Personal Selling: People Power
Personal selling uses in-person interaction to sell products and services. This type of communication is carried out by sales representatives, who are the personal connection between a buyer and a company or a company’s products or services. Salespeople not only inform potential customers about a company’s product or services, they also use their power of persuasion and remind customers of product characteristics, service agreements, prices, deals, and much more. In addition to enhancing customer relationships, this type of marketing communications tool can be a powerful source of customer feedback, as well. Later we'll cover marketing alignment with the sales process in greater detail. This section focuses on personal selling as one possible tool in the promotional mix.
Effective personal selling addresses the buyer's needs and preferences without making him or her feel pressured. Good salespeople offer advice, information, and recommendations, and they can help buyers save money and time during the decision process. The seller should give honest responses to any questions or objections the buyer has and show that he cares more about meeting the buyer's needs than making the sale. Attending to these aspects of personal selling contributes to a strong, trusting relationship between buyer and seller.
Common Personal Selling Techniques
Common personal selling tools and techniques include the following:
- Sales presentations: in-person or virtual presentations to inform prospective customers about a product, service, or organization
- Conversations: relationship-building dialogue with prospective buyers for the purposes of influencing or making sales
- Demonstrations: demonstrating how a product or service works and the benefits it offers, highlighting advantageous features and how the offering solves problems the customer encounters
- Addressing objections: identifying and addressing the concerns of prospective customers, to remove any perceived obstacles to making a purchase
- Field selling: sales calls by a sales representative to connect with target customers in person or via phone
- Retail selling: in-store assistance from a sales clerk to help customers find, select, and purchase products that meet their needs
- Door-to-door selling: offering products for sale by going door-to-door in a neighborhood
- Consultative selling: consultation with a prospective customer, where a sales representative (or consultant) learns about the problems the customer wants to solve and recommends solutions to the customer's particular problem
- Reference selling: using satisfied customers and their positive experiences to convince target customers to purchase a product or service
Personal selling minimizes wasted effort, promotes sales, and boosts word-of-mouth marketing. Also, personal selling measures marketing return on investment (ROI) better than most tools, and it can give insight into customers' habits and their responses to a particular marketing campaign or product offer.
When to Use Personal Selling
Not every product or service is a good fit for personal selling. It's an expensive technique because the proceeds of the person-to-person sales must cover the salary of the sales representative—on top of all the other costs of doing business. Whether or not a company uses personal selling as part of its marketing mix depends on its business model. Most often companies use personal selling when their products or services are highly technical, specialized, or costly—such as complex software systems, business consulting services, homes, and automobiles.
In addition, there are certain conditions that favor personal selling:
- Product situation: Personal selling is relatively more effective and economical when a product is of a high unit value, when it is in the introductory stage of its life cycle, when it requires personal attention to match consumer needs, or when it requires product demonstration or after-sales services.
- Market situation: Personal selling is effective when a firm serves a small number of large-size buyers or a small/local market. Also, it can be used effectively when an indirect channel of distribution is used for selling to agents or middlemen.
- Company situation: Personal selling is best utilized when a firm is not in a good position to use impersonal communication media, or it cannot afford to have a large and regular advertising outlay.
- Consumer behavior situation: Personal selling should be adopted by a company when purchases are valuable but infrequent, or when competition is at such a level that consumers require persuasion and follow-up.
It's important to keep in mind that personal selling is most effective when a company has established an effective sales-force management system together with a sales force of the right design, size, and structure. Recruitment, selection, training, supervision, and evaluation of the sales force also obviously play an important role in the effectiveness of this marketing communication method.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Personal Selling
The most significant strength of personal selling is its flexibility. Salespeople can tailor their presentations to fit the needs, motives, and behavior of individual customers. A salesperson can gauge the customer's reaction to a sales approach and immediately adjust the message to facilitate better understanding.
Personal selling also minimizes wasted effort. Advertisers can spend a lot of time and money on a mass-marketing message that reaches many people outside the target market (but doesn't result in additional sales). In personal selling, the sales force pinpoints the target market, makes a contact, and focuses effort that has a strong probability of leading to a sale.
As mentioned above, an additional strength of personal selling is that measuring marketing effectiveness and determining ROI are far more straightforward for personal selling than for other marketing communication tools—where recall or attitude change is often the only measurable effect.
Another advantage of personal selling is that a salesperson is in an excellent position to encourage the customer to act. The one-on-one interaction of personal selling means that a salesperson can effectively respond to and overcome objections—e.g., concerns or reservations about the product—so that the customer is more likely to buy. Salespeople can also offer many customized reasons that might spur a customer to buy, whereas an advertisement offers a limited set of reasons that may not persuade everyone in the target audience.
A final strength of personal selling is the multiple tasks that the sales force can perform. For example, in addition to selling, a salesperson can collect payments, service or repair products, return products, and collect product and marketing information. In fact, salespeople are often the best resources when it comes to disseminating positive word-of-mouth product information.
High cost is the primary disadvantage of personal selling. With increased competition, higher travel and lodging costs, and higher salaries, the cost per sales contract continues to rise. Many companies try to control sales costs by compensating sales representatives through commissions alone, thereby guaranteeing that salespeople are paid only if they generate sales. However, commission-only salespeople may become risk averse and only call on clients who have the highest potential return. These salespeople, then, may miss opportunities to develop a broad base of potential customers that could generate higher sales revenues in the long run.
Companies can also reduce sales costs by using complementary techniques, such as telemarketing, direct mail, toll-free numbers for interested customers, and online communication with qualified prospects. Telemarketing and online communication can further reduce costs by serving as an actual selling vehicle. Both technologies can deliver sales messages, respond to questions, take payment, and follow up.
A second disadvantage of personal selling is the problem of finding and retaining high-quality people. Experienced salespeople sometimes realize that the only way their income can outpace their cost-of-living increase is to change jobs. Also, because of the push for profitability, businesses try to hire experienced salespeople away from competitors rather than hiring college graduates, who take three to five years to reach the level of productivity of more experienced salespeople. These two staffing issues have caused high turnover in many sales forces.
Another weakness of personal selling is message inconsistency. Many salespeople view themselves as independent from the organization, so they design their own sales techniques, use their own message strategies, and engage in questionable ploys to generate sales. (You'll recall our discussion in the ethics module about the unique challenges that B2B salespeople face.) As a result, it can be difficult to find a unified company or product message within a sales force or between the sales force and the rest of the marketing mix.
A final disadvantage of personal selling is that sales-force members have different levels of motivation. Salespeople may vary in their willingness to make the desired number of sales calls each day; to make service calls that do not lead directly to sales; or to take full advantage of the technologies available to them.
How IMC Supports Personal Selling
As with any other marketing communication method, personal selling must be evaluated on the basis of its contribution to the overall marketing mix. The costs of personal selling can be high and carry risks, but the returns may be just as high. In addition, when personal selling is supported by other elements of a well-conceived IMC strategy, it can be very effective indeed.
Consider the following example of Audi, which set out to build a customer-relationship program:
Audi's goal was to not have the relationship with the customer end after the sale was made. Operating on the assumption that the company's best potential customers were also its existing customers, the company initiated an online program to maintain contact, while allowing its sales force to concentrate on selling. Based on its television campaign for the new A4 model, Audi offered a downloadable screensaver that frequently broadcasted updated news and information automatically to the consumers' computers. After displaying the screensaver option on its Web site, Audi sent an email to owners and prospects offering them the opportunity to download it. More than 10,000 people took advantage of the offer. Audi then began to maintain a continuous dialog with the adopters by sending them newsletters and updates. Click-through rates ranged from 25 to 35 percent on various parts of the site—well exceeding the standard rates—and car sales were 25 percent higher than they were the previous year, even in a down economy.
As a result of several coordinated communication methods (TV advertising, email, downloadable screensaver, newsletters, and product information) and presumably a well-designed customer relationship management (CRM) system, Audi helped its sales force be more effective (by freeing it up to focus on sales and by connecting it with more prospective customers), which, turn, meant higher profits.
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