EARLIER THIS MONTH A GROUP OF CHINESE EMPLOYEES were seen crawling on all fours around Ruyi Lake in Zhengzhou city, Henan province, China. Their crime? Not meeting their sales targets. Setting aside the callous nature of the punishment and questionable motivational skills of their boss, this story highlights a major challenge facing sales teams in China today – Competition.
Consumerism, pushed by increased household income, government policies that are congruent with domestic consumption, as well as a connectivity through the world’s largest high speed rail network, is driving competition in China. And all this in an absence of competent sales professionals to fill sales roles.
Evidence of this skill shortage was the 2011 New York Times Magazine’s article ‘Where to Get the World’s Best Service‘ which ranked China second last, out of 24 surveyed countries. In contrast, the USA was 7th, Thailand was second, and the winner was Japan. Only Russia, ranked 24th, was worse.
Not that service quality alone is a sign of sales competence. There’s more to closing a million dollar deal than a smile, proactive service, and a mint on the pillow. So what can sales managers do to develop the competencies that are critical to sales success in China? Here’s a list based on 15 years of doing just that – developing great salespeople in China:
1. Embed Product Knowledge
An education based on rote learning isn’t going to create proactive sales people. This is the business environment of China today. Newbies to sales will expect to be told what, why, how and when – as they have been for the past 16 years of their schooling. No number of on-boarding videos is going to change this expectation. Therefore, the role of the sales manager is similar to that of a teacher – instructional, supportive, but also willing to enforce the rules.
Newbies to sales will expect to be told what, why, how and when – as they have been for the past 16 years of their schooling.
And for many sales managers, this means writing down the rules and guidelines for the very first time. What to bring to a sales meeting, the proposal process, even dress code, should be clearly defined, published and made available to all. And that’s just the beginning. When it comes to product knowledge, this mean creating a handbook that is more than product dimensions or prices. It means including all stages of the product manufacturing process or service pathway.
In my book, “Selling Big to China” and this earlier post, I refer to the features folder – a literal folder, or bag, for carrying evidence that a company’s product or service can meet the needs of the customer. On a sales call, my bag weighs 5 kilograms, because I know that my potential customer could ask me any number of a questions, to which evidence will be required.
Action: Sales managers in China should ensure their sales team receive regular tests, build and maintain their own sales folders, and can quickly verbalise the most important features relevant to a customer’s needs.
2. Teach Questioning Skills
The Chinese word for ‘question’ is wèntí (问题). The Chinese word for for ‘problem’ is also wèntí (问题). They are the same; a problem is a question, and a question is a problem. And that may explain why Chinese are loath to ask questions in meetings – since it has a negative connotation. That, and the cultural habit not to challenge authority.
This also means that your sales staff will not be accustomed to using questions in sales calls – which is not a specific China problem, but is exacerbated by the culture. Sales managers must therefore drill into staff the skill of asking structured questions – or the Funnelling Technique. In short, the Funnelling Technique involves ‘open, non-leading questions’, followed by a ton of ‘open, leading questions’, and then finally two or three ‘closed, leading questions’. It involves listening, clarifying, and listening some more.
That’s all good in theory, but terribly difficult to do in practice. Particularly if a salesperson is excited about their product or service.
Instead of asking questions, inexperienced salespeople may storybook their product brochure or PowerPoint deck.
Action: Sales managers in China should therefore train their staff in the Funnelling Technique – and regularly address this skill, probably quarterly.
3. Practice Rapport Building Skills
Social skills come more naturally to some than to others. In collectivist cultures, such as China’s, it is harder to build rapport and goodwill with strangers. Confucius can be blamed for this oversight. His described ‘Five Bonds’ between individuals are:
– Ruler to ruled,
– Father to son,
– Husband to wife,
– Elder brother to younger brother,
– friend to friend,
…but not ‘stranger to stranger’. Go to a Chinese house party and you’ll see this omission in action. Rather than just providing a bunch of nibbles and music, and expecting guests to mingle, Chinese hosts will arrange group games to help strangers build rapport.
Action: Mingling doesn’t come naturally in China, so for this reason sales managers in China should teach rapport building skills.
4. Enforce Activity, Not Just Results
Results in sales, unlike firefighting, aren’t obvious immediately. Sales take time, patience, but more importantly, effort – effort from day one. If staff are actively contacting clients, assuming of course that they have product knowledge, can question and build rapport, then sales will eventuate. This active contact can be in many forms – emails, phone calls, networking events, or face-to-face meetings. What’s most important is that the potential customer is engaged, or in other words, is thinking about the salesperson. If a customer is thinking about the salesperson, then they have a chance of buying from that same salesperson. If the salesperson is unknown or forgotten, then there is a zero percent chance that that customer can be ‘closed’. In the sales world, we call this ‘putting your customer into check‘.
So it’s bizarre that so many salespeople intentionally waste time in uncheck. Uncheck is when the customer is not thinking of the salesperson.
Uncheck is when the customer is not thinking of the salesperson.
Action: So, as a sales manager, be sure to enforce and measure activity, in any form. Get your team out of uncheck! Results will occur as a consequence.
5. Systematise the Process
The best salespeople that I have worked with are terrible at administration. Adding details to their customer relationship management (CRM) system is a frustrating part of the process for many in sales. But, it is vital if the fifth competency of a great sales professional in China is to be developed. Too many salespeople have forgotten to follow through with a promise, whether that be a follow up email, proposal or worse, an actual contract! A systematic approach, that ensures that all salespeople’s activity is visible to the sales manager, will ensure that no balls are dropped.
Action: If you haven’t done so already, invest in a solid CRM system that will allow for sharing of information across the entire organisation. And then be ready to remind your staff to follow up. Salespeople, particularly ‘hunters’, may be looking forward to the next deal, rather than remembering to follow through with their promises.
China is quickly becoming a consumer powerhouse, like the USA or Europe. Selling to China, by hiring Chinese salespeople, is a no-brainer. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. Don’t expect to be able to hire an entire competent salesforce – one or two outstanding individuals, yes, but not the entire team. Remember, that true consumer driven China was only founded in 1992, when Deng Xiaoping announced, “To get rich is glorious” (致富光荣). That was only 23 years ago. Be prepared to train, manage, and just as importantly, measure your sales team constantly. Crawling around a lake is optional.