When two heads are better than one on a sale

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 1993, 12:00am

I'VE always thought one of the big attractions of being a salesperson is that you get to work alone. You're independent. Your time is more or less your own. The people you have to answer to, besides your customers, can be kept to a bare minimum, often to one sales manager.

There's even a little sizzle attached to the calling; there's something fundamentally heroic about a salesperson venturing into the unknown with nothing but a sample case and coming back with orders.

Of course, there are other compelling reasons for selling solo. For a sales manager, there's no confusion about who gets the credit (or the commission) when one person is working on a sale. It also increases a sales manager's reach; if you have a sales force of 10, you can knock on more doors if you send all 10 salespeople out alone than if you team them up.

Customers also tend to like dealing one-on-one. There's an ease and intimacy to a one-to-one relationship, particularly a long-term one, and there's rarely any confusion about who promised this and who said that.

Dealing one on one, you can usually shake hands on an agreement and know it will happen the way the two of you discussed it. Adding a third person to the mix injects another opinion, which can be divisive.

Despite all this, I've become an advocate of pairing salespeople. I'm not talking here about simply teaming up a new recruit with an experienced salesperson who will take him around to customers and teach him your ''system''. Pairing experience with inexperience is an obvious combination - and highly recommended when new people have to ''learn the ropes''.

Rather, I'm talking about being a little more shrewd about the way all of us as sales managers combine the various and seemingly disparate elements in our sales force.

The first rule for sales managers in this regard is: step out of the way. A lot of salespeople make it easy for a sales manager to team them up. They do it themselves.

They recognise complementary skills and qualities in a colleague and gravitate toward each other. Over the years I've quietly watched the most unlikely sales teams forming - young with old, buttoned-up with flashy, creative with dull, funny with humourless, smooth with gruff.

I'm not sure they consciously decide to work together; it's not as if they announce one day that they're a team. But despite their differing personalities and style, fate has put them together - and the combination clicks. They sell more together than apart. When that happens, I'd be a fool to interfere.

The second rule: don't force people together unless you recognise a serious flaw in one that a partner can correct. The true test for pairing partners is whether the combination of one plus one adds up to more than two. Here are three of my favourite combinations: The CEO and anyone else.

It used to be said on the tennis tour the greatest doubles team in the world was John McEnroe and whoever happened to be his partner. McEnroe was so good he literally elevated his partner's game.

It's the same at most companies. The best sales team should be the CEO and whoever tags along.

As my schedule becomes more complicated, I try to team with at least one other executive on my sales calls.

If I'm trying to sell something to a senior decision-maker, it's possible I could do it on my own. But bringing a younger executive with me provides more benefits to our company than if I went alone.

Being seen with his CEO adds a little to the younger executive's stature and credibility. Taking part in senior-level meetings elevates his ''game'' a little. And if, at some point in the meeting, I give him a chance to take over the discussion, particularly in an area where he knows more than anyone else in the room, that adds a little more to his credibility.

The benefit comes later though, on the second or third meetings, which, if I've positioned the younger executive properly, don't require my attendance at all.

That's the best reason for any CEO to team with a junior salesperson: it helps that salesperson sell better alone.

The super-seller and the lawyer.

Bringing a lawyer to a sales call always elevates the importance of the meeting. It means you are serious about the sale or have some concerns about the legal elements. It also tends to make people a little more careful about what they promise to do. In some cases, with an outside lawyer, it might even speed up the meeting, since people may be aware the lawyer's meter is running.

But the best reason to partner someone with a lawyer is to check their more outrageous selling impulses. I learned this with one of our more gifted sales executives. He had great mental agility and tremendous verbal skills.

Put him in a room with a sales prospect and he could spin out a spellbinding web of concepts and programmes that would dazzle the prospect. Unfortunately, his brilliance sometimes got the best of him - and he often promised more than we could deliver.

As a result, he sometimes spent more time untangling us from his promises than actually selling. The problem disappeared when we started sending a lawyer with him on major initial sales calls.

It was a beautiful good cop/bad cop routine. Whenever he took off on one of his patented flights of fancy, our lawyer would be there to reel him in, reminding him: ''We can't do that.'' Teaming him up with a lawyer made him more effective.

Starters and closers.

There are some people whose biggest skill is getting the attention of the buyer. In a way, they are like carnival barkers; their job is to get customers to step inside the tent.

They make a fine first impression because they have enough flash to get through the initial meeting. But they tend to wear thin with each subsequent meeting - because they lack substance and depth. They can write great headlines, but they can't write thetext.

It's not too hard to spot this type of salesperson. You analyse his ratio of sales calls to actual deals and see there's a lot more calling than closing going on. I can appreciate how some sales managers lose patience and ultimately let this type of person go.

But a truly effective manager will do something else. He'll realise that bringing customers into the tent is a valuable skill. And he'll team him with a detail-oriented executive who can help him close more sales.

It's like managing a baseball team. You don't get rid of a starting pitcher because he can only give you seven good innings each time out. You find a relief pitcher who can shut batters down for the last two innings. Neither pitcher is very good on his own. But together they achieve the desired result: you win.