Log In | Become a Member | Contact Us

Market Intelligence for Printing and Publishing

Connect on Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

Featured:   WhatTheyThink Magazine     Production Inkjet     Installations and Placements Tracker

Commentary & Analysis

Why Are Traditional Print Sales People Struggling With Business Development?

Traditional print sales professionals continue to struggle with the business development process and companies of all sizes are trying to figure out their next moves. Building a next generation sales team doesn’t have to be that difficult if you design an effective work flow process.

By Jerry Scher
Published: November 26, 2013

As 2013 comes to a close and each of us considers how well we achieved the goals and objectives we set for the year, we are reminded of the myriad of challenges and obstacles that impacted our level of accomplishments. Throughout this year I have been sharing my thoughts about the specific challenges resulting from the many talent management issues that we  cope with. This experience has motivated me to carefully study how the evolving role of the sales professional continuously impacts  revenue generation strategies.

While too many companies continue to be taking a “business as usual” approach when it comes to their sales programs (and sales people) there are companies that are acting more proactively and searching for new approaches in their sales program structure as well as their search for the next generation of sales talent. When one studies this issue from a broader perspective, looking at a range of industries (not just printing), it becomes quite clear that this problem is much more wide spread. 

The converging forces that appear to be driving the need for change include:

  • A dramatic change in buying behavior
  • Changing role of the sales professional
  • Shrinking markets requiring more business development versus account management
  • More sophisticated client/sales consultant relationships
  • Technological advances changing transactional buying/selling programs
  • Technologies leveraged with marketing and lead generation
  • Challenges created by a multi-generational workforce

And while the majority of current print sales people fall into the category of “transactional sellers” primarily focused on the products they sell and not their clients businesses, they lack the competence and motivation to change their selling behavior. But keep in mind, they are basically doing the job you hired them to do and many of them have performed admirably for many years. Unfortunately our industry has dramatically changed (as have so many industries) and the activities that sales people must engage in and competencies that are necessary are different than what we looked for in the past. In fact, so many of your sales people were hired based on an existing “book of business” without knowing how they actually attained their book of business.

Research supports changes

A great deal of research has been conducted to more carefully define the role of the sales person and the competencies they must possess. Traditional sales people were expected to solve technical problems but moving forward more and more clients are looking to their sales people for assistance in solving business problems. In fact they are looking for resources that can assist them in identifying problems that have not been uncovered thus far. This is a far more sophisticated process and requires not only knowledge about an industry but a thorough understanding of their clients business and how they generate revenue/profit. The competencies required to perform in this way are certainly different than what has been required in the past.

In Dan Pink’s book “To Sell is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others” he does a wonderful job of defining the process of influencing, motivating, convincing and moving others and the different skills/competencies that are required to effectively execute these processes. The author references the difference between Irritation and Agitation. Irritation - challenging people to do something we want them to do. Agitation – challenging people to do something that they want to do. Consider how this differing perspective changes selling behavior. The ability to engage others in a process that assists them in uncovering new opportunities, helping them to define potential outcomes and leveraging strategies that address their needs (and not yours) can lead to exponential growth for both parties. An approach like this requires more sophisticated competencies than found in your traditional, transactional sales type. 

If this makes sense to you but you are struggling with how to manage the necessary transition, I would like to offer a few suggestions.

Define Your Talent Management Work Flow

Throughout my work with a diverse group of clients I have continually observed a lack of well-defined processes for attracting, recruiting, hiring and on-boarding “best of class” talent. I’m referring to a well thought out and executed work flow. As an industry we focus heavily on developing efficient workflows for all of our manufacturing process; why not for talent recruitment and management?

The building blocks for acquiring talent and “building your bench” should include clearly defining the eligibility and suitability competencies to look for. Incorporating the use of validated and reliable assessment technology and the ability to conduct highly effective interviews are essential to your success. If you acknowledge that your future success will be dependent upon attracting the necessary talent to execute new and innovative strategies than designing your work flow is a critical component.

So What Competencies Should We Look For?

  • Interpersonal Skills – The ability to facilitate and engage others in meaningful dialogue to uncover unforeseen challenges and opportunities. To proactively influence and motivate others to action when appropriate with a client focused mindset.
  • Strategic Thinker – The desire and ability to employ a discovery process that considers a range of inhibiting and contributing factors as well facilitating a brainstorming approach. Ability to reflect on different viewpoints while carefully considering the potential consequences of a plan.
  • Drive for Results – Take accountability for decision-making; ability to address issues rationally and in an organized manner.
  • Innovative – Experiment with different ways of doing things while at the same time remaining focused on the desired objective; continually looking for new ways to accomplish goals.
  • Resilience and Perseverance – Maintain a positive attitude even when faced with challenging situations; persist in spite of encountering obstacles or setbacks.
  • Technological Proficiency – The ability to leverage a wide range of technological advances and tools.
  • Social Networking  and Prospecting – The ability to create and promote a digital brand, leverage the process to establish oneself as a sustainable resource and build an effective business development strategy through social networking.

The Challenge

As you carefully define what competencies are important to your organization, you will have to identify the tools you will use to assess candidates so you can effectively predict an appropriate fit specific to each job. Technology is available today to provide extensive information about candidates that relate to behavioral competencies, work place preferences and interests. The ability to gather information about candidates easily and provide in depth, yet easy to understand narratives about candidates is not only available but it is economically feasible.

If you would like to learn about how companies are using Harrison Assessments™ Technology for assessing candidates for recruiting, assisting with career and succession planning as well as developing personalized development programs, reach out to Jerry Scher -  jerry@peakfocuscoach.com or 404-931-9291

Jerry Scher has been engaged in the graphic communication industry for over 35 years, Jerry's primary goal - make those around him more successful.



By Ben Fretti on Nov 26, 2013

Great article- but I think you are missing a key point. It is not just the salespeople that need to change- print executives and print business owners need to change too. The "what have you sold for me lately" mentality of focusing exclusively on the month-to-month bottom line is an old school trait that dies hard. But our industry can't afford a lack of vision anymore.

We are in an "evolve, or die" cycle that is going to knock the unprepared - and unwilling to change- out of the market.

The type of salesperson you say we should be looking for is sort of a "purple squirrel" - an oddity that does not exist in nature. Some salespeople are great "hunters"- closing deals left and right. Some are great "farmers"- managing and fostering interpersonal relationships so that customers trust them unequivocally, and guarantee repeat business. However, I have seen very few that are good at both.


By chuck bean on Nov 26, 2013

First of all if Jerry were a communication specialist, he would have never used "of the myriad of challenges". Really, this is someone that is giving advice on communicating with your clients.


By Jay Krueger on Nov 26, 2013

Jerry- going to have to give a nod to Ben's point. Your focus has the main target on the "Salesperson" noting your article "Are Your Sales People an Asset or Liability?:" and citing “80-90% of printing sales people are neither interested nor suitable to make the transition required” This suggests what? Also interested in where you believe the "next generation of sales talent" in the print industry will come from?
Sales is the life blood and vital for survival. The larger the organization the greater the need for profitable sales. Our rapidly changing industry requires company leadership with a clearly defined and communicated vision. I contend the "Sales" person should be included in the evolution of the company, led by the visionary and should not be undervalued nor portrayed as incompetent. You have to admit 8 or 9 out of 10 is huge. Continual training and updated tools to compete in the marketplace are essential. Investing in the transformation is mandatory.


By chuck bean on Nov 26, 2013

should be "myriad challenges"


By Patrick Cleghorn on Nov 26, 2013

Great Article- As always you continually challenge those around you to reach for more and achieve it. You have always emphasized the need for personal professional development and had a call to action that's second to none. Keep it coming.

Thanks, Patrick


By Wayne Lynn on Nov 27, 2013

Jerry, we've discussed this numerous times. Your article, on its own merits, stands tall. The missing link is still leadership from owners and executives in two critical areas. What gets rewarded gets done. There is still virtually no one in the industry who has adequately answered the question of what's in it for me from the salesperson's perspective. Until that's done, there is no compelling case for the need to change. In addition, owners, if they continue to survive in this environment, likely possess the skills and attributes needed to function in a business savvy manner in the C-suite of the customer's organization. They need to get out there and lead by example at the front of the charge. Then, they will better understand what's needed in the way of new sales professionals. You are right. 8 or 9 out of ten transactional sales people are unable to make this change. I've seen it and experienced it. Some still might if the owner understands the answer to the question: What do they need to change to?


By Lou Berceli on Nov 27, 2013

Many company owners do not challenge their marketing and sales management execs to focus on strategies to achieve the priority goal of driving a higher volume of more qualified leads to the sales team to close. Both marketing and sales need to be held accountable by reporting measurable results to determine ROI from marketing investments, from various marketing campaigns such as in-bound marketing programs, trade shows, web site inquires, open houses, etc.


By Wayne Peterson on Nov 27, 2013

Ignoring the minor grammatical error in his post, Jerry is on target. He's describing what I see week-in-and-week-out as I work with the sales organizations of clients.

The way businesses buy from and sell to each other is changing. Two trends will change the landscape as both buyers and sellers work to maximize gains and minimize expense. First, customers are more demanding. Whether they are buying packaged products or complex, customized solutions—which require different levels of sales support -- they expect more. Companies accustomed to selling a limited service and then walking away are having to prove they add real value. Second, companies managing larger accounts are searching for lower-cost ways to meet customer expectations and generate revenue growth.

Changing customer needs are straining both the resources and capabilities of sales organizations. Many graphic communication sales organizations utilize low-cost sales channels (web-to-print and telesales) for smaller customers. At the same time, they rely on on high-cost channels (direct sales) for major accounts. The problem is that customers want simple, fast, and inexpensive transactions, on the one hand, and elegant, complex, and customized solutions, on the other. Sales organizations are becoming schizophrenic in response.

So sales organizations are faced with three, thorny challenges. One: they need flexible multichannel models that seamlessly manage each transaction cost effectively. Two: enterprise-level relationships are becoming incredibly complex. They often include risk-sharing and service-performance agreements because buyers expect sellers to have real “skin in the game” to ensure that they stay committed to providing real value. Three: a single salesperson cannot effectively sell every product or service to any buyer. And that was long the expectation of graphic communications companies who were process-focused and customer-agnostic. Customers expect their suppliers to bring real expertise to each opportunity, and that includes expertise in the customer's business and industry.

It's creating a conundrum: graphic communications firms are having to choose between having multiple salespeople in order to sell different products or adding specialists and subject matter experts to assist front line salespeople. One customer executive expressed it to me this way: " A salesperson can't help very often. We need experts to customize and deliver real solutions, even those involving print. Even if our print hasn't changed much, how we use it has changed completely.”

Testing new channels to reduce the cost of servicing smaller customers isn't new. Many graphic communications firms have had "inside sales" functions for a very long time. But remote interaction with and management of larger customers was a rarity. The perceived need for “face time” was unquestioned. But those firms experimenting with different models are having some happy surprises. Customers are much more open to receiving information and support from sales resources over the telephone or through video conferences.

For the companies adapting to this change, they have cut the travel expense for their sales organizations in half. At the same time, they have increased the time sales reps spend with customers by more than a third. And they have boosted the overall productivity of their salespeople. As you would expect, customers now find that salespeople are more available. And salespeople are able to spend more time on high-value activities including complex interactions with current clients and the deep development of new ones.

Add up all that change, and it underscores the point Jerry is making: the legacy printing salesperson is ill-equipped. The salesperson is ill-equipped to think differently, work differently, and to create a different kind of customer value.

And Jerry's metric is on target too. In rolling out new business development processes to a client's sales organizations I've regularly provided a sample profile of a top-ten current customer, including a current set of financial statements. And I've asked the group for a show of hands to identify those who believe they can develop meaningful insight into the customer's organization (situation, condition, challenges, intent, behavior, current initiatives) from that profile. Routinely, only one out of ten hands goes up. That's a damning indictment of the business literacy and acumen missing from the room. In private, most of the salespeople in those groups profess terror at the prospect of needing to develop enterprise relationships with C-level decision makers.

Technical expertise in the print production and reproduction process was the value print salespeople brought to the table for decades. It enabled many of them to build strong customer relationships, and earn handsome incomes in the process. Those days are behind us. And if business literacy and acumen are what's required now, Jerry's right. We need a whole new model for successful graphic communications sales.


By Gina Testa on Nov 27, 2013

Jay, the success of the sales team is a culmination of many approaches. It is important for print providers to partner with companies that not only provide the hardware, but offer businesses the tools to succeed. Business development resources are essential to any sales program to ensure success and growth, from developing strategic plans and cementing long-term customer relationships, to learning how to sell to different markets.

- Gina Testa, Vice President, Xerox Worldwide Graphic Communications Business, @GinaTesta


By Paul Gardner on Dec 04, 2013

Jerry, you nailed the heart of the challenge: "...focused on the products they sell and not their clients businesses"

Wayne, you've nailed the solution: "business literacy and acumen"
Seems simple enough, but the Terror you describe is prevents many bright people from taking the leap.

Sometimes it's easier to teach PRINT than it is to teach BUSINESS - or COURAGE.


By Chris Lynn on Dec 07, 2013

Lots of good thinking in the article and the comments. But there needs to be more exploration of Wayne Lynn's (no relation) comment: "What gets rewarded gets done." Customers are demanding shorter runs and faster turn-arounds, but most print salespeople are incentivized to get long-run work because that's seen as the highest value. I've met salespeople who down-play their company's digital print capability because the short-run work for which it is best-suited does not generate much commission, and business owners who don't believe they can charge a premium for the potentially superior services that digital capabilities support.


Post a Comment

To post a comment Log In or Become a Member, doing so is simple and free


Become a Member

Join the thousands of printing executives who are already part of the WhatTheyThink Community.

Copyright © 2020 WhatTheyThink. All Rights Reserved