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STA logo publisher NEIL WARREN learnt about both sides of the buying and selling equation at a recent Sales Training Association seminar.

Billed as a highly interactive session looking at business from both sales and procurement perspectives, Selling & Buying in Challenging Times – The Naked Truth was the subject of the latest Sales Training Association (STA) seminar at the Barcelo Hotel in Oxford on 19 March.

And so it turned out. If you attend many (or any) such seminar and networking events, you begin to get a feel for how ‘meaty’ they are going to be, from the lead-up, through to the venue and then in assessing your  fellow delegates, the speakers, subject matter and so on. So congratulations to the STA first of all for having arranged and delivered an impressive mix, right at the top-end of the ‘light-to-weighty’ scale for leading members of the UK sales profession. I certainly got a sense of gravitas, tastefully balanced with a friendly mix of banter and camaraderie, which is probably the particular hallmark of the sales profession, certainly when compared with others I could mention.

Gary Akehurst
Professor Gary Akehurst.

Back to basics

Our first speaker was Professor Gary Akehurst, who positively oozes academic credentials: he’s an adjunct professor at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University in the Netherlands, an emeritus professor of marketing of the University of Wales and a visiting professor at a number of other universities. A freelance management consultant, researcher and author working with a range of clients, particularly in the service and defence industries, Professor Akehurst nonetheless retains an easy charm and accessibility that is only ever honed to this level by frontline troops who still have to deal with those objectionable creatures we refer to as ‘clients’.

His message, too, gave us a heady-mix of the academic – quoting such illustrious sources as British economist John Maynard Keynes, along the lines that economics was often a mathematically over-complicated and exclusive discipline – as well as recommending an overall more pragmatic and ‘back to basics’ kind of analytical approach and forward endeavour in business.

Prune and nurture

Professor Akehurst certainly chimed with sales colleagues when discussing organisations seeking to make savings during a downturn, especially those deciding that ‘sales’ – in total – looked like a rather costly part of the operation and could, therefore, sensibly be ‘trimmed’ or even ‘slashed and burned’. His repost being that, as sales leaders, we might better try to indentify and justify ‘economically’, if that’s what it takes, which branches, if any, of our tree-of-life can really be indentified as ‘dead wood’ and pruned accordingly, compared with any new shoots that we might do better to lovingly nurture.

We also took a moment to reflect on such sobering facts as the economists’ assessments of 50 ‘best’ or top-performing companies from the 1980s showing scant signs of even survival, a mere 20-30 years later.

Some of the more insightful questioners wondered how Gary’s slightly ‘maverick’ attitudes went down with his academic colleagues, who might be lending a bit more credence to the quasi-religion that is economics. And, apparently, it’s not all that good. We hear you Gary, we hear you!

Paula Gildert
Paula Gildert: you better be bothered!

Am I bothered?

Head of R&D procurement at AstraZeneca and deputy chairperson of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, Paula Gildert then had the unenviable task of trying to interest a bunch of post-lunch salespeople with the topic of how buyers see the world these days, where you might have expected that the timeless, classical phrase ‘Bovvered?’ would be top of mind! (Only if you’re an old-skool salesperson who hasn’t heard of customer-managed relationships CMR, which is replacing CRM or customer relationship management – Ed.)

It turns out that we should be, though – ‘bothered’ that is, about how we all get on with our buyers, and what the heck it is they’re thinking and doing. This perky interest was fuelled by Gildert’s neat opening trick of asking us to clear our minds and then shout out what came into them when she mentioned the word(s) ‘sales(person)’. Easy – she filled a flip-chart sheet in seconds with a pretty accurate list of ‘heroic’-style adjectives, which I think I was the only one to seriously dent (in the interests of balance, you understand) with ‘snake-oil’ – and even pharmaceutical Paula didn’t recognise that one!

It was perhaps more of an eye-opener for her when she flipped to the next page and asked us to repeat the trick with the word ‘buyer’ but, hey, she did say ‘clear your mind and shout out what first comes into it’! And anyway, it was surely part of her mission to correct some of these more jaded opinions.

Buyers have been busy too, equally trying to get to grips with those ‘slightly distorted economic assessments’, prevalent in bigger organisations, that can plague an efficient and effective buyer’s life, every bit as much as they can a seller’s. And when you’re dealing with multi-nationals the size of her own AstraZeneca, those ‘distortions’ can take on a truly terrifying monetary value, and take some equally eye-wateringly large ‘pills’ to remedy – as she kindly illustrated for us.

How to engage with the buyers

This does mean, however, that if you are going to be selling to an organisation that has got its buying act together, you will need to understand how your proposal might fit in to the bigger, holistic, picture (jigsaw some might say) which they are trying to complete. Like, for example, whether you are going to end up on the chart as a ‘strategic’, ‘core’ or ‘commodity’ supplier. And you’ll need to reach agreement with procurement before you can pass go. She had examples of some ‘go straight to jail’ cards she’d played, just in case they were any doubters in the room.

Beyond noting that any such ‘new’ proposals would all ‘depend on the business case made’, we didn’t really get to the bottom of the question about how, where, when, why and with whom any of us sellers could get on to procurement’s radar. Certainly the classical approach of making a good first impression and/or schmoozing them was given quite short shrift by a couple of Gildert’s colleagues in the room. They were under the impression that most ongoing business, which might be established, would have precious little to do with ‘sales’ anyway, so why fall under ‘the spell’, of salespeople, in the first place?

No names

Personally, I was also a bit disappointed to learn that they were not even aware that ‘no names’ policies might be a hindrance in ‘open door – just convince me’ policies like these. (One must take account of recent threats from animal rights activists against pharma company employees in this context, even if they do use this as an excuse to take the no-names policy too far – Ed.)  Maybe we can pick up on that one again next time or maybe some of this is, in itself, a lesson to be learned? For example, perhaps we should plan to make it clear to our buyers that we, the salespeople, are in it for the long-haul too, and not just a fast buck?

Either way, a fascinating, stimulating, thought-provoking day and even, I’d go as far as to say, ‘fun’. Some good contacts too, older acquaintances renewed and new ones made, and equally interesting possibilities for the road ahead.

Diary dates

Forthcoming events will be held:

  • Tuesday 8 June 2010;
  • Tuesday 14 September 2010;
  • Tuesday 7 December 2010;
  • Friday 18 March 2011;
  • Tuesday 7 June 2011;
  • Tuesday 13 September 2011; and
  • Tuesday 6 December 2011.

For further details please see the STA website. The STA is a not-for-profit group open to anyone interested in the development of people involved in the sales process including sales managers, training managers and training consultants. For further information please email STA chairman Adrian Logan who is also sector development partner at Siemens.

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