Best sellers excel in economic downturn

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 June, 2010, 12:00am

The Hong Kong Management Association's (HKMA) 42nd Distinguished Salesperson Award presentation ceremony will be held this evening.

The awards come in two categories - the Distinguished Salesperson Award (DSA) and the Outstanding Young Salesperson Award (OYSA). The programme, originally launched in the United States in 1950, is annually organised and sponsored by the HKMA's Sales and Marketing Executives Club in conjunction with Sales and Marketing International of New York.

The awards recognise and celebrate the city's numerous sales personnel from diverse fields, with an eye towards improving local salesmanship, and portraying sales and marketing in a positive light. Banking, insurance, hospitality, telecommunications, publishing, airlines, trading and real estate are just a few of the sectors that have participated over the years.

This year's theme is 'Passion for Profession'. According to the organising committee's chairman and PCCW sales manager Angus Tam Wai-hung, a person's 'passion and attitude' towards their career makes a profound difference to their performance.

'It is a matter [of whether] a salesperson wants to treat sales as a job or a career,' he says. 'Are they looking at the short- or long-term?'

For the DSA and OYSA, assessment criteria fall into two broad categories: a two-part interview comprising 80 per cent of a nominee's score and a paper accounting for 20 per cent.

In the paper, nominees explain to the judges their career expectations. They must also submit a reference letter from their companies and present their qualifications.

According to Phoebe Chow, chairwoman of the Sales and Marketing Executives' Club and vice-president of Credit Suisse, it is in the interview stage that matters get interesting.

That is when nominees do a three-minute presentation and two-minute question-and-answer session on their products and services (70 per cent of their interview score).

The second leg of the interview round is an 'Effective Selling' (30 per cent of their interview score) session to present and sell a product, unknown to participants, to a designated professional on the spot.

Judges gauge performances based on sales skills, product and market knowledge, the ability to build relationships with customers and closing the sale, Tam says.

While the same skills are being tested in the DSA and OYSA (the latter is for salespersons aged under 25 years), Tam believes judges' expectations towards the DSA are higher and less forgiving.

Nevertheless, Chow believes the OYSA is still important for spotting up-and-coming sales professionals.

While it is an honour to be considered, what separates winners from those who come close is not always clear. However, as Chow observes, confidence is the key to success.

To prepare for the competition, candidates with confidence will be driven to develop their strengths, while trying to overcome their weaknesses. She adds that some candidates tend to do better because their experience enables them to control any nervousness.

'Sometimes I think new joiners don't get the main points of the competition. Big companies often provide trainers, and maybe other companies don't have such training and so they don't get the best scores,' she says.

However, Tam believes time management is essential in making an impression on judges. 'Since every participant only has a few minutes to present their products and to close the sale, it is very important if they can make use of the short period of time to demonstrate their sales talents and impress the judges - that will definitely make you outstanding,' he says.

Conventional wisdom holds the best salespeople can sell in good times and bad. While many people can do well in boom times, what distinguishes good salespeople from the rest is how they do in a recession.

Last year's challenging economic conditions were rough on many people's commissions. Tam concedes that in such an environment 'salespersons will always encounter challenges from competitors, demanding customers, pressure from management and the temptation of misrepresentation'.

However, he believes that, irrespective of the economic landscape, a successful salesperson will possess excellent sales skills, treat all customers equally and objectively and, most importantly, possess 'a caring heart to serve customers, and a positive, honest character'.

Chow goes further. Though she acknowledges that in the past two years some Hong Kong salespeople have had bad results, the key to good salesmanship is relationships and putting client needs ahead of one's own gains - though the two are not mutually exclusive. 'Your success depends on how you treat your clients and customers ... do you treat them like friends and hold their interests above yours?' Chow says.

She stresses that the strength of relationships becomes even more crucial in a downturn, especially with capital markets dropping last year. 'In an industry such as banking, some salespeople did not want to face their clients or their problems,' she says. Her advice is to explain the severity of a situation - however unpleasant - to customers as confidently and honestly as possible. 'Or else they [the customers] will think that you [the salesperson] were not there for them when a bad situation arose; you were only there to make a sale in the good times.'

While an economy's ups and downs definitely affect a salesperson's income, Tam feels it shouldn't influence their passion. 'Good and bad economies are cycles we all must face, but it is [your] attitude that makes the world different because good salespeople understand business relationships are long-term relationships,' he says. These people are not discouraged by short-term downturns.

'We can treat bad times as a seeding stage to build relationships with customers [through marketing and promotion]. When the good times come, you will be the fastest to capture the share,' Tam says.

With the awards now more than 40 years old, both Tam and Chow reckon they are the 'local Oscars' of sales. The prestige of four decades is nothing to scoff at given that local titans, such as HSBC and AIA, have participated, with the former sponsoring.

The awards set the standard, and winners receive the recognition and acceptance not just of their own companies but also their industries, Chow says.

In a similar vein, Tam contends that the awards provide significant recognition to individuals and companies, providing a quality standard that can be presented to their customers. 'I am confident that the DSA programme will continue to be important in the coming decades,' he says.