Bestsellers: how to choose your next sales executive (PrintWeek)

Bestsellers: how to choose your next sales executive

By Jenny Roper 

Friday, 04 November 2011

We all know him. Mile-wide grin, pinstriped suit, slicked back hair as shiny as his brogues and an ability to talk a client into submission. No matter what the topic. But in print, this stereotypical salesman tends not to carry much weight with business owners; most print companies tend to shun the universal salesperson in favour of someone who, first and foremost, has print knowledge and is then trained to sell. Print is a complicated topic, they say, and to sell it you need to know it inside out.

But is this really the case? In this current climate of shrinking budgets and fewer long-term contracts, who performs better: the print stalwart trained to sell, or the sales genius trained to talk about print?  

Building relationships
Those that champion the print specialist over sales expertise argue that a thorough grounding in print processes is key to building strong relationships and so securing contracts. With print budgets squeezed, what clients demand, says Alistair Ezzy, business director at marketing support services group GI Solutions, is a salesperson who can use their technical knowledge to solve problems. 

"It’s invaluable to have someone who can actually fold up a bit of paper as a dummy and know what it’s going to cost, that it’ll actually work and that it’ll meet their delivery schedules," he says. "That’s why all our salespeople come from print backgrounds."

A strong knowledge of what is possible, he argues, is also crucial because printers are faced more and more with a breed of buyer whose role at their company might not be solely print-oriented. Instead of effectively communicating to the knowledgeable buyer that the printer can cater to their demands, salesmen must now use their print know-how to second-guess what those demands should be.

"We spend a lot more time now trying to understand exactly what our clients want rather than focusing purely on what they tell us they want," says Ezzy. 

But of course a buyer’s needs, including those that need ‘second-guessing’, now frequently extend far beyond the printed product. Simon Biltcliffe takes on the sales director role as well as being managing director and owner at Webmart UK and he says that there are many other products and services that print salespeople must also be well-versed in, aside from the core industry, if they are to be successful.

"A lot of print companies today are offering brand management, campaign management, data management, data acquisition and of course multiple outputs through digital media," says Biltcliffe. "So salespeople have to have a much broader awareness of all of the other services that their company offers." 

As a result, the most important quality of any salesperson, in Biltcliffe’s opinion, is a hunger to learn and receptivity to new products and processes. Some would argue that these qualities are the basis of most universal salespeople and so in this new print environment, the traditional salesman may have the edge. Biltcliffe says that in some cases this may be the case, but not all. 

"I think there is a danger that someone coming from a purely print background might not be receptive to being trained in other areas," he says. "That said, we’ve got people who were estimators or were in production who are fantastic salespeople, who are not just sitting there and thinking ‘I know everything’."

Biltcliffe adds that, while on the face of things it may seem like the two halves of the job – the print side and the ‘other’ – are equal,  in fact it is the print half of the equation that tends to be the launch pad for other solutions – hence, the print-first salesman is in a strong position. He explains that, as print is the biggest marketing expenditure a firm is likely to make, cross-selling less costly digital products is easier from a position of trust earned from delivering high-value print. 

Less personal
Yet building a relationship in the first place, whatever form of salesman you are, is getting increasingly tough. Print sales are becoming more and more impersonal as web-to-print increases and print becomes more about price above anything else. 

"Some procurement departments are just looking at prices on a sheet of paper and deciding who they’re going to go with," explains Darren Coxon, managing director at magazine and periodical printer Pensord.

Selling on a commodity basis is of course a much tougher way of making money than selling a whole package. And so something is needed to persuade customers to let a printer go further and help to shape their overall buying or marketing strategies. That something, Coxon argues, is people skills. 

"I think ultimately the old adage of people buying people is so true," he says. "The warmth and building of relationships is key and will persuade people to trust you with a full range of services such as mailing, data handling and online services." 

Neither print-first salesman nor the born salesman can lay claim to having an advantage in this area, but Coxon says that while product knowledge can probably be picked up, interpersonal skills have to be innate, rather than taught. 

"With warmth, empathy and building relationships, I think you’ve either got it or you haven’t," he says.

Jon Bailey, sales director at Proco, PrintWeek’s 2010 Company of the Year, agrees that the best salespeople are those who naturally put people at ease and gain their trust. However, he warns that getting too involved detracts from the salesman’s core job – to open doors and sell. 

Bailey argues that it is perhaps more of a risk with a print-first salesman that the above scenario could occur, as if the interest lies more in the print than the sell, then they will naturally want to progress with the sales process into the production stage, rather than handing over to an account manager.

How much involvement a salesman has, though, can differ dramatically. For example, at Pensord, Coxon says it is crucial that sales personnel build relationships over 12 months or more before a contract is forged, not just grab a sale and move on. 

"That’s a cause of frustration for some salespeople because they like to go out and sell then move onto the next one," says Coxon. 

What the above demonstrates is that, like many things, the problem is too complex to be solved with a single answer. Each company needs to look in depth at what their clients need from the sales experience and the print company has to find a sales solution to fit that requirement. Sometimes this will merit a sales-first persona, for others a print-first mindset will be better. Occasionally a mixture of both will work best. Whichever you go for, though, despite the increasingly impersonal nature of print, personal skills still remain a crucial part of any sale – if the client doesn’t like you, they’re not going to listen to what the salesman has to say, whichever side of the selling fence they are coming from.  

A day in the life of Brian Kinsey, sales executive at Aquatint BSC
Comparing notes on holidaying in Dubai, discussing a certain controversial rugby match and watching a YouTube video of someone’s mother receiving a certificate at Accrington Stanley Football Club – it’s all in a day’s work for Aquatint BSC sales executive Brian Kinsey. 

"It’s just so important to make friends with everybody," says Kinsey, as he briefs me on what our day will hold, explaining that the six client visits I will be shadowing him for might not seem essential to generating business, but are crucial to customer relations. 

"In this economic climate particularly you have to make sure you keep the accounts you have got ticking over. I’ve got clients I’ve been working with for 15 years and even with them it’s vital to keep showing your face and making sure they’re happy and feel looked after. Everytime you go into a place you’re selling."

Kinsey makes no bones about identifying himself as a traditional salesperson, if traditional means doing everything, from negotiating a new job to the most perfunctory of exchanges, face to face. 

"Treating buyers as humans who like to have a chat and a laugh is always going to be part of the salesperson’s role," he explains. 

Before we set off, I spot a curious collection of objects in the corner of Aquatint’s Wimbledon office. Kinsey explains that the two piles of footballs don’t herald the formation of a formidable Aquatint United team, but are instead personally delivered presents to prospective clients that are adorned with humorous ‘Don’t be offside, be on our side’ slogans.

"These sorts of campaigns mean that when you make the follow-up call you’ve got something to hang your hat on. You’ve broken the ice and hopefully both of you will then be starting the conversation with a smile," he explains, amusing me with a magically expanding, foil magician’s wand that was part of a Tommy Cooper campaign (mental note: I would be very easily won-over as a print buyer).

Of course, knowing when to be serious is equally important. Our first visit, to a greetings card company Kinsey started doing business with when he noticed a local company address on the back of his birthday card one year, proves this point perfectly. No sooner has my sales mentor for the day finished joking with the girls in the office about designing a hunky male Aquatint calendar for 2012 (of course, Kinsey demonstrates his commitment to comprehensive design and print solutions by offering his own torso for the job), he has switched to studious print-aficionado to deal with a problem with a previous job.

Our next stop, at the London-based design unit of a cinema chain, shows Kinsey’s expert technical side. The meeting concerns the client’s reservations that enveloping may not be as cheap as polywrapping. Kinsey explains to him that this depends on the machines being used. The client is reassured and the importance of Kinsey’s print background, starting out as a pressroom assistant when he left school and working his way up to production manager, is clear to see.

Onwards, then, to a university’s design department, where once again, Kinsey has a joke and a considerate enquiry for everyone. His motto is that you never know who might be the next print buyer in a company. As Kinsey combines picking up a new order with taking an interest in the aforementioned Accrington Stanley minute of fame, I start to realise that, not only does Kinsey’s role involve more than meets the eye, it’s also a lot harder to get people chatting than you might think. 

Although everyone we drop in on seems genuinely pleased to see him (one customer even offers Kinsey his own security pass to get into the office), walking into a room full of distracted, hard-at-work employees and demanding their attention, can’t be easy. Neither, I suggest once we’re back in the car, can bringing in new business. 

"Our sales team is quite unique in that we all work together on accounts and take on slightly different roles," answers Kinsey, explaining that it is his colleague Diana Beckinsale who makes 50-plus calls a day to ensure new work comes through the doors. "Whereas a typical day for me consists of this kind of liaising with clients. It’s so important to keep talking to people."

Our day has certainly confirmed this. In total we’ve picked up two orders Kinsey was expecting and one that he wasn’t. Kinsey has also picked up a further order from our last stop at a medical organisation where I witness him, a true sales chameleon, mirror the demeanour of a client to skilfully persuade them to get the order ready and invoice in by the end of the month.

Of course seconds later he’s getting the latest on the receptionist’s nine-year-old son, and I realise that in just one day of travelling around London together the two of us have covered a surprising amount of conversational ground. I know about all three of his children and their careers, he has encouraged me to rant at length about my hatred of the London underground... we’re practically best friends.

So it seems that the old adage about people buying people must be true. While sound knowledge of print is absolutely key, enquiring about last month’s wedding or someone’s football-mad mum can also go a long way…

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