Making The Sale
We convened a panel of local sales professionals to talk shop on all things sales—from tips and trends to strategies and skills. During a one-hour discussion at our offices, they shared their wisdom on what it takes to succeed in this constantly changing field.
Nancy Kennedy, Associate Real Estate Broker at Houlihan Lawrence at the 914INC. Roundtable discussion.
Photography by Ken Gabrielson
Robert Schork, 914INC.: Do you think that sales skill can be taught, or is it something you either have or you don’t?
Anthony Panarella, Nissan: There’s no question some people have a natural gift for sales. But what is more important is having the innate personality traits that will put you in a position to excel at sales. I see it as a three-legged stool: one, talent and capability; two, work ethic; three, competitiveness.
Lynn Bagliebter, Sterling National Bank: I agree that there are certain personalities that are a more adaptable fit to a sales environment. But, I also believe it can be taught. If you are confident and knowledgeable about what you are selling, that will shine through.
Nancy Kennedy, Houlihan Lawrence: I’ve been in sales for 31 years, yet I never felt I sold anyone anything. I feel my job is to educate and inform, ask lots of questions, and not offer my opinion. I carry myself confidently and with an intense passion and a very strong work ethic.
Jason Metzger, Vice President and Region Executive at PURE Insurance
Jason Metzger, PURE Insurance: I think everybody is in sales today, no matter what role you play in your company. There used to be information asymmetry, where the seller had all of the information, but today you have this world of information that everybody can get to. So now you have to come to the table as more of a consultant, a trusted advisor, someone who can lead them down the path to a decision.
Mike Ryan, HEINEKEN USA: At Heineken, we actually have a mantra, a rallying cry: “You either sell beer or you help sell beer.” And it’s a mindset: Some people are really good at it, and they learn on the job; other people are taught. Some people are just naturally gifted at sales, but you have to have drive to win. You have to have that passion.
Amy R. Partridge, 914INC.: Does the access to information that consumers have now make it more challenging for a salesperson, or is it actually helpful?
Metzger: I think we used to hear that salespeople have this bad rep. It’s because they were the keepers of the information. It’s only fair now that everybody has it; you just have to change the way you go about it.
Kennedy: I was president of the Westchester-Putnam Multiple Listing Service [when we first] put all our listings on Realtor.com, and I actually had threatening phone calls from brokers, saying, “What are you doing? You are putting us out of business!” because we were the gatekeepers. No one else knew what was on the market. So that idea of becoming a more trusted advisor and a guide to help people through the process is really a big transformation in my business.
Schork: What does it take to be a great salesperson?
Bagliebter: I don’t think that, in the banking world, we consider ourselves salespeople. We are developing relationships. We become their trusted advisors, delivering all the capabilities of the bank to them. And sometimes we say no, if someone is not creditworthy. That’s all part of that advisory role that we play. And for us, it’s an ongoing long-term relationship… . In banking, you live with the loan for many years to come, so it’s a very complicated type of sale in that respect.
Metzger: I think it's the same characteristics that are just great to have in business: being very curious, wanting to understand how things work or why people do the things they do; having some sense of entrepreneurialism, where you feel like if your ideas are good, you are going to go out there and that you have the empowerment to make things happen. It also helps to be emotionally intelligent and be passionate about what you are doing. You also need to have some sense of purpose.
Ryan: You also have to love challenges. Love the unknown; love the ambiguous; love the tall order that seems almost insurmountable. That’s the drive that I think good salespeople have. But they also have to be humble enough to know that they are not going to win all the time. And when they lose, they need to be able to get right back on that horse. Also, they have to have great follow-through.
Kennedy: I think also you have to realize that not everybody should be your client. You have to figure out who you can help, and help those people and really build those relationships. But if people don’t respect you and your knowledge and your advice and your advisement to them, just move on. There is always someone else to help.
Panarella: Having people skills is definitely the number-one priority to even remotely think about getting into sales. If you’re not that people person, and you’re not able to handle the good times with the bad, you need to find something else to do.
Metzger: If you are in a sales role, you face a lot of rejection, and so you have to have buoyancy—resiliency, too, because you have to be willing not to win every time. And if you don’t have that, you’re going to just beat yourself up every night.
Bagliebter: In the banking field, it’s critical to have some specific technical skills [to succeed in sales]—analysis of credit and things like that. But, I also agree that it comes down to being a very good people person and being responsive, developing relationships, and knowing how to become that trusted advisor.
Ryan: And, of course, communication is really important. But, the other side of effective sales is someone who can listen well and is able to translate: This is what they are saying, but this is what they might have meant. I think active listening and asking questions can often make a sale or [can lead to] an even more powerful sale.
Schork: Is a sale just a sale, regardless of what you’re selling, or does it require a customized approach, based on the specific industry you’re in?
Kennedy: I think if you’re a successful salesperson, you could jump into another industry, as long as you really educated yourself and you had access to all the tools that will make you the most informed person in that particular field. When people ask me why are you so successful as a real estate broker, I say I’m a businessperson and that my product happens to be real estate.
Panarella: I feel that if you’re good at sales, you could definitely uproot yourself and go into another business selling just about anything, with the proper education and leadership behind you. Given the right tools, I don’t think it’s a problem at all.
Mike Ryan, VP, Sales Strategy & Shopper Marketing for HEINEKEN USA
Ryan: I agree that the skills are very transferable, but the selling could be very different. Selling a $14.99 12-pack of Heineken or Dos Equis is a certain type of sale, with a low-risk/reward profile. Whereas, with insurance policies or houses, cars or banking services, the duration of the sale, the duration of prep work, the relationship management, the time to close the sale, is so different for different industries.
Metzger: I would agree, generally. If you’re good at sales, you can translate that into other businesses. But, I don’t know if I personally could, because I go back to what I was saying earlier about purpose and passion. We recently became a purpose-driven organization, and I’ve 100 percent bought into that. Maybe I could sell houses or sell Heineken, but I don’t think I would be as good at it.
Schork: How much of sales is a team effort versus an individual effort?
Bagliebter: Definitely, it’s a team effort. We have to involve a number of different people who have different aspects of bringing our products to the client.
Panarella: Of course it’s a team. In the car business, there are so many steps, with so many individuals touching that one customer. It’s only a smooth process if you have everybody on the same page to help the customer.
Ryan: There’s no such thing as one-person selling. And I would go so far as to say it’s not only the team, but sales are also generated by the customer. The customer is actually selling while you are selling to them. Example: Whether it’s a husband or a wife or a family, discussions and input from those members helps drive a sale and drive the differences in the level of the sale, the size of the sale.
Metzger: It’s 100 percent team effort. We’ve embraced this “World Café” concept of knowledge sharing. You get a group of people together and sit around a table and share all of your ideas. But imagine there are 30 other tables in the room also—all trying to figure out how to become better at sales or lifting top-line revenue. By the end of this exercise, we have all these ideas that you never would have thought about on your own. Employing the team concept makes your end result, your ultimate product, that much stronger.
Kennedy: While I’m sitting here today, my team is running my business. Everybody knows every single client, and we all have a role. My role is to be face to face with clients, getting listings and selling properties. Then, I have staff who support the listings side and support staff on the buyer’s side and an assistant who does things like getting taxes and property cards and putting out signs. I would never be able to succeed without [my team].
Bagliebter: [We have a] single-point-of-contact approach in our bank. But that is still a team. If you’re working with a client, and one person is the lending expert, and that same client needs deposit accounts, we have other people who will help the client with that. Your team has to be as responsive as you are, because unless those people deliver what they are supposed to, your whole effort may fail. So, it’s making sure that you have a really confident group and that everyone follows them.
Schork: But assuming it’s still a commission-based model, isn’t there some point at which tension arises from the inherent conflict between a team approach versus the individual competition for sales?
Metzger: You are seeing less and less of commissions or commission-based sales for a variety of reasons. In financial services, it’s because of [the need for increased] transparency. It’s also because of alignment with your clients—people don’t want to think that you are [getting one] over on them because you’re selling them a product and getting rich off of it. So, a lot of companies are going to fee-based models.
Kennedy: Real estate is typically 100 percent commission; that’s how it works. But I decided to build a different model. The way that I have my team structured is that everyone is an employee. They get salary and, based on our performance, bonuses for the team, which are given out quarterly.
Bagliebter: We’re not commission-based, but there are sales goals, and there are bonuses. So, the team has certain goals, and if the team makes its goal, the pot is divided [by percentages] based on the positions of people within the team. It works really well because everyone is pulling together; everyone gets monthly reports to see how they are doing against their goals, so we are all in the same effort together.
Ryan: At Heineken, we have a salary-plus-bonus commission structure. And it is by team, so people have to support each other in their respective sides of business.
Schork: What other interesting trends are you seeing in sales today?
Metzger: One trend is this concept of emotional intelligence. For salespeople especially, the better their ability to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes, the better they reflect your brand, your company, your product—whatever it is you’re trying to sell. So, I see my firm and other firms investing a lot in emotional intelligence. A second trend is around transparency and alignment. It’s hard to get anything past anybody, and you don’t want to. You want to be an advocate [for the people you are selling to]; you want to lead them down the path of making good decisions. One of the ways you do that is by being very clear on what you’re about, what your propositions are, how all of that compares to the market, and sharing those pieces of information that [potential clients] may not have had to help them make a decision. If you can hit on all those things, you’re much more successful.
Schork: What about business-to-business (B2B) sales versus business-to-consumer (B2C) sales? Do they require a different set of skills and/or approaches?
Ryan: I’ve done both sides, and I think the skill sets are transferable, and they get applied on both sides. The fundamental distinction with B2B is that it’s really about partnerships and helping each other for mutual gain. Whereas, on the consumer side, it’s really about: “Are you delivering the right product with the right need for the right solution at the right time?”
Partridge: B2C sales are much more transactional, aren’t they?
Kennedy: I only know the consumer side, and yes, it is a transactional relationship. But you want to have a really great ongoing relationship [with clients]. Even when the house closes, you want to stay in touch with that client because they are a source of referrals. It’s really rewarding when you’re selling to the children of people who bought from you 30 years ago.
Ryan: The other fundamental difference I see is that there are fewer options in B2B than on the consumer side. There are only so many real estate agencies and so many car dealers, and it’s a high-cost, high-transaction, high-reward [sale] but an infrequent occasion. However, when you are looking at consumables, it’s endless. There are so many options. One day, consumers are buying your product; the next day they’re buying someone else’s, and you just have to be comfortable with that. There are so many more transactions; it’s a different type of selling.
Bagliebter: In the B2B world, it’s very visible and highly competitive. You know that every bank is calling on your clients all the time—and there are only so many of them. So you have to stay close to that client. That’s another aspect that I think is different.
Panarella: Though I’m in a B2C environment, I do have businesses soliciting me and telling me how I’m going to get more people in my door. So, I think that B2B approach is definitely based on relationships and about working together to analyze what the return on investment is and how to move forward with those business partners.
Schork: What are the peculiarities of Westchester from a sales perspective? How do sales here differ from another market?
Kennedy: In my business, the challenge to Westchester is Westchester. Each of the towns and villages and municipalities and hamlets is completely different from the others, and there are so many school districts. Also, people are very particular about where they want to be and how far away they are, from a commuting standpoint. So, the challenge is knowing all of those ins and outs, and knowing how to direct people to the right place for their needs.
Lynn Bagliebter, EVP & Westchester Market President of Sterling National Bank
Bagliebter: In Westchester, most of the bankers all know each other and tend to have worked at a number of competitors over the years. We are all after the same thing, so it makes for competition, but it can also bring a very good working relationship, as we sometimes need other banks as partners. There’s a real local community and presence here. I’ve worked in banking in New York City, as well, and you do not know your competition as well there as we know ours here in Westchester.
Metzger: I would say for my business, Westchester is a microcosm of what we do, because we are selling insurance to high-net-worth individuals, and Westchester is a huge market. The way affluent individuals often want to buy is through referrals. We are taking market share year after year [from competitors] because of those relationships and those referrals.
Panarella: I’ve only been in Westchester for 18 months, so I’m not an expert, but one advantage of being here is that we’re so close to New York City. We get that melting pot of customers walking in the door. We get a lot of foot traffic, too. So, I haven’t seen any disadvantages yet to being in Westchester, but there are a lot of advantages.
Ryan: [Westchester’s] proximity to New York City means the resources are strong. The education base, the professionalism, the major companies in the Westchester area are all fantastic. But, recruiting talent is a double-edged sword. We can recruit great talent, but the high cost of living that is associated with all the great benefits of Westchester [can be challenging].
Schork: What are the biggest challenges or barriers to making a sale in your respective industries?
Bagliebter: The competition we face can be a significant barrier. If a client is an attractive client, and they are out looking for proposals, they are often going to multiple banks. Right now, we are in a low-interest-rate environment, and there is always some bank that is bidding really low, so we have to decide if it’s worth trying to go down to meet that competition or not.
Anthony Panarella, President of Nissan of New Rochelle
Panarella: In the car business, only 1 percent of the population in the Northeast region is in the market to buy a car each month. So for us, it’s a fight to capture that little piece of the pie. We’re also fighting against other Nissan dealers and the Internet.
Kennedy: The biggest challenge is the level of competition. In the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors, we have just under 10,000 members who have access to all the properties on the market. I think there’s also a statistic that one in nine Americans hold a real estate license... . It’s not always competent competition, but there is competition.
Ryan: I think the biggest challenge in our industry is driving organic growth. There are only about three ways [to do that]. First is by penetration or population gain—as the population grows, there will be new consumers of legal drinking age available to sell to. The second is growth from “shared stomach”; when we grow our market share of that little pie, it’s at the expense of someone else. So, that’s great for us, but the retailer doesn’t like that. The third thing is how do we grow organically from a revenue base and from a margin base in a market that has a fairly consistent level of food-and-beverage intake? No one is getting up tomorrow and saying, “My goal today is to drink more beer than I did yesterday.” That’s one of the challenges in the food-and-beverage industry that a lot of people don’t realize.
Metzger: Our customers don’t know what great looks like. Insurance is one of the products you pay for and hope you will never have to use; when you do have to use it, you just kind of want to get through it. In our niche, where we are after that high-net-worth client, there is a level of expectation that is raised. The result is a lot of misinformed perception that we have to struggle with, such as: “PURE is new; they can’t possibly be as good as Chubb or AIG.” Or, because we are new, “PURE is small, so their balance sheet can’t possibly support a catastrophic event like [Superstorm] Sandy or [Hurricane] Irene.” It’s about fighting those misperceptions day after day.
Bagliebter: Our money is as green as every other bank’s money, so it really comes down to having certain unique selling propositions. [For us, that proposition is] become very knowledgeable and network within those industries.