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Growing customer power requires a strategic sales response

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Organisations need to integrate their sales activities more both internally and with customers' needs according to a new book co-authored by an academic at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

The book addresses how sales can help organisations to become more customer oriented and considers how they are responding to challenges such as increasing competition, more demanding customers and a more complex selling environment.

Many organisations are facing escalating costs and a growth in customer power, which makes it necessary to allocate resources more strategically. The sales function can provide critical customer and market knowledge to help inform both innovation and marketing.

However, the authors say that within the industry there is still uncertainty about the shape a future sales team should take, how it should be managed, and how it fits into their organisation's business model.

Published by Oxford University Press, Achieving a strategic sales focus: Contemporary Issues and Future Challenges is the result of research by Dr Kenneth Le Meunier-FitzHugh, a senior lecturer in marketing at UEA's Norwich Business School, and Dr Tony Douglas, director of the Edinburgh Institute (Sales Division) and senior lecturer in sales and strategy at Edinburgh Napier Business School.

With a Foreword by Lord Bilimoria, founder of Cobra Beer, the book looks how the role of sales has changed in recent years, what makes a good sales organisation in a competitive environment, as well as the role of the salesperson and sales leaders in different contexts. It includes case studies from a range of successful organisations in a number of industries.

Dr Le Meunier-FitzHugh said many organisations are struggling to come to terms with the new sales reality in terms of managing complex customer portfolios and multiple customer relationships, as well as the impact of social media on the selling process.

"The impact of technology, social media, the economic costs of winning sales, increased competition, and the need to build relationships has meant that organisations have had to adapt their sales process to achieve improved return on investment, greater productivity, and a more effective use of resources," said Dr Le Meunier-FitzHugh.

He added: "Sales remain the primary link between the selling organisations and their customers, however we were surprised when our discussions with industry practitioners and specialists revealed that a lot of organisations were still unclear about the shape a future sales team should take, what exactly a customer is and how their needs should be met. Not all customers are the same and they need different relationships and levels of service."

The authors believe that the sales renaissance is evidenced by a number of changes in the marketplace, including the importance of building profitable relationships, creating and delivering brand value, market-sensing and strategic customer management, as well as building internal and external relationships, global selling, and networking.

Dr Douglas said: "The role of sales in the delivery of organisational strategic goals has never been more essential and it is still one of the enduring functions of business where you can work with people and develop relationship value. Refocusing the organisation on customer needs has created the necessity for organisations to engage with the recruitment and development of its own sales team.

"The debate about whether salespeople are born or created still continues, but whichever is correct we would argue that sales activities need to become more closely aligned both internally and with customers' needs, not seen as extraneous to the organisation's operation. Therefore, the recruitment and training of skilled salespeople has become critical to organisational success."

Dr Le Meunier-FitzHugh and Dr Douglas also address some of the changes that have taken place in recent years. Many organisations have downsized their sales team so that the same person now performs roles that in the past would have been done by specialists, for example in new business development or managing relationships. They argue that combining these roles, along with the role ambiguity, increasing use of technology – which has led to salespeople having to be available 24/7 – and the globalization of markets has put additional pressures and stresses on the salesperson, which organisations should be aware of.

The authors also highlight the link between organisational effectiveness, the need for managerial support and pioneering leadership, and networking capabilities to ensure that the organisation remains agile and responsive to changes in the market. They suggest the sales team should be developed with this focus in mind, adding that while many organisations do have excellent training schemes and make available learning opportunities, they are still mostly focusing on mastering sales techniques rather than gaining overall competences in networking, market-sensing, and customer development.

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