“A lot of large shareholder-driven businesses are losing the plot,” says Dr Tamara Howard, sales strategist, consultant and author of the new book, Who’s Paying for Lunch?
“It’s a great opportunity for small businesses to really play the customer service hand. I mean, is there anyone in the world that doesn’t get annoyed when all they hear at the other end of the line is a recorded message?”
Howard’s formidable CV has given her plenty of exposure to the workings of SMEs and corporates on both sides of the pond. After graduating from Harvard with a PhD in Medical Physiology, she started out in the nascent biotech industry, living and working in America’s East Coast, Northern France and Germany before taking a job with IBM in the UK. There, she spent a year in the company’s in-house business school, made the switch to sales and progressed through a number of high-profile consultancies, including a stint as a director at Capgemini, before launching her own company, Verve Consulting Ltd, in 2006, advising businesses on sales strategy and planning for business growth.
“As I was dealing with these companies, I started seeing the same problems over and over and over again. And a lot of these problems are really quite hard to deal with unless you’ve actually worked in a big environment and understand what a business should be aiming towards,” she says.
“It’s about getting the right kind of guidance. For many companies, it just takes awareness of the problem to go about doing something to fix it.”
Among UK SMEs, Howard says that a major constriction to growth is a widespread squeamishness about sales – something that is far less common in the US.
“For many people, especially if they’ve come from a tech background, sales is almost a dirty word,” she says. “Selling isn’t about cheating people. It’s about reaching a fair value for what you offer and then delivering it!”
Part of the problem is that many SME owners see sales as a self-contained function of the business – a “one-stop process” that involves hiring a salesperson and leaving them to it. Instead, Howard says, they need to think of their approach to sales as an integral part of their overall business plan. As she puts it, the big question is: “how do you structure yourself to increase sales, to get more business and to re-adapt your company while you’re growing?”
This doesn’t just mean teaching your staff how to be better salespeople (although that certainly helps). It also means figuring out your optimum channel for selling and making sure you have the right kind of people in place to do it. Much of this will come down to the type of relationship that your customers expect to have with your company, product or service, particularly if you’re looking to sell to other businesses. As Howard explains, your customers may respond best to a traditional sales rep, dedicated account manager, external agent or even a franchise model. These are the kinds of issues that the helps companies to figure out.
Whatever you do, warns Howard, don’t just presume you can build a website and they will come. “You might say, well, who thinks that? A lot of [people] think that!” says Howard. “Most of them don’t understand that sales isn’t one-size-fits-all.”
This can often translate into unhelpfully “beating” the sales team, she says. “There’s this idea that if you just raise the sales target by 10%, that’s enough to make revenue go up 10%. Or if you just increase your price by 50%, your revenue will go up 50%. These businesses just don’t get that the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone – in other words, everything in the business is connected to successful selling!”
So how should companies go about figuring out how to sell?
“One of the first questions I ask a company when they bring me in to solve what they perceive to be their problem, is: Who’s your market? Who are you targeting? And who is it within that market that you’re targeting? And they say, well, anyone can buy our product. And I reply, well, yes, that’s true. But how does everyone recognise themselves? When they see the product, how do they know, yes, that’s for me? A lot of the time, they’re not used to thinking about their offering from a customer point of view,” explains Howard.
“It’s also scary for a small company because they think they are going to limit their selling by cutting out other markets. They’re not. They’re actually going to increase your chances by focusing and concentrating their efforts on people who have a higher probability of buying something.”
As well as tying down their target market, SMEs can make their sales increase in leaps and bounds by striving to make the sales process more efficient. Rather than start from scratch on every new pitch and proposal, Howard recommends analysing the most common customer needs, using this information to tie down as much of the company literature as possible in advance, then quickly adapting it for each new lead or proposal. These kind of simple, timesaving measures help ensure that sales teams can spend less time doing admin and more time what they’re paid to do: sell.
Equally important, she says, is introducing a level of quality control into your leads, to make sure you’re not just wasting time. “A lot of people don’t understand that it costs money for salespeople to be focussing time and effort on things they’re not going to win anyway, or that you don’t want to win,” she says. “A business manager or owner needs to be able to say to the salespeople, no, don’t go after that one, go after this one, and then put a lot of effort into the ones worth going after!”
Having spent her career advising companies on how to use their sales strategy as a tool for growth, Howard says that inefficient systems linger on simply because overworked SME owners often don’t realise that they have a problem, much less have the time to work out how to solve it.
“People don’t know what they don’t know, and these guys are very busy… they don’t have a whole lot of spare time to learn about what it is they don’t know, either.”
Howard began looking around to see what kind of literature existed to help time-poor directors tackle their selling shortages, but says she came up short.
“So, I thought I’d write a book!” she explains. “There are a lot of books about how to sell, but the issues I’m addressing are really about how to sell and close business. It’s about how to set up your business to enable selling, and how to make the selling you do become more efficient and effective.
“Plus, most of the books that are written in this sector are written for the American market, because it’s where the publishers get volume. A lot of business owners and managers in the UK, if you give them a book or an article about something in America, they look at it and say: well that’s in America it would never work here. Right, or wrong, that’s what they say.”
Instead, Howard explains, Who’s Paying for Lunch? hones in specifically on UK issues, examples and perspectives on sales and business. Its purpose, she says, is to help SMEs to give themselves a “health evaluation” in order to to “figure out where to start and how to articulate the problem they want fixed…especially if they want to grow.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s about helping British business owners not to be “ashamed” of selling, and instead to work out how to do it best for their product or service.
“I just think it’s a public service,” she laughs. “My objective is to get the thinking out there.
“Businesses are about selling. If you don’t sell anything, you’re not a business, right? So no matter what you may think about selling, basically it’s the raison d’être of being a business. Otherwise you’re a charity, you’re not in business!”