When the Sales Hat Won’t Fit: You Can Help Non-Salespeople Sell


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Remember the sad sack salesman, Willie Loman, the “protagonist” of playwright Arthur Miller’s classic drama, Death of a Salesman? However unintentional on Miller’s part, his sales stereotyping was unmistakable, and that was all the way back in the 1950s.
When I went to college a decade later—back when you had to add motor oil to the gas in a two-cycle Saab’s car engine—like it was a lawnmower—insulting sales and salespeople was becoming excellent sport.

For example, some hot-dogging psychologist set up an experiment where he would go onto used car lots; then the pork-pie hat salesperson would emerge from his little hut; and then the psychologist would pump the salesperson’s hand and loudly proclaim, “Hi! I’m Joe! How’d you like to buy a used car?” Most of these used car peddlers immediately suffered some form of mental dislocation, with a few forgetting their names or which planet they lived on, as the story goes. However, as I was also told, the whole experiment ended when a particularly aggressive pork-pie hat wearer reacted by cold-cocking the experimenter with a single punch, something he richly deserved.

So abusing salespeople and their profession is hardly new. However, over the past decade, the level of abuse finally reached such a high threshold that business students, MBAs in particular, began refusing to go into sales as an entry-level job. And not only has hiring salespeople become an ongoing challenge as a result, but also getting non-salespeople to do anything resembling selling has become somewhere between problematic and painful. Just look at banks, which are increasingly asking lobby service staff (as if there is such a thing as service in most banks) and even tellers to aggressively hawk product—even setting challenging revenue goals and firing them if they don’t produce. Uncomfortable with the sales mantle and the pressure to produce, lots of traditional bank workers have bailed. Further, most that tried to reinvent themselves as sales types versus service workers are outright uncomfortable selling—and terrible at it.

So what’s a poor bank—or insurance company, contact center or butcher shop to do— to get staff to sell more effectively? The answer is painfully simple.

Leap of faith

You empower staff to focus on helping customers. You train staff how to discover what customers legitimately lack, want or need and you focus these “non-sales” folks on solving customer problems or satisfying customer wants—but you stop there. And you don’t ever push staff to sell customers inappropriate products or services.

Unfortunately, as simple as this solution appears, few companies can yet abide by it. Why? Believing that this prescription will actually increase sales more than applying high-pressure sales tactics and pushing non-salespeople far outside their comfort zones requires a leap of faith. The conventional business mindset regarding sales approaches and sales pressure is based on perceptions that “making your numbers” requires selling everything you can to everyone you can cost-effectively reach—whether buying your goods or services benefit customers or not.

Almost everyone who took the training felt liberated.

For example, consider the way automobile dealer help desk managers are pressured to reach sales goals. Most of these folks have sales quotas for parts and labor, beyond doing what it takes to keep your car running smoothly. Which is why the more aggressive of them—who are car salespeople in waiting—will sell you an expensive diagnostic test for a leaky tire. But most of these managers are conflicted, some highly so, between the desire to do the right thing and the pressure on them to continue upping revenue per repair ticket. Some actually return to being mechanics to avoid doing the “wrong” thing. And the retail auto biz is hardly alone in perpetuating this type situation. Just think of all the wing nuts out there that believe they’re doing customers a favor by creating more “opportunities” for customers to do business with the seller’s respected brand. Customer-friendly? Yeah, right.

This win-lose approach that puts company interests ahead of customer interests is so pervasive that companies and managers trying the win-win approach are truly anomalies. Hey—the more advanced of these contrarians deserve sainthood status. You betcha, they do.

Fortunately for customers and for relatively customer-friendly companies, the percentage of businesses committed to adding true value, while still miniscule, continues to grow—as does both the anecdotal and statistical evidence that this approach produces better sales outcomes than the “foot-in-the-back” method.


Let me share an example of win-win success with you, based on recent work with one of our clients in retail financial services. This FI had a very successful “indirect” auto loan program—”indirect” referring to auto dealers recommending it and actually taking applications on site, without car buyers ever having to visit a branch. Unfortunately, the indirect channel was producing a high volume of one-relationship customers, whereas creating multiple product relationships is a key driver of FI profitability. Cross-selling these customers by direct mail to add relationships had been a bust, which it usually is. And for even those customers visiting the branches with loan issues or calling or emailing the contact center, the conversion rate to multiple product relationships sat at roughly 20 percent in the branches and not much above 0 in the contact center.

So here’s what we did. We customized our core, needs-based sales training to the FI environment. Then, we pulled offline mixed teams of lobby service reps and contact center reps and taught them—not sales techniques—but how to ask truly needs-based questions, including how to sequence different question types to persuade customers to open up and reveal what they truly needed or wanted from a financial support standpoint, rather than from a financial product standpoint. Then, we made sure that everyone trained knew how best to solve problems—including such non-sales options as persuading customers to seek credit counseling rather than offering them more credit and making sure they were using the optimal financial services for them.

Almost everyone who took the training felt liberated. And they forcefully asked that sales goals on high-margin products that should be means of last resort were lowered so they didn’t feel pressured to offer these products inappropriately. And when they repaired to their branches, the conversion rates for adding new services to indirect loan relationships shot up to 50 percent. And when contact center folks retreated to their environment, the indirect loan conversion rates went up dramatically.

To reinforce the training, we had each trainee share needs-based selling experiences through his or her designated training team captain, and the captains circulated them to all team members. The pride these folks took in their new role was more than evident. And both lobby and contact center staff began applying their learnings to every relevant customer walking through the door and those who called and emailed.

Among the many training outcomes was helping staff become more forward with customers—in particular, asking them about where they held their primary banking relationship, if it was elsewhere, and how they felt about their primary banks’ fee structures and customer service. Sharing some of the more “colorful” customer responses within teams only encouraged more of this activity.

Because our regional client legitimately offered a lower and more transparent fee structure and significantly better customer service, popping this question was acting in the customer’s behalf, not just the FI’s.

In other words, this FI’s staff discovered ways to add value to customers in ways that would add value back to the FI—and isn’t that the very mantra of CRM?


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