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Can Salespeople Push Away Customers?

Running sales professionally is the best way to show customers how much you value them, argues Steinbeiser Winfried Küppers

Sales-driven companies drive away customers – baloney, some would say, since sales departments attract customers. Precisely, say others, pointing to examples of sales departments completely fouling up positive-looking projects. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes, argues Steinbeis entrepreneur Winfried Küppers, an expert in selling: There are overpriced market criers and others who bring salvation. In our latest Steinbeis Swipe! Küppers explains his views on the matter.

I can still remember exactly what I was doing when I first heard a manager utter the provocative opinion that sales drive away customers. I was a young sales analyst and an ardent believer in selling. I knew my theory, I’d practiced it, and I was on the road on behalf of a highly professional organization. I knew without doubt that this simply wasn’t true. Today, twenty years later, I often utter this provocative statement myself when talking to customers or discussing sales departments. Their reactions vary widely in terms of actual content, but they always have one thing in common: They’re emotional!

How did the sales function get such a bad reputation?

Whereas in the U.S. people are proud to work as salespeople, in this country hardly any will admit to being a member of the field sales fraternity. This is partly to do with German history. In the 1950s and 60s, people didn’t sell products, they “distributed” them.

Demand was strong and everyone wanted a modern household. Companies produced in plenty, but even when the market was saturated, sellers still kept trying to push their products onto the market. This ruined the reputation of salesmen for decades. Then came a countermovement, the complete humility of salesmen submitting to customers. Both extremes represent a type of salesperson that is not in tune with customers.

Even today, sales departments can drive away customers. Over the past 20 years, I have accompanied many “sales reps” to customer appointments. Professional and successful salespeople – but also other ones. One I remember particularly well, an account manager for mechanical engineering clients. He was so “uninterested” in his region, he didn’t even notice that one of his customers had cut monthly orders by 90% – four months beforehand. When the customer was asked why, he said the supplier didn’t really care about him – others were more active, so he switched suppliers.

With one of my own clients, we managed to reduce the number of people in field sales from 120 to around 80 just by introducing digital solutions. At the same time, sales rose. Why? Only the best salespeople were kept on and because the team was organized more systematically, it quickly found a good way to analyze potential. As a result, some customers that had plateaued in terms of order volumes for years, suddenly doubled them.

Salespeople push away customers. Sadly, it’s true. But having no sales function also pushes away customers! Customers want salespeople. Customers want to be looked after and even wooed. Customers expect someone to come along and make it easier to decide what to buy, someone who wins them over and inspires them. So if a firm has no proper sales, it’s seen as unprofessional or arrogant, or it looks like it’s not interested in customers.

The solution? Be professional.

If you look closely, you realize that half the time the problem is not sales per se, but being unprofessional – or just bumbling along. Good salespeople who learn their profession from scratch are always an asset. Unfortunately, however, we sometimes look for the wrong things in salespeople. If we’re looking for an engineer, accountant, or architect, we always focus on “real professionals,” but when it comes to sales, we work with people from outside the field – who often had zero to do with selling during their training or studies. For some, it’s enough to know the product to become an account manager. That’s not enough!

Every company needs sales. Sales looks after our customers, takes them seriously, and knows right away what they need. Above all, however, we need salespeople who regularly win over new customers, helping to grow the company and compensating for other customers who fall off the radar.

Top salespeople focus on successful outcomes and business expansion. They hit targets and provide valuable feedback. The more clearly you define selling concepts and the more detailed you make selling, the quicker you achieve business targets. The task of running sales is the responsibility of management. This involves creating concepts and defining strategic objectives. Good salespeople provide you with a steering mechanism for developing the business in the coming years.

A trend has emerged in the last two or three years: More and more buyers are being trained in negotiation skills. Currently as many as one-third of sales courses offered by leading instructors are attended by buyers. So if customers are increasingly training their purchasing professionals to put pressure on our salespeople during negotiations, we can’t afford not to have the best salespeople on our side.

Professional sales will be even more important in the future, because a number of changes will mean that it won’t be enough to do “business as usual.” I’d like to highlight two such changes. The first is that not being able to travel, a situation that will continue for many months due to the coronavirus pandemic, has accustomed buyers to video conferencing, and they value the advantages of video calls. However, many salespeople prefer to visit customers in person and this has limitations, which they can still justify at the moment due to the pandemic. Bridging physical separation and compensating for it by using alternative sales methods will be a key task for people in sales in the future. In addition, digitalization is leading to changes in processes and procedures, for both field sales management and customers. Field sales staff are like a link in a chain, so they have to serve both parties and ensure everything works. Digital technology is also leading to completely new business models, which can’t be sold in the same way they used to be. The future bandwidth of the company sales function will determine whether we will emerge as the winners or losers after this sea change.

One misunderstanding needs clarifying right now

When managers say they don’t want a sales function, they usually mean salespeople who insist on imposing things on customers. It’s right to not want that. That’s why it’s important to have clear sales concepts. Sometimes a salesperson is just someone whose job is to tell customers about different ways to work together. If they do this skillfully and respectfully, it can open many doors. Think about this one: Do all your potential customers know your offering and its benefits?

Good salespeople also determine actual needs and the range of prices customers are willing to pay. I know from many conversations with purchasing managers how far off the mark some companies are in estimating customers’ price flexibility. And how detailed is our understanding of our potential customers? With the right understanding and knowledge, salespeople don’t drive away customers – on the contrary. Existing customers feel listened to, projects and orders can be identified quickly, and new customers can be acquired.

Few topics are the subject of so much argument within a company as sales. Why? Because no other topics are of such existential importance to a company as keeping hold of existing clients, generating new orders, growing organically, safeguarding jobs – and many more. And where there’s hope in plenty, there’s either great joy or bitter disappointment. The job of influencing this equation lies with management. If you feel that your salespeople are driving away customers, make a change and clean up their act. Yes, running a professional sales department is an investment – but it’s one that pays off in the long run.


Winfried Küppers (author)
Steinbeis Entrepreneur
Steinbeis Consulting Center Sales Analytics (Hilzingen)

Winfried Küppers is a Steinbeis Entrepreneur and is responsible for the Steinbeis Consulting Center for Sales Analytics. As well as consulting politicians and boards, he is a much sought-after counselor and expert.