Defanged, Declawed, and Emasculated. Meet Your Next-Generation Sales Rep!

Self–loathing. It’s not the breakfast of sales sales champions, but salespeople sure receive a plentiful daily dosage:

“Telling is not selling.”

“Stop selling!”

“Shut up and listen!”

“Don’t act like a pushy salesperson.”

“Be interested, not interesting.”

On a LinkedIn discussion, one manager wondered whether it was good to use sales in a job title, given the word’s negativity. Another LinkedIn discussion asks whether the Internet is turning salespeople into dinosaurs. Recently, a tech CEO posted a widely-read blog in which he crowed about his company’s revenue successes, sans any sales force. He’s clad in spandex, astride his bicycle. Hmmm . . . .

Are you exuberant? Smack! . . . Not anymore!

Oh. I see you still have your sales mojo. Now this: your ego isn’t welcome either.

As the late comedian George Carlin said, “it’s all [prevarication], and it’s bad for you.”

Want a kinder, gentler sales rep? Bambi with a business card? Be careful what you wish for. As much as we don’t need manipulative and deceptive sales practices, we don’t need apathy. Or bland, either. It’s easy to slap a newbie rep and say “shut up and listen,” but a salesperson who can’t engage in persuasive dialog can fail as surely as one who can’t refrain from talking. Did you ever buy an expensive item from a poor communicator, or from a person who seemed disinterested? Me neither.

What can motivate one person’s exuberance can appear to another person as claws and fangs. Sales commissions create buying pressure? Eliminate them, like Best Buy. Sales pitches reek from overblown claims? Stop pitching—buyers have information power anyway. Job titles containing the word sales create buyer fear? Soften them with meeker words like Associate and Partner. Remove fangs, and improve outcomes, the reasoning goes.

Such changes are important, because for vendors, creating an environment where vendor and customer can collaborate nicely has become a valuable strategic differentiator. But they’re also emblematic of a profession in an identity crisis. We’re concerned our image isn’t good, but we aren’t sure exactly what it needs to be.

As with other thorny problems, subsidiary discussions blaze new trails. Are salespeople sufficiently humble and empathetic? How can salespeople bring “real value” to the buying process? In sales, how does one distinguish between coercion, manipulation, and persuasion? In a social-selling world, do salespeople need to excel at persuasion or facilitation – or both?

Back in 2010, Ogilvy’s World’s Greatest Salesperson Contest (in which contestants pitch prospects on buying a single brick) generated controversy as some people felt the premise drags the sales profession back to the Neanderthal, when “getting the prospect to say ‘yes’ three times” was the penultimate step to signing on the dotted line. Others found it little more than a self-serving gimmick for Ogilvy. “We thought it was time to reassert the importance of sales, honor the timeless craft of persuasion, glean wisdom from the best, and highlight the new tools and platforms which are re-shaping it for customers,” said Mat Zucker, Executive Creative Director of OgilvyOne in New York. If Ogilvy decided to continue the contest past its inaugural year of 2010, they’re keeping it a secret.

Still, given the preponderance of sales self-loathing, and draconian forecasts about the demise of the sales role, it’s nice to see the craft of sales and selling recognized in this way – even if for a fleeting moment. Attempts to de-fang salespeople will backfire. Effective buying requires persuasion: “Convince me that your product is the best one for my needs.” That requires sharing information, making a business case, building rapport, fostering trust, creating shared visions, leading change. Until persuasion becomes an unimportant selling skill, we should laud it when it’s done well.

Will the emerging social and business environment favor Bambi-like salespeople versus ancestor quota-driven predatory sales hunters? I’m not sure. But before we methodically defang and de-claw individual sales contributors, we should understand what capabilities enable salespeople to eat, and what causes them to get eaten.

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