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Tips on Selling

The future of sales leadership

RYAN ESTIS shares the key factors in creating a high-growth sales strategy and keeping up momentum from two leading lights of progressive management.

Tom Pfeifer runs US sales and customer service for multinational media and information company Thomson Reuters. 

He is a sales leader who is progressive, forward-thinking and has embraced a solid blend of traditional and emerging tools to  set up his sales team for continued success both today and beyond.

Recently, as everyone headed home after a conference, Pfeifer and his team chose to stick around. They headed into a strategic-planning meeting to brainstorm how to elevate next year’s sales kick-off meeting. That’s right – they wanted to begin improving upon the experience while it was still fresh in everyone’s mind.

This is exactly the kind of growth mind-set required to win in the new economy. Pfeifer knows continuous reinvention and a relentless commitment to improvement is the only option.

Elizabeth Hurley is vice president of residential sales at Tarkett, one of the world’s leading flooring manufacturers.

She has built a winning sales culture on a bedrock of accountability, as well as a deep understanding of the customer.

Here, Hurley and Pfeifer share their strategies for world-class sales, team management and customer service.

Wielding data as sword

Given Thomson Reuters’ core business, it’s not surprising that Pfeifer loves to talk about data. Leading organisations throughout the world are leveraging the insights from data into action.

This has been a game changer for switched-on sales leaders, where access to quantifiable metrics provides a go-to market advantage, but collecting data is the easy part. The difficult part, according to Pfeifer, is putting that plan into action.

“You have to be careful that those metrics don’t become weapons,” he explains. “Are they the sword or the shield?”

Navigating the human factor is where true leadership comes in. Data may point toward difficult, unpopular decisions, which means sales leaders can be left with the most challenging task – in Pfeifer’s words: “You have to try to convince the group.”

"Access to quantifiable metrics provides a go-to market advantage, but collecting data is the easy part. The difficult part, according to Pfeifer, is putting that plan into action"

He cites a reorganisation of his sales team as an example. A formerly poorly-selling product was now filling a niche in an emerging sector and it had become one of Thomson Reuters’ hottest-selling products.

After some time spent poring over the data, Pfeifer realised his sales team wasn’t being used as effectively as they could be. In actuality, their ‘bag’ was filled with products for two different markets.

“It [was] a different sales motion,” he explains.

Pfeifer made the decision to reorganise his team, shifting some members away from the popular product. It was not universally-supported but Pfeifer navigated his way through the challenge by being transparent with the teams about his reasoning: “You’ve got to say, ‘This is why we’re making these moves.’”

People want line of sight into the rationale behind decisions; transparency helps build the trust needed to drive results.

Similarly, Hurley hasn’t sought to create a winning sales culture just by imposing her will from the top down. Core to her sales leadership philosophy is an emphasis on creating a culture of accountability, and she says leaders have to model the behaviour they expect from their employees.

“I think that when you work, you show up and get the job done – and when you leave, you have to show your team that’s what you are willing to do every day,” she says.

But accountability in sales is about more than just going first, Hurley says. In fact, it’s about even more than owning your mistakes and getting your work done on time. It’s also about owning your successes and building upon them.

Get closer to the customer

The habits of consumers have shifted. They can do almost anything they want at any time they want, with just their phones – order dinner; get a ride; watch a favourite TV show. This is the era of customisation, personalisation and instant gratification.

A recent survey by global research and advisory firm Gartner on the role of marketing in customer experience found that 89 per cent of companies now expect to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience. Four years ago, this figure was 36 per cent.

Shifts in consumption habits have also elevated professional expectations – B2B customers increasingly have the same expectations at the office as they do when they’re off the clock. “They want immediacy; they want real time; they want it on their terms,” Pfeifer says.

In this context, the best salespeople don’t view a sales relationship through a transactional lens, Hurley explains. Instead, they view their relationship with a customer as exactly that: a relationship.

These winning salespeople are consultants who get closer to the customer and strive to understand their needs first. “The better salespeople have empathy,” she says. “They care and want to know more about what’s happening in your business so that they can bring the right product and ultimately more value to you.”

"The best salespeople don’t view a sales relationship through a transactional lens, Hurley explains – instead, they view their relationship with a customer as exactly that: a relationship"

This ability to own customer outcomes as your own is a powerful differentiator for salespeople who are competing with the demands of the 2025 economy. It’s easy for customers to go online and comparison shop and research. With more businesses moving online to make the buy, it’s more important than ever for salespeople to demonstrate that they have the expertise to guide customers through a purchase decision.

“We have to show ourselves, what is the  value of coming to me as opposed to a website?” Hurley says. “And the difference is that human factor.”

That is how you add value that is worth even more than the convenience of buying online. People crave human interaction, but you have to earn it by adding value.

At the same time, sales organisations must become more flexible in meeting customer expectations and embrace new technology as a tool to do so. For Thomson Reuters, this has meant utilising mobile as a means for delivering products and services. For other organisations, it may mean something as simple as making it easier to pay a bill.

Either way, Pfeifer says one principle is paramount: “We have to meet the customer wherever he or she is.”

This doesn’t only go for the customer; sales leaders need to understand their sales teams will have the same expectations as well and use technology to connect, communicate and influence the culture they are creating.

Pfeifer suggests ensuring that leaders are in daily communication with their teams, sending messages to each member – perhaps a compliment or an explanation of a new tactic. The best sales leaders understand they are working in the service of others.

New skills for a new marketplace

There are some skills that will always be foundational for salespeople – product expertise, communication, time-management – but Pfeifer has noticed that the rapidly-transforming economy demands new skills. He has begun asking candidates a new question: “Have you overseen an evolution or transformation of any type?”

Pfeifer isn’t just concerned about whether someone has seen disruption in the workplace; he’s also trying to gauge the hire’s fit in the transparent, responsive sales culture he has created. His follow-up question is the real test: “With the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently?”

Finding people who can communicate this self-awareness is key to building a team that is resilient enough to respond to the pressure of constant change. Also important is the ability to take ownership of the outcome. It’s a sign of growth and the hunger to embrace the continuous improvement required to win. These traits drive sales transformation.

Hurley has also brought her emphasis on a culture of accountability to her hiring practices. But how do you screen for accountability? By looking for self-confidence. That’s why, when Hurley evaluates candidates to join her sales team, she asks herself whether a particular candidate is ‘leading themselves in what they do’.

In other words, she’s looking for people who are intelligent, reliable and self-confident — but not arrogant. Yes, they perform and take pride in those accomplishments, but they’re also playing for the overall benefit of the team.

Most importantly, they are self-aware. They know themselves, Great salespeople have to be able to answer two questions, Hurley says: “Do I know who I am? Do I know what I do?”

These aren’t always easy questions to answer. Having self-awareness means not just knowing our strengths, but also our weaknesses. It means doing the inner work needed to be your best self – and bring the best value you can to your organisation.

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” Pfeifer says, “ but if you’re listening and you’re trying to be open about what it is you’re trying to solve and you can show some progress, I think it goes a long way.”

It’s this focus on openness, clarity of goals and awareness of progress that makes Pfeifer and Hurley such effective sales forces.

Ryan Estis

Contributor •

Ryan Estis helps companies to embrace change, attack opportunity and achieve breakthrough performance. Learn more:

Duraflex Group Australia

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