Robert Miller is unlike most consultants. If he does not know an answer to a question , then the founder of Miller Heiman Inc, a sales performance
company based in the US will tell you exactly that and no more. It’s possibly a paradox that Miller is a consultant on the sales function , where professionals are expected to have answers to every question — and talk, occasionally smooth talk, their way out of every situation.
Miller begs to differ. According to him, the starting point of selling is not glib talk, but asking questions. But across the world, companies are not asking enough questions. “It is laziness. The first thing a person gets when he joins a new organisation is product training. Be it products or services, companies tell new employees all about the business and they go forth and sell,” he says. Naturally , when new recruits go out and sell, they end up talking about products and services. “Sales people are good at showing, telling, demonstrating, but they are not good at listening, questioning , probing and discussing,” says Miller.
When companies ask relevant questions , the results are often in their favour. Case in point — the challenge PepsiCo faced in the US against rival Coca-Cola . Miller says PepsiCo was looking at ways to wean away key clients from rival Coca-Cola . Coca-Cola’s No 1 client was Mc-Donald’s and No 2 client was Burger King. But Coca-Cola lost Burger King to PepsiCo because of a very interesting proposition.
PepsiCo told them that McDonald’s would always be Coca-Cola’s number one client. But they could get No 1 treatment if they came to PepsiCo.
But as PepsiCo and even Coke realised later, just winning the client was not enough. At that time, PepsiCo did not have the technology to serve a consistent measure of drink every time. Then, it also did not have Coca-Cola’s infrastructure to ensure that remote locations did not run out of stock. “We helped Coca-Cola win Burger King back by identifying its strengths and putting red flags on weaknesses. We also did an analysis on PepsiCo and they had more red flags. That was what we exploited.” In three years Burger King was back with Coca-Cola .
According to him, asking questions helps in delivering intangible benefits like experience, keeping in mind the fluid scenario today. that’s because, rapid dissemination of information is changing the way people consume products and services and it makes the task of a sales person very challenging.
Miller agrees that in both the business-toconsumer and the business-to-business space, consumers have had more choices than ever before. “When sales people go out to make a sale, customers know more about their products and even their competitor’s products. Hence the job of the salesperson is to put the customer at the centre of the equation.”
That requires a significant change in mindset. Till not very long back, it was the product at the centre of the equation. “You are not selling a product anymore, but a solution. Hence it’s very important to ask questions,” Miller continues.
He provides the example of a Mexican real estate developer client who owns 10 miles of property inside a gated community, to be sold exclusively to the rich and famous. With hotels like Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton inside the property , Miller says the property has golf courses, spas and the works. But when potential clients come over to see the property, Miller is clear that the first thing should not be to show them around.
Instead of showing off the premium property and the amenities, why not ask customers about the experience they expect from the property. First,
question them ‘what brings you to the property?’ and find out what specifically interests them. ‘Is it golf, spa or a retreat?’ This can help sales people position the experience pitch better,” he says. That, according to him is extremely important, because in the current context, the customer is in control. “You should try to understand what the customers want to accomplish, avoid, fix and create. Until you know that, you really don’t know what you are selling,” he says.
But what was earlier a simple task of managing few products across one or may be two channels has today transformed into a labyrinth of options. With growing product portfolios and emergence of newer channels of distribution, it’s surely a nightmare for a sales head. But Miller is convinced that it can be a sweet dream. “It’s time to stick to fundamentals,” says Miller, and adds that it’s not about pushing as many products in the portfolio through a channel. Instead , it’s better to sit with the clients and then figure out what suits their interests.
According to him, the beer industry in the US when faced with a similar situation came up with an interesting solution. They co-operated with competitors to figure out the niche that each beer brand filled and what audience that they appealed to. Then manufacturers got together with distributors to create a category manager for each channel. In effect, the category manager would be responsible for selling both a Heineken and its arch-rival Budweiser as he would be responsible for all beer brands to his respective channel. Thus the competition was now not another beer brand but other beverages, says Miller.
He clarifies that such innovations are not because there’s a perpetual dearth of talent, considering that for many sales people, a long term sales job is not the desired career choice? “I think there is good talent in sales.
Since the advent of the Internet, selling has become more and more professional. Thirty years back, when we started our company, the sales force in most companies was totally male. The only people who had women in their sales force were banking and Hertz car rentals that had a smattering of females ,” he says. Now, according to him, it’s 50:50 across industries.
Miller feels that’s a definite turn for the better. “Because women are better listeners, can question better and understand where customers come from and so on,” he says but admits, “there are still some bastions” . There’s probably another reason for him to firmly believe that women are doing well as sales professionals. Three of his grand-daughters are into sales, selling categories as varied as insurance and men’s accessories. And yes, he occasionally doffs the consulting hat at home too.