Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: Now I Know A Sales Force Can Add Value!
Sales Strategy From the Inside Out: How Complex Selling Really Works
Now I Know A Sales Force Can Add Value! – Stan Hall, CEO, Amstand Companies
I knew Darrel Sharp as someone to say hello to at the Black Bear Yacht Club. I even recalled somebody mentioning that his company, GoTeam, had recently become a much hotter player in its industry. But he’s a golfer while my passions are sailing and tennis, so we don’t run into each other a lot.
By the time Darrel called to talk about the deal his people are working out with Victor Herstad, I was already thinking I should get to know him better. His company has a way of operating that I want to understand.
I strongly suspect that GoTeam will have the answer to Amstand’s sales-performance problem. That is an enormous relief to me. But it’s almost a greater relief to know for sure that there is an answer out there—I mean, regardless of what happens with GoTeam. Now I’m certain that a value-added sales force not only should be but can be a terrific differentiator and the foundation of a winning strategy, even in the Age of the Internet.
I’m watching that kind of differentiation unfold in real time, as GoTeam’s own value-added salespeople pursue our business. I see the proof every time I look into Victor’s face and behold a newly energized executive who is filled with confidence—contagious confidence—that he’s going to turn this ship around.
‘The magic has to lie in the way they sell and the value they add in the course of selling.’
Victor’s new attitude doesn’t come from any pitch GoTeam made for a particular product or service—a better mousetrap or a magic lamp with a genie inside. Evidently they haven’t actually pitched anything at all yet. That means the magic has to lie in the way they sell and the value they add in the course of selling.
In other words, their salespeople do exactly what our sales force is supposed to do. They do what I have always believed a great sales force could do. They add value. That’s why I have kept Amstand on the value added path for 20 years, ever since I became CEO.
About a year ago I began to doubt myself. Believe me, self-doubt is not something I’m used to. I built Amstand into the No. 1 company in its industry. No brag, just fact. On a tennis court I can beat the pants off players half my age. Want to know why the Black Bear Yacht Club sponsors nationally known sailing regattas? Because I organized them and put Black Bear on the map, that’s why.
But for many months a small voice had whispered depressing thoughts. Maybe I had become a dinosaur, unable to see new realities or adapt to a new environment. Like many industries, ours has been turning into a straight commodity business, with customers buying on price alone. Most of our competitors now take the low-cost commodity route, using the Internet as their primary selling vehicle, with skeleton crews of salespeople as backup.
‘60 to 80 percent of potential customers are really value buyers.’
I have fought the trend for all I’m worth. I can’t count the number of times I have insisted to our shareholders that selling on price is a trap, that we don’t want pure price buyers as customers anyway, that 60 to 80 percent of potential customers are really value buyers, waiting only for someone to explain the extra value that exists in our services and why it is worth a little more money. (Come to think of it, based on what Victor has said about GoTeam’s determination to understand our needs on a deep level, I wonder if our salespeople do too much explaining and not enough listening?)
At any rate, last year the tide of change finally seemed to overtake my philosophy. If you leave our latest acquisition out of the picture, Amstand’s growth rate fell below the industry average. In real terms, head to head, our low-cost competitors are outperforming us.
I’m glad that Victor uncovered our little growth secret; in my mind that was a test for him, and now he has passed. But Wall Street analysts are a different story. When they look harder at the numbers and realize that I have been championing a strategy based on a value-added sales force that isn’t adding value, “dinosaur” is the kindest thing they’ll call me.
I am 68 years old. I intend to retire at 70, even though retirement looks boring to me. What do retired people do? I love sailing and tennis, but not as full-time occupations.
For a while, though, I actually thought about pulling the plug early. Just announce that I was leaving to pursue other interests and walk away. Why did I have to keep on proving myself to the world anyhow? Hadn’t I proved enough?
One factor, I confess, was the thought that the stock options I would exercise at retirement would be worth considerably more before the analysts figured out Amstand’s problem with real growth and proceeded to hammer its stock like vandals busting up a china shop. I can’t say I’m too fine a person for that consideration to occur to me, and I wouldn’t believe anyone who told me he was.
But I’m not exactly desperate where money is concerned. My net worth is in the high eight figures, and it will stay in that range regardless of my options’ value. The little voice telling me to step down had more to do with a loss of confidence. Maybe the world really had passed me by. My core belief about the way Amstand should do business no longer seemed to hold water. I didn’t know how to fix the problem. Maybe the company would be better off without me.
Self-pity is even more foreign to me than self-doubt, however. I’d be damned if I would run away like a rat and leave behind a mess for someone else to clean up. If I couldn’t figure out how to invigorate our sales performance and jump-start our real growth rate, maybe someone else could. I reached into our most successful branch office and tapped Victor Herstad.
I brought Victor to headquarters, gave him a VP title, and handed him a single assignment: boost the efficiency and effectiveness of our sales organization. How? That was for him to determine. I told him the field was wide open and that I didn’t want him to start with any preconceived ideas. I let him know that if he succeeds, the sky is the limit for him at Amstand. If he fails, he’ll be out on his can.
My stake in the game? My reputation and my legacy rest on the value-added model I created 20 years ago and have nurtured ever since. Victor’s success would be my success—and my vindication.
That much he knows. Here is what he doesn’t know about the decision I made when I chose to stick it out as CEO for two more years: If the value-added model could not be rescued and Amstand had to join the ranks of price sellers, I would make that call myself. Before I stepped down at 70, I would at least start the process of dismantling our sales force and changing the company’s strategic direction.
My legacy still would be in tatters. Everyone would say I waited too long to bow to the inevitable. But nobody would be able to say I had run away from the death of my cherished vision. If it had to be buried, I would bury it with my own hands.
I hoped desperately that it wouldn’t come to that, of course. I gave Victor all the support I could. But I couldn’t give him the answer because I didn’t know the answer. Worse, I was afraid there might be no answer.
Then Victor found GoTeam. Or rather, he tells me, our sales-support manager, Nancy Winslow, found them. I don’t care. What matters is that all of a sudden, Victor stopped acting like a guy who was trying to find the right door and started behaving like someone with his hand wrapped around the handle.
His whole demeanor has changed. He talks about the various elements of our sales organization much more clearly and precisely. He seems able to visualize what has to happen and why—which of our needs are most pressing and where the greatest leverage can be found. Even his questions have become more penetrating. He’s no longer just thinking about how to boost our growth rate but about how we should track and measure the improvements we’re going to achieve. Not might achieve, mind you; the improvements we’re going to make.
He has been discussing all this not only with me but with other people in the company. And like I said, his new confidence is contagious. Our chief financial officer is one of the few people who thoroughly understand the nature and implications of our dilemma with organic growth. Two days ago the CFO popped into my office grinning. “Just had an interesting conversation with Victor,” she said. “I only saw the general shape of where he’s going, but he has cracked it, hasn’t he, Stan? He’s got a plan to save our bacon. What is it that you haven’t told me?”
“I’m not sure of the details yet myself,” I replied, grinning back. “But yes, I think our boy is definitely onto something.”
Victor is still hedging his bets, of course. He points out to me that he has committed us to nothing. He says he will not recommend a proposal from GoTeam unless he’s completely satisfied that it is realistic, doable, and will produce significant, measurable improvements. He will go over their proposal himself until he is either sure that it is the best deal for us or he determines that they don’t have the right solution after all.
Not much chance of that, Victor, I thought. I’ve never seen anyone as sold on a company as you are on GoTeam.
‘You really think these people have all the right answers, don’t you?’
“You really think these people have all the right answers, don’t you,” I asked, challenging him a little. He didn’t get defensive. He just smiled, as if at a private joke. “It’s more like they have all the right questions,” he said. “If this works out the way I think it will, remind me later to tell you about a conference speaker I heard a long time ago.”
‘It’s more like they have all the right questions.’
I’m guessing that this will, indeed, work out as Victor expects, and that our sales organization will get the boost it needs. At least I’m awfully hopeful. It’s been too long since I felt hopeful.
‘Value-added salespeople really can turn potential customers into trusting allies and supporters.’
Am I worried that Victor is too sold on GoTeam? On the contrary. Maybe the best part of this, as far as I’m concerned, is the proof that value-added salespeople really can turn potential customers into trusting allies and supporters. I respect Victor’s abilities; if I didn’t I wouldn’t have put him in this job. If GoTeam can win his loyalty, and even make him a determined advocate, then our salespeople should be able to do the same with our clients.
This deal is barreling forward like a freight train, straight toward a solution that will put Amstand into a close partnership with GoTeam. So I’ve already got proof that my faith in the value-added model is justified, Internet or no Internet. We obviously haven’t been executing it well enough, but the concept works!
By selling Victor so well, GoTeam had pretty much sold me before I got the phone call from Darrel Sharp. The call was just icing on the cake, though I appreciated the personal touch from their CEO. We chatted a little about Black Bear. He asked what I had heard so far about the work that GoTeam hoped to do for Amstand. He told me that his VP, Ron Jensen, and salesperson Carrie Overton were two of his very best people. He assured me that he would monitor things personally to make sure that we got both the right solution for our needs and the follow-up service necessary to implement it. We agreed to talk again once a formal proposal is on the table.
Darrel doesn’t know the half of it. I’ll talk to him again, all right. And then I’ll track him down, at the club or somewhere else, and pick his brain about the way his sales organization works. Somehow he has captured lightning in a bottle. I want it.