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Slumping sales? Sharpen those people skills

With all the technology talk, the human element can get lost in the shuffle. But strong people skills still trump software in sales circles.

At HelmsBriscoe Inc., the sales process is considered a community-building experience.

Sales associates for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based conference planning company, regularly seek a better understanding of existing and potential customers by socializing with them. They also get together with each other quite a bit and share best practices for converting leads.

"We really work very hard to network our salespeople together culturally," said Greg Malark, HelmsBriscoe's executive vice president. "It's particularly important that they go to a lot of meetings and social events with and without clients, so they can share ideas and success stories."

With all the emphasis recently on using software to improve selling, experts said that now is probably a good time for firms to focus on the human factor. Encouraging associates to mingle with potential buyers is one low-tech way for companies to generate leads and ultimately increase sales. But there are many other factors involved.

"Software is not going to make you a better salesperson if you can't understand what your customers' business problems are," said John Ragsdale, principal analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Ragsdale said that good listening skills are a hallmark of an effective salesperson. Too often, he said, salespeople dole out information about the product and don't get to know the potential customer's needs.

The analyst said that salespeople should always put customers first and gain an understanding of their problems. They should "look for the pain" in the prospect's situation and explain how their product can help ease that pain.

We're kind of a throwback. We really put a priority on sending people thank-you notes.
Greg Malark, EVP, HelmsBriscoe,

One common mistake to avoid, Ragsdale said, is bashing the competition without hard facts and figures. Doing so makes sales associates look either arrogant or desperate in the eyes of the would-be buyer.

HelmsBriscoe's Malark explained that it's also important to eliminate any barriers to doing business. His company doesn't sign contracts with customers. He said this eliminates the hassle of intertwining legal departments. Also, the company is willing to take on any piece of business to build customer loyalty.

When it comes to generating new prospects, Jim Dickie, a partner with consultancy CSO Insights in Boulder, Colo., said that salespeople should talk to existing customers.

Satisfied buyers may serve up some new leads or become customer references. But more importantly, Dickie said, they can provide salespeople with a clearer picture of the type of organizations most likely to buy their product. Additionally, he said, customers may alert sales associates to valuable aspects of the product that they had not yet considered. This information could prove fruitful in future negotiations.

Even though leads are scarce in many industries these days, sales teams should also know when to quit. When someone comes along who wants to talk, but doesn't have the budget or the authority to buy, it's most likely time to respectfully move on. One caveat to this, Dickie said, is that salespeople should always be open to future negotiations in case things change.

"I don't think the sin today is losing, it's taking a long time to lose," he said. "It's really hard to walk away from somebody who will talk to you, even though you know they're never going to buy."

Russ Lombardo, president of Peak Sales Consulting in Las Vegas, added that companies should remember that existing customers are the best source of business. That is why it's important to have a solid customer service and support organization in place.

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"If you support them well, then you have a right to go back and market to them again," Lombardo said. "And it's much cheaper to market and sell to your existing customers than to go out and find new customers."

Don't forget that the little things count, too, said HelmsBriscoe's Malark. Supporting customers means staying in touch and showing your gratitude. One company promotion -- sales associates gave customers gift certificates for Starbuck's -- generated a great deal of goodwill, he said.

"We're kind of a throwback," said Malark. "We really put a priority on sending people thank-you notes."

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