Are You Selling Widgets or Solutions?

If you’re just selling widgets, it’s time to either change your approach or change your career.

I don’t mean literally selling widgets, of course. I mean pushing a product or service before you have a complete understanding of why the prospect wants (or needs) it and how it can add value to their business.

The truth is, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a sales pitch. They want to be offered solutions to their most pressing business issues, and they want to work with sales professionals they trust and who are resources to help them solve problems, improve operations and/or grow revenues.

Selling widgets is old school. Today, if you try to make the sale before you’ve asked the kind of probing questions that will get to the heart of why the prospect is coming to you in the first place, your chances of closing the deal are slim to none.

Its far more effective to spend time determining whether and why your particular widget is needed. What is the prospect’s current business situation? How can what you have to offer make it better? Can you make it better? If not, what are some alternative solutions?

Taking the time to understand the prospect’s needs and how your product or service can address them lets you lay the foundation for a mutually beneficial, long-term sales relationship. It starts you off on the right foot – as a trusted advisor who provides customized solutions that enable your customers to advance their business, rather than the pusher of a one-size-fits all widget that may or may not be what they need.

Where the Sales Jobs Are

There is a great article on that is a must-read for anyone curious about job prospects in today’s volatile economic times.

Surprisingly enough, in “Sales Hiring Outlook 2008,” author John Rossheim comes away with a much rosier outlook than you might expect, given the bad news that dominates the business pages. As long as we aren’t hit with a serious recession that is.

Rossheim notes that while sales opportunities in retail, automotive and other industries that are closely tied to economic cycles will be harder to come by, demand for top sales pros should hold steady in banking, insurance and other financial services – helped along in large part by the demands of Baby Boomers.

Even the outlook in the mortgage industry is optimistic, despite the meltdown in the real estate market. That is because some mortgage companies will be quick to snap up top performers let go by rivals that are cutting back in downtimes.

As for what’s hot, information technology and online advertising are singled out.

And while Rossheim writes that “salespeople in nearly any industry will find work, if they’ve got the contacts, the product knowledge and the street savvy,” that is only half the battle.

It goes without saying that you’ll need to do your homework on prospective employers and arrive at the interview with solid contacts and great references. But if you’re really serious about snagging one of the hottest positions, you’ll also need sales training and a college degree. In some fields, like biotech, high-level skills and special subject matter expertise are also required.

Make the First Week Count

Completing administrative tasks in advance of a new employee’s start date is a smart way to get them producing as quickly as possible. But it takes more than business cards and an email account. It also takes careful planning of their first week on the job, making sure they are properly trained and prepared to meet expectations.

Don’t wait to get them into orientation programs and training on the CRM and other mission-critical systems. Delays in training just impede their ability to get out and sell. If your company holds these programs on a set schedule, time start dates to coincide with it so the new sales reps can get them done in the first week.

Define responsibilities and set expectations on day one. The first thing you need to do is sit down with the new hire to go over sales territories, agree to quotas and calibrate the employee’s expectations with those of leadership. Also, review the do’s and don’ts of the sales process and any important company policies and procedures.

Use this first meeting to convey the organization’s philosophy, mission and vision. This helps the employee connect with the products or services they are selling and their customer or client base.

Finally, putting a new employee together with someone to guide them through the organizational culture and structure can help increase productivity.

It doesn’t have to be a formal mentoring program. In fact, I’ve found that an informal “buddy system” is a very effective approach. Just team new reps up with established top performers who are available to answer questions, offer advice on best practices, etc.

The buddy system, coupled with proper week-one training, orientation and goal-setting, will influence new employee behavior and prepare them to achieve success in the most expedient way possible.

Why Wait for the Start Date?

If you want your new sales reps to quickly become efficient, productive members of the team, you need to make sure they have all the tools necessary to hit the ground running the day they start.

Why would you want them wasting time waiting for IT to give them an email password or reading through the company’s insurance plan when they could be hitting the pavement with sales calls?

True, some processes such as employee orientation or training must wait until the start date. But many pesky administrative odds and ends can and should be handled as soon as the employment and confidentiality agreement is signed.

Send out benefits packages and other company materials the day a position is accepted so new team members can review, ask questions and complete documents off the clock. This saves hours of company time that is better-used for more revenue producing pursuits.

Other time and productivity killers include activating passwords, email accounts and identification badges. Get computers, laptops, cell phones and other devices set up on the company’s network and make sure mobile or remote employees can log into the system. Phone extensions and voice mail accounts should be configured and waiting for the new hire on their first day.

Taking care of these little things in advance is not only more efficient, it also lets new employees know that they are valued additions to the sales team. Most importantly, it sets the stage for them to focus on generating revenue as quickly and effectively as possible.

Bring in the “A Team”

It doesn’t matter how innovative your products or services are, without a strong sales team, your revenues will remain flat. So why make the mistake of not involving your top performing sales representatives in building out your team? Or worse, putting the selection process in the hands of under-performers?

Throughout my years of recruiting sales and marketing professionals, I have learned that the real secret to building a top sales force is to get your A players involved in the interview process. Top performers want to surround themselves with other top performers. They are motivated by success and thrive on the competition that comes from working with others who share their enthusiasm and drive. They gravitate toward other A players, and will use the interview to determine if they are joining a progressive team.

C players, on the other hand, will never hire A players. Whether it is because they are intimidated or because they don’t know what qualities to look for, under-performers simply do not have what it takes to play a key role in the recruitment process. What’s worse, someone who lacks the ability to motivate others could wind up costing you an A player if they sense that the person interviewing them might hinder their own ability to succeed. That is especially true if the C player happens to be someone your prospective A player would report to or work closely with.

The fact is, top sales talent needs to be sold on your company as much as you need to be sold on their skills. Putting them in front of anyone who does not present the sales team in its very best light, or who lacks the understanding of what makes an A player tick, is a recipe for disaster.