"How many of you think you are selling?"
Dr. Katie Hill's voice cuts through the conference room to a small group of bank employees. No one raises a hand.
Hill, director of the R.M. Bob Wood Sales Leadership Center and assistant professor of marketing in the business department at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, isn't fazed. Hands rarely go up after that question.
"You are not an order-taker. You are an expert," Hill says, pressing on. "When you’ve got somebody requesting banking products, they are coming to you for a recommendation. You should be referring products, making expert recommendations, understanding what that customer really needs."
Hill gets called in for a lot of these sales wake-up calls lately, particularly among local bank branches. Years in the classroom and a natural charisma allow her to disarm her often-apprehensive audiences pretty quickly. But when Hill starts talking sales, the gloves come off and she uses her tone to hammer home the point branch managers and regional vice presidents desperately want stuck in the minds of front-line employees: Sales mean business.
"It’s not about 'I want a checking account, I give you a checking account,' " Hill says. "It's, 'What are you going to use it for? Tell me what your goals are. What are you overall financial goals?' It’s all of that."
Hill's day job is putting college students through their academic paces, but as an undergrad, sales paid her bills. She worked in bank branches not unlike the one she is addressing and made a living as a freelance marketing professional both in the U.S. and in Europe, where she grew up. These days, Hill is geared more toward opening minds than closing deals.
"The hardest thing (about sales) for most people is asking those questions. That’s really where training comes in," she says. "It is reprogramming that you are selling when you are building a relationship. You are selling your service, your product and yourself as an expert to a customer."
Management in almost every industry will tell you sales skills are both in higher demand and in shorter supply than ever, something Hill only half agrees with. She says with the proper mindset any employee has the potential to move the sales needle.
"It’s not about a salesperson being born not made," she says. "A talker is born, not made; some people are just naturally better at talking to anybody that will listen to them, or even if they don’t listen.
"But on the sales side of it, you can teach the process. My goal, and I do it with my students and I do it with my clients, is I’m going to learn about you and I’m going to teach you how to do it so that it fits your voice and your personality."
Appreciating individual styles of selling is the most critical element of sales training, Hill said, which is why forcing employees into recited scripts or rigid protocols is doomed to failure.
"You’re not going to do it the same way I do it," she says. "You’re not going to do it the same way the person next to you does it. It’s going to be about you."
Hill's most potent sales technique follows the same logic as her training: Not only do salespeople have to find their unique voice, but clients must be approached as individuals as well.
"One of the things I stress the most is, it’s not about what your customer says they want. It’s about finding out what’s motivating your customer to want that," she says. "It’s not, 'Oh I can sell you a cell phone; here’s a cell phone that has ... .' and you list out A to Z features. Well I don’t care about A to Z features, I really only care about the D, E and F features. But you didn’t know that because you didn’t get to know me.
"Everything that we want and need has some kind of fundamental motivation behind it. If we can find out what’s really motivating that need, we can uncover where customers find value."