The Press, November 2010

Sales people are right down at the bottom of the totem pole of respectable positions. The annual Readers Digest survey puts them down there with politicians, journalists and prostitutes. This is a concern because in many ways the future of our ‘knowledge-based’ industries depend on those who can sell.

The 2010 Market Measures study of hi-tech sales and marketing showed the majority of Kiwi tech exporters were reliant on a small salesforce. It painted a picture of a hardy group of individual sales people travelling the world to sell our innovations.

Other studies have identified that our tech industries overall are excellent at coming with new ideas, but less successful when it comes to selling them for a good profit.

Sales people’s bad reputation comes typically from the consumer-based sales people we deal with every day, those seen as the classic ‘snake-oil’ sales people. Telemarketers, car salesman and those annoying Greenpeace promotion people in the street.

A gift of the gab, hard sell, pushy and relentlessly optimistic are all seen as characteristics of these people. There is a perception that you just need to get psyched up and have a good line of blather to be successful in sales.

The world of our export sales people for sectors like software, electronics, manufacturers and engineering services is completely different. For those selling business-to-business, they are typically pushing complex products into huge corporations. For consumer products they are often trying to put together deals with large and powerful distribution channels. Either way the task is completely different from the telemarketer reading a standard script over the phone.

It is intensely competitive, rivalling women’s clothing sales day at your local department store. For example in the USA, it has been estimated that Fortune 500 corporations are targeted by around one million sales people every year.

Unlike the door to door salesman, the transaction is long and involved. To adopt something like a new computer system, a Fortune 500-type company will go through a process something like; identify areas that need to change, assess what solution could be applied, quantify the value of adopting new technology, review all the possible vendors to find the best fit, go through contract negotiations and then starting implementing.

For a sales person this could involve months of painstaking and relentless work, and still they could lose the deal and end with nothing but an extensive cost of sale.

Snake-oil type sales people can’t succeed in this environment. Having courage and the gift of the gab gets you nowhere with large organisations whose risk averse nature makes them analyse any decisions very carefully.

In response to increasingly competitive markets, sales has become as much of a science in these situations as engineering or software development. A whole discipline called ‘sales process engineering’ has emerged.

Our leading exporters, Christchurch electronics company Tait being a good example, have adopted internationally recognised sales methodologies. Tait uses the US-authored Miller Heiman process, which has enabled them to build a sophisticated process around the selling they do into large public safety organisations like police and fire departments around the world.

Tait already had a strong team of experienced and talented enterprise level sales people, and was a mature and successful company. What adopting a formal methodology gave them was the ability to further improve their sales hit rate.

Instead of sales teams operating independently, a formal process gives them a common approach and language for chasing sales opportunities. It provides criteria for analysing sales opportunities and choosing the ones with the greatest likelihood of success. Possibly the greatest value of any formal sales methodology is getting better at walking away from resource-intensive deals with a low probability of success.

Imagine if some of our smaller tech exporters could start applying this level of ‘science’ to their sales. Using the same rigorous process as they typically apply to their product development and engineering.

The reality the Kiwi tech export sector must accept, and the broader business and government community support, is that as Howard Anderson, founder of research company The Yankee Group, says "everywhere in the world, the company with the best sales force usually wins, even if their competitors have better technology."

As a country we put a lot of resources into upskilling technical people and giving entrepreneurs general business training, but are we producing an army of skilled enterprise-level sales people? Traditionally companies like IBM, Unisys or HP turned New Zealand graduates into professional sales people, but as the industry has changed their intakes have shrunk.

Last week I went to the presentation of the Flying Kiwi, acknowledging outstanding achievement in the hi-tech sector. It’s a fantastic award, and Datacom co-founder Paul Hargreaves was a deserved winner, joining the Hi-tech hall of fame luminaries like Sir Gil Simpson, Sir Angus Tait, Ian Taylor and Peter Maire.

What I’d like to see is more recognition of this type for the humble sales person. We rightly celebrate our entrepreneurs and our technologists but sales people don’t seem to get the same acknowledgement, save the obvious financial benefits.

Teachers, nurses and doctors are amongst our most respected professions, and rightly so. For the future of our high growth exports we need those lonely souls who ply the world’s markets selling our goods to big foreign companies to gain some measure of favour. And at least sales people don’t go on strike.

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