Death of a salesman

Paul Laville, group chief executive of T21, explains why now’s not the time for spouting meaningless sales jargon. Instead, you need to take a critical look at your business and decide what needs to change


If there’s one thing I dislike about certain self-proclaimed sales experts, business gurus of marginal acclaim and yes, even some sales trainers I’ve met over the years, it’s their predilection for spouting meaningless clichés and jargon, for jumping on the latest hashtag and dishing out advice designed to serve only the author’s own aggrandisement.

I dislike acronyms, too. I can tolerate them when used sparingly, but anyone who bases an entire sales workshop on an acronym they’ve stood by since 1984 should be removed to a place of forceful re-education.

I really don’t like the words ‘Joe Public’ either; so actually that’s a list of six things I dislike and you can make it seven by including articles with titles such as ‘Seven steps to sales success’. Or similar.

Why so hated? Because it’s my opinion that such things perpetuate outdated myths and shallow mantras that could be harmful to business. We’re five months into 2018 and already we’ve seen some big casualties in retail. Now is not the time to stand by a tombstone of acronyms and jargon, but to look critically at the business and decide what needs to change to ensure its survival.

I don’t believe there’s any single strategy that can be employed across an entire industry. If there were, and I knew what it was, I’d package it up and sell it under a catchy acronym. With hashtags. However, it makes sense to me that any new business plan could start by tuning into the patterns described by changes in our customers’ behaviours and analysing what happens when they encounter our business.

And by customers, I don’t mean ‘Joe Public’, I mean the people of different ages, genders and lifestyle habits who are most likely to provide the business with the fuel it needs to power its continuation.

Consider the role of the smartphone in the shopping journey as an example of change. Not long ago, retailers would scream in horror if a customer dared produce a mobile phone to compare prices while in their shop. Maybe a few still ban them from the premises, but this is now common practice among many shoppers, accounting for 48 per cent of smartphone use in retail stores.

The figures are almost as high for customers who use their smartphones to research vouchers, find product information and read reviews –- links to which are often generated within the social media feeds we spend 80 per cent of our smartphone time looking at.

Modern-day shoppers respond increasingly positively because those who do it well can personalise their offers. So is there any reason why the retailer providing them shouldn’t be the same one that the customer is visiting right now?

I could go on, but the point is that digital transformation is well under way and the smartphone, perhaps reviled but nonetheless deeply embedded into our daily behaviours, is central. And I haven’t even mentioned AI and mixed realities.

So where does this leave the salesperson? Are they stood around twiddling their thumbs while everything else goes digital? Not at all. If these transformations level out to create a benchmark that becomes the norm, then it’s down to our people to provide the key differentiator of the in-store customer experience.

And actually, those two words are critical: ‘customer experience’ is projected to overtake price and product as the main differentiator by 2020 according to a report by CX consulting firm, Walker.

If this is true, then it’s good news, particularly when you consider that 58 per cent of allegedly tech-savvy millennials and Generation Zs still prefer to buy from a physical store. Why? Because they don’t want to wait. Waiting is bad.

It does mean that the key objectives of ‘salespeople’ (another job description may be required) in stores will need to change in order to deliver whatever your invigorated customer experience will look like.

Fast-moving products will shift off the shelf just as they always have done and with decreasing intervention from actual humans, so there’s no point wasting time there, unless you’re a supermarket. But there is still a need for solution-sellers, for individuals to develop interpersonal skills that offer their clientele a consultative and customer-committed approach – specifically perhaps where retailers are advising, designing and installing smart-home solutions?

Maybe. My advice would be to forget about spin-selling to Joe Public unless you’re running a 1980s nostalgia emporium. Look instead to motivate key skills in your people that will enable them to develop sales behaviours and attitudes aligned with your new business plan and drive it forward successfully into the next decade of the 21st century.