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If It’s Good Enough For Sir Alan…

I attended a pre-Christmas function at which the BBC Apprentice star Sir Alan Sugar was guest of honour. Sir Alan was interviewed after lunch and amongst the questions put to him included a reference to what he felt were his greatest strengths; “I’m a sales-man, simple as that.

It took me until my mid twenties to realise what I was good at. If I’d discovered this in my teenage years I’d have made myself a lot more money very quickly and saved myself a lot of hassle. If you can’t sell your product you are at nothing. Too many business plans fail to cover that basic essential. Sales are the oxygen of the business and must consume the energies and focus of the business. Simple as that!”

Earlier this month I met with a Regional Sales Manager of a leading Irish Insurance company and we got to discussing how his sales team were performing in what is generally accepted as “challenging times”. He remarked how three to four years ago his reps had lobbied heavily to have their job titles changed from Sales Representatives to Financial Advisers. It could be argued that Sales became un-fashionable in the past ten years because a lot of us felt we were in growth industries or markets that would continue indefinitely or so we thought.

A sales professionals or managers of the sales function, we are now back in fashion and seriously under the spot-light;

This is manifesting itself in a number of ways:

  • HR Agencies have unprecedented levels of sales talent willing to work on a commission only basis or indeed a base salary that meets minimum wage plus commission
  • Marketing and PR Agencies are now changing their business models, willing to work for a modest/ base retainer with commission paid on the delivery of tangible results
  • Management Consultants too are being swayed toward this form of business model purely based on the fact that clients are demanding it (tangible results/ outputs)
  • Charitable organisations all over Ireland are scaling back towards leaner business models with the primary retention of those who are responsible for donor generation
  • A number of industries are now being forced to look to new markets for existing products and services

So in many respects there has never been a better time to be a sales professional in this country, but it’s a New Ireland now and there is a legacy to the Celtic Tiger that the sales professional must be acutely aware of. I am going to touch on just three of these many legacies here.

The first of these has been the complete loss of one of the core skills to sales generation, the personal touch/ relationship selling. How many of us looking at our current client base at the moment can truly claim to have developed a sales relationship that is based on more than the transactional sale? Or is a more accurate question, how many of us have relationships with customers that don’t extend beyond the mobile phone, email or indeed the hybrid that is the blackberry?

Secondly, if you were to cast you’re mind back two/ three years ago, (even nine months ago) attendance at networking events in Dublin and indeed nationwide were what I would describe as solid, certainly not over-run but those that made the effort were generally rewarded by an attendance that was there to do business also. Fast forward to today, there’s a reason sales of ties rocket in recessionary times, those that have been languishing behind their desks are now being mandated to get out into the marketplace and ‘bring in the business’. If it were only that simple, but as a result the traditional networking platforms have now become over-run and indeed the mood of these gatherings has a sense of quiet desperation about them. So where too now in terms of your networking strategy?
Thirdly, and equally challenging has been the participation mentality that is being fuelled by a number of factors. Irish businesses are actively engaging in a participation mentality that has a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Sam Walton of Wal-Mart had spotted this in the 1970’s when he told a Financial Times reporter repeatedly that he didn’t understand the question in relation to how Wal-Mart were coping with the then recession in the US. Eventually, his patience gave out and he relented; “We here at Wal-Mart are refusing to participate in this recession. Tough Times don’t last. Tough People do and we are here to stay”.

I’ll leave you with this, late last year I delivered a talk on selling professional services in Ireland. In the run up to the event I met with the management team of the organisation I was addressing. I spoke strongly about how I felt as a salesman, our profession needed to see a return to strategies espoused by such luminaries as Dale Carnegie in his ground-breaking book “How to win friends an influence people”, written in 1927. I was met with resistance, with the client feeling that this form of ‘sales mantra’ was out-dated. I do hope this wider perception continues as my business partner and I have built three companies in the past five years on the back of these principles and continue to live by them.

Just as an aside, I had Carnegie’s principles on fifth slide of my presentation much to the annoyance of the management committee that appointed me to talk but the audience of sales professionals (who I felt ultimately responsible to) got an awful lot out of it.

If you want to grow your sales start by re-programming your sales team/ function. What worked up to six months ago is now redundant, fresh thinking, innovation, ambition, new business development models and sales strategies are now on the agenda. Evolve, change and lead your organisation as a sales professional. Have you ever heard the term “Live by the sword, get shot by the man with the gun”?

Eoin Conroy is a Director of Innovo Training & Development and can be contacted at