Selling: It’s Time To Ask The Right Question

By Tom Easton

At Essential Action Design Group, we have logged more than 2,000 observations of face-to-face sales calls made by aftermarket outside sales people in the automotive, fleet and PBE channels.
Is selling a skill or an art? The correct answer to this age-old question continues to be debated. The reason this question has been so difficult to answer is that it is the wrong question.

The only way to frame a question about what causes or contributes to a person’s sales success must include attitude and aptitude: What percent of a salesperson’s success is the result of their attitude and what percent is the result of their aptitude?

At Essential Action Design Group, we have logged more than 2,000 observations of face-to-face sales calls made by aftermarket outside sales people in the automotive, fleet and PBE channels.

We have interviewed and observed purchasing behaviors of hundreds of owners of automotive and truck repair facilities, fleet managers, plus collision center owners and managers. From this foundation of research, we have grouped the attitude and aptitude of outside salespeople into four types. (For the results, go online to

The attitude and aptitude of outside sales professionals is the differentiator that provides their store a true competitive advantage and positions their store as the “supplier of choice” with commercial accounts.

The more hours we spend in bays and at the service counters of auto repair, fleet, and collision centers observing the buying behaviors and purchasing habits of decision makers, the more convinced we are of the positive impact a proficient and properly equipped salesperson can have on increasing a customer’s purchase allegiance and loyalty.

We have identified 115 product categories and sub-categories that repair facilities and fleets purchase multiple times per month.

Most of the outside salespeople we rode with could not answer our questions about which of the 115 product categories their customers buy from their company. With few exceptions, tenured outside sales people, with more than five years of experience calling on the same customers, could not name accurately more than three product categories regularly purchased by their assigned customers within their second quartile of customers ranked in descending order of total monthly purchases.

This is sad, however it is the brutal truth — salespeople in our study group not only did not know what products their assigned customers were purchasing, they did not know within 25 percent plus or minus an account’s actual total purchases for the previous month.

Based on our field research, we met very few (less than 2 percent) outside salespeople who knew at least 10 important or relevant facts (data points) about any of their regular customers’ business or current buying behaviors.
Is it an aptitude or attitude deficiency when an outside salesperson does not know the total number of vehicles in the fleet of their fourth-largest customer?

Is lack of knowledge about where their top 20 customers purchase steering gears/ pumps an aptitude or attitude glitch?
Knowing the total number of technicians at a repair facility is the most accurate predictor of those facilities annual parts purchases; yet the salespeople we studied did not correctly know this number for 50 percent of their assigned accounts in their third and fourth quartile. Aptitude would mean the salesperson cannot count or does not know how to ask the shop owner. Attitude would mean they do not care. They do not care that their account averaging $750 per month in purchases, is buying $8,400 per month from other local suppliers.

In a previous aftermarket environment, “availability, service and price” was enough to get the business. Today this is no longer enough. Fleets and auto service providers change their buying behaviors and begin to buy additional product categories from suppliers that have salespeople who “care” about them and their business success.

They buy additional products from suppliers who have salespeople that bring ideas and product solutions that add value to their business. The outside salesperson that “knows” their customers and “individualizes” each progressive sales call will be the primary engine of differentiation, value creation, customer allegiance and increased customer loyalty in 2011 and the future.

After monitoring more than 2,000 outside sales calls, we learned everyone was very busy, working very hard. However when we looked at results, there was a misalignment between all the time being spent and the results attained. We were able to identify a complete set of behaviors for outside sales success. Second, we were able to validate those behaviors in a real-world context among aftermarket outside sales professionals performing their jobs effectively. Our complete research report provided intriguing insight into execution issues.

In an increasingly homogenized aftermarket, the gold medal went to outside salespeople who differentiated themselves in the face-to-face time they had with their customers — those salespeople who knew that success had more to do with methodical research about their current customer’s buying behaviors (what they are currently buying, from where and why) than about lowest price. Increasing a customer’s allegiance/loyalty through product acceptance (one product category at a time) that offered a benefit that improved the business outcomes for the customer was the only sustainable and profitable sales growth strategy we observed.

This one product sub-category or category at-a-time, value added approach, empowered the salesperson to plan for and earn the right to their customer’s purchases. It established a well-founded reason and purpose for a dialog with each customer. Today, an outside salesperson must present an individualized message for each customer, different product categories at different customers.

Our field research form contained one question that I personally thought we should eliminate because the responses would be so varied we would not have measurable information. I was wrong. On the ride-along observations, our researchers would ask the salesperson seconds before exiting their vehicle, and entering the customers’ place of business: “What is the purpose of this call?” A shocking 61 percent of the responses were “to see if they need anything.” One third of the responses we received were “to see how things are going.”  Ninety-four percent of salespeople had no product specific reason for their call, no sales cycle — next step — pipeline strategy for a product category or sub-category that is available for purchase from their employer that their assigned customer is currently buying from a local competitor.

The salespeople, who worked without a system, no plan, no purpose, flying by the seat of their pants, were squarely in the middle of a doomed call with no idea that anything was wrong.

I have worked more than 30 years in the motor vehicle aftermarket, from senior positions in multinational corporations to a variety of entrepreneurial ventures. My first aftermarket position after college was in aftermarket outside sales. Some of my life-long friends were or are outside sales professionals. During the past two decades, the motor vehicle aftermarket has changed. These changes were made to provide products and services more efficiently and therefore more cheaply. Activities that did not add value have been reduced or eliminated. All functions at product-on-demand locations within the aftermarket channels have become conscious value creators. The world around the aftermarket outside salesperson has changed; our research indicates that the sales persons’ communication style and selling techniques have remained the same.

No aftermarket salesperson is ever as good as he or she could be. Through their aptitude and attitude, they must create compelling, buyer-focused messages that immediately engages their customer and thus credential them, the outside salesperson, as a knowledgeable, respected, and trusted business adviser. 

Tom Easton is a senior partner with Essential Action Design Group. Contact information: or 239-791-8325.

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