We’ve left it a week so the title of this blog entry shouldn’t be such a massive spoiler for anyone following BBC One’s current series of ‘The Apprentice’. Plus, we’ve only just caught up with it ourselves…
Fans of this brutal, yet highly entertaining TV show, will recall that in last week’s episode, 47 year old sales trainer Ruth Whiteley was culled from The Process. “You’re fired!” Lord Sugar bawled in her face, reaching across the conference table with his overused, gnarled and crooked multi-functional digit. And that was that. The bubbly, happy-chatty Ruth was gone, bundled off in a black cab never to be seen again.
The Task appointed to our plucky candidates last week was to select a bunch of pet products manufactured by solo entrepreneurs and small businesses, and sell as many of these as they could at the London Pet Show. For their high-ticket item Ruth’s group chose a range of modular cat-scratching towers which retailed upwards of £500.
The team which generated the most turnover in one day of selling at the show would be declared victorious champions, whereas the other team would be denounced as abject failures and thus be called into the Boardroom for a session of ritual humiliation and savage backstabbing. At least one member of the team would be ‘fired’.
Sadly, sales trainer Ruth – we’ll say that again – Sales Trainer Ruth – was on the losing team and she was the one ejected from the building’s upper floors.
Ruth didn’t sell a single £500 cat tower. Her two compatriots sold three each and the lady who made the cat towers had told them that they should expect to sell nine pieces at a show like this. Eleven sales would be considered a good result so had Ruth sold her three towers, the group might have won the task. The fact that she didn’t even sell one exposed a real weakness in the eyes of Lord Sugar. If a sales trainer couldn’t sell, then she just wasn’t credible. You’re Fired! End of story.
At T21 we hung our heads in bitter disappointment. It was a pretty poor day for sales trainers.
But a question which arises from this is:
Does a sales trainer really need to be able to sell in order to be a good sales trainer?
In principle, grudgingly, we’d have to say No they don’t. First and foremost a good trainer should be a good communicator. A good trainer should be able to connect ideas, methodologies, practices and principles in ways that engage, inform and inspire those who aim to benefit from their coaching. In the task, however, we struggled to find evidence of Ruth’s communication skills. She seemed to forget that communication is a two-way process.
She didn’t stop talking at her ‘customers’.
Ruth seemed to forget – and here’s an old adage we can’t help but throw in – that selling is more about listening than talking.
Back in the Boardroom we learned that Ruth was a sales trainer whose speciality was in training telesales operatives.
Aha! OK. Now it all started to sort of make sense.
Here’s the thing about telesales:
The opening few seconds of a telephone sales call are crucial. Get it wrong and your prospect slams the phone down. Or swears at you. Or threatens you with violent death. Or all of these things.
By using your voice, by being almost over-expressive with it, you can very quickly engage your prospect and establish a rapport. We’ll also add that you have to be magnificently resilient. You have to sound fresh and vibrant on each and every call for maybe eight or nine hours a day. Day after day, week after week. And you have to do that no matter how many threats of Terrible Vengeance you receive.
Ruth is definitely a vibrant, resilient personality! We love her for that!
By tapping into her telesales expertise, Ruth prepped her team by way of a spot of free sales training. “You have to hook them in,” she said, prior to the show opening. “Get people interested, and walk them onto the stand.” Absolutely. We concur. And she was good at that. In fact, she’d demonstrated this ability of hers to ‘hook’ people in and establish a rapport with them a few weeks previous when selling street food to London’s busy commuters and tourists.
Selling street food to hungry passers-by is one thing; selling luxury cat towers at a trade show, standing on your feet for nine hours is something else.
Ruth’s big problem at the show was that she didn’t seem to know where to go once a rapport had been established. She seemed unable to move from that step, and her incessant chattering was, we believe, some kind of defensive mechanism that kicked in once she realised she might be out of her depth. Keep them talking so they don’t leave the stand and maybe they’ll buy something by osmosis. Nope. It doesn’t work like that, Ruth. Her ‘customers’ started to look increasingly embarrassed as she bombarded them with increasingly hysterical trivia.
We think she forgot the whole point of why it’s important in sales to establish a rapport with your prospects.
Let’s be honest, even if you got your sales training out of a book or scraped it off the internet then you would know that you must ask questions of your prospects in order to understand their needs, their buying drivers and to qualify them – Do they love their cat? Do they even have a cat? Are they going to buy today or are they just looking?
The purpose of getting a good rapport going with your customers is firstly so that they’re more likely to open up to you when you start asking questions to identify their needs, and secondly so that you start to build bridges of trust with them – which can be key to closing a sale. And when you’ve asked a question, you shut up and listen to the answer.
We can’t believe that Ruth, as a sales trainer, wouldn’t have known to ask probing and qualifying questions.
So let’s say that, actually, she did know this.
So why was she fired?
Simply because she didn’t sell at the show. She couldn’t sell at the show. Not because she didn’t know what to do (we’re hoping that as a sales trainer, she knew the steps of a sales process), but because she clearly had little or no actual experience selling high-ticket merchandise in a high-traffic environment.
We don’t hold this against her (even though Lord Sugar did) because we know that selling is difficult, particularly when you’re under pressure (although many sales professionals will tell you they thrive under pressure so maybe we’ll look at that in another blog entry).
But Ruth was wrong to put herself in a position whereby her inexperience cost the team their victory dance outside the Boardroom. Had this been a real situation and not a TV show, Ruth’s inability to sell could have cost her company money. Trade show pitches are expensive and they have to return on investment. Putting untrained, inexperienced staff on a stand like this will limit your ability to make a good return.
People on the outside often look at those in selling roles and think that selling is easy. To those who are good at sales, it seemingly can be. But then so is creating a piece of software to a software developer. It only looks easy because the successful sales person is a master of what they’ve learned over the years through experience and training.
Returning to the question we posed earlier: “does a sales trainer really need to be able to sell in order to be a good sales trainer?” In Lord Sugar’s eyes yes, and at T21 we would say yes if you wanted to be a Great Trainer. Yet another old adage ‘Practice what you preach’ comes to mind here, but it’s not just about that. If your trainer has been through what you’re going through, if they understand your market, your environment and what it’s like to sell to customers in the Real World at a trade show, on the phone, to a group of buyers sitting at a table; if your trainer has encountered the same challenges you face every day, and has met these challenges to become a successful and consistent high achiever in sales themselves, and if that trainer is a fantastic communicator (as all trainers should be) and is patient and personable and inspiring, then they will deliver for you the most powerful, most beneficial sales training for you.
It’s at this point where we run the risk of turning this blog entry into an ad for T21 because yes, as mentioned earlier all our sales trainers are experienced high-calibre sales professionals as well as experienced high-calibre trainers. So let’s finish off by saying that we wish Ruth well in whatever she’s doing now and that, if she’s still involved with the training industry, she has learnt from her experience and used it to make herself stronger and better at what she does.
Unlike many of the other candidates Ruth seems like a real personality. Slightly crazy but full of confidence and warm sunshine. We loved her enthusiasm, her outrageous orange tartan suits, her positive go-to attitude and the strength of character she showed us all during her five minutes of fame.
And we hope she’s still smiling.
We’re sure she is!