Circa 1991, when just an Assistant Manager in the F&B department of The Oberoi Towers, Mumbai – I was summoned to the office of Mr. S.M. Datta, Chairman – HLL (now H.U.L) by his Executive Assistant to discuss plans for a business lunch. I casually strolled across to the HLL building and met his E.A. who, without any further ado, introduced me to Mr. Datta. I spent a good 15 minutes with the chairman, understanding his requirements and then strolled back to work, to initiate the execution for his lunch event.
It never struck me how fortunate I had been to have gained entry to an office, which the most experienced and accomplished sales head would consider hallowed ground! In those days, there was very little competition, and I was a cog in arguably the country’s most professional hotel company – hence I took this tryst for granted.
Today’s scenario is a far cry from those days. Competition has mushroomed, and how! Customers have the upper hand, and they are spoilt for choice; even as hotel products are fast becoming commodities, and the digital age is ushering in a ‘selling from a distance’ mode.
In the Indian hospitality context, salespeople had to struggle less in the 1990’s, while the 2000’s brought in more competitive field battles. This acutely intensified in the second decade (2010’s) of the third millennium. The current and third decade (2020’s) has been augmented by the pandemic, and the entire sales model has taken on a different hue. Are we now seeing signs of a possibly exacerbated demise of the conventional salesperson?
A star salesperson’s results have always been the exponentiation of Motivation, Activity Level, Direction of Efforts, and Effectiveness.
“Hard Work for the Unutilized-Talent-Salesperson,” and “Smart Work for the Work-Horse-Salesperson” is the success mantra for a successful sales team, made up of assorted performers.
Today’s salesperson deals with a different market. Hotel General Managers, Sales leaders, and Owners that we talk to, mention a transmogrified segment of source business, and clientele with diametral needs. No longer can salespeople be reactive and work like order-takers. Salespeople need to come out of their comfort zone, and be pro-active in this ‘new-normal market.’
In his book ‘All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,’ Robert Fulghum explains how the world would be improved if adults adhered to the same basic rules as children. Likewise, salespeople must appreciate that they need to get their basics right, in this new adjusting world.
One of the concerns we are often asked to mitigate while designing and delivering a sales intervention workshop for a hotel sales team, is how to craft conversations with a senior resource of a corporate. Hotel Owners, Sales Leaders, and General Managers bemoan the fact that their sales team members are relatively inarticulate when meeting with a company’s senior most Decision Maker. Through decades of conducting such programs, and having interacted with thousands of salespeople, we find that interactive conversational skills by most salespeople lack the following:
General Awareness: It still surprises me to note that by a show of hands in any session, approximately 2 of 15 participants read the newspaper, daily. Another 5-7 claim to read it online in bits and parts – these when probed further, have no real depth of knowledge of current news. Specific awareness of any industry visited, along with the overall economic scenario, is a sine qua non for any salesperson. How otherwise then, can they have a cultured tête-à-tête with a well-travelled C-Suite leader?
You, before I pattern: Even as the word ‘business’ has u before i, a smart salesperson understands that putting the client first will eventually help in achieving business targets. Sadly, often salespeople kill the golden goose to take all its gilded eggs at one go!
Creating Trust: This is defined by the salesperson establishing commonalities, showing positive intent, and through trust transferred by the brand represented by the salesperson, its people, or its customer-speak.
Creating a connect: The salesperson who invests time and integrity into his client relationships will tower over colleagues. Mark McCormack in his book “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School” cites an interesting observation all salespeople would do well to reflect upon: “All things being equal, people will do business with a friend; all things being unequal, people will still do business with a friend.”
Salespeople sell three things: their product, their company, and themselves. Selling themselves is actually the differentiator, as products and companies tend to be similar. Can the salesperson become an enabler-assister offering altruistic support? If so, then the ubiquitous salesperson now advances from being a hunter-gatherer to a trapper, ensuring long-term business relationships with clients.
Talking less: How often have salespeople been told that to be considered good at their job, they need to have the skill set to sell ice to an Eskimo, or a comb to a bald man? Salespeople also believe that they need to be slick talkers, and be able to talk a dime a dozen to impress their clients. Sadly, both these beliefs are incongruities, and they instead end up antagonizing the client. Remember, the empowered client now lives in an era where social media is stronger than direct communication with the company… a progressive take on the metonymic adage ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’
Listening to the client: Talking less definitely helps salespeople concentrate more on their listening skills. To hone this, they need to first understand what the client is saying, before responding with their opinion. Here, their body language and ability to understand, need to be attuned to client-needs, rather than their own. Savvy hospitality companies today, are capturing digital signals on websites, to hear from customers in real time, what information they need upfront to be informed enough to successfully complete transactions. Needless to say, if the digital world is doing this, the human interface needs to do this more so, to stay ahead of the curve.
Adept probing skills: Asking situation questions and problem questions is a skill yet to be mastered by many a salesperson. Post trust-building, and creating a connect, the salesperson must understand the client’s clear and strong needs through skillful probing; using open, closed, and leading questions – with the clear intent of using the answers gleaned, to resolve the client’s challenges.
Decades ago, the telephone operator was replaced by the EPABX. At the turn of the new millennium, computer salesmen grew redundant thanks to commoditization of the laptop. Today, the famed Mumbai Dabbawallas are having an axe to grind with food aggregators Swiggy, Zomato and the likes.
Digital Marketing is the current big innovation. Using AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning) and IoT (internet of things), Digital Marketing is challenging the traditional ‘hunter-gatherer’ salesperson, and is already beginning to perform the role of the ‘digital hunter-gatherer.’
Half a century ago, legendary business thinker Peter Drucker said, “The aim of marketing is to make selling superfluous. The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him or her and sells itself.”
So, should the salesperson worry about redundancy?
Is the digital age a clear and present danger to the universal salesperson?
The answer lies in how the salesperson attempts to stay relevant, so as to continue to exist, and in fact, flourish. Value creation is still within the sphere of the human intellect, and salespeople will always exist as long as they can create a higher value in the customer’s mind – greater than that within the product.
In order to stay ahead of the tech-age, salespeople need to append the farmer mode to their hunter-gatherer approach. Farmers (in the sales context) are specialists at servicing the existing customer base; keeping relationships going, and staying attuned to opportunities to sell to it again. This will be hard for machines to emulate.
The left brain (aka digital brain) deals with linear thinking, while the right brain (aka analog brain) emanates creative or spiral thinking. As of today, the IoT is taking over left-brain tasks. Right-brain tasks are yet very much exclusively within the human domain. What salespeople need to do is to complement their left-brain along with their right-brain, to maintain selling dexterities that cannot be mimicked by machines.
No longer are salespeople required to simply take orders. They need to ‘value-create’ inspired solutions that will benefit both, the client, as well as the hotel.
It would bode well for the salesperson to be cognizant of this!
This article has appeared in ET HOSPITALITY WORLD.COM Aug 2021