We’ve all been there; browsing in a shop, wandering around a car showroom or that unsolicited phone call – we get hijacked by an overenthusiastic salesperson trying to pressure us into buying. Telesales especially has a reputation of high pressure selling with call centres providing a gladiatorial environment where those who sell most are hailed the victors.
But is this approach outdated? Does selling need to be so confrontational? Certainly reading the buying signs and understanding the needs of your prospect can help, but in the internet age how much hard selling still needs to be done given the many images and messages we see on the internet and social media looking to gently persuade us that we can’t live without the super deluxe spiraliser?
Recently appointed Director General of the Direct Selling Association, Susannah Schofield OBE, cut her teeth in sales in a call centre – at time when pretty much anything went. I’m sure we all remember the BBC3 fly on the wall documentary “The Call Centre”! – Susannah recalls…
“Gosh, when I look back now, it was when bullying in the workplace was almost acceptable. People were still smoking at their desks when I very first started – only just… It was an incredible environment where people could just get shouted at. If you didn’t do your job properly, you were told off in front of other people and your peers. There would be white boards where people would write on where people had failed to reach their targets and you’d have to justify why you hadn’t hit it.
It was a very strange environment and very high pressured; you had to do a certain number of calls per minute and a certain number of connections. We’d have what was called “talk time” where if you didn’t have an active line for a certain amount of time where you were talking to people, then you would be reprimanded. Sometimes you would even get your pay docked, not your bonus – your actual pay would be docked! Obviously that is totally unacceptable now but I think it almost gave me a hardened steel.”
Sales is not a career that many would consider because it requires an inner strength to deal with the rebuffs that are part and parcel of a salesperson’s day. Becoming robust and developing the right attitude is a foundation for success not just in sales but in business generally. This was the positive to come out of an early relationship in Schofield’s life which turned abusive.
“I never mean to sound flippant about this but for me I think it is ‘whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’. I think for me it’s the challenge that actually it wasn’t my fault; He was much older than me and I think there was some naivety on my part as to ever really getting involved. It was a case of saying ‘no, this isn’t who I want to be and I’m not going to let it define me.’ It was important for me to dust myself off and get on. When you take control of your life, you can then go on and do things. I think when you say ‘no, actually I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore; it’s not what I want to be part of’, then you are in control of your own destiny.”
Having survived the call centre and an abusive relationship, Schofield went on to work for Royal Mail, an organisation diverse enough to provide her with a fluid career for nearly 19 years, working in their marketing team to working in the post office to working in parcel distribution. During this time Royal Mail was dealing with competition from other carriers and despite leaning the mantra ‘every NO is closer to a YES’, the sales process in Royal Mail needed to change to focus on understanding their customers’ needs and building relationships. Many brands have discovered that retaining customers costs less than acquiring new ones. One does wonder though when the insurance sector will catch on to this and start to treat existing customers the same as new ones.
Schofield’s ability not only in sales but also in leadership was recognised when she was appointed to lead a new sales team that grew from three to a team of over 300 delivering £290m in new revenue.
“I look back on my time at the Royal Mail with the deepest passion: I think that for me, my proudest moment is growing that sales force.
We started with three people and it was a really different way of looking at it. Competition was coming in, we didn’t know how to defend ourselves against it, we were losing huge swathes of business to people who were looking after the customer better than we were. All of a sudden we had to pull ourselves together and think “right, what are we offering and how do we sell direct mail as a medium to market? How do we turn that communication into something that is a sales tool for our clients – business to business or business to consumer – and how also do we win back some of that parcel traffic? We set up with three people and had just shy of 300 by the time we finished on the direct sales force just selling new business.
The target also went up – our first target was £0.5M which increased £300M. If someone asked me if I’d want to do it now, I think I’d panic and say that there’s no way I could grow from three to three hundred but actually watching it grow organically and putting in the KPIs, the quotas and the targets, working with people and having that really lovely moment of motivating a sales force.
We set up something called the Sales Academy which was quite literally just training people in new business. They joined the business as we grew and we took them to a management centre in a Royal Mail building in Rugby at the time. They were there for a week or two weeks and we would submerse them the customer journey. It wasn’t about learning about products and what the products did, but more about the importance of learning where the customer journey was and how we could add value to the growth of their business. How we could look at their sector and give them either insight or information around how to sell direct or who was using parcels or mail as a marketing tool so that it could work for them. It was a very different way of doing it but we came out the other end and they are still going strong now.”
Schofield’s work at Royal Mail in taking a more logical approach to sales and understanding customer need was taken further when she wrote a paper about a method of understanding clients’ needs to spot opportunities. This further developed into a book “Mind the Gap – creating your successful business strategy”. The book explains ‘The Dice Matrix Model’ a gap analysis process that focuses on six key areas of a business: Customer Care, Sales, Product, Services, Aftercare and People. The model works by asking mirroring questions of your customers and the organisation (Do you get good service? V Do we give good service?) to identify gaps for improvement and opportunities. The model has proved very successful and Schofield has operated a consultancy, Dice Matrix Consulting, working with high profile brands assisting them understand gaps that will help them with business strategy and future opportunities.
Having moved around the Royal Mail during her career Schofield was effectively starting a new job every few years. This allowed her to learn a great deal and saw her appointed the youngest ever female director of Royal Mail. Passionate to help others, she spent time with the Peter Jones Academy which was something that invigorated her as much as the enthusiasm and knowledge she imparted to others.
“Nothing enthuses me more than someone who has a good idea and just wants to make it come alive. I feel passionately about helping people do that right up to mid-growth. That’s why I got involved in the Peter Jones Foundation a couple of years ago now and I loved it. Being able to hold the hands of people who are new to an environment is just lovely.”
In 2015 Schofield was awarded an OBE for Services to Small Business, Young People and Women in Business which came as a shock and surprise. The legacy of this is not lost on her as a role model to inspire young people and women that they can achieve if you set your mind to it and are committed.
“I was very surprised. I honestly had absolutely no idea so when we got the letter and I opened it up, I thought I was in trouble. It was that moment of thinking “uh oh, what have I done? This looks very formal…stamped by the Cabinet Office. – it was awarded for the three things that I feel really passionate about – helping people start businesses and grow them; helping women into work and helping young people up on to the career ladder. To be recognised for that is fantastic.”
In January 2019 Schofield took up her next challenge as Director General of the Direct Selling Association UK (DSA). The DSA was founded in 1965 for brands that sell goods or services directly to consumers outside of a traditional retail environment. Whilst this was primarily face-to-face, with the advent of the internet, this now includes online and social media. Thanks to these new channels this sector is set to grow not only because it allows greater reach but also because there is no hard selling – it’s about understanding your customers’ needs and sharing your product information in a way that will inspire your customers.
Members of the DSA include The Body Shop at Home, Usborne Books at Home, Avon, Amway, Herbalife, Arbonne UK and Neal’s Yard Remedies Organic to name a few. With over 90 per cent of those working as independent salespeople in the sector being women, it should not be surprising that hiring Schofield would be a great fit. And with an estimated £2.1 billion that the direct selling channel contributes a year to the UK economy; an estimated 425,000 people working as independent representatives earning on average £372 per month*, leading this organisation will be a challenge she will relish.
It’s a great opportunity for me. Direct selling enables people to reach out and sell the product they want to from a myriad of selections direct to their friends and family and beyond. They can effectively set up their own business without having to physically manufacture something. So you can be self-employed, work as many hours as you want selling what you love to sell to whomever you want.
Where I think it has been interesting, and where the next year for my tenure will be, is to open those doors to use social media to help do this. We are social people and we like experiences – direct sales is actually becoming social selling. It becomes the ability to use different media channels to push your product out to people and to talk about it – getting your audience to aspire to want your product. Hard selling is becoming a thing of the past. I’ve seen some great blogs go on where people do shows on how to use the make-up. I think for me it is utilising our changing world to maximise the opportunity for people and the economy.
For the last 15, 20 or 30 years, and certainly for my career, we’ve been incredibly office based. Even 10 years ago, we were talking about location independent working and fluidity but it wasn’t really real. Now I think it is real. I think people actually do want that portfolio career.
With the generations coming up, they are never going to be able to afford to buy a house, so actually, they’ll spend six months working, then go off for six months. More and more rental companies are reporting shorter and shorter lease requirements. We’re so much more nomadic now than before. This level of having the career and being able to sell something that’s fluid is just a great opportunity.
We hear some sensational stories one in particular being members selling the Cambridge 1:1 Diet, who have been recognised by the organisation this year for turning over £2M in their first year. So whether you want to work on a full-time basis or a part-time basis, direct selling gives the flexibility for you to fit the level of additional earning you might need or want, around your lifestyle and other commitments, whether that’s another job or caring responsibilities. Plus, a lot of people enjoy the social aspect of the work, getting people together and earning a bit of money in the process for petrol, a holiday or those things that always seem to pop up at the end of the month.”
In the course of her career Schofield has seen and initiated changes to how she and her teams sell. You may still get one of those annoying sales calls from uninitiated organisations who prey on the vulnerable, but in the main, more and more brands spend time looking to understand what customers want and then craft communications that generate desire. Once a customer is engaged in this process, selling really does not need a lot of persuasion. It looks like the Direct Selling Association is in good hands and heading in the right direction supporting a sector that creates flexible opportunities for women in business. We wish Susannah Schofield OBE well.
Editor in Chief
*Average monthly amount earned by UK direct sellers. SOURCE: Ipsos MORI for Seldia 2018, UK sample size: 3,311.