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Alan O’Neill: Selling is an acquired art – but a skill every company needs

Large organisations have clearly-defined corporate structures that remove ambiguity in roles and responsibilities. Regardless of the sector that they’re in, commercial organisations have a common denominator; they need to sell their products or services to achieve sales targets. Consequently, every one of them has a defined sales function.

The same can’t always be said for SMEs. Many entrepreneurs set up a business relying on the relationships they have with key people.

Or perhaps they believe so strongly in their product or service that they expect that sales will just happen. Others try to be proactive by placing advertisements using whatever media they deem to be appropriate.

For Pressure Welding Manufacturing (PWM) in particular, sales were achieved using three main strategies.

One was that Jack O’Dwyer had a tremendous reputation in the industry locally and business flowed in.

Another other strategy was to ‘land and expand’. In other words, when a project was won and any of the team landed on the customer site to carry out the agreed work, they might be asked to do extra work, or they might get to hear about other opportunities within that same customer.
Referrals were a third strategy, where existing customers might recommend PWM to others because of their great work.

The Challenge
These reactive strategies were effective when the market was strong and there was much less competition. Such strategies can also be improved upon with a proactive approach. This is a relevant reality even for my own business.

I never feel safe in the knowledge that the telephone will ring with opportunities. Yes, relationships and referrals are a key opportunity driver for us too. But that approach feels to me to be a little too passive and it leaves our destiny in the hands of others.

I also appreciate that the skill of selling is very different to the main technical skills of whatever profession you’re in. Jack is a top-tier engineer. He has also done a great job of selling. But he’d be the first to agree that a more proactive approach is needed in this changed marketplace.

The risk is that if you’re waiting for a call and it doesn’t come, you can’t always be sure of the reason.

How do you know if it’s due to client’s needs changing, or competitor activity, or wrong assumptions about your business, or rotation of decision-makers? Having a proactive selling methodology is essential for any business.

Change Tips for Building a Sales Pipeline
1 This starts with setting sales targets in the first place. Let’s say that you need to have annual sales of €1m to cover your costs and make a profit. Do a trend analysis of the last few years and identify what percentage you can safely rely on from a reactive perspective.

For example, let’s say that the trend shows that past continuity business, referrals and ‘land and expand’ opportunities accounted for 60pc of past sales.

Firstly, ask yourself, how sure can you be of achieving that number again this year. Be really tough with yourself and don’t make loose assumptions. Are you really sure?

2 Don’t rely on chance. Put a plan in place to proactively go after every prospect in that 60pc to ensure you maximise every opportunity.

3 That 60pc makes up part of your pipeline -­ now you should consider where the remaining 40pc will come from. Start with making a list of your prospect industry sectors and a target break down for each. Then within that list, identify the specific customer names and a target for each. (In a future article, we’ll explore steps on how to make contact with all prospects, existing and new).

4 With this pipeline, spread the opportunities across the 12 months to give you a visual of when the opportunities are likely to land. No target matrix like the one described here will ever work out exactly as planned. Some expected opportunities might never materialise and other new ones might appear. And that’s okay. The value of doing the exercise is that it gives you focus.

The Last Word
It’s commonly said that everyone is a salesperson of sorts, perhaps overtly selling a product or perhaps selling yourself in your career or relationships. But selling is an acquired art. I’m not at all convinced that you have to be ‘a born salesperson’ to sell. In fact, I have come across many people who are known for being able to “sell sand to the Arabs” – and some of them can be quite irritating.

If selling is new to you and if it causes you some anxiety, reach out for some help. There are numerous experts who will guide you, and the gain should more than compensate for the cost.

Alan O’Neill is managing director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to if you’d like help with your business.

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