September 27, 2023

Old Dog, New Tricks

The article originally appeared on LinkedIn, dated November 30, 3021.

I work with a lot of sales professionals, and because of the demographics in the printing industry, most are between the ages of 55 and 65 years old.  This is the same age range as most owners I also work with.

The similarities between the two groups often end at age. Most owners are continuous learners. They regularly attend conferences and participate in national and local peer groups. Owners do this for the opportunities that interacting with other business leaders affords them. They also know it’s an excellent way to keep their finger on the pulse of their industry, the markets they serve, and their local business community.

More often than not, this is the opposite of what sales professionals in the printing industry do. Many are not focused on learning, don’t invest their own money in developing skills, and under-utilize the opportunities provided to them by their companies and the industry at large. If I had to name them, it might be ‘Coasters.’ In fact, I’ve had many tell me, “I’m just trying to get to retirement,” and one actually said he wanted to “coast into retirement.”

What coasting looks like to me as a sales trainer, coach, and fractional sales manager boils down to these critical behaviors

  • Refusal to acknowledge their steady decline in sales has anything to do with how they sell. (It’s the economy, younger buyers who don’t understand print, it’s the fact that no one wants to meet with salespeople today, it’s the company’s pricing, etc.)
  • Changing what they do daily will take more work than they are willing to do.
  • They allow themselves to be distracted by daily tasks by design or accident. They are convinced they are too busy monitoring jobs through the shop to ensure they are produced correctly, submitting or doing estimates, writing up jobs, making deliveries, and wandering around on LinkedIn or the internet – to focus on selling more.

The problem with this belief system is that an owner of that business is using his or her hard-earned cash to pay someone who wants to “coast into retirement.”

I have spent years analyzing this problem and think it has two leading causes.

  1. Reps in the printing industry are typically not held accountable for performance.  Keypoint Intelligence did a study when I worked there that found that 32% of the printers didn’t hold reps accountable at all. The others responded that they did, but their answer was no more than the ringing of hands and begging their reps to “sell more.” Very few noted that there was a consequence for continued underperformance. The steady decline has been allowed to stand unabated by owners with many other irons in the fire. I still run into companies that don’t set goals for their sales reps, so there isn’t anything to hold them accountable to each year. The expectation is to “sell what you can,” and that is precisely what the owner gets.
  2. Companies don’t have a culture of continuous learning.  I have reps who are afraid to write a prospecting email. They haven’t been in school for 30 years, and anything that resembles homework or learning is scary. Others don’t know how to use the software tools on their computers, haven’t invested their time to learn it, and haven’t used any internet content to improve their performance or streamline their work processes. If reps would research B2B buying changes, they would know how their messaging has to change to the attention of prospects. I run across reps who call the same prospect every 90 days or, worse yet, drop in to see those prospects and say something like, “We’d love an opportunity to work with you; please let us know if there is anything I can quote for you.” They haven’t investigated the prospect’s website, used a Google Alert to know that the prospect company has a new Director of Marketing, haven’t tried to connect with stakeholders on LinkedIn, or spent any time figuring out something different to say that might get that prospect’s attention. It’s the time equivalent of throwing good money after bad.

The selling skills of the existing sales reps and managers must improve to make the industry more attractive to younger talent.

If you think you may be in a similar situation, here are some steps to take:

  1. Set goals for your sales rep or reps for 2024. The goals should represent an increase over 2023. Your rep or reps are supposed to sell. Simply maintaining existing accounts is only half of their job. Or, as one of my customers likes to say, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
  2. Establish learning goals or developmental activities that must be achieved to make the total commission rate. If those goals aren’t met, the rep loses commission. There is no accountability without consequences.

Learning or Developmental Goals

One of the reasons sales reps struggle to apply new training is it’s been a long time since they had “homework.” Creating an outline of how they want a sales appointment to go, capturing their ideas for prospect messaging, documenting the questions they want to ask, and sending summaries to clients all feel like homework, and they are out of practice. If reps are constantly working on developmental goals, they will be used to reading, documenting, planning, and executing.

Developmental goals should include a prioritized list of new and updated sales skills. Please work with your reps to identify areas for improvement and have them create a training plan that can include utilizing industry association resources like archived webinars, taking online courses, reading sales books, and learning about the various markets they support. Ensure that their plan includes a way for you to validate that they have achieved their developmental goal and are integrating the knowledge or skill gained into their daily work processes. Validation can include things like making a presentation to you, creating presentations to give to prospects, presenting an overview of a vertical market to your customer-facing team, and assessing their skill improvement during an in-person, virtual, or phone appointment with a customer. Reps should work on one needed improvement at a time and move on to the next developmental goal once completed. There should always be an active learning goal with a target completion date.

The rep creates the plan, and the sales manager or owner oversees their process and coaches them through the execution of their plan. The goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and have a timeline. If the rep’s plan includes a resource the owner has to pay for, it may be worth the investment, but the rep must be accountable for using the resource and completing their plan. The owner should only pay if the rep uses the valuable resource. The rep still has the learning goal but will have to either pay for the resource themselves or find something free to help them accomplish it.

Selling is changing fast. Gartner is projecting that 80% of all interactions between buyers and sellers will be digital by 2025. Many millennials already wish they could buy everything digitally. Is this because they don’t really want to talk to salespeople? No! It’s because they don’t want to talk to sales reps who are unprepared, peddle products, can’t help them move their business forward, and don’t know how to cost-justify what they are recommending. Today’s buyers want more, and if reps can’t give it to them, they prefer to buy it online.

Whatever the current state of your sales rep or team, now is the time to put a system into place that sets goals, holds reps accountable for both sales performance and continuous learning, and creates an environment that other talented people would want to join. If not, you might be coasting into retirement when you should be building your company’s value, so you hit retirement full speed with the money to enjoy it!


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