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The Modern Sales Ninja

How combining ancient techniques with new technologies can make sales calls more effective and productive, make relationship-building more dynamic and make everybody more money.

Outside salespeople operate in a rapidly changing environment, and lately the changes have seemed to accelerate. Customer expectations are being reshaped by technology and the free flow of information. To truly excel and thrive in today’s sales realm, the salesperson must watch closely, move quickly and land extremely precise strikes on the customer’s pain points, like a sales ninja.

A modern ninja of electrical sales must have a deep grounding in the ancient wisdom of the selling arts and the discipline to master and apply every subtlety of the ancient techniques. He or she must also have complete command of the specialized tools and technologies that allow him or her to appear, seemingly from nowhere, with the right solution at the right time, and then melt into the shadows so the customer can pursue their work.

OK, no one in sales wants to melt into the shadows. You want to be remembered for saving the day, providing the perfectly right solution, helping customers achieve their business objectives, and you want to become one of the customer’s most valuable allies for problem-solving in the future.

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The way to do that really hasn’t changed in any meaningful way, despite the sweeping changes we’ve all seen in technology and culture over the past decade or so, say those with the perspective to know.

“The best salesperson 40 years ago would be the best salesperson today,” says Bill Devereaux, principal of R/B Sales, Marion, IA. “That person would have skills around communication, organization, and the desire to hunt and kill and drag it home.”

It’s not just that desire, though, Devereaux says. It’s more than that. “They have to have the soft skills. They have to have a symbiotic relationship with the best technologies out there at a given time. All the tools in front of them are simply that: tools. But it still comes down to a solid person with a desire to be successful, to build relationships, and the integrity to do it the right way so they’re not burning any bridges along the way.”

What has changed are the expectations customers have about speed, responsiveness, dedication and support. Whether you’re a seasoned salesperson or a newcomer, here’s a look at some of the timeless sales truths and the tools and techniques a modern sales ninja can use to address them in today’s selling environment.

Know your stuff. Electrical salespeople have always relied on deep product knowledge to do their jobs. This is just as important now as it has always been, but in some ways the emphasis has changed. Now customers come to the table with far more information than they have had before.

Online resources from your company’s website to competitor websites, manufacturer websites, trade publication websites, e-newsletters, product review websites, discussion forums and instructional videos provide much of the basic information for product selection before the customer ever gets in touch with you.

“The nature of salespeople has changed from back in the day when we were the deliverers of catalogs and the first stop for people who had questions about our products. Those days have come and gone. We’re now the second line of defense,” says Charles Cohon, executive director of the Manufacturers Agents National Association (MANA), Morton Grove, IL. “People will do their first research now, obviously, on the Internet, so when they meet with a salesperson they’ve done their initial review of the products, they’ve done their web search, and if anything there’s an overabundance of options. They need a human being as a filter to separate the wheat from the chaff.”

This overabundance of product information empowers the customer but sometimes in the wrong way.

“Customers are doing a tremendous amount of research online before they reach out to us. Which can help the sales process. But that can also create some problems,” says Paul Rudalavage, lighting control specialist for Synergy Sales, Fairless Hills, PA. “The tip I heard and follow is that 50% of customers are on the wrong product when they contact you. Remember that and always offer alternatives to confirm what the customer wants. Even if they call you and think that they may know what they want. Be a true solutions provider.”

The salesperson has to be ready to step beyond the basic features and benefits from the outset, which saves time and sets the tone: They can then can jump right into helping the customer satisfy business needs. In today’s business environment, that’s a key transition.

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Show how your company’s products and services can help customers meet what they are trying to achieve for their companies. If you do this effectively, then price becomes secondary to the prospect’s more critical business needs.

The wealth of data online is also a huge opportunity for salespeople to deepen their knowledge of the entire market. Every electrical salesperson has an opportunity, often an obligation, to attemd training courses and more informal lunch-and-learn educational sessions presented by their suppliers. A modern sales ninja won’t be satisfied with the training everyone else is getting.

Beyond the generally available resources, many manufacturers offer training online, often targeted to installers and end users rather than salespeople, which is an essential way to keep up with the latest changes. Educational sites such as Lynda.com and Fred Pryor offer courses in more general business, technology and analytical skills. Hopefully, your company is spending some time and money on education so salespeople gain the benefits every day in the field.

Know your competition. One of the wonders that arises from the proliferation of electronic commerce sites is that your competitors’ value propositions, services, product offerings and sometimes pricing are all out there on a website for you to pick through, examine, question, learn from (and occasionally make fun of). You can rest assured they’re doing the same with yours.

“Because all of the most fundamental information is already online, that means your information is transparent to your competitors and competitors’ information is transparent to you. If you don’t spend time on your competitors’ websites, shame on you,” says Cohon of MANA. “Your customers will have looked at your information online and your competitors’ information online and will already have that information before they call you.”

Beyond the online information, trade publications, local news sites and the market grapevine will be helpful to keep you abreast of your competitors’ strengths and weaknesses.

The ease of ordering online has become a critical differentiator, says Larry Rodger III, principal of Synergy Sales. “The new purchasing options online are a constant reminder that people want to be serviced in a way that makes doing business easy. If you are a slow, ‘order taker’ in this business you will be wiped out.”

Know your customer. Focus your attention on helping the customer achieve goals, not on selling him or her more widgets. That means taking the time to develop a fundamental knowledge of the industry they’re in and the challenges they face. Take a genuine interest in the customer’s business. Spend some time on websites that cover the customer’s industry, and occasionally send links to or printed copies of articles you think may be of interest to the customer — along with a personal note.

“I advise all the people I coach, if you haven’t created Google Alerts for your top accounts you’re missing the boat,” says Frank Hurtte, River Heights Consulting, Davenport, IA.

Take initiative in helping customers solve problems. Whether it be bundling products or seeking better pricing from manufacturers, customers will always appreciate steps a salesperson takes to make the job simpler and more cost effective.

Ask customers what they want from you. Ask your customer what services they would like to see in a supplier. Is it shorter delivery time, more diverse product line or deeper inventory? Don’t assume you know what your customer values.

Get to know all the buying influences. Develop relationships with people from all different departments within a customer’s company. Don’t just call on your buddy and consider the job done. If or when that person leaves, you will have to scramble to keep the business if you haven’t developed other relationships. For instance, at an electrical contractor, you’ll definitely get to know the personnel in the estimating and purchasing departments. You must also meet the field supervisors, electricians, credit managers and other people who may have a say on a buying decision.

In the present business and cultural climate, one of the most important bits of information you can gather about each of the various buying influences is how they like to communicate. It’s no longer possible to make assumptions. In general Millennials avoid phone conversations for basic information. They prefer a text message they can act on when they get a moment and refer back to later.

But this doesn’t hold across the board, which you can tell just by watching all the gray-hairs texting madly during breaks at an industry conference. Some people prefer e-mail rather than text messages and others prefer phone calls, some even prefer a message via LinkedIn or a Skype call. Your sales ninja skills have to be very sharp in all modes of communication.

And don’t be offended too easily by what can seem like lapses in etiquette. One sales manager for a major lighting firm tells a story about trying to adapt to the ways of her Millennial direct-reports. “I would text them and ask them to call me and, instead of a phone call they would text me back: ‘What about?’ At first I was offended, but then I realized, they weren’t being rude, they just wanted to make sure they had the information I might need before they called. They didn’t want to waste time and not have the answers I needed. It’s not wrong, it’s just a different way of doing things.”

Learn to talk to business leaders, not just buyers. The top executives at your accounts have responsibilities and a perspective that require a different value proposition, and developing relationships with those who make the decisions and ultimately write the checks may be the most elite ninja move of all.

“Salespeople need to learn how to talk to business leaders,” says Hurtte of River Heights Consulting. “This is a new language for most, because business leaders could ‘give a shit’ about your new fancy technology. They want to know about how you are impacting their business — financially, production wise, competitive advantages provided. Understand these guys don’t give a rat’s ass about how many turns it takes to tighten the screw that holds the wire, they want to know, ‘How can this solution improve their market position?’ As soon as you start talking product you’re out the door.”

“By the way, the best time to talk to them is the day after you saved them a lot of money,” he adds. “Maybe his purchasing team forgot to order this product, and it has a three-week order lead time. I energize my team and we call all over the country and it’s on its way to you, and this is just the normal service we provide our customers. We get you what you need so you avoid downtime.”

Follow through, follow up and set yourself apart. Tracking information on customers is another area where your ninja sales game needs to be so locked-down that it’s invisible.

Since the introduction of customer relationship management (CRM) systems a generation ago most salespeople have both loved and loathed them. Most salespeople would rather cold-call a rabid hyena than spend another hour entering notes in all those form fields for every sales call.

Nonetheless centralizing and organizing data gathered on calls is essential to giving top-level customer care, especially involving your inside team.

The ninja move is to turn the system to your advantage. Relying on your memory will realistically only help you with your most important accounts while details of the smaller calls slip away over the years.

“The way I like to use sales software is as a sales process,” says Ken Hooper, president of the National Electrical Manufacturers Representatives Association (NEMRA), Rosslyn, VA. “CRM is your selling process that keeps you, the sales manager and the organization on track so you know at any time where the pipeline is. Use it as a discipline, as a selling process, and it will keep you focused, concentrating on the 20% of customers that yield 80% of your business.”

Build your relationships to last. Strong customer relationships are still the key to sustaining sales over time. You build them from small orders, you build them for the long term, and you start by establishing the basis for them to trust you personally.

“It’s a step-by-step building process,” says Bob Powell of Kunz-Powell & Assocs., Malvern, PA. “Get to know the person, find out personal information so you have some insight into how they work and what’s important to them. Then take them through what they use and find some openings for your products. Once a person is buying from you, they get used to buying from you, and they recognize if you’re sincere. Are you out for a quick profit or a relationship? You either save them material cost or labor cost and once they come to the conclusion that you’re sincere, that opens it up. That’s my style of selling. It’s not a big technical pitch, but get me with a contractor looking to take some money out of the job and I can build from there.”

Building strong customer relationships does still involve the fun stuff, taking clients out for a little recreation to learn more about each other. Don’t rely entirely on your scratch golf game, though. Hurtte notes that most Millennials will find a reason to decline an invitation to your country club or yacht club — they are too busy trying to pay off their student loans to be impressed — but will gladly join you for a pint at a local brewery or a live music performance.

Once you have established a good relationship with a customer, keep treating him or her as a new prospect. “It’s an interesting fact of life that big companies do a lot more to get new business than to keep the existing business that they have,” says Hank Bergson of Henry Bergson Associates, Katonah, NY. Salespeople should relish going after their competitors’ house accounts. On the other side of the coin, how do you keep and maximize the business you’ve already got?

Your CRM system or some combination of note-taking and reminder systems can prompt you to send a note on birthdays and other special occasions, the kind of personal touches that pay huge dividends. Don’t underestimate the power of a handwritten note. Picture the ninja with a fountain pen. Whenever you want to break through all of the electronic clutter, a handwritten note is the killer app.

Speed is the rule. In terms of changing customer demands, this may be the most important point of all.

“It seems more often than ever that the company to give back the right answer to the application or answer the price question first gets the order,” says Devereaux of R/B Sales. “Every buyer I speak to has more handed to them to get done than they did two years ago.”

One key to establishing the impression of lightning-fast responsiveness lies in setting expectations. It’s best to under-promise and over-deliver with your responses. One of the easiest ways to put smiles on the faces of customers is when you tell them you will get back to them with the information they need by noon, and you call back within the hour.

Another key is to set aside time to respond. “The effective outside salesperson’s role also now involves desk time every day (probably an hour or two) for service and support,” says Rudalavage of Synergy Sales. “This is needed to keep up with the increased demand for speed of response.”

Rely on your team. When asked about the need for speed, rep firms in particular pointed to inside sales as the most essential factor in providing quick responses to customer inquiries, tenacious expediting and rapid problem solving. Cultivate your inside people as your most important allies, keep them informed, help them learn and they will back you up all day long.

“Outside salespeople who have a symbiotic relationship with their inside support team and who can collaborate with them openly have the best chance for success,” says Devereaux of R/B Sales.

Conclusion. Being a modern sales ninja doesn’t require black clothing, throwing stars or katana swords, but if you devote yourself to the art, keep your contact list, reminder apps, product and market knowledge and customer focus razor sharp, you can come out of the shadows and capture the customer’s loyalty and your competitors won’t even know what happened.

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