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Business Journal
Salespeople or Consultants?
Business Journal

Salespeople or Consultants?

by Mick Zangari and Benson Smith

In the past decade it has become fashionable to remove the title "sales representative" from business cards. Brokers have become "financial advisers." Equipment salespeople are now "technical specialists." Many salespeople are referred to as "territory managers," or even "area vice presidents." But by far, the favorite renaming choice is referring to your sales force as "consultants."

When companies rename their salespeople "consultants," there often is no real change in what the salesperson is expected to do. Instead, a company hopes to gain increased access to an organization's key decision-makers, or it hopes those key players will attribute a greater degree of expertise to a "consultant."

The Gallup Organization is not sure these name changes have much positive effect. We've developed a healthy respect for customers' antennae and they can quickly figure out whether a person is a sales representative or not.

We were recently working with a sales representative in the field. Their company had gone to a lot of trouble and expense to reposition their sales force as "consultants. The "consultant" handed his new business card to a secretary. She took one look at it and called the person with whom he had an appointment and said, "There is a sales rep out here to see you." You could almost hear the "whoosh" as their repositioning dollars swirled down the drain.

Abraham Lincoln once said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time -- but you can never fool a good secretary." (Actually, Lincoln didn't say that last part!) Regardless, you may change what you call your salespeople, but your customers may not take the bait.

Do you really need "consultants"?
So your marketplace is becoming more sophisticated. Competition in your industry is increasing. Your product line is becoming more complicated. The purchasers of your products are changing. All of these may be legitimate reasons to consider changing your sales mission, and the way your salespeople represent themselves to customers. But do you really need consultants?

Gallup has interviewed more than 250,000 sales representatives, and we've uncovered many different sales myths. One of them is, "A good salesperson can sell anything." We discovered that this just isn't true. Instead, we found the best salespeople are in exactly the right sales job for them. They often have their own unique selling styles. The best salespeople have exactly the right talents that make them perfect for their role.

The best consultants, on the other hand, had different talent themes than the best salespeople we studied. We also discovered that most companies need salespeople selling their product lines much more than they need consultants.

Most products and services that are sold are relatively simple. Admittedly, some products are complex. But simply because a product is highly technical or complicated does not mean consulting themes are required. The determining factor is not how technical the product is, but rather how complicated the customer's problem is. Consultants are especially valuable in situations were unique solutions are required in order solve real customer problems.

Not surprisingly then, consulting themes have to do with problem solving and the way people think. The best consultants share thinking themes like "ideation" -- they get a kick out of discovering the best explanation or understanding of a customer situation, and then playing that explanation back to the customer. They share an innate drive to ask questions and gather information, and they want to fully understand a situation before making a recommendation - a talent theme called "input." Consultants often need to search for patterns and connections, which requires an "analytical" talent.

These are not themes we find in the best sales people we have studied. Instead, great sales people often have talents for "impacting" or "relating" to people. Trying to turn great salespeople into true consultants often backfires for just this reason. You can try to train salespeople to serve as consultants, but without the underlying talents required to solve complex problems, they are likely to flounder. Sure, some problem solving is required in all selling situations, but not nearly to the extent it is required in consulting roles.

Of course, like salespeople, great consultants also need to be able to impact people and "bring home the business." But if your newly trained "consultants" only have impacting themes, and not the necessary thinking themes, they will be hard pressed to come up with the right solutions on a consistent basis. Finally, while inspiring trust is helpful for a salesperson, it is downright essential for a great consultant. Often customers end up having to rely heavily on a consultant's recommendations. That kind of reliance can only happen in atmosphere of complete trust.

Consequently people with great consulting talents are hard to find. We estimate that three to six percent of the population have the talents necessary to be great salespeople, but less than one percent would make ideal consultants. If you're trying to turn your existing sales force into consultants, you're likely to find that two-thirds of them will not be able to make the change. Your new mission may result in a lot of turnover.

Here's a simple test to help you determine if your salespeople can make the transition. Ask them whether or not they genuinely enjoy solving a problem. Do they like going on a call, not knowing what they expect to find? Can they handle a high level of uncertainty, or are they more comfortable in a predictable environment? We have met many outstanding salespeople who do not like having a "curve ball" thrown at them every time they go into an account.

People with strong "consulting" themes, on the other hand, thrive in exactly that kind of environment. They get more of a kick out of solving a problem than from recognition or achievement -- the traditional motivators for most salespeople.

Just because individuals with consulting themes are more rare than people with outstanding sales talent, don't assume that consultants would necessarily be better for your organization. Most selling situations we have studied can be solved satisfactorily with impacting and relationship themes, and don't require consulting themes. And individuals with strong consulting themes will get bored very quickly in most routine selling jobs. They are not likely to stick around.

And don't confuse consulting themes with technical expertise. Because consultants are useful in complicated situations, we may mistakenly think that what is required is simply a lot of detailed product knowledge. While product expertise is important in a consulting role, people that just have technical expertise often are likely to talk to customers instead of listening to them, to "tell" instead of "ask." Expertise alone, without accompanying consulting talents, rarely helps someone discover genuine problems or gain business.

The most important exercise for you is correctly assessing what you need. The best companies we studied are careful to hire exactly the sales talents needed to match their sales mission. If your sales mission is evolving and will actually require people with strong consulting themes, be prepared -- you probably will have to hire them, rather than renaming your existing sales force. However, in most situations we have studied, traditional selling themes are exactly what is needed. Don't be fooled by fads.

It may be that in order to gain access to key customers, you are better served by calling your salespeople vice presidents, or territory managers, or technical specialists, or consultants. We live in a world where titles and credentials convey importance. Just don't confuse what you call your sales force with the talents they need to be successful.

The next series of articles will describe the five dimensions of fit. How can you tell what sales talents you really need to fit you sales mission?


Benson Smith is coauthor of Discover Your Sales Strengths.
Mick Zangari is a former consultant of Gallup.

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