Rocket Science: A design for (sales) life


It seems absurd to suggest the mobile industry has forgotten how to sell. It will shift something northwards of a billion units this year and Western Europe is saturated. But its accelerated growth has come largely in spite of its salespeople, not because of them.

Its success has been underwritten by latent consumer demand for gadgetry. Mobile telephony is a commodity now, and the industry’s mad early growth has slowed; it is coming down.

For new consultancy Rocket Science, comprising heavily-qualified industry veterans, everything comes down to selling; its specialist subject. The market is at a crossroads: voice revenues are disappearing and new technology solutions are arriving. Salespeople must protect existing income and promote fresh services. But it will take behavioural change on an industrial scale.

“What are we selling? Improvement, simple as that,” says Alasdair Jeffrey (pictured centre), one third of the new Rocket Science crew.

“Our belief in selling is making the customer want to buy from you, rather than just making them buy from you – making them want to. People don’t go that deep. Whoever else is delivering sales training is doing so without understanding the behavioural psychology behind it.”

Jeffrey, who writes a monthly column for this newspaper (Home Truths), has been running consultancy work based upon the same essential ethos for more than two decades. He boils it down for his clients, bashes heads together and gets results. It is a logical process that escapes most cerebral sales managers; something he dubs ‘rare sense’.

It is also a process that has been caught on camera several times: in a cameo in the BBC2 documentary Trouble At The Top, about John Caudwell’s Phones 4U, and as the eponymous leads in BBC3 reality series The Fantastic Mr Fix It and The Bullshit Detective, forerunners of format programmes Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and Dragon’s Den.

Rocket Science represents a fuller version of Jeffrey’s practice, supplemented by the business brain of former Avenir Telecom commercial director John Doughty (pictured right) and the sales nous of former Carphone Warehouse divisional manager Jon Townsend (pictured left), and scaled up for broader projects.

Evolution of the salesperson
Jeffrey describes a reseller striking a deal with a construction company for “thousands of” SIM cards.

“He finds out the company is having its copper wire nicked and that it’s costing it millions. So he puts together a communications solution to protect it against the theft of copper wire. He’s like Richard Emanuel was in the early days; he is a ‘closer’.”

This is Jeffrey shorthand for types of salespeople, and an extended segue into a manifesto for the new project. Richard Emanuel, founder of Scottish retailer DX Telecom (sold to BT Cellnet/O2 in 1999 for £42 million), was one of those who started in the industry by flogging car phones to Porsche drivers. Jeffrey shadowed him in the early days.

“He’d approach a guy with a Porsche. They’d say, ‘Get lost’. He’d go to the next business with a Porsche outside, say, ‘You want one of these?’ They’d say, ‘Yesss. Can I fit it in my Porsche?’ Then they’d phone back a week later to return the phone because no one calls them on it. ‘Okay, give me the names of your friends and I’ll sell them one too’. That’s entrepreneurial, that’s visionary.”

Jeffrey talks through the evolution of the salesperson in the context of the market’s development. ‘Wizards’ sell solutions and opportunities once ‘closers’ have made the ground-breaking sales. “They understand the technology and can apply it to real life situations,” he says.

‘Builders’ sell products; they discount and bundle kit, and work the market in the good times. As it matures, the sales assistant, or ‘Steady Eddie’ in Jeffreyian vernacular, emerges “He doesn’t get much bonus because there’s hardly any margin left, but he’s happy to stand all day and vend the occasional phone.”

This is where the mobile industry is today, suggests Jeffrey. “It requires more ‘closers’ and ‘wizards’, but it is full of ‘builders’ and ‘Steady Eddies’. Imagine we’d picked Steady Eddie in 1989.”

Parallels with 1989
The industry is at a point of departure again, where new sales channels and new technology solutions can lift it up.

This faddish term ‘unified communications’ describes the promise of brand new revenue from either cross-selling a broader range of equipment, or from offering integrated technology that enhances processes. It is like 1989; another embryonic phase.

The problem is the industry’s front line is not equipped to go much beyond box shifting to sell these fresh opportunities.

Townsend explains: “When I started in mobile, a percentage of people did stuff properly and a percentage went out and said, ‘What discount do I need to give you to win this deal?’

“For whatever reason, the industry went down the second of those paths and, by the end of my time in mobile, I was completely disillusioned with it. Nobody sells, nobody does anything right, nobody covers the right processes. It’s just about delivering a commodity at the cheapest price. And you know what? We pat ourselves on the back when customers buy from us. What fools are we?”

Townsend has worked in various sales management roles at O2, T-Mobile, Carphone, Thus Mobile (from which he quit the industry, finally exasperated with it) and most recently Learning Possibilities, which produces e-learning platforms for the education sector.

That last role saw him come up against a market stuck in its ways and struggling to embrace new technology, in the same way the mobile industry must now understand new solutions to pitch to blank faces and reverse falling revenues.

“Everyone in the country has got a mobile phone. In the same way that everyone in the country has got a toilet roll. People have not essentially been sold either of those items. The markets exist because they do. Unified comms solutions are going to need to be sold to people. You can’t do it in the same way you’re selling lucky minutes. There is an opportunity now for the industry to go back to what it could have been, back to that crossroads, before it decided to go down the route of least resistance.”

Of the trio, Doughty, formerly with distributors Computer 2000 and Avenir, knows the convergence space best. “Mobile is still a fairly young industry and it has grown by default,” he explains.

“I have been in sales environments; good, bad and indifferent. And I recognise the challenges – where things will not get changed by offering incentives or by banging a desk. In this climate, companies have to invest in existing personnel or recruit new staff to make the difference. It is crucial in telecoms and IT because of this shift in technology and convergence. Sales people are being asked to sell a much broader range than they ever have been.”

The Peter Green connection
John Doughty first met Alasdair Jeffrey in 2003, when he was associate sales director at Phones 4U. Former Phones 4U owner John Caudwell had set the retailer the target of hitting number one in the 2004 JD Power customer satisfaction survey. He had made Peter Green, then managing director, responsible for this stretching ambition.

Green heard of Jeffrey through work he’d done with a Phones 4U area manager in the Northeast, a graduate of Jeffrey’s DX Telecom training programme, and drafted him in to assist with the new ‘Customer Service Excellence’ scheme. Doughty enrolled, along with all senior management and shop staff.

“By making people want to buy, sales numbers and customer satisfaction can increase; it’s not a trade-off. Phones 4U was a high-profile example of that,” says Jeffrey.

Green moved to Carphone in 2005, to lead its new business sales operation. On Green’s instruction, the entire team got the Jeffrey treatment; within it divisional manager Jon Townsend.

The same year, Doughty moved to Computer 2000 as sales director, in charge of a sales floor of 125. Market share was down, revenue was down and margin was down. Doughty recruited Jeffrey to overhaul its sales processes, again with engagement from management through to sales floor.

The results Jeffrey achieved, with teams essentially sympathetic to his ethos, were good.

Full article in Mobile News issue 447 (September 7, 2009).

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