Eric Richardson has spent more than three decades training sales and customer service personnel for many of the world’s largest and most successful companies. The list includes Microsoft, Apple, GE, American Express and Blue Cross Blue Shield, as well as thousands of resellers and small- and medium-sized businesses worldwide.
Now the 65-year-old Naples resident and founder and CEO of Growth Development Associates has embarked on a new goal: to bring his training program to colleges nationwide, both for continuing education of working adults and as part of the college curriculum. For the lifelong sales guru, teaching college students the nuts and bolts of sales is a genuine gap in the marketplace.
Richardson held a kickoff event for the organization, the Sales Institute of Southwest Florida, at Keiser University’s Fort Myers campus May 16, where he tasked audience members to engage in an object lesson to prove his theory. Searching Indeed for open accounting positions in Fort Myers resulted in 207 jobs and 258 in engineering. Then a search for open sales positions showed more than 1,700 unfilled jobs and customer service more than 2,100.
“The college system has never accepted sales as a profession,” Richardson told the audience. "But sales and customer service is one out of every four open jobs in any city in the country. How can we not offer a sales institute when our graduates are not getting these skills in college?”
Following the kickoff, Richardson spoke with the Business Observer about how learning and understanding sales and communications skills are valuable to any working adult or college student — regardless of profession or career aspirations.
Would you say a shortage in sales outstrips what many industries identify as a void in other areas of the workforce?
I may be biased, but when I did a keynote for CEOs of 300 of the largest manufacturers in the country, I started by asking how many salespeople were in the room. Two hands went up. Then I asked a CEO of a large manufacturing company about his choice of two interruptions. Interruption A, “Hey boss, last quarter we made twice as many as we thought we would.” Interruption B, “Hey boss, last quarter we sold twice as many as we thought we would.” Which would you rather have? They started laughing because one is an inventory problem and the other is good news. I think you have to have sales so you have something for your employees to do. You have to deliver what you sell, but the most common reason companies go out of business is not because they didn’t have employees; it’s because they ran out of business. You have to have both, but if you don’t have sales, it’s a moot point.
Do you believe including this curriculum into any degree program can benefit the college graduate?
I will tell you what the president of Morgan State University told me when I had this conversation with him. He said every freshman should have workplace communications classes. They can use that right now in their part-time jobs. Every sophomore should have sales skills. It doesn’t matter what your degree is, you’re going to have to be able to sell your product, services or ideas within that industry. Every junior should have management skills. There is not a kid who goes to college to be an employee. They all think they’re going to be managers someday. And every senior should have account management because no matter what business you are in, you are going to want to hang on to your clients.
Does it surprise you that these skills have not been implemented in college degree programs?
I first thought about that when I was a freshman in college, and two-thirds of the black kids in the college with me were majoring in African-American history. I said, “You can’t get any job in that,” and I was labeled as not cool. That’s when it first occurred to me that most people [don't go] to college thinking that they are being prepared to get a job. And so in hindsight, I am more disturbed than I am surprised, but to me that means I have to do something about it. If we can influence and plant these seeds, then that’s what I have to do.
Is sales a dirty word in the halls of academia?
It is, especially in academia, and to some degree in the real world, except the same people who think sales is a dirty word have a favorite salesperson they would only buy a car from or only buy a suit from or only go to a restaurant to see. If a doctor told you right now you had to have a heart transplant, your first words would be, “I need a second opinion,” because you want to be sold. Selling is not a dirty word. Selling is an honor. It’s a privilege to help people make a decision, and if people think about it for a second, they would understand. People say they don’t like salespeople. What they don’t like are bad salespeople. Those same people have a salesperson who is the only one they will go see.
What role does good communications skills play in sales?
When it comes to communicating with customers, it’s not about you; it’s not about your product; it’s not about your services. It’s always about the customer. And if you can take the time to build enough trust so the customer will share with you what they are really trying to do, you can select the things your company offers to help them in such a way they will work with you again. There are two keys to growing a business. You have to get customers, and you have to keep customers. In fact, for long-term success, it’s not the customers you get; it’s the customers you keep.
How do you handle objections in a sales call?
I love objections. If I don’t get an objection, I go find one because if you get an objection, it’s an indication the customer is thinking about what you just said, and they’re asking you for help. I welcome objections. It’s not me against the customer; it’s me and the customer against the problem. That’s a wonderful moment in a sales call.
You use the term “consultative selling.” What is that?
If I am talking to a customer about their needs, whether they are trying to buy a house or they are in nuclear fission, the question is, "What are they trying to accomplish?" The second most powerful question in sales is, “What else?” The customer may have to think about it because they have been so close to the problem, they haven’t thought about it. I have asked, “When do you stop saying what else?” to 20,000 sales people, and 98% gave me the same answer. Most people think that’s when the customer says that’s it. No, you stop saying what else when you run out of things on the list you can do that your customer will value.
How does consultative sales differ from a sales pitch?
Consultative selling is not some kind of sales voodoo. It is common courtesy. Who do you think you are if you start pitching products to somebody if you don’t even know their needs? And why should they tell you what they need if you haven’t given them a reason, and why should they talk to you if you don’t have any credibility with them? Sales in my opinion is a privilege. It’s the honor of getting to help somebody make a decision that will make them happy. The world’s perception of a salesperson is a myth, but there is no company that can survive without great sales and customer service.
Originally published in the Business Observer Florida, author, Andrew Warfield, Lee-Collier Editor.