For the past 12 years Iain Alexander, Global Head of Sales at IQPC has trained our sales teams to diagnose customer needs and position our unique products through value not features. In this interview Iain shares his views on why this has been such an important process and what it takes to succeed as a salesperson in the challenging yet highly rewarding conference market.
ES: Good morning Iain, and thank you for taking the time to talk with me today. I wanted to start by asking you about the IQPC’s sales process. This forms a large part of our culture and is embedded across all our offices; can you tell me a little more about it and why we work this way?
IA: Ok well to do that I think I need to give a small history lesson. If you go back to 2004 we were probably similar in our sales style to most other organizations, which is very much a feature function, product centric sale. Around about 2004 or 2005 we made a fundamental decision to move from product push to value base and that’s not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of effort, so it’s probably worth taking a minute to explain what the difference between the two is; and why we came to that conclusion.
It might surprise you to know that some 90% of sales people actually use a product push style of selling – even if they don’t think they do! Even if they believe they are doing some type of diagnostic and fact finding with their customer, when all is said and done, what they do is pitch a product.
Now, from our perspective there are weaknesses in that.
I guess the first question has to be “doesn’t product push work? Well if 90% of the sales population is doing this and sales happen every day, then yes of course it does! So why change it? The problem is that for a product pitch to work, three conditions need to pre-exist. The first is that the customer has to be aware they have a need. Secondly, they need to be in the market for a solution and thirdly, they have to have enough technical grasp of the product to be able to buy it. Now if any of those three conditions are missing things get a little harder. Plus even when this approach works, it will always gravitate to the lowest price point and the cheapest deal and that isn’t always in the best interest of the customer.
So we decided to move away from that and operate on a value based sale. What that means is that the onus of understanding the customers’ issues and how to translate what we offer into direct value is on the salesman, not the customer. Most of our competitors will pitch a kind of, “here’s what we’ve got, here’s what it does and here’s why you should want it”. Our style is very much about getting closer to the customer. We want to understand their requirements and then figure out how we can creatively use our product to deliver a viable solution to them. And then, explain it in such a way that they see it from a value (what problems it can solve for them) rather than simply a feature/function perspective. Obviously this is far harder to do. It’s so much simpler to just learn a product and pitch it like crazy; if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick. We just don’t subscribe to that view. We take the view that it’s our job to help the customer find the value.
Now this worked well until 2008/2009 and we saw some great results from our approach. But where it really came into its own was in the financial downturn and recession. Two fundamental things happened in this period that hadn’t happened for many years. Over the years of good times decisions were devolved downstream to fairly low level people; so fairly major buying decisions in client organizations would have gone right the way down to often functionary levels and that made it easy for sales people to pitch. The first major change of the recession was that those decisions were moved back upstream. So the style of pitching a product to a ‘friendly’ that you knew….well it just didn’t work anymore. The other problem was that with so many decisions upstream it created a executive bottleneck. Each senior person now had ten times the decisions to make and therefore little tolerance or patience if the value was not clear.
The second major change was that, prior to recession, everyone was looking for clever ways to spend their budget. Now everyone was looking for clever ways not to spend it, so unless you had a really clear and compelling value message you wouldn’t get the time of day, no matter the deal.
So with our value based approach, what we saw in the recession was a massive uptake in our sales while our competitors struggled.
Obviously things are slowly relaxing, (if the new normal is ‘good’ times) and our challenge now is not to cheat on our system; not dropping our standards. And that is why our managers have such a presence in the sales process, to make sure we continue to adhere to best practice even when the selling gets easier!
ES: So how does all of this affect our recruitment? If we are using a different standard and sales approach to all of our competitors, does that make it harder to find and onboard talent?
IA: It certainly filters out some of the candidates that other people would hire, there is no question about that.
The conference industry is actually very different to nearly ever other industry I’ve ever seen. Most businesses are fundamentally two dimensional in the sale; what I mean by that is that in most organizations there are two obvious variables, the customer and the sales process; but the product is a constant. So if the product normally sells and now it’s failing, it will either be because the customer is not a good fit, or there is a problem with the sales process. Either way it’s quite easy to diagnose and fix.
In the conference world the product itself is a variable. We sell over 1,000 different products a year into different markets. This means we have to nail a constant into the sales process, so if our sales are weak we know the process isn’t at fault. And by removing that variable it makes it easier to diagnose and fix other issues. But yes, it requires us to seek smarter people. It’s easy to learn a script and pitch a product, it’s far harder to get an in-depth understanding of a marketplace and the type of challenges that our prospective customers face. So while we still need tenacious people, goal orientated and determined people; we also look for a ‘smart’ person, someone who is genuinely willing to be introspective about what they are doing and take responsibility for fixing any weaknesses that they may have. And this makes it tough.
ES: So what about training? What help do we provide to ensure our new recruits can be successful?
We know our sales process is technical and challenging to learn at the outset. So to ask a new recruit to be master it in the first few months is unrealistic.
At this point it’s worth referencing our style of management at IQPC. We have no sales mangers that are not in the trenches; we do not believe in spreadsheet management, we do not believe in hiding our managers away in an office somewhere, they are in the front line, always. So our Sales Managers sit alongside new recruits and in many cases, when needed, will take over a call. They go in as the expert and help pull the deal over the line. The big advantage of that is not only does the deal close which means the new rep starts earning commission quickly, but it provides a chance for the rookie to see success in action and understand how the process should be implemented.
ES: Great, so it’s very much a mentoring approach?
IA: Yes that’s correct
ES: So I’m intrigued to hear what you think is coming next? How will we continue to evolve our sales process? How is the sales landscape changing?
IA: I see it more as an iterative process rather than a big bang. So every year when we go round the offices I’ll find a new challenge that needs to be overcome. Our attitude is that of trying to make everything 1% better today than it was yesterday. The Jananese call this Kaizen
And that means that we are constantly looking for weaknesses in our sales process, in our recruitment, in our on-boarding etc. We are always looking for ways to finesse and improve and there is never a month that goes by that we are not tweaking something. So we are fundamentally different to 2004, fundamentally different to 2009 and by 2017 there will be many changes again that we’ve brought in. And all of those changes are designed to solve problems that someone has uncovered somewhere in the business. Once a month the Sales Directors and their teams pose a challenge to me; kind of like a ‘doctor’s surgery’. They will write in and ask how would you handle a certain situation and it forces me to think about some of the problems the reps are currently facing and then coach the teams to fix these problems.
ES: And what do you think about digital? There’s allot of talk about how digital technology is changing everything, from the product itself through to customer communication and delivery. What affect is the digital revolution having on our sales teams and sales approach?
There is no question that the social media aspect, for those who master it, it’s a massive tool. Whether it’s linked-in for lead generation or twitter for personal branding, those reps who have jumped on this quickly are finding impressive results from it. But it does not remove the need to sell on value; it does not do that at all. What it helps people with is the opening and establishing a first line credibility with the customer so that the door is at least partially open. It helps them target the right businesses, but if you don’t do the job properly it does not mater if the door was open, it will be quickly slammed in your face. But yes social and digital tools are having a dramatic affect on our initial contact with our customers and we are embracing it across all the offices.
ES: So my last question for you today is what piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to start a career in sales at IQPC?
IA: Firstly, if you are looking to start a career in sales, find somebody who is very good and get them to check up that’s a good fit for you, not everyone is suited to sales. Let’s assume that you’ve already done that. Then within an organization, regardless of whether it’s IQPC or any other, make sure that the people you are joining are people that you look at and say “I’d like to have some of what they have”. Not just the rewards they get, but who they are, the way they carry themselves, their values and integrity. Because whatever organization you join you will become a part of it and whatever their standards and cultures are, that becomes a part of you. So within IQPC you should try and meet the Managing Director or the Senior Sales Managers and check them out. And if you don’t like what you see, don’t join us, because culturally it would be a poor fit.
Coming into the organization I will tell you right now we are KPI driven, we believe that the inputs dictate outputs. So it would be negligent of our managers to allow a salesman to have poor activity in one month because in the next it will show in their results. We take a tight view on ensuring that the effort goes in, so that the results can come out. So you have to be prepared to operate within that framework.
Finally the biggest question for me is, are you somebody that looks to find someone else to blame when things go wrong? Or do you take genuine personal responsibility? People that look to blame are out of control and self-limiting. If it’s not your fault, there is also nothing you can do to fix it. Conversely those people that genuinely take responsibility for results, good or bad, can drive change, improving themselves and the team and business around them.
ES: Thanks again Iain, some great insights into this critical part of our business.