Personal Selling Tutorial

Personal SellingIn the past few tutorials we saw how marketers can use advertising, sales promotion and public relations to reach a large number of customers. While these methods of promotion offer many advantages, they each share one major disadvantage: they are a non-personal form of communication. And whether a company is in retailing or manufacturing, sells goods or services, is a large multi-national or a local startup, is out to make a profit or is a non-profit, in all probability at some point they will need to rely on personal contact with customers. In other words, they will need to promote using personal selling.

Unfortunately, personal selling is widely misunderstood. For instance, many customers think salespeople possess traits that include being manipulative, arrogant, aggressive and greedy. While many marketers believe salespeople are only out to make a quick sale intended to increase their income and that they often do this by making unscrupulous deals undermining the marketer’s attempt to build strong brands.

While there certainly are some salespeople that fit these descriptions, today the most successful salespeople are those who work hard to understand their customers’ needs with the ultimate goal of ensuring that customer’s needs are satisfied at a high level. And, more importantly, personal selling holds a key role in the promotional activities of a large number of organizations. In fact, in the business market where one company sells products to another company, money spent to support the selling function far exceeds spending on advertising.

In this part of our highly detailed Principles of Marketing Tutorials, we begin a two-part look at personal selling. We will continue our coverage of personal selling in the next tutorial when we discuss the selling process used to obtain a customer order.

Personal selling is a promotional method in which one party (e.g., salesperson) uses skills and techniques for building personal relationships with another party (e.g., those involved in a purchase decision) that results in both parties obtaining value. In most cases the "value" for the salesperson is realized through the financial rewards of the sale while the customer’s "value" is realized from the benefits obtained by consuming the product. However, getting a customer to purchase a product is not always the objective of personal selling. For instance, selling may be used for the purpose of simply delivering information.

Because selling involves personal contact, this promotional method often occurs through face-to-face meetings or via a telephone conversation, though newer technologies allow contact to take place over the Internet including using video conferencing or text messaging (e.g., online chat).

Among marketing jobs, more are employed in sales positions than any other marketing-related occupation. In the U.S. alone, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that nearly 14 million or about 11% of the overall labor force are directly involved in selling and sales-related positions. Worldwide this figure may be closer to 100 million. Yet these figures vastly under-estimate the number of people who are actively engaged in some aspect of selling as part of their normal job responsibilities. While millions of people can easily be seen as holding sales jobs, the promotional techniques used in selling are also part of the day-to-day activities of many who are usually not directly associated with selling. For instance, top corporate executives whose job title is CEO or COO are continually selling their company to major customers, stock investors, government officials and many other stakeholders. The techniques they employ to gain benefits for their company are the same used by the front-line salesperson to sell to a small customer. Consequently, our discussion of the promotional value of personal selling has implications beyond marketing and sales departments.

Possibly the biggest disadvantage of selling is the degree to which this promotional method is misunderstood. Most people have had some bad experiences with salespeople who they perceived were overly aggressive or even downright annoying. While there are certainly many salespeople who fall into this category, the truth is salespeople are most successful when they focus their efforts on satisfying customers over the long term and not focusing own their own selfish interests.

A second disadvantage of personal selling is the high cost in maintaining this type of promotional effort. Costs incurred in personal selling include:

  • High cost-per-action (CPA) – As noted in the Promotion Decisions tutorial, CPA can be an important measure of the success of promotion spending. Since personal selling involves person-to-person contact, the money spent to support a sales staff (i.e., sales force) can be steep. For instance, in some industries it costs well over (US) $300 each time a salesperson contacts a potential customer. This cost is incurred whether a sale is made or not! These costs include compensation (e.g., salary, commission, bonus), providing sales support materials, allowances for entertainment spending, office supplies, telecommunication and much more. With such high cost for maintaining a sales force, selling is often not a practical option for selling products that do not generate a large amount of revenue.
  • Training Costs – Most forms of personal selling require the sales staff be extensively trained on product knowledge, industry information and selling skills. For companies that require their salespeople attend formal training programs, the cost of training can be quite high and include such expenses as travel, hotel, meals, and training equipment while also paying the trainees’ salaries while they attend.

A third disadvantage is that personal selling is not for everyone. Job turnover in sales is often much higher than other marketing positions. For companies that assign salespeople to handle certain customer groups (e.g., geographic territory), turnover may leave a company without representation in a customer group for an extended period of time while the company recruits and trains a replacement.

One key advantage personal selling has over other promotional methods is that it is a two-way form of communication. In selling situations the message sender (e.g., salesperson) can adjust the message as they gain feedback from message receivers (e.g., customer). So if a customer does not understand the initial message (e.g., doesn’t fully understand how the product works) the salesperson can make adjustments to address questions or concerns. Many non-personal forms of promotion, such as a radio advertisement, are inflexible, at least in the short-term, and cannot be easily adjusted to address audience questions.

The interactive nature of personal selling also makes it the most effective promotional method for building relationships with customers, particularly in the business-to-business market. This is especially important for companies that either sell expensive products or sell lower cost but high volume products (i.e., buyer must purchase in large quantities) that rely heavily on customers making repeat purchases. Because such purchases may take a considerable amount of time to complete and may involve the input of many people at the purchasing company (i.e., buying center), sales success often requires the marketer develop and maintain strong relationships with members of the purchasing company.

Finally, personal selling is the most practical promotional option for reaching customers who are not easily reached through other methods. The best example is in selling to the business market where, compared to the consumer market, advertising, public relations and sales promotions are often not well received.

Personal selling is used to meet the five objectives of promotion in the following ways:

  • Building Product Awareness – A common task of salespeople, especially when selling in business markets, is to educate customers on new product offerings. In fact, salespeople serve a major role at industry trades shows (see the Sales Promotion tutorial) where they discuss products with show attendees. But building awareness using personal selling is also important in consumer markets. As we will discuss, the advent of controlled word-of-mouth marketing is leading to personal selling becoming a useful mechanism for introducing consumers to new products.
  • Creating Interest – The fact that personal selling involves person-to-person communication makes it a natural method for getting customers to experience a product for the first time. In fact, creating interest goes hand-in-hand with building product awareness as sales professionals can often accomplish both objectives during the first encounter with a potential customer.
  • Providing Information – When salespeople engage customers a large part of the conversation focuses on product information. Marketing organizations provide their sales staff with large amounts of sales support including brochures, research reports, computer programs and many other forms of informational material.
  • Stimulating Demand – By far, the most important objective of personal selling is to convince customers to make a purchase. In The Selling Process tutorial we will see how salespeople accomplish this when we offer detailed coverage of the selling process used to gain customer orders.
  • Reinforcing the Brand – Most personal selling is intended to build long-term relationships with customers. A strong relationship can only be built over time and requires regular communication with a customer. Meeting with customers on a regular basis allows salespeople to repeatedly discuss their company’s products and by doing so helps strengthen customers’ knowledge of what the company has to offer.