Who’s Selling Service/Support These Days?

By Al Hahn

What’s new in the world of selling services? The answer depends on where you are in the evolution of service sales. My company consults in this area and we train hundreds of service sellers every year, so we get a pretty good view across the many sectors service/support. We see product salespeople selling services, service managers and engineers selling, dedicated telesellers, and dedicated face-to-face services salespersons. We also see separate professional services salespeople. Oh, and don’t forget resellers, distributors, and VARs (value-added resellers). Of course, we should not forget to mention the selling of services over the Internet. With this to choose from, it’s a real challenge to know where to start.

Product Sales People

Let’s begin with product sellers. Traditionally, about 60 percent of services have been sold by the product seller along with the product. This varies quite a bit by market and company. This continues, but the addition of new dedicated sales channels for services has begun changing the percentages somewhat. We have seen a lot of interest in selling “solutions.” I put this in quotes because “solution” can, like beauty, be defined in various ways. One person’s solution may be another’s do-it-yourself kit.

For my money, a solution should be a complete turnkey package of integrated products and services that will perform a complete set of tasks defined by the customer. At a minimum, it must contain the necessary services to allow the customer to utilize products and keep them up and running. Anyway, in companies that sell solutions, either the product salesperson now must sell services to complete the solution, or they are utilizing team selling where an account representative brings in needed specialists to address products, technologies, traditional service/support, and professional services. In both cases, the salesperson is most likely to use a consultative sales approach. As a result, we see increased demand for this type of sales training, which is often different from sales techniques used to sell “boxes” in the past.

Dedicated Service Sellers

The other major trend is to utilize dedicated service sellers. These tend to take two forms: telesales and direct, face-to-face sellers. Telesales is one of my personal favorite methods of selling service/support contracts. It is relatively inexpensive, easy to implement, simple to manage, and very efficient. We have seen it work literally around the world, even in countries where the country manager swore it wouldn’t work. This method does have some limitations, however, and is best used for contract renewals and for smaller accounts and relatively simple services.

Dedicated, face-to-face sellers are most commonly used at a regional level and usually sell to larger accounts. Where a telesales person may handle hundreds of accounts, a direct services seller may be responsible for five to 35 customers. They are increasingly in demand and may be compensated at the same level as a product salesperson. In addition to selling, these people may function as local or regional services sales “cheerleaders.” In this role, they focus attention on selling services and are available as a resource to others who may be having difficulty and need assistance.

Selling Professional Services

Professional services create special challenges in selling. Because of this, my company has sales training focused specifically on professional services. Full custom services take longer to sell, require more approvals, and often require higher levels of approval. They are very likely to require intensive technical assessments from experienced analysts, consultants, and engineers. Initially, manufacturers and software publishers tried having product salespeople sell professional services. In many cases, this did not work out. Either they gave away the services to sell products or they gave up altogether because of the difficulties and just sold products. After these initial problems, most companies set up separate sales forces to concentrate on selling professional services. This remains the most common model today.

Recently, we see more team selling and solution selling for professional services as described earlier in this column. One particular tactic is to lead with the professional services and then have the consultant pull-through the sales of products and traditional services. This can work quite well and has been used successfully by IBM, in particular.

Selling on the Web

What about the latest, hottest stuff? Isn’t all the rest of it obsolete? Let’s fire all the salespeople and put everything on the Web. It will just sell itself, right? Well…not quite. For some companies such as Cisco and Dell, they can and do sell plenty of services through their Web sites. It pretty well follows their product sales strategy. They also tend to deliver a lot of service via the Web. For everyone else, it is a time of transition. I recommend that you should absolutely have service information on your Web site and not more than three clicks from the home page. If your company sells products on the Internet, you should sell services there, too. In fact, services should automatically be quoted along with products. Make customers say no. Companies that do this report far higher attachment rates (services sold with products) than those who don’t. If products are not currently being sold this way yet at your business, you can begin by selling contract renewals and consumables over the Internet.

One interesting wrinkle is the use of instant messaging techniques to allow the online interaction between a seller and the buyer who has been browsing your site. This can turn a shopper into a buyer. For most of us, we shouldn’t get rid of our sales force just yet. The whole Internet and Social Media impact is constantly changing and requires quick adaptation. It’s late for some, but it’s still early for most; so get started, but allow for changing your techniques on the fly.

So there you have it. A short discussion of what’s new in selling services. Wherever you are, there is always something new to try. Good luck and good selling!