The Modern Sales Force

A blog offering advice about a great sales team likens the process to that of putting together a pro football team: You have to find the players that fit the kind of offensive and defensive schemes you want to run. In other words, members of your sales force need to fit the way your company operates and believe in the products or services it sells.

“There is a word that is very trendy now, but it is the real thing and the word is ‘fit, ’” says Joe Calamusa, director of the sales program at the Culverhouse College of Commerce at The University of Alabama. “It is all about trying to find the right fit for the role.”

A new study based on input from human resource managers from different business-to-business companies across the United States offers insight into how sales managers might build a better sales force and add to their company’s bottom line.

The study was done by Thomas DeCarlo, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business, and Son Lam, Ph.D., at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business. 

“What we found is that when someone is in a sales force, there is a territory that they are responsible for, and their job is really to manage that territory in the way they think is best. So in the literature there is a group called ‘farmers’ who would be more likely to work over the territory and not go out and generate new accounts. That is their strength, ” DeCarlo says. The so-called “farmers” are focused on servicing the customer. 

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ABOVE Top sales people pivot quickly to service old accounts and find new ones, says Thomas DeCarlo of UAB’s Collat School of Business.


Hunters, on the other hand, live for the kill, the new customer. “Those are sales people who have an orientation toward adding revenue by adding new accounts, and they really don’t want to work with current accounts.”

DeCarlo says that over the years businesses have “sort of struggled with how we know which individual is more profitable or better for our company. Our study basically looks at that situation, and we found that you can be ambidextrous — you can do both. And this has implications for hiring.” 

DeCarlo has demonstrated a 3 percent improvement in company sales profitability for salespeople who are “ambidextrous” — that is, high in both hunting and farming orientations.

“For a business owner or hiring manager, these are significant differences in the orientation of people, and you would have to kind of tease that out to determine what interest is there in terms of hunting or farming and hire the people who like to do both, but there are people who don’t like doing hunting or don’t like doing farming, ” DeCarlo says.

“We work with a lot of companies through the sales program here, and we do a lot of work on how to build a sales force, ” says UA’s Calamusa. “A lot of times it is how to hire from college ranks, but the same principles apply whenever you are trying to make a hire for a position.”

Calamusa says it all goes back to teaching sales managers how to find the right fit, be it a hunter or a farmer.

“Every sales position has a set of required capabilities, ” Calamusa says. “You have to be good at these things to do the job — like being able to ask good questions, being able to deliver a valid solution, being able to negotiate. Those capabilities may be different for each position.

“Then you look at characteristics. Characteristics are more like personality traits — persistence, diligence, resiliency, losing and being able to come back. You look at five or six capabilities and five to six characteristics that make a fit.

“You may have a guy who is the world’s greatest negotiator, but if your company does not require negotiating, then the guy is worthless to the company. It sounds a little bit cold, but that’s the way you do it.”

“Technology, of course, has changed the face of selling, ” says DeCarlo. “Technology is automating many of the tasks that sales people had to take time to do. When you automate some of those things, it allows more time for a business-to-business salesperson to find out more about the customer’s needs and add more value to the company. We will see in the future that those people who do not add value to the company will go by the wayside.”

Customer relationship management — sending birthday cards, asking for feedback, sending holiday greetings or suggesting follow-ups — is largely computerized, freeing employees for other responsibilities

But in some ways technology is a two-edged sword in the world of selling. 

“In a lot of cases there is less need for the person with the old selling skills, ” says Calamusa. “I was working with a paper company over in the Carolinas, and they have an older sales force, and they are going to have to change. They are going to lose some people, but the ones who are going to stay will see what I would call a culture shock for the industry. And, ironically, one of the reasons why is there is a new way to sell, and it is easier to teach it from scratch than it is to teach the older people new tricks.”

Calamusa says the old way of selling, when success was based heavily on a personal relationship, is about gone. Today, he says, “You sell based on what your product does, not because of a relationship. That doesn’t mean relationships are not necessary, but nowadays transactions precede trust.”

And the goods and services being sold today are vastly different than a decade or so ago. “Technology needs sales people — Microsoft, Amazon and Cisco, ” says Calamusa. “But when you work with Microsoft and they are selling cloud computing, it is about ‘Can you communicate on a technical level? Can you talk the lingo?’”

And if building a great sales force has not been a challenge in the past, today’s sales managers have the challenge of hiring millennials, (also known as Generation Y, Generation Me and Echo Boomers.)

“They are one of the biggest challenges, ” says Calamusa. “For the previous generation it was all about money. You can hire me and keep me as long as you have enough money to keep me chasing the next dollar.”

But Calamusa says millennials are not as money motivated. “They are looking more at life balance, involvement with a team, for their ideas to be heard, to have more of a stake in the whole thing. They are motivated differently, so companies are trying to figure how to get them hired and keep them hired. They need to create other ways to keep them motivated.”

And, while technology plays an ever-increasing role in today’s business-to-business selling, it has had a dampening effect on brick-and-mortar establishments and retail sales.

“The number of retail sales people is dropping, ” Calamusa says. “There is a lessening need for brick-and-mortar retailing with everything now being web-based. People are banging on the door of the sales manager wanting to get out of retail and into B-to-B.”

And then there is “show rooming, ” the consumer practice of examining products in a store, only to purchase them for a lower price online. According to Stuart Leung, writing in “Salesforce Blog, ” unlike many of those who window shop in malls and department stores, 55 percent of consumers who browse online plan to make a purchase within an hour.

“Show rooming is really impacting retail sales, ” Calamusa says, “so retailers are looking at ways to combat it. Ask any brick-and-mortar store in the 21st century about their biggest frustrations, and you’ll likely hear about ‘show rooming.’”

ABOVE Ty Bullard looks for sales people who fit his dealership’s style and are likeable.

Photo by Todd Douglas

From car sales to human resources, skills have evolved

Robby Pierce, founder and president of SourcePointe, a human resources outsourcing firm with offices in Birmingham, Mississippi and Tennessee, says that when it comes to hiring sales people, “You can’t get a square peg to fit in a round hole.”

And while Pierce sells services, Ty Bullard, dealer principal at Joe Bullard Cadillac, a division of Joe Bullard Automotive in Mobile, agrees with Pierce. Bullard, grandson of the firm’s founder, says fit plays a big role when his company hires sales people to sell new cars.

“What I do is try to figure out what their core is, ” Bullard says. “Are they the right person? I want to look from the inside out. If you are just looking for a sales person, you can find a sales person. What we do is try to find their core values whether it is dependability or honesty or whatever it may be. Do we align right? We try to identify those things first.

“And likeability. If you are looking to buy something from somebody, you want to like them.”

Pierce, a native of Mobile, is familiar with the Bullard dealership.

“I would tell you that first and foremost, if, during the interview process and I am explaining what we do, and you can see that, yes, that person believes in what we do and that there is a need for what we do, the success rate of that person goes up greatly, ” Pierce says.

“What Bullard and his sales force sells is more tangible, something you can touch and feel. Our firm uses more of a facilitator, solution-based approach, and I can tell you that someone coming in here for an interview who is the top person in the nation at Canon Copiers would fail miserably, ” Pierce says. 

Pierce says a sales person at a car dealership can pinpoint features and benefits of their product that people “can touch and feel.”  But human resource services are more emotion-based and “you are looking for triggers for that prospect sitting across from you, what is their problem and what are the solutions that your company can provide. I try to get our employees into listening to what the other side is telling.”

Thanks to the internet, in many cases car buyers have already decided which model and which options they require and, having checked price-comparison websites, how much they will pay. Most cars have good performance and handling, so test drives are less important and the role of the traditional car sales person is fading. What drivers do want, though, is someone to explain the features that cars come with, such as entertainment and navigation systems. 

“The sales part of our job is not as important as it was 20 years ago, because we don’t have to test drive and walk you through the steps of the sale because that stuff has gone with technology, ” Bullard says.

Pierce would add trust to the equation. 

“When I look at that person, I ask, ‘Do I trust that person? People don’t buy from SourcePointe, they buy from that person.”

Pierce adds: “I have always looked at it like this: In metro Birmingham there are probably a hundred companies that need what we offer, so the more time you spend putting a square peg in a round hole, the hundred companies are finding someone else to give their business to.”

Bill Gerdes and Todd Douglas are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Gerdes is based in Hoover and Douglas is in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.


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