“I have my own style of selling.”

That is a remark I have heard a number of times, usually from relatively inexperienced sales people.  What they usually mean is something like this: “I don’t have any real system to what I do, I don’t want any scrutiny, and I am probably not going to learn anything from you.”

How valid is this position?  Does every sales person have a unique style of selling?  Are they just trying to hide from accountability under the cover of individual “style”?  Or is there some other explanation?

More importantly, should your company allow every sales person to have their own style, or should you have system for selling to which everyone adheres?

I will let you answer that question yourself in a moment.  For now, let’s consider the concept of a “selling system.”

Can selling be systematic?

Almost any work can be systematic.  “Systems” are how good work gets done.  McDonald’s did not grow its business by hiring people and challenging them to figure out how to best do the job.  Instead, McDonald’s works on the basis that there is a best way to take an order, greet a customer, fry potatoes, and assemble a cheeseburger.  Figure out the best way, get the necessary tools, document the most effective processes, and train everyone in doing it that way.  As a result, people work the system – and the system works.

Because of the system, McDonald’s can make almost anyone, regardless of their capabilities, into productive, effective employees.

This truth – that good systems make people effective — operates in every area of work.  Even highly skilled, highly educated professionals apply this concept.  There are, for example, better ways to try a case, to perform a surgery, to fly an airliner, and to counsel a mentally disturbed patient.  Talk to effective professionals in any of these areas, and they will verify that they use refined, intentional principles, processes, and tools to complete these complex tasks.  They use a system.

In fact, the more important and complex the task, the more likely that the effective principles and processes for successfully completing that task have been defined and codified.  How would you feel if you buckled the seat belt on an airliner and listened as the captain announced that he has his own way of flying this plane?

This is not to say that there is not room for individual differences, for continuous process improvement, and for variations based on the specific intricacies of the situation.  But those are more embellishments than structure – like the icing on a cake.  Without the cake underneath, the icing is meaningless.  The system provides the structure on which the individual can spread personal embellishments.

You probably apply this principle in every other aspect of your business.  Don’t you have a system for almost every important process in your business?  Don’t your accountants follow a well-defined set of principles and procedures?  Aren’t your customer service reps expected to input an order in a certain way, and respond to a customer in a certain fashion?  Don’t your purchasing people follow certain procedures, and aren’t they guided by certain principles and criteria to ensure that they make the best decisions?

Why should sales be different?

It isn’t.  There are principles, processes and tools that have been proven to be more effective than others in sales, just like in every other profession.  It is like a football game.  No coach says to his team, “OK, you guys go out and figure out how to be successful.”  Rather, a coach develops a “best way” to tackle, to block, to pass, to catch, etc.  And then, the coach develops the system, creates a game plan, and teaches his players that system and that plan.

In a similar way, a selling system addresses the interaction between the sales person and the customer, providing a “game plan” for success.  Think of it as a template for the sales person’s face-to-face tactical encounters.  It is based on the principle that, when it comes to selling a specific product or service to a certain type of customer, there are principles, processes and tools that are proven more effective than others.

Study any successful company that fields a large number of sales people, and you’ll discover that almost every one of those companies has evolved a well-defined, duplicable selling system.  And they teach that system to their sales people – “This is the way we keep track of our files, this is the way we collect information about our customers, this is the way we present this product or that one, this is the way we think about strategy, this is the way we develop a weekly plan,” etc.  The larger, older, and more successful a company is, the more likely it is to have a highly sophisticated and refined selling system.

The large, old, life insurance companies are great illustrations.  Go into the local Northwestern Mutual office, for example.  Talk to a manager, tell him you would like to sell for him, but you are going to do it your way.  See how far that gets you.  Or perhaps IBM has an opening for a one-of-a-kind sales person.  Maybe Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson haven’t yet figured it out.

You have the idea.  A well-defined selling system is one of the essential components of an effective sales company.

To be effective and productive in your sales efforts, sooner or later you need to develop a selling system.

Your selling system should have variations for each major market segment.  For example, the “best way” to sell to a truck line may not be the best way to sell to an accountant.  Typically, a selling system would define a sales process for each segment, and then address the best ways to accomplish each step in that process.

Take truck lines for example.  The most effective process may be to make an appointment with a purchasing person, to collect information at the first face-to-face meeting, to prepare a written proposal, to personally deliver that proposal, and then to make a personal face-to-face follow up call.  That may be the process piece of the system.  The tools might consist of a script for making the appointment, a profile form to collect the information, a capability brochure to use to describe and introduce the company, a standard “proposal” form, and a set of carefully crafted questions to use throughout the process.  The tactics may be a series of techniques to facilitate each step of the process – to accomplish each step well.  When all those pieces are put in place – the appropriate processes, tools and tactics – you would have a selling system.  And when you have a selling system, and when you have trained all your sales people in that system, you will have taken a major step forward.  You’re ready for the big leagues.

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