next sales conversation. Often times, there are people will get their first ‘no’ for the day and that day will be useless to them, gone! But the great salespeople are those who get the ‘no’, dust it up and tell you, “I hope I can come back and say hello to you again” and then move on the next person. So the ‘no’ is just a slight dip on the day. I remember, the Psychology of Selling teaches us that the no is actually not to you necessarily. It may be to your company, your products, or even to that person’s own circumstances. That is why he or she is saying ‘no’. The best salespeople are those guys who are able to overcome this limitation and keep going but go intelligently – with a lot of tools, insights and motivation. And when you get a ‘no’, you pack it and move on. You can come back and revisit it again because customer circumstances always change.
In large organisations, we have this term ‘sales administration’. Is it the same thing as sales management?
Sales administration is part of a sales organisation. It is that part of the sales organisation that usually make sure that things are working well. Like you have an administrative department in a company. Activities like book orders, keeping records, calculating commissions, maintaining the P&L system, all that are part of sales administration role. Sometimes, there is also a part of sales called ‘Inside Sales’, like people that receive orders and enquiries by telephone, that’s also part of sales administration. So it is that part of the sales organisation that administers it. It is an essential part, in fact, it is one of the things that is necessary if you have a large sales organisation; you must have a significant amount of your resources dedicated to having a strong scales administration. Without a strong sales administration what will happen is that certain things in the system may not function properly. I will give you one instance. The issue of sales time. When you find that out of five days in a week, salespeople only sell one day, check your sales administration, it is probably non-existent or not working. What it means is that the salesperson gets the order, processes it, and delivers it; he or she does everything. That is the job that ordinarily part of it, or some of it, or all of it in some cases, should go to the sales administration so that the sales people can be free to sell. If you hire salespeople and then you give them an administrative job, that is irony. Sales administration role has gone from back-office to Strategy. If you have a good sales administration team, it will show. Your organisation will grow. If you have a poor sales administration team, your revenue numbers will give you a sign that it is so.
Published in the Business Eye’s print version, April 2016 edition.