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As the instructor of an undergraduate sales course, I frequently am asked whether "service calls" count as sales calls. My response is that these types of calls are very important to developing long term relationships with customers and are definitely sales calls. But when asked to define a service call, students' descriptions vary greatly — running the gamut from coffee shop visits to intentional conversations to assess customer satisfaction.

A service call usually means any call in which you're not trying to sell a product; however that definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation. According to the "Dictionary of Word Origins," the word service has two distinct meanings. One comes from the Latin word for "slave," and the other comes from the Latin word for "keep" or "protect." Service in a sales context probably draws from both meanings. Service must be of the servant type, but salespeople must also consider the role their service plays in protecting or retaining relationships.

Nearly every company in agribusiness believes in good service, but when pressed to define it we often have difficulty doing so. But that's the point! If we hope to differentiate ourselves in the marketplace with products that are not markedly better than competitors, at prices that are roughly the same, then we MUST be able to communicate quickly and clearly how our service is different and worth paying for — and then deliver on those promises.

We often describe good service in terms of the quality of the inter-action — friendliness, responsiveness, or expertise. It is really hard to find examples of companies in any industry that set themselves apart with friendliness or responsiveness. So, of these three, expertise may offer the most untapped potential for improving service.

In an ideal world, salespeople should know more about their products than their customers do. Companies spend tremendous amounts of money to equip their sales teams with product knowledge, and yet, that knowledge is often thought of as secondary to products. In order for knowledge to play a more prominent role in the offering, sales training must include methods for salespeople to help their customers realize the value of the information they are delivering.

When customers perceive value from "non-selling" service calls, they may not necessarily pay more, but they may be more likely to buy from the supplier who provides knowledge — even when they aren't selling anything. Developing non-selling expertise requires training in leadership, information management, datamining, and strategy. These topics are not often included in sales training agendas, but they are critical for broader sales success in the information age and have become a core part of our "Precision Selling" program at Purdue and other strategic sales training venues.

Some companies have figured out how to deliver valuable information consistently and are even being paid for it. One ag company has seen significant growth in sales revenue by working with their people to deliver on service promises by focusing on consistently delivering information — enough so that they are able to charge for their services as an add-on to the product sale.

A non-ag example of this would be Google. At its core, Google helps people find the information they need — a single task that has turned it into a $150 billion company in less than ten years! There is so much information available today that non-sales service through information — helping people find information — has become an industry.

Ultimately, defining a good "service call" is up to the customer. The golden rule of selling is, "Do unto customers as they would like to be done unto (as long as we can profitably do so)." Service — just like selling — begins and ends with intentional responses to customer needs. Understanding customers well enough to help them know what to look for, providing them with that information, and helping them realize the value are service call activities that will make any salesperson a better performer.

W. Scott Downey downeyws@purdue.
edu is Associate Director of the Center for Food and Agricultural Business at Purdue University.

Sales Management and Leadership

June 5-6, 2007

Precision Selling: Building Relationships with Large Farmers
July 10-11, 2007

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