The Way of the Dog


Thursday 29 March 2007

In association with Geoff Burch

Geoff Burch

The Way of the Dog: How to sell loads and loads

The British Library Conference Centre, London

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Event Review

Geoff Burch is the archetypal salesman. He's cheeky and fierce by turns. He's got a shaven head and stocky physique - features that he says make him look like an "escaped nightclub bouncer". And he dresses well. For the London Business Forum, he wore an immaculate pin-striped suit and pink silk tie... and, initially at least, sunglasses. He couldn't have looked any more sales-oriented if he had pulled up in a Porsche Carrera.

On stage, he shuffled around casually, with one hand often in his pocket. We got the feeling he wouldn't move energetically unless he had to, but that when he did it would be with explosive violence. Indeed, we would learn from his speech that he cultivated the tough-guy persona, to some extent. But he couldn't disguise the warmth in his squeaky Gloucestershire accent and his bumbling conversational style.

Burch began his speech by telling us of his expulsion from school for being a disruptive influence. "Where do you go from there?" he asked. "Alcoholism? Drug abuse? Living in the street, sleeping in a cardboard box?" He suggested that when you have no pride or morals left, there's only one place left to go: into sales.

It's a line of business that suits his dog-eat-dog temperament, he said. "The biggest thrill I get is selling things to people who don't want them - the client that says, 'No, leave me alone. Go away. Please stop.' Once you've sold to them, it's like going wild-boar hunting for the first time. You know, it's been vicious. You've lost an eye and some teeth, an ear's been ripped off, but this thing is dead at your feet."

Very few people still possess the innate skills necessary for this kind of selling, he suggested. And the fashionable alternative, "relationship selling" is a decidedly woolly concept. One senior salesman whom Burch advised didn't want to pitch anything to a key client because, he said, "I don't want to spoil the relationship."

Yet Burch admitted the "always be closing" mentality has its drawbacks too. "As a savage, vicious salesman myself, I didn't really care too much about delivery," he said. "So, I would create purchases on promises and expectations that subsequently weren't delivered." The main effect of this attitude, he said, was that customers only bought from him once.

"That works beautifully if you're selling some weird thing from door to door, like vacuum cleaners," he added with wicked grin. "You get the money and you bugger off. You don't want to see the customer again... What use is a three-hour guarantee? It gives me a hundred-mile start."

A key mistake made by business people today, Burch argued, is that they place too much emphasis on the link between customer satisfaction and repeat business. If you ask customers whether they are satisfied, and those customers tick off a list of things they find "satisfactory" about your business, you can easily be misled.

He emphasised the point using the case study of a car called the Moskovich, which was made in Moscow during the Soviet era. In spite of being "the most ghastly pile of crap in the world", it "scored higher in satisfaction surveys than Mercedes." So imagine yourselves in the position of a driver at the time, he asked the LBF audience. "Should you rush out and buy a Moskovich on the figures?"

The answer would be no, Burch said, if you bothered to ask existing owners about their driving experiences. A typical response from a Moskovich owner might have been: "Bloody marvelous. I only had four fires and a gear-box failure." A typical response from a Mercedes driver might have been: "Disgraceful... the whole time my telephone aerial kept humming in the wind." The point here, he said, is that customer expectations vary depending on context and knowledge.

Staff performance figures can be misleading for similar reasons, Burch continued. If someone is achieving a 94% satisfaction rating and you tell them they will get a bonus for reaching 98% then they will be tempted to distort the figures.

To emphasise this point he mentioned a client from Northern Ireland, a bank where one branch regularly achieved higher-than-average customer satisfaction ratings but was "in constant decline to the point where they were considering shutting". This state of affairs was possible, Burch explained, because "every time a client complained, the manager told them to piss off and never come back again."

One of the fundamental problems in British business, he argued, is that we settle for being satisfactory when we should be trying to be remarkable. "When have you ever said to somebody, 'Hey, do you want to go to that new restaurant in town? I went there the other night with my wife and it was satisfactory.'"

Although the iPod was technically inferior to other MP3 players, it overtook them because it was "remarkable," he said. Too often we strive to "just scrabble over the line of crap". Below this line, customers are indifferent. Just above it, they're satisfied. But what we really need is for them to be loyal advocates who send others our way. Have you got your customers for life, he asked? "Or are they just doing business with you because they can't be arsed to do business anywhere else?"

Burch argued it is front-line staff who have the most important role to play in both earning loyalty and generating sales. Your aim should be to recruit front-line staff for both attitude and skill, he said. You have to make it clear what you expect of them. And, most importantly, you have teach them basic sales skills, no matter what their job description may be. In practical terms, this means doing more than stating the obvious when they're dealing with customers. For example, why say simply that an item is in stock when you can ask leading questions such as: "Which colour would you prefer? Would you like me to hold it for you? Or, When would you like to come and pick it up?"

"I believe that everybody's involved," he said. "You cannot have bits of the business that don't work with each other. [You] create customer value with the entire experience." He provided another case study in the form of a garden centre where he held training sessions with every member of staff including the "shrub boys," the lowest-skilled workers who restocked the greenhouses. By learning simple cross-selling techniques - i.e. showing customers where they could find canes and plant food if they asked for tomato seeds - everyone on the front line made a significant contribution to sales.

"The intention to sell should be in the back of [everyone's] mind," Burch said, adding that it's something that comes instinctively to front-line staff in America much more than in the UK. At Cadillac, the US car manufacturer, for example, security guards are able to give sales advice when showrooms are closed. He related the story of one Cadillac customer who called a showroom at 3am, had the range described to him by the security guard, had a car delivered to him at home for a test drive within 20 minutes and completed a purchase before breakfast. "Wouldn't you get out of bed for $65,000?" Burch asked?

It seems that, in the UK at least, the answer is no. Burch said he once advised a British businessman who was worried because his competitors had begun to offer 24/7 customer services. When Burch pointed out that he had passed the client's factory at night and seen the lights on, the client replied: "Oh yeah, that's the security people. We can't trust them."

If you fail to train all your front-line staff in simple sales skills then you are paying a huge opportunity cost, Burch argued. "Just one half-intelligent member of staff in a business can add five, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 per cent without batting an eyelid." However, he cautioned, you shouldn't practice crude "add-on" or "link" selling. These old methods give rise to the sort of aggression you see in shoe shop assistants who won't let you conclude a purchase until you've got polish in your bag.

What your staff need to do is demonstrate they have a deep knowledge of your products and services, and that they can be trusted to give good advice. People with busy lives want their needs anticipated, he concluded. "If you go into a curry restaurant and order the Vindaloo Surprise, and the owner tells you gently that he's put some toilet rolls in the fridge for later [then] he's anticipating your need. You'll have a bottom like the Japanese flag, but that's neither here nor there."