Category Archives: Sales coaching and mentorship

Senior Moment: What Our Elders Can Teach Us About Sales

Originally published 01/30/09

Yesterday I received a sales letter that hit me like a breath of fresh, un-digitized air. I wanted to share it with my readers:

Dear Friend:

As we enter the new year, conditions are not very good for purchasing new supplies and equipment. However, there are some signs that this may improve as the year progresses.

Your responsibility as a department manager or property manager is to maintain your facilities in the best possible manner. I have three things to offer:

Excellent products
Good service
Fair prices

If the need arises this year for you to replace or add to your equipment, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. I will be happy to furnish you catalogs and written quotations for your consideration.


My friend Stanley’s name follows below his hand-written signature.

Three paragraphs, two sentences each. There’s purity of form and a sincerity that rarely emanates from today’s marketing communications.

Stanley began his sales career before most of us were born, and he hopes to achieve the milestone of entering his ninth decade this year. He’s a retired CEO who is passionate about selling. He’s never stopped. When he started working, ‘personal selling’ meant . . . personal selling. Telephones, “snail mail,” appointment books, and cars were the indispensible tools of the sales trade.

Most of all, face-to-face dialogs created the trusted bonds between buyer and seller, and were an inextricable part of the sales process. Little wonder that Stanley’s letter says “I care” so clearly, without using those two words. He perfected that skill in the trenches, by looking at his customer in the eye.

In our Twittered, Blogged, and Web 2.0’d sales world, Stanley’s selling talent has become rare. The forces of information technology, product commoditization, and cost reduction have pushed legions of salespeople from the prospect’s office to the deep innards of the call-center cube farm. Millions must make their quotas using far more sophisticated tools than Stanley had—but without ever physically shaking hands with a customer.

As Stanley approaches his 80th birthday, he has become rare in other ways as well. He’s part of a shrinking population that will all but vanish in twenty years: a self-selected group of senior citizens who choose not to use a computer. He doesn’t use email or a have website for his company. He puts up with my e-marketing hubris when I rib him about not being able to accept orders online (FAX and phone work fine for him). The few times he needs Internet access, he taps an eager pool of web-savvy grandchildren. It would be easy to dismiss his knowledge as outdated.

Stanley has taught me how courtesy, respect, and sincerity have great power in sales, and the wisdom contained in his letter reminds me that when it comes to selling, seniors have a wealth of knowledge for the rest of us. I wish Stanley many more great years in selling. I still have much to learn from him.

Do Salespeople Bug You? Here’s Why They Won’t Go Away

Originally published 02/05/09

Search the phrase death of a salesperson on Google, and it will return around 15,000 results. This corruption of the title of Arthur Miller’s iconic play Death of a Salesman has become embedded in blogs and articles worldwide. But as Mark Twain said, “the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Unless you live in Cuba, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam or China, sales professionals won’t vanish. Not now. Not soon. Not ever.

Why? In capitalist economies, organizations must acquire customers to survive, and that requires leading change—and leading change requires selling ideas. People malign the art of selling, people diminish its importance, people even wish it away. But whether you’re discussing weight-loss plans or economic reform, minds won’t change without one very human interaction: someone must sell an idea. And we work with idea sellers every day. They’re called Associates, Agents, Account Executives, Senior Solutions Marketing Managers, Directors of Product Management, VP Sales, Senior VP Global Sales and Business Development, Chief Marketing Officers, Customer Account Managers. Add your own title and the list goes on.

In 2006, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that out of 132,600,000 US workers, 10,464,000 were in “Sales and related” jobs—about 8% of the workforce. This number of jobs—sub-classified as retail salespersons, cashiers, sales representatives, and their first-line supervisors—reflects both the diversity and complexity of the selling process. Selling change isn’t easy. And there’s friction because salespeople and customers don’t always get along. Not all salespeople provide value. Not all customers are open-minded. Some products aren’t easy to buy. And when it comes to fair play, no party to a business transaction can claim exclusivity on the ethical high road.

There’s additional upheaval. Foundations of trust shift. Technology and other forces change once-stable commercial relationships. In some sectors, sales jobs are lost—in others, they’re gained. But it’s illogical to interpret recent trends as portents for the eventual demise of the sales professional. Automation and business process reengineering will no more eliminate the need for salespeople than changes in healthcare delivery models will eliminate the need for doctors and nurses.

I’ll take a contrarian position from many hyper-caffeinated emarketing and social media experts: we’re a long way from replacing salespeople with mouse clicks and drop-down menus. When it comes to Great Customer Experience, the automation we’ve created stinks. Proof? We can scale our selling models through information technology, but we still can’t wean ourselves off “human intervention” (oh, come on, Andy, just use the word salespeople!) “To speak to a representative, press zero.” “If you need help selecting a product, just ask one of our retail floor Associates.” “To initiate online chat, click here.” “If you’d like to meet with one of our Sales Representatives, enter your email address.”

Still, the critics complain that salespeople often inject themselves into the buying mix. “We don’t need them,” the critics say. “After all, they’re only thinking about their next commission.” I’ll accept the criticism. As my VP of sales fittingly said “any salesperson who doesn’t add value risks being replaced by a kiosk.” But over 10,000,000 “sales and related” US jobs suggests that buyers also need salespeople.

The critics won’t admit it. “Salespeople are unethical.” “Social media changes everything. We get better information through blogs and online product reviews.” “Let me tell you about my last encounter with a salesman . . .” I’ve held these sentiments myself—and I’m a salesman! But much of the enmity is misplaced. Salespeople are not inherently bad. It’s the culture under which salespeople work that needs overhaul. Customer relationship problems start with people at the top of the organization chart, whose faces aren’t often public. Those executives create business plans that contain financial forecasts that are divided into sales quotas that are measured in revenue that are credited against the salesperson’s “individual goal.” Ready to talk about improving the “customer experience?” You’ve heard it before: It’s the system, stupid!

Maybe what’s needed is a redefinition of sales itself. What does sales mean in the context of leading change? After all, isn’t leading change fundamental to every organization’s strategy? Interpretations will be the progenitor of new ways that sellers and buyers connect and relate, new processes, and new best practices.

Perhaps it’s gratuitous for a salesperson to espouse that nothing happens until somebody sells something. But in the non-communist world, I haven’t found a more accurate statement. The sales professional is far from dead.

Is “Call on the CXO” a Winning Strategy for Salespeople?

“Focus your efforts on reaching C-level executives.”

“First, get in front of a decision maker.”

“The fastest way to a sale is through the C-Suite.”

These tenets are tried, but no longer true. Like a comfortable, broken-in pair of old work boots, they must now be cast aside. They served their purpose well, but the steel toes have gotten crushed. Alas, these tenets depend on assumptions that are increasingly shaky:

  • C-Level executives are influential
  • C-Level titles connote good decision-making skills
  • Job titles reliably predict whether an individual will be valuable in the sales and buying process
  • An organization transfers value through formal hierarchies
  • Within an organization, decision rights are consistent, enforceable, and understood

I can recall many instances calling on CXO’s – too many, in fact – where one of these assumptions became horribly unraveled, and sales rug was pulled out from under my comfortably-planted feet. In today’s social-media-connected, global, outsourced, freelanced, collaborative buying world, top sales producers have become much more adept at reaching people who influence buying decisions, not just chasing down anyone with a C-title. But, without making assumptions about job titles, how do salespeople figure out which contacts have decision-making mojo?

First, don’t let job titles serve as a proxy for how your prospect decides. And don’t fall into the trap of using them as a shortcut for doing basic homework on how your prospects get things done. I stumbled into this reality in the early ’90’s, when I sold barcode technology. My prospect, a Fortune 100 manufacturer, purchased on a departmental level, but I wanted an enterprise-wide sale. I didn’t know where to begin my campaign. Operations? Information Technology? Materials Management? Finance? As I placed calls into various departments, my inquiries were rewarded with a consistent answer: “When we have questions about barcoding, we go to Jim. We call him ‘Mr. Barcode.’” I didn’t know Jim, but encouraged by the moniker his colleagues assigned, I called him.

Jim was an unassuming man who worked in a windowless office in the middle of a cramped cube farm on the fifth floor of the non-descript, lobby-less Information Technology building. He kept a pocket liner and several pens in his button-down shirt pocket. He wore thick-soled black shoes with white socks. Jim had no decision-making authority, and his position was so low it didn’t merit a spot on a published org chart. But today, a Social Network analyst would call Jim an Information Broker, a role of crucial importance for salespeople. I quickly learned why: no department made a barcode-related decision before he was consulted. I also learned that Jim already had many connections to my company’s engineering team, and that by encouraging more connections, I improved the probability of achieving my goal. With Jim’s involvement, along with some luck, our team won an enterprise-wide SAP project the following year.

What makes this story remarkable isn’t that low-ranking Jim played such an important role. It’s that every enterprise worldwide has Jim’s—and sales executives pay little or no attention to reaching them. Why? Because finding Jim’s isn’t easy. Their titles don’t convey their importance. Their identities aren’t readily mined from data warehouses, or culled from lead lists. They don’t hang out together in the same bars. Most significant, these key influencers are not self-anointed—they achieve their status through peer recognition. For a salesperson selling into a large enterprise, that fact alone makes identifying a Jim a task of near-monumental proportion.

Finding the First Mouth

But once identified, the rewards can be great. A paper by Raghuram Iyengar, Christophe Van den Bulte, and Thomas W. Valente, Opinion Leadership and Social Contagion in New Product Diffusion, and discussed in an article The Buzz Starts Here: Finding the First Mouth for Word-of-Mouth Marketing explains how Social Network Analysis can be applied to this challenge.

The researchers conducted their work for a pharmaceutical company and found their Jim, referred to as Physician No. 184,on a Social Network Map. “Researchers had tracked how prescriptions of a new drug spread from one physician to another, depending on who talked to whom and referred patients to whom. Mapped out on the screen, the story became clear: The medical community was actually divided into two sub-networks split apparently by ethnicity, with one sub-network dominated by physicians with mostly Asian names and the other with mostly European names. Connecting the two, like a spider suspended on a thread between two webs, was the dot for Physician No. 184—a doctor the company’s marketing department and salespeople barely knew (my emphasis).

The article shared further insight: “Not only did the study indicate that word-of-mouth had been affecting physicians’ prescription behavior . . . but it also showed that converting the right individual could have a dramatic impact. And for executives in the conference room, it revealed something else: They had been overlooking some of the networks’ most important social hubs. ‘That was the biggest a-ha! for the company,’ said Van den Bulte. Physician 184 ‘was not the most important in the number of connections he was getting, but he was vitally important in linking the networks‘ (my emphasis).”

And there’s more. Whereas traditional market research asks people “Are you an opinion leader?,” network research asks “Whom do you turn to for advice about …?” According to the article, “the different approaches can produce widely different results…asking people how important they are is not the best measure of how important they really are. Just because people think they’re important doesn’t mean it’s true. And some people are actually more important than marketers believe, or even they themselves believe (my emphasis).”

Great opportunity awaits salespeople who develop relationships with Jim’s and Physician 184’s. But the first challenge is in knowing who you’re looking for. So put titles and organization charts aside. If your sales team finds that concentrating effort on getting C-level appointments doesn’t bear fruit, and if it’s frustrating to “get around gatekeepers,” maybe it’s time to ask some questions beyond “how can we better reach the CXO?” Those questions could start with “what do the selling networks of top sales producers look like, and how do they ‘connect the dots’?” You will recognize that there often more viable strategies than “first, get in front of a decision maker.”

Like the study that discovered Physician 184, your best path to a sale might be through people your competitors don’t even recognize.

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.

If Salespeople Can Get Customers to Beg, What About Shake Hands and Roll Over?

Originally published 4/11/10

It’s amazing how many different things you can get customers to do:

How to
. . . get customers to come to you
. . . get customers to beg for your product
. . . get customers to give you their email address
. . . get customers to agree to a case study
. . . get customers to sense, feel, think, ACT, relate
. . . get customers to buy Avon products
. . . get customers to chase you instead of the other way around
. . . get customers to answer questions

What’s almost as amazing is that people still think in terms of “getting” customers to do things. On a LinkedIn discussion board last week, someone asked “how do salespeople get prospects to share key business objectives or goals?”

The customer as marionette, and the all-knowing, all-powerful salesperson as puppeteer. I understand the appeal. Take action. Get desired results. With such certainty, nearly 100% of salespeople should make quota.

Not even close. According to the CSO Insights 2009 Sales Compensation Survey, “the percentage of reps expected to meet or exceed quota is now 52.4%.” One in four firms expects fewer than half of their reps to make quota. What happened to the bullish proclamations in these “How to’s”?

Contrast the get-customers-to-act point of view with “our product sells itself.” The difference couldn’t be more striking: pushing uphill versus tapping existing momentum. Heavy lifting versus guiding. As a salesperson, which would you rather undertake?

Something in the middle, perhaps? After all, Apple’s fabulously successful i-(anything) still takes sales finesse to complete the purchase transaction. But Apple’s sales strength comes from creating product hits that address unmet needs—and then making it wicked-easy to part with your money to get them. That’s not heavy lifting. Apple knows how to channel and guide buying momentum, providing an economic reward that goes right to the bottom line.

Moving strategies and tactics away from controlling customer behaviors toward leveraging buying momentum challenges salespeople and sales leaders alike. For many years we’ve acknowledged that the most skilled sales professionals enable customers to buy without “feeling sold.” That ideal has been championed through Social selling (or Sales2.0), which operates from a customer-centric vantage point. Social selling recognizes that top performing sales organizations develop sales resources that are valuable to people who buy, and they create sales processes that connect with buying processes.

Beats trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

If you want to learn more, join the free Webinar Axel Schultze and I are holding on April 29, Beyond Glengarry: Put Social in Your Sales Process and Get to the Next Level.

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