Q&A with Paul Owen, MD at Sales Talent

PBSA News spoke with Paul Owen, Managing Director at Sales Talent about the role sales plays in the purpose-built student accommodation sector.

Paul Owen, Managing Director, Sales Talent | PBSA News
Paul Owen, Managing Director, Sales Talent.

To continue the purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) sector’s growth, it must fulfil the needs of both investors and residents. We spoke with Paul Owen, Managing Director at Sales Talent about how sales fits within the sector, its value to residents, the importance of sales training, and ways sales training gives PBSA providers an edge over the competition.

Where does the role of sales fit within the PBSA sector? Is it all just about hooking in investors?

Like all markets, the PBSA sector must fulfil the needs of more than one party to continue the sector’s growth. Residents have nowhere to live unless investors have been sold on the returns they’ll enjoy; and investors won’t see those returns if students aren’t drawn in to fill up the rooms. As such, sales activity in the PBSA sector needs to focus on attracting both residents and investors.

What added value can sales teams provide to residents?

Residents of any property are, in most cases, looking for two things and students are no exception to this. First is a location that facilitates their desired lifestyle at a price they can afford. Second are facilities that make them feel at home. For student housing, there’s also the need to ensure that residents (and their parents – many of whom will be holding the purse strings) know they will feel safe in the property. After all, for many residents it will be their first experience of living away from home.

There’s a balance between these factors, of course, so sales teams should focus on all these elements. This means talking about the lifestyle enjoyed by people who will live there: What will they do on a Saturday night out? Or a quiet Tuesday evening when it’s raining, and they have an essay to finish?

Painting pictures through stories always works well when selling properties of any type. Too many salespeople talk about facts and features when they should be telling life stories about people that live in the area. Dinners they’ve enjoyed at local restaurants and events within the building are much more seductive than plain old facts. Yes, the facts must be covered at some stage but get students’ emotional buy-in first by getting them excited.

What are the values that sit at the core of a ‘good’ sales team? And what does it actually mean to be a good salesperson?

Most people know what they should do to be a good salesperson – listen more and talk less – but most fail in doing that. It’s partly due to the way people are trained (if they are trained – usually they’re not), and partly due to the cultural misconception in the UK of the true nature of sales. There is also the fact that many management teams put too much undue pressure on sales teams to ‘close deals’. Sales is not about forcing people to buy; it’s about helping people to buy. We do that by taking the time to understand their needs and then showing them how we can serve them. It sounds obvious, trite even, but the overwhelming majority of sales teams are pushed to sell rather than to help people buy. There is a small, but hugely important, difference between the two.

Why is sales training particularly valuable to companies as the cost-of-living crisis deepens?

As the cost-of-living crisis deepens, people become more nervous about spending money. For many people, they still have spare money to spend but the fear of the uncertain future makes them more cautious about spending it. That means salespeople need to be better.

I’ve sold in times of plenty and when times are tough and, though we all make more money in times of plenty, you really earn your sales stripes when times are tough. Buyers become more discerning, more thorough in their research and more demanding of the service they expect. For salespeople that have been used to selling in easier times, they don’t have the tools – neither mindset nor skillset – for tougher deals.

I mentioned earlier that sales is about helping people to buy and we do that by understanding their needs. The other part, particularly relevant right now, is that a potential buyer with a need must have trust in the company and the salesperson from whom they’re buying. Sales happen when need meets trust. If sales teams are not finding out the truth about a client need and, in the process, building trust with them, they’re going to be in trouble. Training can help them.

In what ways would a PBSA provider that trains its salespeople have the edge over the competition?

Clients always prefer to buy from someone they know, like and trust. Mark McCormack famously said, “All things being equal, people will do business with a friend. All things being unequal, people will still do business with a friend.”

Whilst I don’t advocate trying to turn ourselves into friends of our potential buyers, I do advocate gaining an edge over competitors by making ourselves both likeable and trustworthy. Trust tends to take time, but likeability can be fostered early and it’s actually the first step towards trust. We rarely trust people we don’t like.

Well-trained salespeople find ways to foster likeability (yes, it can be trained) and, little by little, to build trust. So, sales training will help the skills of your team.

There’s another significant edge too. When you train your sales team, you’re supporting them. You’re telling them that they’re important, that their work matters. It matters so much that you’re investing time, money and expertise into helping them be as good as they can possibly be. This makes them feel happy and valued, and that builds confidence. If there is one sales secret, it’s this: Being confident when you sell will make all the difference. How to build confidence? Grand Slam-winning tennis star of yesteryear, Arthur Ashe, said it best: “The key to success is self-confidence; the key to confidence is preparation.”

How important is it to ensure ongoing training and how often should this take place?

One-hit training sessions are not a complete waste of time but they’re very close to being that. Too often, companies hire a sales training company for an uplifting, motivational day or two of sales training and think that will hit the spot. Initially, it will feel good. If you hire a good company, the feedback will be great and the post-training intentions bold.

But take a step back and think of any walk of life in which the very best were trained for a day or two? Sport? Music? Acting? Fitness? None. Go to the gym for two hours, four hours, even eight hours and that session alone will make no difference whatsoever to your fitness. Sales training is just the same. The first session is great as long as it’s the first of a regular programme. How regular? It depends on the team to some extent, but for most clients, we have a programme that start with two to three days a month for the first three months, then drop down to a day a month thereafter.

Programmes also develop over time and the longer the programme continues, the more tailored the content becomes. Usually, in our annual programmes, there are one to one coaching sessions as part of the programme from month four onwards. There’s only so long that group training can hit the spot for each salesperson.