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What Ails Your Sales?

By Stephen Bennett

Is your company practicing “sales prevention?”

It could be that your company is afflicted with that malady but is blithely unaware of it. So warns Megan Smith-Gill, owner and president of Gill Marketing Group, who discussed the subject in a seminar at the Atlantic Region Energy Expo held  May 12-14 at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.

Gill Marketing Group is a full service, strategic and creative  marketing agency, working primarily with companies in the energy industry, helping them better understand their business growth goals and how to achieve them, Smith-Gill said. “That requires examining processes and procedures that may be getting in the way so that we know where we need to make changes,” she said in an interview with Fuel Oil News following the Expo.

“People come to me wanting to put together highly effective marketing plans and campaigns,” she said, “and, while that ultimately is what we do on behalf of our clients, we have to look at the whole business before we can implement the marketing.”

Marketing’s “job” is “to make the phones ring, to drive sales leads into a company, Smith-Gill said, “but far too many companies fail to think about what happens once that lead comes in.” It’s not uncommon that companies spend a lot of time, money and thought on how to get the phone to ring, and not enough time, money and thought on their sales process, Smith-Gill said. “The sales process is what’s going to convert those calls into new accounts,” she said. “Marketing is not magic,” she emphasized. “It can drive the leads, but sales has to close the loop.” Or, as she sometimes puts it, using a sports metaphor, “Far too many companies fail to take the ball from the red zone into the end zone.”

Some companies unwittingly engage in “sales prevention,” Smith-Gill observed. The processes and procedures they follow are “not ideal” for prospective customers. “A lot of times they’re ideal” – i.e., easier–“for the company,” she said.

Companies that have “an outside sales model”–retaining a sales company to close sales–are sometimes, though not always, susceptible to “sales prevention,” Smith-Gill said. In such cases, a marketing plan can be working well, driving sales leads. Phone calls come in from prospective customers, but opportunities are bungled because the people fielding the calls haven’t been prepared to close a deal “right then and there,” Smith-Gill said, when the caller “is raising their hand saying, ‘I want to do business with you.’”

In a typical scenario that she has witnessed many times, Smith-Gill said, a receptionist fields a call and transfers it to a customer care person, who “goes through all of the heating oil options and pricing programs and service plan options and piques the prospect’s interest enough so that the prospect says, ‘Yes, I’d like to sign up.’”

And that is the point where things start to go wrong. “The companies don’t have a process in place for that customer care rep to sign that person up over the phone,” Smith-Gill said. Instead, the call is transferred to an “outside person”–someone who’s out on the road meeting with prospective customers. “Five times out of ten” that call is going to be routed into voice mail, Smith-Gill said, “and maybe the caller is never even going to leave a voice mail. They’re going to move on and call another company. You’ve missed that new account, after you had that person raising her hand saying, ‘I want to do business with you.’”

If that “sales prevention” scenario is discovered to be a frequent occurrence, the corrective is to create and implement “highly effective processes that aid in customer acquisition rather than getting in the way,” Smith-Gill said.

She noted that companies can fall prey to sales prevention because they never viewed their customer care team as an inside sales team. “Classic CSRs [customer service representatives] in this industry are the helpers, they’re the fixer of the problem, they have a lot of knowledge, they’re great at explaining,” Smith-Gill said, but they aren’t given the authority and the training necessary to make the sale.

“You want to be able to strike while the iron’s hot,” she said. “Put processes in place so that you’re able to close that lead over the phone, at the time that person is saying, ‘I’m interested in doing business with you.’”

That doesn’t necessarily mean doing away with outside sales people. Some companies maintain both inside and outside sales–a hybrid model–that works well. Whichever sales model is used, “We need to make it easy for prospects to do business with us,” she said.

Studying the anatomy of a sales call is critical to capturing callers who have one question on their mind, and converting them into customers.

The one question is: “What’s your price?”

Smith-Gill said, “A properly trained sales team can navigate that call in such a way that they can sell that prospect on many other things without ever having given the price per gallon.”

But sales is an important skill, “and not everybody has the DNA that it takes to be a sales person,” she noted. “You have to have the right people.” That doesn’t mean that the customer care team doesn’t have people in it that are capable, “This is not about turning companies upside down and eliminating lots of jobs,” Smith-Gill said. Rather, the goal is to have “square pegs in square holes” and to ensure that everyone is performing “to their skill set, to the best of their ability, and that we set people up for success.”

That’s where training comes in. Smith-Gill said her company provides some basic training to start developing customer care people into adept sales people, but “the critical piece of this puzzle is the hiring of the right call center manager.” That person needs to drive the transition day-to-day by listening to recorded calls, coaching in real time in the call center, and holding training sessions.

“That has to be ongoing,” Smith-Gill said. “You need a call center manager who understands that inside sales needs to be refined over time.”

She likened it to physical training. “You know after you go to the gym for a year, you might be in really great shape. But you stop going to the gym and a month later you’re out of shape again. It’s the same thing with coaching and training and practicing” people to become an effective sales force.

“Sometimes you see people who have gone from customer care into rock star sales people,” Smith-Gill said. “They had it in their DNA but they never knew it. They had never been in a sales role.”

In the ongoing effort to make sales personnel more proficient, companies should periodically bring in a trainer–a specialist who comes in to instill sound practices in a specific task or effort, such as “selling the cap budget program.” Smith-Gill said she helped clients find such trainers.

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