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5-Minute Sales Coach: Transitioning customer service to sales takes time, training

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By Bill McCrary

In many companies, the customer service team also handles some sales functions. This makes sense—customer service reps usually have more access to customers and prospects than anyone else.

If you’re considering taking this approach, and giving your customer service team some sales responsibilities, be aware that the transition can be tricky. Customer service reps may hesitate at the idea of having anything to do with sales, and some might be downright fearful. This fear of failure McCrarycould cause them to shut down before they give their new role a chance. So take things slowly. And make sure you provide plenty of training and clear communication about what you expect. 

Let’s face it, there are certainly some differences between the typical salesperson and the typical customer service rep in terms of how they approach and perform their work. Salespeople are usually focused on the longer-term goal of making a sale; they’re used to building lasting relationships with their customers and prospects. Customer service reps, on the other hand, are used to shorter-term interactions with customers in which they’re unlikely to become emotionally involved.

However, skilled customer service reps have many talents that will be valuable to them as they take on sales functions. Here are just a few examples:

 They’re practiced at displaying compassion, empathy, and helpfulness as they work to address customers’ questions and issues.

 They’re excellent listeners who are very comfortable letting customers vent about their problems.

 They’re practiced at validating a customer’s feelings (for example, by responding using the customer’s own words: “Hold on. Let me make sure I have this right—you’re saying that you’re having an issue with X, and you could use some help with Y, am I understanding you correctly?”). 

That being said, thorough training and continuing support is essential for any and all customer service agents who are transitioning from an exclusively customer service position to one that involves sales.

 Facilitator training is excellent for helping customer service teams role-play, anticipate common (and not-so-common) scenarios, and prepare action plans.

 On-the-spot coaching is also very effective: “I heard you say this on the call; how could you have handled that differently?” or “Let’s run through what worked and what didn’t in that conversation.”

 Encourage those customer service agents who seem to be adapting to the sales function most easily to share their tips and best practices with team members. Instruction from trainers and facilitators is great, but lessons from respected peers have enormous value. This approach also empowers the customer service team to help each other, and emulate what works.

Finally, remember this: Happy customer service reps make for happy customers. If the addition of sales functions is making the customer service team unhappy, consider if it might be in your company’s best interest to slow or temporarily suspend the transition until additional training or other resources can be devoted to the effort. 

Customer service teams are too easily overlooked by many companies when it comes to providing ongoing employee support, training, and recognition. But these are the folks who have the most direct contact with your clients—i.e., they’re among the most important employees in your company. What frame of mind do you want them to be in when they pick up the phone to speak with your customers? Whether they handle any sales functions or not, make sure your customer service reps feel motivated, valuable, and appreciated, and they’ll make your customers feel the same way.

Bill McCrary, a speaker, coach and trainer, founded Strategic Partner, an authorized Sandler Training Center, in 1997. He can be reached at 803-771-0800, www.sp.sandler.com.

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