Selling services: are you being served?

The industry has been selling products for years - sales teams have got that sorted. But to combat a still shaky economy they're being asked to do more: sell services.


The newest string dealers are being encouraged to add to their bulging bow is the concept of selling services as opposed to just products.

Kimberly-Clark’s Healthy Workplace Project is a prime example of how resellers are being encouraged to expand into selling services and what this shift can entail. The project’s ‘Wash, Wipe and Sanitize’ protocol aims to help offices tackle an alarming level of absenteeism in the US that costs the average business in excess of $1,600 a year. The idea is that resellers encourage an all-encompassing solution, including proper hand washing techniques and hands-free sanitisers, rather than just sell the products on a one-off basis. 

And of course the trailblazer for dealers moving into service propositions is managed print services (MPS). Dealer groups and wholesalers in many countries are actively encouraging dealers to move into an area seen as a new differentiator, and as the most natural step into selling services.

Dealers have always taken pride and competitive advantage in being able to offer a more personal approach to the encroaching big boxes and mass-market retailers, so one might assume that switching to a service-orientated mindset would be a simple adjustment. Service levels are what many commentators believe are the OP industry’s main defence against Amazon (see Hot Topic ‘The cleverest cat in the jungle’)

Unfortunately, that rationale is not entirely being followed through and many dealer salespeople are struggling with the adjustment. MPS has proved to be a tough nut to crack despite the support and guidance provided by dealer cooperatives and wholesalers. Indeed, some dealers have been so bamboozled by MPS that they have even come to see it as something of a potential hindrance in such demanding times.

“It’s all been a bit if a wild goose chase,” says Karly Haley from Superstat in the UK. “MPS has been the buzz word for a few years, but very few dealers have got to grips with it and been able to make a success of it. In fact, MPS has ended up being a distraction at a time when all businesses need focus.”

So are these teething problems merely a stage of evolution or is there an issue with the culture of dealers that makes this kind of lateral market movement so difficult? 

A couple of years ago, author and SalesForce Solutions President Troy Harrison was leading a training class with an OP salesforce and explaining why, when switching to service selling, one must develop and utilise a new set of specific and inquisitive questions. When one salesperson raised his hand and asked whether it was really necessary for them to change their approach with a customer they have been dealing with for many years the response was blanching. Harrison said: “Would you rather that a competitor asked the questions, then used the information to take your business away?”  

He adds: “Salespeople in this industry tend to be very resistant to change; even more so than in other industries I work with. If they want to survive, they will need to embrace a new model.”

The perception is that this is not an uncommon conversation across the OP industry right now, and never more so has the salesperson had to earn his or her place in the buying process. Robert Driessen from Dutch dealer group Quantore has also identified a polarised market between dealers. He explains: “We certainly see large differences among the dealers selling the service proposition, with some of them doing extremely well and others not even making a dent in this new area. The key here is focus and willingness to learn.”

Getting equipped

So from the salespeople side, focus and a desire to learn new tricks are essential but are the tools in place to assist them? Some dealers have hired specialists to focus on a particular service area such as MPS with the specialist working with the current sales team to help them uncover opportunities and gain new business.

For example, Jeff Gardner’s Maximum Performance Group offers dealers a ‘Buying Status Profile’ tool that helps dealer salespeople to uncover the decision criteria that a business decision maker uses to determine his or her vendor. The theory is that to be successful the salesperson needs to clearly understand the criteria of the decision maker before they begin to offer a solution.

Gardner adds: “The top performing dealers have already made the shift to selling business solutions versus selling office products. They have recognised that the only differentiator that OP dealers have is their service.”

From a wholesaler standpoint, United Stationers – which created the United Dealer Training programme back in 1995 – says it recognises the need to continually expand and enrich its offering.

Marketing head Jeff Kressmann says: “Today’s consumers have a higher expectation of their sales professionals than ever before. They are looking for sales and business consultants, not just product specialists. Consumers want to conduct their transactions with people who understand their businesses and can offer solutions to key business challenges. Developing these professional skills is best accomplished through quality training programmes.”

Clearly training is key here, but so also are the two main beneficieries of the new look service-motivated salesforce – the salesperson and his or her employer. The adaptability and sales intelligence of the salesperson is more important than ever, as is the requirement of the dealer company itself to set out a vision and direction for this shift to selling services. 

In addition, dealer groups are being called on to back their members with the appropriate tools for change, and many are coming round to playing their part.

Paul McKinney, Operations Manager at US dealer Eakes Office Plus, says: “Peer groups are critical to a company owner who wants to provide this type of leadership. In our case, Pinnacle Affiliates provides a great forum for very successful, like-sized dealers to exchange ideas, compare and contrast programme offerings and understand general industry trends. 

“In most cases, a company owner does not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when they have the ability to learn from industry peers.”

Senior level

Many dealers have long been in control of the idea that the OP game is about a lot more than just selling products. The real challenge is not so much the change in sales tactics but the difficulties with selling to more senior personnel such as managers and executives. 

Taking a look at a cross-section of the many industries that have experienced a shift from selling products to selling services, a key stumbling block has always been having to pitch at a higher level than the salespeople have previously been used to. Any preconceived idea that the same tactics, questions, philosophy or even demeanour are the same when selling products or services is a common and potentially disastrous mistake.

Indeed some dealers, such as Eakes Office Plus, are specifically recruiting different styles of individual for the service sales process. McKinney explains: “We use personality profiles when hiring and look for a very different skill set when hiring for our MPS or furniture/workspace design sales positions versus our office supplies sales positions.”

And this could well be the future for all dealers as, with the best will in the world, selling your proposition to senior staff, executives and perhaps even the CEO or finance director is a different world to getting an order placed with an office manager. That change in tactics and mindset may well be the most crucial step for salespeople to take as they move their sales pitch up the corporate ladder.  

Dealer Q&

Anthony Pallia, General Manager, Expressway Office Solutions 

OPI: Selling a services proposition is different to selling pure products as a commodity. How much do you think salespeople are struggling with this shift?

AP: I believe the biggest struggle is having the sales representative fully understanding the service and how it can impact their business. More often than not, when selling a service the sales rep has to rely on another person to uphold their promise to deliver a service. This can be frustrating because the sales rep has less control over the outcome.

OPI: Can selling a service proposition boost revenue against other non-traditional OP channels?

AP: We believe that the personal touch to a customer is a difference maker in the OP industry. Many of the added services help to solidify the value we bring to the customer and encourage a relationship. Although many non-traditional channels can offer lower prices, many cannot compete on a service level.

OPI: Do you foresee an overall shift from the office products industry to a business services industry?

AP: Absolutely. Business has shown over the past few years that it is extremely important to stay current and always try to be more efficient. This holds true as a selling proposition, if we can provide a service to allow us to be a whole solution for the customer. We are willing to take on this challenge to help our customers be more efficient.

OPI: How important is it for dealers to invest in training for their salespeople? 

AP: It is extremely important. As a business we have certain standards, expectations and processes that we hold our employees to and we put emphasis on training to ensure that our standards of excellence are protected. I have seen a big push from supporting business partners to provide a broader variety of training for all departments. I do believe that the proper training is available for all employees; the hard task is not finding the right training option, it is finding the right person for the position.

OPI: In many ways MPS has provided us with the litmus test of how well salespeople can adapt to selling services. In your experience, how successful have salespeople been in making the most out of this proposition? 

AP: MPS has really made a push for dealers selling services and products. The sales representatives who have embraced MPS and have taken full ownership of the programmes have been able to catapult their sales with existing business. The successful MPS programmes allow a sales rep to have a relationship based on trust and performance, which in turn can open a lot of doors into new categories.

Services vs products – the big differences

  • Businesses are buying solutions to problems as opposed to buying products
  • The relationship-building process is of increased importance as the buyer is usually making a longer-term commitment to the seller
  • Selling services involves a longer selling cycle
  • You will be dealing with multiple buying influencers and decision makers, whereas when selling products you usually deal with one decision maker 
  • You will likely be dealing with higher-level decision makers including managers and executives
  • You are selling an intangible strategy; for example with MPS, you are selling a document strategy as opposed to selling toners and printers
  • You must be able to sell the concept of total cost versus product cost
  • A consultative approach is required in which the salesperson focuses on the specific needs of the customer and tailors a solution that meets those needs.