16 Oct 2015 20:30 IST

‘Organised customer’ syndrome complicates sales, says Nimgaonkar

ZS Associates’ India Expertise Centre Head talks of sales challenges and what they look for when hiring

The buying process has become more complicated now as the world gets better networked, says Abhijit Nimgaonkar, Head of India Capability & Expertise Centre (CEC) at boutique consulting firm ZS Associates. Customers are banding together into buying groups to squeeze out more from companies, he adds. Nimgaonkar spoke to BLonCampus about how the sales process has changed over time and more. Importantly, he also explained what ZS Associates, a coveted recruiter at top B-Schools, looks for in the management graduates they hire. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the challenges companies face when it comes to a sales team?

Sales people tend to be more emotion-driven rather than analytical. What I mean is, there may be customers they like to visit more often. These customers may not be giving a big chunk of business to them but the sales persons may be spending more time with them just because they like to. It's only human. One of the challenges for sales people hence, is to become more analytical and rational in their approach.

The flip side to this is what companies think about this practice. Often, companies come to us and say: “How do we know if the sales persons are doing their job? They are out their all day — they may be just goofing off at the golf course.”

Now, the real issue is how to motivate sales people to perform. And this leads to what kind of incentive plans to set up.

How can companies keep the sales force motivated?

Companies need to set clear goals for sales people. It is equally important to rationally allocate and explain these goals to the sales team. Being able to explain the entire allocation process to people in sales is a big hurdle companies face. Once the sales team has understood their goals, companies really need not to worry if they have gone to a golf course on a Friday afternoon. If they have been given a good, achievable goal, they know they will be rewarded if they reach the target.

I think giving people goals they can buy into is a key part of motivation. Then there is the other motivation, which is the pay-out. If you have done a good job, you will get a good bonus, which is an inherent motivator to sales-persons.

There is a softer motivator too, which is recognition. The top 10 per cent of the sales force should get some kind of recognition from their company. It’s not just money, they also cherish recognition.

How has digital technology changed the sales process?

Digital has changed things radically. Let's start with a sales person’s job, which is to educate customers about a particular product or service and convince the customer that it is the best he/she can buy. That's where digital aids come in. Every sales-person has now switched to iPad-based, or tablet-based, presentations, for instance, where earlier they used to hand out brochures and catalogues. Most leading companies are now turning to very compelling and interactive visual presentations. Your potential customers can just touch a screen and get specific information about a service or product. Also, sales people can track, through digital devices, what attributes customers are more interested in. Using such information, they can create marketing programmes to strike a chord with other customers.

Targeting the right customers has never been easier, and this has also increased the sales team’s efficiency.

Is it safe to say, then, that we don’t really need a face in order to sell, with technologies such as apps and virtual wallets taking over?

It depends. For fairly simple transactions, like refilling supplies, you may not need a sales person but if it's a complicated transaction, you absolutely need a face-to-face interaction. Consulting for a project, for example, requires a face-to-face interaction. My point is, a sales-person can actually act as an orchestrator in all kinds of different ways; he/she can provide valuable information to the customer.

What new trends do you see in sales processes?

The entire world is getting networked, and so is industry. Such connectivity is creating associations across customers. Earlier, you would go and sell to the customer but now the customers exist in groups - these are buying groups. Selling is becoming more complicated because of this. Previously, you had just one point to sell, now you have more stakeholders to sell to. We call it the ‘organised customer syndrome’. Your good old customer has now become an organised customer, and is part of other organisations that control the buying process.

For instance, there used to be a lot of independent hospitals who were buying medicines from the pharma companies. Now, suddenly, they are organising and becoming part of buying groups, who want to squeeze out maximum discounts. Thus, there can be a buying group of 10 hospitals which, collectively, can get a better deal.

Now, we have to educate the sales representative on how to deal with this network of customers, as opposed to the single-point sale.

What are the skills and attributes you look for when you hire from business schools?

The position for which we hire from B-Schools is consultant level, which is start of the leadership layer. They are the apprentices who, we hope, will become partners within the organisation and so we look for typically about four years of experience before their MBA. Those are the only ones we consider for the position.

Another key skill we look for is an analytical mind-set, whether the person can think about a problem rationally and break it down into little parts. We see if they are able to quantify the problem; if they can’t apply some data to the problem, than they don't belong in our kind of thinking.

Also, we look for 'nice' people because the work environment is unpredictable. We look for people who get along with one another, collaborate, and help each other.

What should the management graduates looking to work at ZS expect?

They become part of what we call the CAMP group. It stands for Consultants, Associate Consultants, Managers, and Principals. They are part of the management team; thus, can expect to shoulder lot of responsibility, such as ‘owning’ a client, and working closely with leadership. They need to ensure work gets delivered with quality and profitability, and that people and teams are managed well.