Servant selling: Leveraging customer interactions

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Andrew Czaplewski

Problem: I want my sales to be higher.  How can I leverage my customer service to increase sales?

Years ago I worked for a company with many salespeople out hustling to make their quota. The salespeople were the main point-of-contact for an account. However, customers usually had a dim view of their salesperson. Why? When problems arose, as they always did, customers would call their salesperson first. But the salesforce was too busy to be bothered with “low-level” service requests. They brushed off customers by telling them to call the 800 number.

This company was not alone. Many businesses treat sales and customer experience as distinct parts of their business. Serving customers is seen as taking away from opportunities to sell. However, in the minds of customers there is little or no distinction between sales and service. Salespeople sell, cross-sell and up-sell all in the context of your customer experience.

Take car sales as an example. Car Gurus reports that the typical new car sale actually creates a $200 loss for the dealership. Remember the age-old accounting joke about making it up in volume? Of course, new car sales act as a loss-leader for many dealerships. However, the gross profit margin for vehicle service is well above 50 percent for most dealers. The single most important part of selling a car is converting a new car buyer into a loyal service customer. With customer relationship management software, it is easy for a dealership to find out that their most profitable new car salespeople are likely not the ones selling the most cars. It could be the fourth or fifth “best” salesperson that is converting the most number of car buyers into loyal and highly profitable service customers. By taking advantage of every opportunity to serve, taking the perspective of your customers and putting customer needs before your own, a servant selling culture can be developed and pay large dividends.

How do you develop such a culture? Servant leadership may be your answer. Servant leadership began in the early 1970s.  Today there are hundreds of books and hundreds more academic journal articles on the topic. The principles of servant leadership are simple and straightforward: Seek to serve first; take the perspective of others; and put the interests of others before your own. These principles are valuable in a sales context. Selling almost invariably leads to requirements to serve customers. Each opportunity to serve offers a chance to deepen the relationship, to establish long-term repeat sales and to further identify and meet product needs of customers in the short-term.

Action Items:

Leverage servant selling to establish commitment and trust.

Commitment and trust are the linchpins for reduced conflict, increased cooperation and increased customer retention. Implementing the principles of servant selling is one of the best ways to establish commitment and trust with your customers.

Audit your sales process to drive service culture.

Salespeople behave in predictable ways based on incentives. When Wells Fargo was caught selling accounts to customers without their consent or knowledge, the company realized the problem was systemic and, most critically, cultural. Wells Fargo’s sales incentives did not lead to a culture of servant selling where the needs of the customer were put first. Reviewing your sales processes can reveal whether your business has any perverse incentives. Also, establish a culture of servant selling through incentives that emphasize customer service and repeat sales.

Practice empathy

Several studies have demonstrated that empathy is one of the most important traits of a salesperson. Taking the perspective of the customer is the core of empathy. There is actually a psychological scale on perspective-taking. Some people are very good at it, and some very bad. Most of us fall somewhere on a continuum between high and low ability. The good news is that empathy is a skill that can be learned and developed. Sales training that focuses on enhancing perspective-taking will go a long way toward creating a servant selling culture.

Andrew Czaplewski is a professor in the UCCS Department of Marketing, Strategy & International Business. He can be reached at oped@uccs.edu.

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