Category Archives: Sales leadership

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.

Thought Leaders, Please Tell Me Something I Don’t Know!

Originally published 04/16/09

This year CMG Partners, an East-coast based marketing strategy firm hosted a panel discussion entitled Why Good Products Fail & How to Improve the Go-to-Market Process. The face-to-face event was complimentary to the local business community in Northern Virginia, and included experts from four enterprises: startup beverage company Honest Tea, National Geographic Channel, WeatherBug, and Intelevision.

Five minutes into CMG’s introductory PowerPoint, a man in the audience named John interrupted the presenter and opined “You’re the experts in marketing strategy, and yet, I don’t hear anything new. You haven’t provided anything we don’t already know!” He continued by reciting the unremarkable bullet points projected on the large screen in the front of the room, and emphasizing that he wanted to hear thought-provoking insight worthy of his time. The slack-jawed audience at the McLean Hilton fell so totally silent you could hear a Blackberry hitting the plush carpeted floor.

Faced with this unexpected detractor, the presenter replied with such aplomb that his response belongs in the history books along with Lloyd Bentsen’s legendary debate response to Dan Quayle : “Well John, you get what you pay for!” The widespread laughter that followed was evidence that the tension of the moment had been broken. The exchange somehow ended amicably, although I don’t think CMG will invite John to their next event.

The panel tried hard to live up to John’s expectations, thanks largely to Mark McNeely, CEO of Intelevision (more about that in a moment). During the post-panel networking, I introduced myself to John and thanked him for voicing an opinion that was probably unspoken by many, including me. “I might not have said it the same way, but I appreciate that you spoke your mind. There have been many times that I’ve wanted to say what you said, but didn’t.”

John might have been similarly moved during the recorded one-hour webinar on social media and selling I listened to on Monday. The topic is of particular interest as I’m completing a series of interviews with salespeople for an article I’m releasing next week. Like CMG’s event, there was a panel of thought leaders with cross-functional expertise—a great blend that should have created pungent discourse. And there were some good ideas that I jotted on my notepad and marked with an asterisk. But a few opinions were so over-worn that I stopped the recording and pushed back the timer a few seconds to make sure I heard them correctly: “We have to be in touch with our customers and understand what’s OK for them and what they expect from us.” And “It’s becoming more critical to know your customer.” Really? I acknowledge these comments are removed from the context of the discussion, but they were as attention-grabbing in the webinar as they are here.

Which leads to a question: are thought leaders fostering a sort of institutional stupidity by being too timid to espouse bold ideas? Or are thought leaders simply reacting to a perception that businesspeople need to be spoon-fed unremarkable ideas (not too big, not too small, not too hot, not too cold) so they can be nudged into considering larger ideas? On the other hand, could executives and managers simply be too intimidated by the multitude forces that are upending their business plans and strategic objectives to consider big ideas?

Mark McNeely might have answered the question when he synthesized the reason for the problems American businesses face: “there’s no oxygen in the room. Companies are run by management that is stagnant, bureaucratic, and self-satisfied.” He predicted that will change—because, if you subscribe to the idea of a Darwinian process for business, it has to.

Resolving our global economic situation demands the creation of provocative ideas. Controversial ideas. Ideas that are unpopular or disagreeable. We don’t need any more Mom and Apple Pie. In marketing and sales, nothing great will happen when well-known truisms are dusted off and passed on as contemporary expertise.

To those who regularly offer contrarian views, keep doing what you’re doing. The world needs your fresh perspectives now more than ever.

Pfizer’s Ethics Violations Hurt All of Us

“At Pfizer I was expected to increase profits at all costs, even when sales meant endangering lives. I couldn’t do that.”

The sales representative who blew the whistle on Pfizer’s illegal marketing practices, John Kopchinski, made that statement about his now-former employer.

Mr. Kopchinski was fired from the company in 2003. He won’t miss his job. He received over $50 million from the US government for his efforts to prosecute the $2.3 billion fraud settlement from his former employer—the largest such settlement in US history. The product he was assigned to sell, Bextra, is a discontinued medication approved for arthritis and menstrual pain.

Paying $2.3 billion for “fraudulent marketing” should cause every marketing professional and salesperson to break into a nervous sweat. Murky ethics are amazingly common. They begin innocuously, then escalate. According to Mr. Kopchinski, what started as “aggressive promotion” of Bextra mutated into illegal practices. As he put it, “the ethical line kept moving.” And the pharmaceutical industry’s shady sales practices moved back into the spotlight this week, when John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment detailed more skeletons tumbling from pharma’s marketing closet.

I’ve seen it elsewhere. Ethical risks are shrouded in code-speak: “we’re a ‘revenue-focused’ organization,” or “our company champions an ‘aggressive sales culture.’” Anyone who doesn’t take heed from Mr. Kopchinski’s ethical-line observation faces the same risks. In Pfizer’s case, the problems didn’t begin with stereotypical predatory salespeople and percolate upward—they began at the top. As the saying goes, “the fish starts rotting at the head.”

How can bright people working for well-regarded companies commit such ruthless dishonesty, when they wouldn’t think of stealing their next-door neighbor’s pension check—arguably a far less-heinous crime? Unfortunately, the answer is all too simple, and all too common: by insulating the perpetrators from the victims. Here’s Pfizer’s approach:

Sales commissions: According to the NPR health blog, a “$50 bounty (was) paid to reps when they got doctors to add Bextra to the standard care for patients before and after surgery. These care protocols would direct patients to take Bextra, often at high doses, a few days before a knee operation, for instance, and then afterward to control pain.”

Telemarketing scripts directed to physicians: Salespeople were coached to tout greater efficacy and safety for Bextra compared to Vioxx, a competing painkiller from Merck. The US Food and Drug Administration never approved these claims.

Sales culture: OK. Let’s call it by its real name—intimidation. “If you don’t aggressively sell your products . . . you’re labeled a non-team player,” Kopchinski said, adding that only by promoting Bextra for unapproved uses could he achieve management’s revenue goals.

You can see the evidence in clear black and white, and it’s all creepy. What was Pfizer’s management thinking? Caught with its pants down, Pfizer cut a check for $2.3 billion. Everybody—just shut up, leave the chicanery behind, and let’s move on! Problem resolved.

But is it? At the same time that jolly Pfizer managers were gloating over PowerPoint slides depicting beautifully soaring revenue curves, people were suffering or dying from taking medications for unapproved uses. Yes, that’s rock bottom. Bad ethics don’t get any worse than that, and even a $2.3 billion mea culpa won’t enable the company to sweep its dark tactics under the rug. A plan to sell cigarettes in elementary schools seems more benign.

Which brings Pfizer’s indiscretions to the everyday salesperson. We’ve all experienced what happens when “baggage” is brought into a sales meeting. A salesperson is often considered guilty before he or she proclaims innocence. It’s understandable. Along with evaluating the performance and features of a product, prospects scrutinize a salesperson’s motivations and integrity. But as Pfizer’s deceit has shown us, prospects now need to look further, and to question whether the top management of a vendor’s company has a moral compass. The answer to that question could reveal buyer risks that were previously unimagined.

Seven Sales Topics That Need to Die. And Seven That Need To Be Heard

What kind of sales topic screams for quick demise? One that has been beaten six ways to Sunday. One that no longer creates learning, insight or understanding. And – I’m especially pained to mention – one that’s a pander for behaviors and tactics that are ethically shaky, or reinforces negative stereotypes about salespeople.

Seven Sales Topics that need to die:

1. How to get prospects to [fill in the blank].  Getting people to do things . . . .  Nothing reinforces the manipulative-salesperson stereotype better than sharing manipulative sales practices for them to use. One recommendation I read online today: “Question [prospects] into a corner – and close them when they get there.”

2. How to “prove your ROI.” – Or how to improve it. Amber Naslund said it best: “. . . quit bastardizing the term ROI and using cryptic, fluffy interpretations of it in order to avoid admitting that you don’t understand it, or to dodge the whole measurement and accountability issue altogether.” Amen.

3. Ending “the conflict” between marketing and sales. Decades of rancor-filled debate hasn’t brought resolution. That’s because people are chasing the wrong issue. It’s not marketing versus sales. It’s how companies organize to profitably create and deliver value to customers. Look upstream. Marketing versus sales is a chronic artifact of a more important problem.

4. How salespeople can become “trusted advisors.” Trust is something one person grants to another. It’s never self-assigned. While facilitating trust in a business relationship is fundamental to selling anything, asking salespeople to become “Trusted Advisors” to their clients is a setup for failure. I trust my insurance broker. But as long as he’s on the hook to make a quarterly revenue target and earns commission on the services he sells, he will never be my “trusted advisor,” and he doesn’t need to waste effort trying.

5. Best techniques to “close” deals. When was the last time you were “closed?” Was it fun?  “The very best salespeople don’t employ any special closing techniques at all. They simply focus on understanding their customer’s business and helping them achieve their desired outcomes,”  Jill Konrath wrote.

6. “Immutable laws” of selling. In an uncertain and unpredictable world, shreds of certainty are attractive—and potent tools for those who prey on the gullible. Nothing’s constant. New situations require questioning old theories, strategies, and practices, while searching for emerging exceptions. Revenue rewards go to those who see things differently and break from convention.

7. Strategies and tactics to “beat” a bad economy. Although the idea appeals to my inner warrior, The Economy cannot be vanquished. The Economy isn’t a thinking, sentient being with a malevolent agenda. Rather, The Economy is a combination of complex forces that present risks and opportunities. Beating-the-economy thinking distorts planning, and makes no more sense than beating the force of demographic change or beating the weather.

Seven topics that need to be heard:

1. How sales leaders must lead to balance ethics, productivity, and improving shareholder value

2. Emerging new competencies for sales success

3. The impact that millions of new mobile-enabled social media users in the developing world will have on sales strategies

4. How to open sales career opportunities for economically disadvantaged people, and how to ensure those individuals are successful

5.  Significant forces on business development strategy, and what they mean for process innovation and revenue achievement

6.  What makes a salesperson valuable and effective, and what contributes to a positive experience – from the buyer’s point of view

7. The sales story behind achievements that have created positive social change

There’s a strong flavor of do-goodism because the sales profession badly needs a makeover. These topics desperately need oxygen. They need attention, opinion, debate, and room to expand. That can be achieved when other topics that have been presented and dissected ad nauseum have been retired.

Now, it’s time for me to shut up, and get to work. I’m going to change the image of the salesperson from paunchy, opportunistic huckster to one that resembles Mother Theresa. I won’t do it alone, and it won’t happen overnight, but choosing good topics seems a reasonable way to begin.

Why Competitors Love Ostrich Rivals

“Bring me sales, not excuses!” Notorious demands from a VP of Sales whose identity I’ll protect. He unwittingly aided his competitors because his sales-not-excuses mantra doomed him to repeating stupid selling mistakes.

A real-world example:

Carmella (not her real name), his sales representative, lost a software opportunity to a rival vendor. She explained to the sales-not-excuses VP that she lost for two reasons. First, her sales proposal included a large custom modification that her competitor provided as a standard capability. Second, her sales support team was unable to hold a final meeting with her prospect on the day the prospect preferred.

Carmella’s boss felt she mismanaged the sale, and that she was only making excuses. He assumed she didn’t emphasize the strengths of her packaged software product, and that she didn’t apply effort toward “overcoming objections” about the customized feature. Her inability to meet on the most convenient date for the prospect? He believed she didn’t try hard enough to overcome that problem, either. Carmella’s points hit a dead end. They were never heard outside her department.

Did Carmella mismanage the opportunity? The answer ranges from maybe to definitely. But put that question aside for a moment. Did the problems she identified exist when she talked with her boss? Yes. Did her competitor know the reasons he won? Definitely. Will his company exploit that knowledge? Absa-freaking-tively! Should the risks Carmella identified be reduced or eliminated? That is a management question Carmella’s boss should have considered—but didn’t.

What’s the takeaway? When observations about performance gaps are routinely dismissed, there is high risk for recurring problems. Why, then, would any sales manager stifle dialog that reduces the risk of lost revenue opportunities? I wish I had an easy answer. Ego? Myopia? Impatience? There’s a long list . . .

Besides toning down his arrogance, what should Carmella’s boss have done? He could have begun by being circumspect about why her opportunity didn’t succeed. Expressed in methodical terms, he should have performed an After Event Review.

Effective reviews:
Capture observations from multiple viewpoints
Identify risks and opportunities
Promote organizational learning, and facilitate continuous improvement
Enable more accurate sales forecasts
Improve attention to detail in recognizing and reflecting on success factors and problems

Reviews ask and answer six questions:
1. What was the intended outcome?
2. What actually happened?
3. What was learned?
4. What do we do now?
5. Who should we tell?
6. How do we tell them?

Here’s what the VP of Sales would have learned:

1. The custom modification Carmella proposed was just one of several product shortcomings the demo team encountered.
2. The sales team was poorly prepared for two client meetings
3. The proposed custom modification was a clunky 5-step process using three screens. The competitor’s product accomplished the needed capability with one step.
4. For unknown reasons, the essential custom modification was never considered for the development queue.
5. Carmella had to postpone her key sales meeting because company policy required that all pre-sales staff obtain a manager’s approval before committing time. The department manager was on vacation (and unavailable) at the time she made her request.

An opportunity for performance improvement crushed by bravado. It happens every minute of the selling day.

If you’re conducting After Event Reviews, here are pitfalls to avoid:

1. Not integrating them for ongoing sales improvement. In a sales risk survey conducted with CustomerThink in February, 2010, we found that of approximately 100 salespeople and managers, just under half reported doing post-sale reviews as part of risk management.

2. Formulating a conclusion, then backing it up with facts. Reviews are not witch hunts: “I think we’ll find that Tim really mismanaged our sales process.” If you draw conclusions first, you can always find supporting data. But it won’t bring you closer to solving the problem.

3. Protecting a specific employee or department. If your prospect shared that one reason you lost was that your VP of Marketing made an off-color joke at a presentation, that fact goes out on the table! When it comes to uncovering the truth, no artifact should be concealed or considered sacrosanct to bring into the spotlight.

4. Calling them “Win/Loss” reviews. Don’t. “Win/Loss” distorts the analysis. Wins lull people into examining what was done well. Losses shunt the analysis into what went wrong. Typically, it’s some of both for each. Further, how do you classify a Pyrrhic “win”—when the cost of sales exceeds revenue? Referring to the discovery as an After Event Review helps ensure objectivity.

5. Reviewing only wins or only losses. There’s a wealth of vital information contained in both. Patterns emerge. By looking at what went wrong, you can infer what’s right. Same for the reverse.

6. Focusing on just improving performance of individual salespeople. As the example illustrates, multiple issues can be revealed. And all opportunities for improvement should be considered.

7. Confusing After Event Reviews with social media. Unlike social media, After Event Reviews aren’t public knowledge. Findings require closely-governed boundaries and privacy protection. The last thing a new customer wants to see is an accolade she provided in confidence posted on a Facebook fan page.

As Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan wrote in their book, Confronting Reality, “the tools, practices, and behaviors that will distinguish success from failure can be summed up in one phrase: relentless realism.” That can only happen when key issues are out on the table, and when people aren’t threatened by knowing what they are.

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