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“Sales is about you as the customer; it’s not about me,” Professor Andris Zoltners says. “Unless I have empathy, there’s no way that I can do my needs assessment and try to figure out how to help you with my product.”

Andris Zoltners

Raising sales in a stagnant economy

Professor Andris Zoltners’ new book outlines strategies for building an effective sales force, even as the economy struggles to recover

By Rachel Farrell

8/10/2009 -  There’s no such thing as an instruction manual for building a successful sales team, but an award-winning article by Andris Zoltners, Kellogg professor of marketing, comes close.

“Sales Force Effectiveness: A Framework for Researchers and Practitioners,” co-authored with business consultants Prabha Sinha and Sally Lorimer, outlines the team’s research-based model — the “Sales Force Effectiveness Framework” — to help companies build stronger sales teams. Published in the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, the article received the Excellence in Research Award earlier this month at the American Marketing Association’s Summer Marketing Educators conference.

Zoltners’ ideas are further developed in a recently published book, also co-written by Sinha and Lorimer, that aims to help companies strengthen their sales force despite a poor economy.

At 486 pages, Building a Winning Sales Force: Powerful Strategies for Driving High Performance (AMACOM Books, 2009) is a comprehensive guide for executives ranging from finance managers to sales compensation analysts. Zoltners and his co-authors draw upon their academic and corporate experience to provide sales strategies that work in theory and, more importantly, in practice.

What does Building a Winning Sales Force accomplish that other sales books have not?

Textbooks have a lot of conceptual insight [but are] weak on practical experience. And books written by consultants are books that rely on observations. What’s nice about this book is that it combines academic rigor with practical concerns, decision frameworks with practical wisdom, and analytics and data with behavioral insights. So it’s a boundary book. It was based on having read several hundred academic articles and connecting with several hundred sales forces. It melds academics and practice.

What differentiates a good sales person from a great sales person?

Personally, I like empathy and integrity. Sales is about you as the customer; it’s not about me. Unless I have empathy, there’s no way that I can do my needs assessment and try to figure out how to help you with my product. Sales is also about trust. People will not buy from people they don’t trust.

In what ways do you expect the current economic downturn to influence classic sales strategies?

The customer is changing. They’re not buying as much; they’re asking for a lower price; they’re looking for value-added giveaways. We have to figure out how we create value differently and how we sell to that new value. So it’s possible the role of the sales force will change. And I don’t think the slap-you-on-the-back [strategy] will work.

In the book, we talk about how United fired all of its sales people and said “You have to reapply for your job.” So maybe you’ll see some companies do that. I’m not suggesting that’s what you want to do; it’s just a possibility. Our view in all of this is you want to keep your best customers and your best sales people.

Talk about how companies’ sales forces are changing as a result of the recession.

There is an interesting dilemma popping up right now. If finance says, “We have to take out 15 percent of costs because our revenues are down 20 percent,” there are a couple of ways to do that. You can ask people to give up 15 percent of their income — and you still pay the best people more than the average people, and the average people more than the below-average people. Or, you can take out 15 percent of the head count. I’m interested to see how companies are going to react and how it’s going to affect company culture.

What would you do if you were in that position right now?

I’d say everyone should take the hit. In good times, we all share the wealth, and in poor times, we basically suck it in. Maybe the smart company holds back a little during the good times so they can ride out the bad times.