Not that long ago, team effort and sales were mutually exclusive concepts. Salespeople acted as independent agents who believed most of the rules of business did not apply or were to be loosely adhered to at best. Gunslingers of commerce, the sales pros of old were basically beholden to their customers alone. They worked unassisted — more often than not, unsupervised — and, they worked alone.

This is true no longer. In recent years, cooperation and interoperability govern the success or failure of sales efforts. Driven by a desire to stand out in an increasingly sophisticated and competitive marketplace, the most effective salespeople work closely with co-workers and customers to provide top-quality value-added service. That's a far cry from the business world from the last couple of decades, when salespeople were principally concerned with how to add zeros to their paychecks. Willie Loman must be rolling over in his grave.

“Our sales staff understands that the health of our company is tied to the health of our customers,” says Bill Michael, branch manager, Medler Electric Co., Alma, Mich. “We have one account manager, four guys on the phone and two more working the counter.

“All work very closely with one another, accounts receivable and all other departments within the organization that have an impact on the relationship. Everyone involved shares customer information openly, and they keep no secrets from one another. You can't have secrets in business. If one vital link in your information climbs out of bed one morning and gets run over by a train, the customer data he carries in his head goes with him to the great beyond. In such cases you may find yourself up that proverbial creek, and “paddleless.”

An endangered species?

Salespeople now make their mark by promoting the concept of team selling. They try to bring all elements of their organizations into the effort of selling and servicing customers, from the top dog all the way to the warehouse worker.

“The days of the lone wolf are gone,” says Rick Johnson, managing partner for Indian River Consulting L.L.C., a specialist in the art and practice of wholesale distribution, that's home-based in Melbourne, Fla.

For old schoolers nurtured on the concept of relationship selling, that can be a tough pill to swallow, but the lone wolf approach is no longer effective in today's complex and increasingly troubled economy. Relationship selling is still very important, but a salesperson must now bring others into that process and share the glory with them.

A salesperson must assume a leadership position in what will become a cooperative effort shared by persons at many rungs of his corporate ladder, and that of his customer. He can't be the lone wolf anymore. Instead he must be pack alpha, using his role as head canine to smooth the processes of sales and service.

“Great salespeople are great team players,” says Anthony Mastro, vice president of Mastro Electrical Supply Inc., Providence, R.I. “They team up with their customer and the company they work for at any level required to get the job done. A salesperson should never drop the ball when it comes it comes to dealing with customers. He should always interact with them with their best interests in mind.

“The customer isn't always right, and when he's wrong it can cost him money. I recently got into an argument with a contractor because he was buying ceiling trims he didn't need. Instead of turning a quick buck and leaving it at that, I was looking out for the guy. I made it a point to know his business, and I offered counsel when I realized he was making a mistake. A salesperson must take charge of the relationship he enjoys with his customers in precisely the same way. It's got to be team effort, and when a salesperson conveys that attitude to his customer he will come away with the understanding that both the rep and the company he works for have a stake in his success.”

From lone wolf to alpha leader

Traditionally, a salesperson owned his turf, and exercised almost total control over everything that transpired within its borders. He built his trade by courting customers over long lunches, wedging business talk between sports conversation and dirty jokes. Crude, politically incorrect, and patently unfair, this formula was the vehicle through which the deals of the previous century were made.

Things are different now. Politics are moot when every player in every industry is at sword point for an ever-slimmer piece of market share. Hammered by fierce competition and the tough economy, buyers are under pressure to be smart, sophisticated and immune to sales bamboozle. Deals no longer fly on B.S. and beer. Now there must be steak on the table as well as sizzle.

“The role of the outside salesperson has really changed in this business,” says Mike Anthony, former chief operating office of Stuart C. Irby Co., Jackson, Miss. “To be truly effective, a salesperson should function more like a business consultant than a peddler. He needs to fully understand his customers, and to devote a good deal of time to looking for ways to help them take cost out of their supply chain.”

That's a tall order that goes way beyond simple selling, Anthony adds. Because products are becoming more unspecialized and mass produced, there's more price pressure on them than there used to be. Price is important, even vital, but great prices aren't enough to keep a business relationship intact and healthy over the long haul.

As competition drives down the price of service and products, customers will be forced to find additional ways to fatten their revenues. A salesperson can help. In fact, helping customers make and save money should be a salesperson's prime directive.

Go to the head of the pack

Salespeople can make their customers more profitable by going beyond mere product peddling and adding new entrees to their service menu. The form such service may take need be limited only by the nature of the customer's business and the salesperson's imagination. These value-added services could include storeroom management, engineering, bid preparation, in-house sales mentoring, manufacturer liaison or value-added service in any other area of the customer's business where improvement may be needed.

According to Anthony and other electrical industry veterans, it's not just about product anymore, or even product orientation. It's about knitting together the people and processes behind the sale and making them all work better.

“It's no longer enough for a sales person in the electrical business or any other to be simply money-motivated,” says Johnson of Indian River Consulting. “Instead, salespeople must be creative, intuitive and leadership-oriented. Each attribute is necessary if one is to pull together the kind of crack sales team required to service today's demanding customers. Purchasing agents are more sophisticated than they used to be. They're very cost-conscious, and they have a much better understanding of the long-term effect that their decisions have on their companies. They don't limit their thinking to the little world around their desk. They think globally.”

This makes it important for salespeople to think globally as well. Salespeople should know as much as possible about their customers, and their customer's customers. When Johnson holds sales training seminars, he asks each attendee to list his five largest customers. That's an easy question for attendees, but it's only part one of his query. In part two, Johnson follows up by requesting a list of the five customers' top clients.

“The reply to that question is always very enlightening,” Johnson says. “It tells us instantly whether we're dealing with a roomful of total-solutions providers in-the-making, or another herd of dinosaurs. The world of business isn't changing, it's changed, and the role of the salesperson has changed with it. If you're not moving forward you're going the other way, and that my friend can be very bad for business.”


D. Douglas Graham is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.