Salespeople: Lawyers at the Court of Company Policy

From Scot MacTaggart, creator and host of The Pitchwerks Podcast, The Werkshop helps readers to scrutinize and practice a different skill every month, focusing on pitching and presenting to new customers or investors.

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As someone who has spent a good amount of time teaching people how to sell, I understand why in-house trainers and policy manual writers want every aspect of every process to be clearly defined, blessed by the company, and present a seamless front to the buyer. On the other hand, I’ve been the buyer many, many times, and I know what it’s like to work with a human that doesn’t behave like a human. So, in this month’s column, I’m going to encourage and empower you to demonstrate your devotion to the client and your ability to think freely, and for most of you it will work better than following the safe corporate path you’ve been offered.

Before we get to the anarchy bit though, let’s begin with a few assumptions:

  • Many products can now be purchased online without the assistance of a salesperson.

  • Those companies that continue to employ salespeople probably do so because

    • Buyers prefer that type of experience

    • That is how they have done it in the past

  • Salespeople are especially adept at:

    • Managing relationships with buyers

    • Curating product knowledge

    • Navigating policies and paperwork for the purposes of reducing friction

The third sub-bullet in that last group is what we’re going to talk about today. Salespeople as friction-reducers. Without preparation, any one of us can rattle off a list of administrative tasks that could potentially ruin a buyer’s experience and get them to push away from a deal that would otherwise be considered done. Credit applications, delivery arrangements, and any number of order options depending on the industry are just a few. It makes sense that a salesperson would be involved in those functions.

Now indulge a different thought - what if your company policies feel to some buyers like a similar source of deal-breaking friction? It’s not an outlandish idea. A client can’t be blamed for assuming that the tiny print in your contract is hiding something you really don’t want them to read too carefully.

This is why I push for salespeople to stand slightly apart from the rest of the company. They have to be the client’s advocate in the court of company policies, advising them what all that “mouse print” says, and trying to get their clients the very best possible treatment. A better discount from a sales manager, a good PM assignment from the project director, or assistance on a gray-area warranty claim from the service department could very well be the difference between keeping the client and losing them to a competitor.

Many of the salespeople reading this column have had similar thoughts, I’m sure. But this month, I want you to crystallize it. If you’re a salesperson, make a decision to actively promote your client’s interests. Get intense with it. Go way beyond the examples you got from the in-house sales trainer and ask yourself - what do people hate about doing business here? You’ll probably come up with two or three items on that list.

Write your list down. Start developing a strategy to try to negotiate a settlement on each point.

For example, when I worked at a company that required a 50% deposit and our very large, very desirable clients kept expressing frustration with that policy, the salespeople staged a revolt. Every time their sales numbers were called into question, they pointed to this horrible, very bad, not good policy of asking for money up front. The feedback was useful, but it was a terrible strategy for selling deals and making money.

I went a different way, and yes, it felt a lot like what I imagine it would be like to be a defense lawyer. First, I set expectations by telling the client what they were going to hear well in advance. “This is a great company, and we have some very smart people here, but I will warn you that they’re going to expect a 50% payment to begin the project.”

Some people are fine with this - especially when informed in advance. If they did push back, I would tell them about times when this requirement had been waived. “If it’s all labor, they have budged in the past. Big materials purchases are very hard to get a pass on though. They won’t want to make large purchases on credit.”

In those cases where the deposit was a legitimate threat to making a sale, I had to negotiate the two sides to a settlement by framing the conversation in terms of what the other party was trying to accomplish. To buyers, I would suggest things like:

  • “Would you pay hard expenses - like third-party materials - up front?”

  • “Is it possible to pay invoices on a faster timetable than usual?”

  • “Are there any other purchases you’re going to need to make that we can tie to this one? It would help to fill my list of reasons why they should consider a different payment plan.”

  • “If I get them to commit to do things the way you’re asking, can you definitively commit to the purchase?”

To the sales manager, executives and owners, I would frame things differently.

  • “I don’t complain to you about how the general policy and tell you it’s why I can’t make my numbers. I make my numbers, and I get why we do this. I only ask for things when I need them to close a deal, and I need this.”

  • “Can we do the same thing we did for that deal last month? I think we can make this deal if we do the same thing we did there. They’ll agree to 10 day terms on monthly progress invoices.”

This Month’s Challenge: See yourself as a negotiator between the rigid world of policy and the real world of complex buyers. Try to negotiate a bit more creatively on both sides to get what you need. Don’t accept things as you find them. Be an advocate for your client, and help them write a counter-offer to your employer that will actually be accepted.

Want to talk about this? Have questions? Tell us on Twitter! Tag me at @pitchwerks and use the hashtag #SNPwerkshop so others can follow along!

Scot MacTaggart