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Building your sales force


Human decision-making is a tough nut to crack. We would like to think of ourselves as making rational decisions, but we are often influenced by all kinds of extraneous factors.

For example, the common logic in football when faced with short yardage on fourth down at the end of the half, would dictate that we kick a field goal for a high probability of three points. But in this year's Super Bowl, we saw a team ignore the common logic, thus taking a 10-point lead into the locker room at half time. Gutsy? Lucky? Depends on your perspective. But the Eagles believed they had players that could be trusted to accomplish their goals.

How do sales leaders in agribusiness make sure they have that kind of confidence in their players? In the past, we took the characteristics that made salespeople (or ourselves) successful over the last 20 years and looked for those traits in potential hires. What do we do when the world is more complex? When the gap between the largest and smallest customer is tens of thousands of cows or acres? When interest rates are rising, markets are falling, and weather is more extreme? Do the same traits that have always gotten us over the goal line still matter?

The answer to that last question is probably, yes, some of them do! That's the good news. Intelligence is still an important aspect of sales success. Passion for agriculture and for serving farmers still goes a long way.

Does everything that made sellers successful when I started my career still matter? The answer to that question is probably, no, some traits aren't as important today. Which ones, though? That's much harder. It depends. Who are the customers? If most of my business comes from serving farmers who mostly operate with the same approach to farming that they had 20 years ago, then, yes, those traits are probably still relevant. If I'm serving more progressive business-like customers, then probably a few traits that helped make salespeople successful 20 years ago are less relevant.

Traits that matter

The gift of gab, used to be a hallmark of the "salesman." Everybody loved hearing a good story and yucking it up for a bit. Most of us still enjoy spending time with people who are fun to talk with, but the challenge is that it might not be enough to make a business-oriented customer want to make a purchase. A farmer today is probably more likely to prefer strong technical skills to storytelling.

What else? Well, part of it is probably reflected in how the name of the role has changed. Sales professionals used to be salesmen, with an emphasis on gender. That's hardly a notable trait when it comes to a professional salesperson now. Quite simply, who cares? Even if a primary decision maker on the farm is male, which, statistically is still the case more than 80 percent of the time, it is highly likely that other professionals associated with that farm are female. Spouses, daughters, and many other professional influencers on the farm are as likely to be female as male. No gender or other demographic characteristic would prevent a person from being successful as a professional salesperson today. That's been the law for more than 20 years, but the wink and nod those laws may have been given in some places 20 years ago would mean missing out on some terrific people today. This point isn't news. It seems kind of old fashioned even to mention it. Mostly, this characteristic doesn't even cross our minds today. The reason it is relevant here is exactly that, though. Times change without us even noticing.

It used to be that the primary traits that made a good salesperson were closing and handling objections. These were the toughest parts of selling. A salesperson who was persistent and wouldn't take no for an answer was thought of as being unstoppable. Today, that type of person is just annoying. That doesn't mean that gaining a commitment isn't needed – it's still an important part of the process. It also doesn't mean that salespeople don't encounter objections they must deal with – they certainly do. But a salesperson who understands their company's capabilities and connects them with the goals of the customer in order to obtain a benefit for both parties is way more successful over the long haul than they would be using brute force and manipulation.

Consider your customer

Some may disagree with my analysis, and that's okay. There's no single way of developing a sales force that we can trust when we're at the goal line. Every manager must consider the traits that are necessary for serving their customers, uniquely, and be clear about how important each of those traits is when they are looking at job candidates in the sales profession.

It can be helpful to challenge ourselves by considering whether we know what those traits are from our own experience, or whether we've made a thorough analysis of what it takes to be successful today. Sometimes things change without us noticing. Kind of like the Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback catching a pass in the end zone, it might not be what we expect.

Sales Management and Leadership

One of the key topics at the 2018 Sales Management and Leadership professional development program from Purdue’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business is “Building Your Sales Force.” Downey will discuss developing current sales professionals, hiring new, and ways to retain employees across generations.

The program runs May 30-31 on the university’s West Lafayette, Ind., campus. Learn more and register.

Scott Downey
Scott Downey
March 01, 2018
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