Five years ago, tire-kicking customers of Mike Bass Ford visited four to six dealerships to gather information, ask questions and compare models before making a purchase. Today, studies show that educated consumers visit just one dealership before they buy. “A test drive is the only thing you can’t do at home,” said President Jim Bass. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying clothing or a car or anything else. People now get an idea of what they’re looking for online.”
Consumers have an arsenal of new shopping tools to learn about products and services and to inform their purchasing decisions. And that keeps Bass and his sales team on their toes.
“What has completely changed is how consumers gather information and the speed at which they require responses,” said Mickey Mann, third-generation operations manager at Mike Bass Ford. “When they want information, they want it now. With the amount of research they’re able to do online, customers can come into the dealership as informed as our own employees.”
Because consumers have changed the way they buy, selling to them requires a toolkit update. Savvy, knowledgeable consumers don’t respond well to pushy, old-school sales tactics, so professionals need to learn new sales skills to be successful. And that could include redefining what “selling” means.
“I consider our team more like customer relationship managers,” said Mann, son of President Jim Bass and grandson of founder Mike Bass. “There are lots of places you can buy a Ford. How do we differentiate ourselves? It’s more about providing information and building relationships than ‘selling’ — that’s why somebody buys.”
While Ford Manufacturing Co. provides sales training for employees, it is primarily focused on product-specific information such as models and features. So when it comes to teaching employees consultative soft selling skills such as communication and relationship building, Mike Bass Ford has been on its own.
“There are so many areas where there is customer interaction,” Bass said. “Sales skills aren’t just for the traditional new or used car salesperson, but for all of these other areas of our business.”
Like Mike Bass Ford, Northeast Ohio businesses have struggled to find regional sales training resources that support new- school selling skills. Many resources that do exist are either motivational in nature, or geared specifically toward curriculum-based students.
In talking to regional businesses, LCCC realized that many companies lacked the specialized resources needed to equip their sales teams with the necessary consultative soft skills — in addition to product knowledge.
LCCC Business Growth Services tested interest in a consultative sales training solution by conducting market research, which included offering a series of sample workshops through the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) last year.
The collective inputs from these companies and additional pilot series will contribute to the design of The Richard Desich Sales Institute — a customized training program targeted to meet the sales needs of community-based businesses. The Sales Institute shares the college’s vision to impact the community by strengthening local talent while driving business growth, as an extension of The Richard Desich School of Business & Entrepreneurship at LCCC. In line with that vision, the program’s primary goal is to help companies develop both new and existing sales talent and teach them the skills needed to succeed in Northeast Ohio’s changing marketplace.
“Sales jobs aren’t the easiest to succeed at, but they’re critically important because an organization is only going to grow as much as its sales team can sell,” said Jeffrey Desich, whose family provided strategic guidance and financial support for the Sales Institute, which bears his father’s name. “We saw an opportunity to help people on a more tactical level, to teach those skills and prepare them for sales jobs in the community. At the end of the day, the more successfully that individual is selling, the more successful the business will be.”
New-school sales curriculum
The Sales Institute’s full curriculum is still being developed, and LCCC will launch a formal pilot program of initial courses at the beginning of 2016. Through the program, LCCC will offer sales training to companies of all sizes, in any industry, and can provide customized curriculum based on specific business needs.
How will the curriculum be different than other sales training?
“Action,” said Suzanne Balaban, an independent consultant leading the launch.
Many sales training programs only teach concepts through a motivational approach. The Sales Institute will include a professional sales lab that offers hands-on workshops, where sales professionals practice applying the concepts they learn.
“There’s a certain set of selling tools and skills — an understanding of consumer behavior — that doesn’t come through the motivational side of selling,” Balaban said. “We have to teach that practical side and then allow the participants to demonstrate those skills that they have learned. Rather than just sitting in a content-driven presentation, you’re in a workshop developing your skills through a facilitated, hands-on experience. You are engaging in active production.”
Ultimately, the options will comprise a menu of components, which can be selected individually or packaged together to craft the right combination of sales skills for any role.
By evaluating which skills employers want in sales candidates — and profiling successful salespeople to identify necessary traits and tools — the institute takes a comprehensive approach to all facets of selling, Desich says.
Once structured, the sales program will be integrated into LCCC’s college curriculum for marketing and business degree programs, offering students real-life sales experience through internships and job shadowing opportunities. Instead of just learning how to sell, students will gain the full experience of a sales career, from the challenges of dealing with rejection to budgeting on a cyclical commission-based income.
“There is more to being successful at sales than just going out there and trying to be persuasive,” said Desich, CEO at Equity Trust Co. in Westlake. “Identifying what makes successful salespeople successful will be critical to figuring out what we include in the curriculum.”
Ultimately, the Sales Institute will benefit individual professionals as much as it benefits businesses. Businesses will have access to a local talent pool of trained sales candidates. Training in new-school selling techniques better prepares individuals for success in today’s competitive sales positions, promoting higher job satisfaction and retention. For companies, that increased retention and reduced turnover provide a greater return on investment on those they hire, Balaban says.
All of this makes the Sales Institute a win for job-seeking candidates, growth-seeking companies and the local economy.
“Teaching these skills will build the talent network that fuels the economic growth machine in our region,” Balaban said.
Besides strengthening existing talent, the program also has the potential to attract new professionals to sales careers, thereby connecting companies with candidates who possess comprehensive selling skills. This will be increasingly important as technology continues to influence the purchasing behaviors of consumers.
“Whether we’re in recession or boom times, there are always sales jobs,” Desich said. “Because sales opportunities will consistently be available, we can have an impact locally by helping people in the community gain those skills. If we are producing good, quality candidates, then more businesses are going to look to our region for those skillsets. The biggest driver for the community is more than just creating jobs, it’s creating employment.”
Want to get involved? LCCC is seeking participation from owners, sales managers or HR professionals in the initial free pilot programs, launching at The Richard Desich Sales Institute. Contact Suzanne Balaban at (216) 401-5728 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.