A respected colleague asked me this question recently. We were discussing the way dealers bring products to market in a post-COVID-19 world. Naturally, my first response was, “Yes, of course we still need sales.” I believe we should have more sales professionals than salespeople, but the difference between the two is for another article. When I think of sales, my first instinct is to think about the way our company has trained hundreds of salespeople to do it and the way I did it myself when I stumbled into this industry over a quarter of a century ago.

But after my snap response, I began to get curious as to why he was asking it. And specifically, what type of sales was he talking about?

If you ask a room full of dealers or manufacturer representatives to describe a salesperson in the water-treatment industry, I think you would get a wide variety of opinions. Manufacturers would likely think of B2B sales with a multi-state or regional territory. Some dealers would think of traditional door-to-door sales where the salesperson picked a neighborhood and knocked on doors until he or she found the two or three out of 100 who were curious enough to let the salesperson in their home. Maybe the company thinks about an inside sales professional who waits in the brick-and-mortar building for the referrals or advertising recipients to come through the door.

Some of them might even see sales the way I do, which is where the sales professional looks to build relationships in the community with other trades and new and existing customers by focusing on giving more than taking.

But my colleague and I were discussing how sales had changed since the pandemic. I don’t think he meant that we could eliminate sales from our businesses, but he recognized how drastically the sales process has changed. Thanks to the efforts of some amazing people in our industry (especially the late David Loveday), we were considered essential, which meant that we could still do our jobs. But we were not going into homes and doing the traditional sales presentation. We had to adapt. We could not rely on facial expressions to help in the sales process because we were all wearing masks. Often, we were not able to be face-to-face at all. We were doing plumbing assessments alone, and we were testing water left out on a doorstep for us. If we were lucky, we could do a video call sales presentation but most times we had to settle with email, text, or a phone call to close the sale.

I’m not sure this was all bad. I think COVID-19 helped weed out some of the individuals that gave the water treatment sales profession a bad name. We saw the same thing happen when the Great Recession hit. Many of those companies that saw the industry as a quick and easy way to make big margins didn’t understand the importance of what they were selling and the impact it has on everyone. As a result, those companies went away.

Those of us that were left were forced to focus on service, unique ways of attracting new customers, and communicating with our existing ones. But because the nation was so focused on health, water quality was a front-and-center topic for them. That meant that if we found those ways of communication or were able to adapt to the COVID-19 environment, our customers tended to be more receptive to our solutions. And since people were home, they could focus on those home improvement projects that had been put off prior to the pandemic.

There arose a whole new group of people who saw an opportunity to spread misinformation and use scare tactics. Unfortunately, I fear there will always be unscrupulous and greedy individuals or companies that will take advantage of the natural and media-driven fears customers may have.

This is one of the reasons I still believe we need salespeople, but also why I believe sales people should be professional and certified by the Water Quality Association (WQA). In truth, I believe everybody in this industry should seek to be as educated as possible, especially those that have an opportunity to interact with customers. That includes service and installation professionals and office and administrative staff, especially those answering the phone. We must be able to combat the misinformation and unscrupulous sales strategies of those individuals or companies that do so much harm to our industry.

Sales has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic started. In many ways it has become easier. As I mentioned before, people are more aware of their water quality. This can be both good and bad for us. Sometimes it is easier to educate a customer who knows there is a water concern but has not relied upon the internet to do research. I tend to think these customers are the ones who are most susceptible to the three-hour emotional building, magic show demonstration that some companies still utilize in their sales strategies. That’s not to say the demonstration is always unscrupulous. If done accurately and honestly, it can provide needed and valuable information for an uninformed prospect. But many salespeople are reciting from memory the same script and do so without understanding what they are teaching. This creates an environment wrought with both intentional and unintentional misinformation that can ultimately do our industry and customers more harm than good.

There is nothing more frustrating than asking so-called experts a question only to realize you know more than they do. Because they had more time to do the research, more customers than ever are knowledgeable about the technologies available to address their concerns. We must know more than they do if we want to remain a viable resource for them. And sales professionals need to be able to design a more customer-centric presentation that spends less time telling them what they should do and more time asking questions to figure out what they need and want to do.

Before COVID-19, a sales professional had to be willing to work a lot more evenings and weekends to avoid the dreaded “one-legger” sales appointment. Those are the ones where only one decision-maker is home, which often leads to the common “That’s great information, but let me talk to my spouse and get back with you” response to an attempted sale close. More customers are working from home so all the decision-makers are more available.

And technologies like FaceTime or Zoom do not seem so awkward or strange when we suggest them to our customers. I’ve even seen a sense of relief from some customers when they realize they do not have to sit through an in-person sales presentation of any length. But the trade-off is that we are not able to use legitimate demonstrations to build value in our products. We must find other ways. Even an effective customer-centric, in-home presentation combines fact- and logic-driven information with demonstrations that appeal to a customer emotionally. It is more difficult (but not impossible) to build that emotional value over a Zoom meeting.

I am seeing more and more dealers across the country that are relying on their service department to generate many of their sales. I believe this proves that we still need sales professionals. While virtual presentations are more common, they are simply not a replacement for a sales professional being in front of a customer. Dealers are using their service departments to sell because customers naturally trust a service technician more but also because they are almost always in the home, in front of a customer. If a salesperson wants to adapt to the new way customers buy from us, they should look to these service technicians as an example. Even their title —service technician— suggests a willingness to give or serve the customer. Sales professionals should figure out how to give more and take less. In my opinion, this has always been the secret to sales, but it is especially true in a post-pandemic world.

So yes, I think we still need salespeople. I believe that’s what every single one of us is regardless of what title or position we have. We are all selling something. But for those whose specific job and responsibility is to generate revenue through sales, I believe it is time to step back and evaluate how you are bringing products and services to market. Are you still trying to sell the way you did before the pandemic, or have you adjusted? What adjustments still need to be made? How do you keep owners from questioning whether you are needed at all?

About the author

Kelly Thompson, MWS, CI, CST, is the owner of Moti-Vitality and MV Marketplace. He has served as the past chair and a current member of the WQA Professional Certification Committee. Pulling from his 20+ years of experience, he is also the author of Flowing to Success, a book for the water treatment sales professional that is available at moti-vitality.com.

About the company

Moti-Vitality assists in interviewing, hiring, and managing all staff within the water treatment industry, as well as offering intimate hands-on training for sales, management, administration, service, and installation personnel. Moti-Vitality works with all members of the water treatment industry regardless of size, but it tends to focus on small dealers across North America who want to take their business to the next level. In addition to the training services, Moti-Vitality also offers over 11,000 water treatment industry-related products including test kits and supplies, filters, and fittings.

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