People make a living… I help make lives,” says Achal Rangaswamy, a former President, Marketing, Bell Ceramics Ltd, and Strategic Business Unit Head, EIPL. “The karma of a salesperson is to make people look better, feel better, and live better,” says Rangaswamy, who has ridden the length and breadth of India on a motorbike selling, “aspirations, not products; dreams, not discounts”. An alumnus of St. Stephen’s College and a TedX speaker, Rangaswamy, who is a much sought-after CxO Corporate Coach, specialises in training business executives in leadership and transformation, empowerment, sales and marketing, and time management. “The salesperson’s role is being redefined. S/he will have to be a far quicker and agile listener, a very careful observer, and perhaps more than ever before, and quite untraditionally, display empathy, calm, and reassurance,” says Rangaswamy in an interview with our Editor K. G. Sreenivas.
Creative Brands: Unprecedented times, unpredictable times ahead. No clues about the present, no pointers to the future. Throw into this mix data that seems relentlessly vengeful — deaths and casualties, unemployment, poverty, displacement, and the country’s GDP. Achal, what will you sell? Hope that’s sinking? Dreams that’s unspooling? Or… soda bottles that’s no longer there?
Achal Rangaswamy: Yes, on the face of it — at first sight — it looks like a tunnel with no end. And the tunnel is dank, dreary, and desolate too. But when you take a pause, and a nice long one at that, since we have had the time to do so, we do recall going through similar, though not as scary or disturbing scenarios. We have seen two bouts of recession in less than 20 years, we have seen change of governments and the uncertainties connected with that, we have seen demonetisation and the blues caused by it, and we do realise that after the initial volatility or ambiguity there is some semblance of order or settling down.
Yes, hope does tend to fade, dreams do look like vanishing into thin air, but if you sit down to look at people and things with a certain deliberation, many good things have also happened. People have learnt to spend time at home and to pause the clock. People have reconnected with each other. I haven’t seen people making so many phone calls — to ask about each other’s welfare. Hectic lives have slowed down to accommodate movies, music, sport, small talk, and quality time with kids and elders too. And I would also say that people have been able to have a relook at business processes, communication methods, and more effective alternatives to expensive and tedious travel, time-consuming official meetings, and review systems. I don’t think the fizz has fizzled out. No, not at all.
CB: So, it is not exactly the death of the salesman?
AR: It is the rebirth of the salesman if you ask me. Look at me, I used to travel a hell of a lot — from one metro or mini metro to the other, conducting my coaching sessions and marketing consultancy visits. I continue to do so, albeit from a safe distance — but with no mask. But on the now ubiquitous Zoom, or a Google Hangout, I have reached out to more people in the Hissars, Hapurs, and Icchalkaranjis of the world, not leaving out Hassan. The salesperson’s role is being redefined. S/he will have to stop ‘puking’ and instead succinctly put across to their customer/s the short- and long-term benefits of the product/services they are selling. S/he will have to be a far quicker and agile listener, a very careful observer, and perhaps more than ever before, and quite untraditionally, display empathy, calm, and reassurance, a quality not often associated with your run-of-the-mill salesperson. I have been harping on this over the last 50 days in each online sales session of mine.
This is perhaps the best thing that has happened to salespersons, a reinvention — of asking about the welfare of the customer, to put that reassuring arm around his shoulder, to perk him up, to roll up his own sleeves, and be willing to dirty his sleeves and bloody his nose if it means the customer is going to win. I am glad some of my own vision of a salesperson is being given a chance to be worked on.
CB: In happier times, you would say, “if you want to sell, don’t sell…”. But sell you must even today, regardless of the virus. Should we turn your fundamental assumption on its head?
AR: It applies even today, I assure you. This is the time when the customer doesn’t want to be told to ” buy”. Nobody likes to be sold, anytime, anywhere. But in a subtle, soft, calming way, our friendly neighbourhood salesperson will have to make the customer see the ultimate benefit of buying. He will have to show bigger, but clearer, achievable and more realistic dreams that can actually be fulfilled. And he will have to go beyond jargons like “ROI” to self acutalisation and acquisition of safety, security, peace, calm, and joy.
On a different note, I heard Mark Hunter, a successful sales coach say that this is the best time to be a salesperson. Because the customer “needs” you!
CB: These are shape-shifting times — quite likely irrevocably so. For every known principle, thing, or theory. So this is the time to be present in the future — to be able to be present in the present. What will it take to be relevant and ‘present’, meaningfully, on the other side of the pandemic?
AR: The pandemic is not as scary an issue as the post-lockdown phase is going to be. People will, sadly, go back to old ways, crowd around, be undisciplined, take things for granted, try getting back to old, familiar and easy ways. It will be very important to act ‘as if the lockdown is still there, the pandemic hasn’t gone away, only we are being allowed to move around a bit more than before’. That is as far as the public is concerned.
As for being and remaining relevant, change is the only constant in this fast revolving juggernaut called life. To remain relevant, one will have to — and hopefully many people did learn it in the last couple of months — look at the possibilities that life does offer. Learning to live with less, learning to be tolerant of inefficiencies for a while, learning to allow the other person to exercise his right, making way for seniors and the challenged, yet ensure that work is completed, while excesses and wastage are stringently looked down upon. For us Indians, it will need a lot of change in terms of attitude and behaviour. But that is the need of the hour and there are many hours to follow.
On the work and employment front, the uncertain and scary scenario may compel people to look at more meaningful, more suitable, and more innovative forms of vocation too. Of course, this is easier said than done, and people will have to have steely guts, broader shoulders, and a large heart.
CB: So, it’s social distancing — all the way into the foreseeable future. Hopefully, it doesn’t become anti-social distancing. It’s a significant change, one that can transform society in unforeseen ways or break society in quite cataclysmic ways. How do you re-purpose the art of selling?
AR: I look at it from a different perspective. People have, no doubt come closer, though via social media and the Internet. We have all spoken and stayed connected with people who matter. Yes okay, we may have cut out that unnecessary socialising with all its trappings, and artificial small talk, that anyways was time and energy consuming too. I am glad people have been able to understand others better, learnt to help people out, there have been many deaths in the circles around me and I know how people have rallied around the bereaved, offered lots of comfort and solace, and tried their best to help in whichever way physically or socially possible. Lives are being valued far more. And I am glad for that.
Selling, as I said earlier too, shall bring into perspective the following bigger and more intangible benefits — happiness, solace, gratitude, stronger values and respect for people including senior citizens, kids, and extended families. Most importantly, selling will focus and help to bring the philosophical angle rather than the material angle.
CB: Finally, Ranga, this near-apocalyptic event has forced us to look at consumption, wastefulness, extravaganza, environmental plunder, stress, and our own anxiety-ridden lives. It cannot be business as usual. Where do you think the business of ‘life’ and the life of ‘business’ can converge and seek balance?
Conspicuous consumption anyway is a short lived peg for marketers to hang their strategies and tactics on. The country, and the world, are both big enough to consume what must be consumed. Artificial numbers, hiked-up pressure to dump volumes in constrained markets are now going to make way for actual, more realistic market penetration and sustenance, and the pent-up emotions due to excessively applied stress on everyone to succeed at any cost, shall have to give way to celebration of genuine, customer focussed, and market-oriented communication, instead of creating panic at each level of the selling chain. Temporarily, we may see dips in numbers. But this is the litmus test for the marketer, a new pitch to bat on for the salesperson, and also for the customer to expect everyone around them to offer them a broad shoulder to cry on, but ultimately deep-rooted and strong trees to sit under, in the shade, and enjoy their comforting beverage, whatever they choose.
Because, life must go on.