‘Sell! Sell! Sell!’ Signposts Shambles

Post OfficeThe UK Post Office was described as the biggest retailer in the country in a recent, and excellent, BBC series ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Inside the Post Office’, based on the fact there are over 11,500 Post Offices in the UK. What serious business person measures their business based on their number of locations? The Post Office is not being measured by the vanity measure of revenue. It is not even being measured by the sanity measure of profit. It has absolutely no need to be measured by the reality measure of cash flow. It cannot possibly be measured the latter way. The UK government has committed almost £2 billion over two parliaments for Post Office modernisation (okay if I pocket the £200 million shortfall against £2 billion?). The subsidy the Post Office receives from taxpayers was £150 million in 2010 and it will peak at an annual award of £415 million, according to Vince Cable when he was the Business Secretary in the last UK government.

The BBC broadcasts told the stories of those leading, effecting and affected by the transformation of the Post Office from Chief Executive Paula Vennells, through the various layers of the organisation, right down to the small business owners who felt they had no option other than to give up their businesses as a result of the Post Office’s strategy and tactics. In the latter case there were tears from people who had been Post Masters/Mistresses for many, many years, but also dogged determination to find a way to continue from others. There was also optimism and hope from those seeking the opportunity to start a new business by becoming a Post Master or Post Mistress for the first time.

So why the title for this piece? The strong theme of the programmes was that transformation involves a strong training programme aimed at converting customer-facing Post Office staff into selling machines. My skin crawled when one scene depicted a bunch of such staff being ‘trained’ in a somewhat shabby conference room by a ‘trainer’ who told them he was going to make them the ‘crème de la crème’ at selling. PLEEEASE! I ask you. It should at least have been ‘la crème de la crème’!

Humour aside, my skin crawled because what the staff were being trained to do was just plain wrong! It reminded me of my days in the IT industry some ten to fifteen years ago when we were bombarded with the mantra ‘Up Sell and Cross Sell!’ Post Office staff were learning to almost automatically Up Sell (‘Would you like that signed for?) and Cross Sell (‘Do you have a home phone?’ ‘Are you going on holiday this year?’ ‘When is your home contents insurance policy due for renewal?’) No, no, no! And no again!

Those of you who have read my newsletters this year will have noticed I have written about why selling is inappropriate in today’s society, and about the new ABC of Sales. If you follow my blog posts you may also have seen me writing about the death of the sales force. Putting ‘Up’ or ‘Cross’ in front of ‘Sell’ doesn’t change my argument one jot; it is no better and, if anything, worse; especially for the Post Office.

The reason why it is especially important to the Post Office to get right their transformation lies, as so often, in technological and societal changes. In essence their customer base is dying. The customer-facing Post Office people in the BBC programme made several references to their ageing clientele and their perception that not only were their customers getting older, younger adult generations were rarely seen in their Post Offices. We all know that email has had a significant impact on physical ‘snail mail’ meaning less letters being posted (and therefore less stamps for letters). The growth of home shopping and e-commerce, increasing the number of parcels being moved, has enabled the Post Office to maintain broadly flat revenues in the category it terms ‘Mails and Retail’. Nice bundling, by the way – I am sure they will have the numbers divided down but they aren’t in the September 2014 interim financial statement.

I am not just going to be critical; there is a positive alternative coming in this article. I think there is a better way. The aim of the ‘Up Sell and Cross Sell’ strategy is to capture a bigger share of the spend of the customers, to leverage the relationship between buyer and seller such that the seller takes a larger slice of the buyer’s spend. On the face of it, it makes sense that a company who has invested in acquiring a customer reaps the relatively easier additional revenue and profit streams. After all, it typically costs somewhere between five and ten times more to acquire a new customer than it takes to sell to an existing one. The short-fall in the ‘Up Sell and Cross Sell’ strategy for the Post Office is that it doesn’t really address the issue of acquiring new customers.

I am all for building deep and meaningful relationships with customers. Businesses, especially those involved in providing services, that successfully deploy a strategy of attracting and retaining an army of ardent advocates are on the right track. However the way of foster such fervent fans is not through up-selling and cross-selling – far better to focus on finding ways to ‘max-serve’ customers. The Post Office staff were being trained to routinely offer additional products and services from the portfolio that they were learning about. They were being helped to understand where the most profitable products were in their portfolio and to then find ways of offering them to those who strayed into their bazaars.

Here’s my alternative – start with the customer. Find a way of identifying what the customer places most value on, what would be the best service for them right now? Have no pre-formed idea of what service you want to provide to them. Instead stay in a very simple question for as long as possible – ‘can I provide the best solution for this customer right now?’ There is very interesting social sciences research that shows how surprisingly effective this approach is. This strategy can position the Post Office as great for newer, younger, time-poor potential customers.

Many sales trainers teach people tools, techniques and methodologies that purport to improve sales effectiveness. Including amongst these approaches is often the application of ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ as an approach. It is far more effective to tell yourself you can successfully sell to the person in front of you that it is to have doubts about your ability to do so. I had years in this sales environment of P.M.A. and A.B.C. (Always Be Closing) and have no doubt that this attitude of positivity is more effective than constantly having doubts.
However, the social science research indicates that there is a third group who are even more effective than those who use P.M.A. as the bed-rock of their success. This third group have been shown to be 50% more effective than the P.M.A. group who use assertive self-talk when in the sales process (‘I can do this!’) Instead the third group stay in ‘interrogative self-talk’ (‘Can I do this?) for as long as possible. I think it would be far more effective for the Post Office, along with other service organisations, to train people how to use this interrogative approach when interacting with customers and potential customers. The resultant jointly-crafted solution is far more attractive, and valuable, to those whose needs have truly been listened to and honoured.

Adopting this strategy would enable them to grow their businesses without selling but with a strategy of using ‘max-serve’ to provide the best solution to their customers. If they cannot provide the best solution it is better to let the prospective customer walk on by. The ‘max-serve’ strategy recognises that only delighted customers will join the army of ardent advocates that will recommend your business to others. If you merely satisfy a customer they are very unlikely to stick their head above the parapet and recommend your business to friends and loved ones. Disappoint them and they will tell many people. Delight them and they will tell those they love and trust – the people they have high standings with who are more likely to change their behaviours as a result of a recommendation from them.
In my business, I use the ALIGNED framework as a way of ensuring I deploy the ‘max-serve’ strategy in every customer interaction. I also teach others how to use the ALIGNED framework to shift the focus of their customer interactions. The ALIGNED framework, concentrating so much as it does on understanding the situation of the prospective buyer, constantly asking the question ‘can I find the perfect solution?’, and avoiding premature searches for possible solutions, greatly improves the alignment between seller and prospective buyer. By staying as long as possible in the question, using interrogative self-talk instead of assertive, the potential seller creates the opportunity to identify the resources needed to provide the perfect solution and crafts internal, intrinsic motivations over externally referenced drivers. Keeping alive the possibility that the answer that may emerge could be ‘No, I cannot provide the perfect solution’ multiplies the effect of the interrogative approach.

There is still hope for the Post Office, but only if they can revive their moribund customer base and can attract new customers to their army of ardent advocates, to create a new phalanx of fervent fans to supplement and replace their dying customer base.