Roger Trapp: Success is all about understanding the language of the buyer

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The Independent Online

It is a frequent complaint of entrepreneurs that as their businesses become bigger and more successful they find themselves bogged down in administration and other aspects of management and grow further away from the aspects that they most enjoy and which often inspired them to start businesses in the first place.

For many of these entrepreneurs, that first love is selling themselves and their product or service to would-be customers. These are the natural sales people. Often larger-than-life characters, they embody their businesses. But for many other entrepreneurs – those, say, who simply have an idea that they think will appeal to enough people to make a business – selling is almost anathema. They realise they have to do it to establish a business but they would really rather not and, in any case, do not have much idea about how to go about it.

Well, such people may have found an unlikely friend in Grant Leboff. A sales veteran who started selling part-time while at college, he has gone on to run various sales operations and for the past five years has operated his own telemarketing business. As he says, he has had "much the same sales training as most people". And, probably like most of these people, found it rather lacking. His success, he says, is based on throwing away the manuals and doing it the way that he intuitively thought it should be done.

The key problem, he says, is that much of the thinking about sales is imported directly from the United States, where attitudes are a bit different. "We're a nation of cynics," he explains, adding that this makes us less susceptible to the traditional sales patter. Moreover, people in the UK tend to have a low opinion of sales people, whereas in the United States selling is seen as, if not a higher calling, then certainly something well worth doing and a route to wealth.

If you accept this view, then the person seeking to sell in Britain and in other northern European countries needs to take a different approach to the usual method familiar to most of us from the car salesman selling vehicles on the number of gadgets that it has or the electrical goods seller promoting computers on the basis of the size of their memory or whatever.

To Leboff, it is all a matter of understanding the language of the buyer and realising that selling is not all about the transaction. He accepts that talk of relationships is probably a bit corny, but he insists that if the seller thinks in terms of the potential buyer having problems that he or she can solve then they are likely to be muchmore successful.

Obviously, it will take more than one successful salesman armed with a book, the just-about-to-be-published Sales Therapy, to turn the huge sales operations of large corporations off their traditional approach. But Leboff has spotted that the largest salesforce in the country is the army of small businesses, the vast majority of which do not employ anybody so that the proprietor is the sales team. Successful talks to chambers of commerce and other small business bodies have convinced him that he is pushing at an open door and have led to the book.

His essential message that sellers need to think less about selling benefits and having a "unique selling proposition", or USP, and more about supplying a service goes beyond selling to the very point of small business. Adding benefits is a risky game because it costs the business money and is easily copied, so making it necessary to continue the process to the point where the small business owner typically throws his or her hands in the air and says he or she cannot compete. The same is true of USPs, which soon lose their unique qualities.

Leboff's approach brings to mind Simon Woodroffe, the founder of the Yo Sushi chain of Japanese restaurants. A few weeks back, he appeared on a radio programme and seemed to grow increasingly exasperated with the small business owners phoning in for advice. While they talked about the problems that kept appearing in their way, he urged them to be bold and seek ways to tailor their businesses to the needs of their customers and to be flexible in ways that the big companies could not.

The trouble is probably that many small businesses – staffed as they often are by people who have worked in large companies – see themselves as scaled-down big businesses rather than as something completely different. Many small businesses think that their smaller size means that they can compete with the big players on price. But, because the big companies enjoy economies of scale, this may not necessarily be so. Small businesses need to use their smaller size to foster relationships with customers, to become almost trusted friends who will do what is required to make their customers'lives easier.

Leboff sees the business world becoming increasingly polarised between companies such as Tesco and Microsoft selling all things to all people on the one hand and smaller more bespoke businesses on the other. The place not to be caught is in the middle.

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