Many of my fellow entrepreneurs who own AV integration firms got started in business by working in sales, just like I did. Before I started Interactive Solutions Inc. (ISI), I sold for both Hewlett-Packard and a regional telecom firm, where I was first introduced to videoconferencing. But before that I worked more than six years for Eastman Kodak, selling high-speed copier/duplicators, and AM International, where I sold printing equipment. I have been in professional sales for over 40 years and have been fortunate to achieve sales success with each and every company I worked for. What were the keys to success for me? In addition to possessing a strong work ethic, there were some basic skills I learned early on that were instrumental in building a successful career.
Being a young professional in the printing/duplicator industry in the late ’70s , I was exposed to a sales training course created by Xerox—my biggest competitor at the time. The Professional Selling Skills Course, or PSS for short, was also known as Selling by Needs Satisfaction. Xerox spent $10 million to develop this methodology, which debuted in 1968, and later created the Xerox Learning Systems division just to sell this new selling technique.
One of the fundamentals of the PSS course was being able to understand the “FAB process,” a system that outlined the features, advantages, and benefits of a product or service to the customer. And by thoroughly understanding the FAB process, a salesperson could then go through the four phases of PSS selling: needs identification, presentation, objection handling, and closing. And that’s when it dawned on me—there really was a science behind professional sales, and I was learning techniques from the very best. Forty years later, I still say that the Xerox salespeople were the best in the world, and I have to admit that I was thrilled each and every time I beat them because I knew I had beaten the best of the best.
Years later, I was introduced to “SPIN selling.” SPIN is all about asking questions, and it teaches you how to lead conversations with customers. A salesperson had to transition through four distinctly different types of questions: situation, problem, implication, and need/payoff. Using the SPIN strategy, a salesperson gets a keener understanding of the customer’s problems, needs, etc. and how to address them. PSS and SPIN training were part of the art of professional selling and taught me a skill set that I continue to use and value to this day.
Sadly, many AV integration firms think training programs like PSS and SPIN are things of the past and not relevant in today’s marketplace. Many believe that technology is the answer to everything in sales. Just send a text or email; don’t worry about actually meeting with the customer and engaging them in person. They have lost respect for the art of selling by shortcutting the process, which I think is a flawed strategy. These days, too many salespeople in the AV industry are good at answering their phones and becoming order takers. Is that really selling? I don’t believe technology can do your selling for you.
For the record, as a 30-plus-year veteran of the videoconferencing industry, I do value technology in the sales process, but I am reminded that videoconferencing allowed people to do everything face-to-face except shake hands. Technology is useful in the sales process, but it has limitations. I also understand that selling is vastly different these days—thanks to the internet, today’s buyer has completed 60 percent of the purchase pathway before any contact with sales is made. I also understand that social selling tools like LinkedIn provide ways to feed prospects and customers with valuable information that will help them with their purchase decision, make them aware of trends, and alert them about topics that might upset their industry.
But people still buy from people, and technology should not be the primary means of communication with the customer. Technology should be like any other tool in the sales process and used judiciously. To that point, whether it is selling copiers back in the day or AV equipment today, there is still nothing that replaces face-to-face communication. How else are you going to really get to know your customers and their interests? How will you recognize buying signals? How will you build a relationship? These issues can only be understood by meeting in person with the customer.
And I’ll say it again: all too often in the AV industry, salespeople want to hide behind technology and let emails, texts, or social media do their selling for them. And whether it’s 1978 or 2020, selling is a very personal business. Face-to-face meetings are a key ingredient in building strong, lasting business relationships. It’s also where professional salespeople can leverage their sales skills to win the business. It’s hard to do that with a text, tweet, or email!