A recent study of senior sales and marketing executives across manufacturing and service businesses found that one in four sales teams have seen the amount of face-to-face selling time fall over the past two years.

No surprise there. Yet for almost two thirds of those suffering less contact, the main reason is not due to the tougher economic climate. On the contrary, it is down to a change in procurement strategies, as customers centralise the way in which they are buying goods and services.

At the same time, their client-facing colleagues – best described as ‘service’ personnel – are increasingly getting more ‘air-time’ with influencers in the buying organisation. However, employers have yet to take full advantage of this valuable contact, as these customer-facing staff don’t yet recognise how they can contribute directly to the sales effort.

Such a shift in buyer behaviour cannot be ignored, as the survey points to a deep-seated and structural change within the buying organisation. This has fundamental long-term implications for all providers of goods and services, as they reconsider their whole sales approach in this new world of centralised purchasing.

Reward for effort

We are not talking about turning service staff into sales people. Service and sales is not an ‘either/or’ state with clear dividing lines. It is a continuum along which employees can be encouraged to progress, as their recognition, willingness and capability to help the business spot and develop sales opportunities increases.

In terms of ‘pure service’, customers get what they have asked for, no more and no less. This moves on through ‘outstanding service’ – often called ‘going the extra mile’. Next is ‘sales awareness’, where the service person starts to look beyond the immediate service issue and actively capture something of potential sales value.

At the next stage, that of ‘sales through service’, the service person identifies customer needs and starts to offer solutions to them. The key here is that any additional solution identified in this way is sold, not simply given free to the customer.

And finally, there is the ‘full-blown sales role’, which is totally focused on identifying customer needs and creating value for both companies.

The key here is that each organisation – and, if necessary, each individual – can progress as far as their capabilities and willingness allow. In this way, service moves closer to sales, but only as far as each employee is both comfortable and happy to go.

Companies who continue to maintain a siloed, departmental approach will increasingly struggle within the purchasing process, with fewer opportunities to differentiate the business other than on price.

Yet for those who have risen to the challenge, the benefits have been dramatic. The survey found that one quarter of those responding saw an increase in sales leads and improved bottom-line performance. And of these, almost one third have seen profitability increase by more than 20 per cent, with more than two-thirds registering an improvement of at least five per cent.

Rarely has the difference in potential outcomes between action and inaction been so stark.