Category Archives: Sales learning and professional development

Three Things You DON’T Need to Know for Sales Success

In Virginia, the day after Labor Day means back-to-school. A tradition that reminds us that summer has entered its final fade, taking with it the sweet scent of suntan lotion, long days, warm nights, and fireflies. The day means boxy yellow school buses filling the roadways, and thousands of kids heading from home in the still-bright morning with oversized backpacks, new haircuts, and – one hopes – aspirations for learning.

But this season, something feels odd. Presidential candidate Donald Trump recently told the country, “Sometimes it’s better to know too little than too much.” He was talking about NATO, or more specifically, excusing his lack of understanding about it. Did young students receive his message?

“Gee, Mrs. Gimmelfarb, World History seems like a TOTAL waste of time. Why do we need to study it?” For Mrs. Gimmelfarb and other teachers confronting this question, my sympathies. You deserve more pay. Or, at least a public discussion that doesn’t glorify willful ignorance.

Yet, after thinking about Trump’s Declaration of Ignorance, I began to wonder if he’s right. Could people be required to learn things they don’t need to know or understand, or asked to spend time with subjects that have little value later on? Should We Stop Teaching Calculus in High School? Point taken. There are only so many hours in a school day.

As I pondered these questions, I got pinged with an email notification: “Please check out this article, What Neuroscientists Can Teach You About the Brain-To-Brain Process of Selling. Lead sentence: “A good salesperson knows how to use the brain to her or his advantage.” Thanks – helpful to know.

But that vacuous teaser, and the highfalutin sound of Brain-to-Brain Process confirmed my skepticism, and catapulted me into assembling this list of questionable knowledge that’s pushed at salespeople:

1. Neuroplasticity, and other “brain science.” Sales writers often reference brain science because doing so adds gravitas and sagacity.  The assertions can get comical:

When the brain overloads, it produces cortisol, a stress hormone, which reduces the tendency to buy.


The brain typically does not retain information in the hippocampus, which is where memory lives, until it hears something three times. Savvy salespeople create a repetitive loop by telling the customer a key piece of information, looping back a little later to remind them again and then looping back a third time to seal the deal. What’s weird about this system is that telling a customer four, five, six or seven times doesn’t enhance that memory, says Robb Best, author of an article, Minding your Sales. “Three is the magic number,” he says.

Fair enough. Three it is! Then, a different finding that upends three: The Rule of 7. This article informs us that “a prospect needs to see or hear your marketing message at least seven times before they take action and buy from you.” Then, the writer backpedals, sharing that the number seven isn’t “cast in stone,” but that “you can’t just engage in a marketing activity and then be done.” Here, I’ll call a foul: you can’t proclaim something a rule and weaken it at the same time.

Does learning such numbers, or the “science” behind them, matter? And what about the cortisol-producing stress hormone purported to reduce the tendency to buy? Does this factoid contradict the widely-held belief creating buying urgency can be useful for marketing and sales? Imagine a salesperson who says, “. . . Sure, if it means less cortisol travelling to your brain, please – take as long as you need to decide . . .”

“There’s no such thing” as a magic number, Chip Heath and Dan Heath wrote in their book about persuasion, Made to Stick. So, to me, packaging stuff as brain science amounts to pseudo-intellectual silliness. Better not learned, or at least, not learned this way.

What to learn instead: Empathy. Harder to teach, and for some, harder to learn. Start by not obsessing over numbers. Three? Seven? 148.7 Gazillion? The number of times a customer should see a marketing message before succumbing can’t be generalized. And if the message stinks to begin with, well . . . then let’s agree the magic number should be zero.  Next,  question the conclusions others make about cognitive research, especially those made by non-scientists, or people whose top listed attributes are “internationally-known speaker” and “sought-after seminar leader.” Self-credentialed, of course. Those gratuitous accolades should make any person’s BS antennae glow brightly.

When salespeople educate themselves about how to see and feel the experiences of others, they can also learn how their own actions are perceived. That insight produces powerful competitive advantages in any sales situation.

2. ‘Success traits’ for salespeople that other salespeople report. They’re all over the map: Work ethic, effort, coachability, sales intelligence, problem solving, and driven, confident, outgoing, assertive, funny, structured, relational,and focused – to name just a few.

Those conclusions are tenuous because they often infected with hindsight bias – the tendency to see a particular outcome as being predictable, even when there’s little basis for predicting it. Mostly, success trait assertions are little more than mom-and-apple-pie platitudes. (Who can dispute that problem-solving skills are crucial for every occupation or profession?) Yet, there’s a constant appetite for such lists. Maybe because they’re paragons of behavioral perfection. No mortal can achieve all of the characteristics, but few want to throw in the towel while pursuing them.

Sometimes, success traits can be deceptive when they are based on narrow circumstances, or drawn from situations others rarely encounter. I hold no doubts that being funny could be helpful for a salesperson calling on an executive at the Comedy Central Network. But I’ve known some decidedly un-funny sales reps who clobbered competitors while producing impressive revenue.

For the recent article I wrote on this topic, Lazy, Un-Coachable Sales Rep Produces Record Revenue, I examined success-trait lists ranging from three elements to eighteen, and discovered a curious pattern: honesty and integrity were absent from every one. A curious scarcity for a profession that pridefully promotes the power of being perceived as a Trusted Advisor.

What to learn instead: traits, habits, and characteristics that customers want in salespeople, or discovering What Customers Value .

3. How to forecast accurately. A common preoccupation in selling, but one that’s unproductive. People have written gobs of articles on this topic, and presenters have devoted countless Powerpoint slides to making a case for its importance. But I’ll consolidate a Forecast Accuracy How-to into three easy-to-follow steps, simple to remember:

Step #1: Select a sales opportunity that you’re really, really, really, really sure will close.

Step #2: Close the opportunity.

Step #3: Forecast the revenue just before submitting the order.

Congratulations! You have produced an accurate forecast. Just as important, you have avoided being wrong. Best of all, management will actually reward you for this feat! The problem is, an accurate forecast isn’t necessarily a valuable one. For example, if I close a contract with Customer X to provide 10,000 widgets per month for the next 12 months, I will, accurately, forecast sales of 120,000 widgets in monthly releases of 10,000 each – assuming that X doesn’t terminate the contract. But my accurate forecast provides little value to Production and Finance. They already know, so what I provided has no impact on planning.

Learning how to create accurate forecasts is more an exercise in manipulating sales information than in developing quality predictors, situational awareness, and useful insight. It’s an educational pathway that’s counter-productive for forecast quality.

What to learn instead: How to create a quality forecast. The point of the above exaggeration is to underscore the fallacy of pursuing forecast accuracy as a goal. The process of developing a quality forecast focuses on making the best assessments possible using logic, under conditions of uncertainty and limited information. That means selecting the right measurements and other input information, discarding what’s not meaningful, and constantly refining the inputs based on experience. It also means not just relying on past events to predict outcomes, but monitoring new, developing forces, and including them in the forecast model when appropriate. The goal of a quality forecast is to approach accuracy, but the forecast will never be accurate. In the forecasting world, accuracy means actual results = predicted results. And we came close is not the same.

Forecasts that involve human decision making will almost always be wrong. Judgement is always embedded in a decision forecast, and with judgement comes the possibility of error. So insisting on accuracy represents a fool’s errand. Forecasts are subject to mistakes, new conditions, unanticipated events, and the likelihood that some variables that could be meaningful will be omitted. Developing quality forecasts requires not fearing inaccuracy.

Human learning and machine learning are often compared, and there are many parallels: make a model, develop parameters, make adjustments to bring actual results closer to those that are planned or desired. But with human learning, we’ve become careless and sloppy. In marketing and sales, we too frequently squander time and resources on learning things that are unimportant or distracting, and sometimes encourage others to follow suit.

And thanks to Trump, ignorance has been anointed a new halo of acceptability. How ironic that if he were talking about robotic automation, we’d be screaming about compromised quality and defective products spewing off assembly lines. We’d vow never to buy ever again until software has been corrected, and processes improve.

How much better off could our economy be if we maintained similarly rigorous expectations for human learning, too?

The Modern Sales Force: Too Male to Fail

Companies vanquish competitors by having superior products, and by providing outstanding buyer experiences. But a company I worked for in the 1980’s had neither, and still won a key deal. Through pure serendipity, a competing salesman committed a mistake by assuming a buyer he was working with did not have authority to make a purchase. His assumption backfired, miserably.

The account was a large, family-owned retail lumber company near Washington, DC. The company needed a distributed IT system, with a full suite of integrated accounting, sales, and distribution software. A purchase worth well over $100,000. “We were almost ready to sign the order. But their salesman regarded me as just a secretary, and that basically, I wasn’t worth his time,” the buyer later told me. “That ended it. I wouldn’t meet with him again.”

In fact, the buyer, a woman named Georgie, managed the lumberyard, and there was a reason she was in charge of this purchase: she knew the company’s ins and outs – down to the tiniest nail and shortest 2×4 – better than anyone. The CEO fully entrusted this all-important purchase to his soft-spoken employee, who wasn’t ensconced with an impressive job title.

The competitor’s arrogance cost him more than this sale. While it provided my company an immediate opportunity to win the order and to assuage the buyer’s pain, we reaped large revenue dividends later when Georgie became a steady advocate, nudging prospects to buy through recounting many happy experiences as a customer.

In the 1980’s, it was rare to find women running operations at a retail lumber yard. Men predominated in management. And those men hired more men to work for them. Underlings who operated forklifts and supervised millwork production before moving into higher-paying sales positions. Eventually, they changed jobs, hopping from retailer to supplier, from supplier to supplier, and from supplier back to retailer. Lumber, doors, windows, roof trusses, construction hardware, and supplies. Call it industry incest: everyone knew everyone. Coddled in professional comfort, men – most of them white – sold to the same demographic. Against that backdrop, a woman-in-charge at a lumberyard spelled doom for the clumsy competitor. Had he been female, would the outcome have been different? In the same situation, would a saleswoman have brought a nuanced perspective – in this case, one less dismissive and more empathetic?

Those questions bubble at the center of a recent firestorm in which Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer answered a question during an interview with CNN’s Poppy Harlow, who asked, “You are a rarity in the corner office in America, and it is something that so many people want to see change. Not only are you a female CEO, you’re a minority CEO. Where do you fall on who has to make the change and how is it going to happen so that there are more women like you represented in the top echelons of corporate America?”

Ms. Brewer shared that she encourages diversity not only with her staff, but with her business partners. “My executive team is very diverse, and I make that a priority. Every now and then you have to nudge your partners. You have to speak up and speak out. And I try to use my platform for that. I try to set an example,” she said, adding, “Just today we met with a supplier, and the entire other side of the table was all Caucasian males. That was interesting. I decided not to talk about it directly with [the supplier’s] folks in the room because there were actually no females, like, levels down. So I’m going to place a call to him.”

When the interview aired, social media exploded with ardent support for Ms. Brewer, along with vociferous complaint. Some customers used the hashtag, #BoycottRacistSamsClub, accusing Brewer of racism toward white men. (Should those customers defect to rival Costco, they won’t find any different attitude. Costco has an equally-firm policy regarding diversity.) Walmart, which owns Sam’s Club, weighed in with a statement from CEO Doug McMillon. “For years, we’ve asked our suppliers to prioritize the talent and diversity of their sales teams calling on our company,” he wrote. “Roz was simply trying to reiterate that we believe diverse and inclusive teams make for a stronger business. That’s all there is to it, and I support that important ideal.”

Sales managers should heed his message. In nearly every industry today, salespeople can regularly expect to find women managing a major purchase, or participating on a buying committee. Not to mention finding people of many races and ethnicities. So cavalierly marching in a group of white salesmen to talk with them might not be considered the best marketing tactic. “Having a more eclectic workforce, and thus a greater range of perspectives, is actually a very promising way to make money. Prioritizing diversity is not just compatible with maximizing profits; it may be the key to doing so,” Catherine Rampell wrote in The Washington Post (Yes, Corporate America: Diversity Pays, July 31, 2015).

The diversity problem extends beyond sales forces into the constellation of service providers that support them. “Tech companies are experiencing growing pressure to diversify their workforce which is predominantly white, Asian, and male,” according to an article in Forbes, Lack of Diversity in Tech is a Cultural Issue (August 12, 2015). That includes CRM systems, where the Chief Technology Officer’s worldview and problem-solving approaches are deeply etched into the processes that govern a large portion of the world’s customer relationships.

Large sales training companies suffer from a similar problem: a preponderance of men in senior leadership positions. In a group of sales training organizations listed on a training industry website, I found only two out of 20 that had women CEO’s.

These realities portend the stubborn persistence of sales calls like the one Ms. Brewer described in her CNN interview.

Lazy, Uncoachable Sales Rep Produces Record Revenue

Search for the phrase top attributes in sales performers, and you will get about 400,000 results. A harvest that includes blogs, magazine articles, research studies, and white papers. Many of them describing archetypal qualities similar to ones that Kendra Lee, a sales author and strategist, posited in an article, 5 Telltale Signs of All-Star IT Salespeople: work ethic, effort, coachability, sales intelligence, and problem solving.

Hard to argue with that list. If you subtract sales from sales intelligence, you get a set of desirables for every occupation. Try it with me! I swapped out IT Salespeople for dentist, lumberjack, and talk show host. Yep, yep, and yep. These are telltale signs for All-stars, alright.

But another list, Key Qualities of a Great Salesperson, by Flip Flippen, offers an entirely different set: driven, confident, outgoing, assertive, funny, structured, relational, and focused.

These attributes don’t have the universality of Lee’s list. That’s a plus. A competent lumberjack does not need to be relational, except when a heavy branch is about to land on a co-worker. A talented dentist does not have to be funny. Better, actually, when he or she isn’t. If you’re seeking the skills toolbox that predicts whether a rep can “just crush it,” maybe Flippen’s list brings us closer to that nirvana.

But why is funny important for a salesperson, and why does it receive mention over other essentials, like honesty and empathy, which are absent from Lee’s list as well? I can offer no answers, other than it leaves room for future iterations.

Lee had five success attributes, and Flippen had eight. What did others think? Once again, my interrogative journey spiraled to new heights. Tweaking my search, I discovered sets of attributes with as few as three, but topping out at eighteen. Eighteen! Some were from well-known thought leaders like Brian Tracy, others from people less famous. A random sampling of articles, listed in ascending order of the number of essential traits needed in top sales producers:

3 traits
5 traits
6 traits
7 traits
8 traits
10 traits
12 traits
13 traits
14 traits
18 traits

Hiding behind these superficial views of success are serious logical distortions. If putative success attributes explain rep achievement, what explains reps who succeed despite having some – or none – of these qualities? What explains reps who have these qualities, but don’t succeed? And what explains reps who have roller-coaster revenue results – sky high one year, and deep in the tank the next? Surely their skills did not spike and recede in tandem.

People are wired to identify patterns even where they don’t exist, creating what author Nassim Taleb describes in his book, Fooled by Randomness, as hindsight bias. According to Taleb, “past events will always look less random than they were,” a rampant myopia that infects marketing and sales. Example: Tomas just closed a big sale. We retroactively call out the positive reasons, carefully enumerating the salient elements of his “skillset.” The opposite for the deal he lost. We explain, point by point, what makes him a buffoon. If you’ve never experienced this, please enter a comment below (caveat: you must have worked in a sales organization for sixty days or longer).

Three elements play huge roles for determining a sales rep’s success – a quality frequently conveyed through a simplistic, over-used numerical proxy called percent-of-goal:

1. Luck. People need to “take knowledge less seriously,” Taleb writes at the outset of his book. “The role of luck [in outcomes] is something that few people understand, but many think they understand.” Hence the breadth of opinion on what portends a sales rep’s success.

2. Corporate strategy. Which rep is likelier to make goal – an average one working for a company executing a great strategy with great products? Or an excellent one struggling with feckless leadership and failed marketing? I’m betting on the average rep. “All we really had to do was answer the phone!” an account executive who sold DEC VAX’s in the 1980’s once told me.

3. Quotas. The denominator of the percent-of-goal metric that every executive wants to know, but few bother to investigate. How was the number derived? Many quotas are created without mathematical or logical rigor – only a simple parsing of the corporate revenue goal onto individual revenue producers. A mediocre rep who achieved 140% of a low quota will always appear more skilled than a great rep who achieved 88% of a goal that she didn’t have a snowball’s chance of making. When the 140% achiever was lauded at the annual kickoff, which “success attributes” were mentioned? Most assuredly, someone voiced an opinion.

“We need to purge our minds of the notion of intellectual certainties,” Taleb writes. Do attributes like intelligence, work ethic, tenacity and focus contribute to positive sales outcomes? Probably. The same for good personal hygiene, punctuality, eye contact, and a firm handshake. But contribute and causality are not the same. People would laugh if I said that popping a breath mint before the contract was signed caused me to win the deal. But they wouldn’t be disturbed if, ex-post-facto, “tenacity” was pinpointed a causal factor.

An opportune time to question an idea is when it appears glaringly obvious. For example, a strong work ethic seems a reliable progenitor for sales success, but some argue that it causes people to get mired in detail, to lose creativity, and to miss big-picture problems. A situation no company would want for a sales rep.

Be skeptical about what others profess as causal in sales success. A lazy, un-coachable rep who produces record revenue might not be the anomaly people think it to be.

For Young People Starting a Business Career, Sales and Marketing Salaries Lack Sizzle

Hollywood continually brings new expressions into pop culture. “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” “May the force be with you.” “Show me the money!” This time of year, “Plastics,” the memorably benignant career advice young Benjamin Braddock receives in The Graduate becomes personal to millions of college students engaged in graduation exercises – the hallowed ritual when diplomas are handed from faculty to student.

My recommendation to any young person who cares to listen to my underappreciated wisdom (my children are 21 and 18) is to enjoy the ceremony, because the next step, entering the workforce, can be a bumpy ride. In 2015, “just 14 percent of college seniors [had] steady, career-type jobs lined up for their lives after graduation. Thus, 86 percent of America’s college grads — about five out of every six — have zilch in the way of career prospects for their post-campus lives,” according to the website, The Daily Caller.

Much has changed in 50 years since The Graduate made plastics a metaphor for career success. Today, Finance has become the new plastics – at least for B-school graduates. Last year, people holding newly-minted undergraduate finance degrees from the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce were awarded average compensation of around $93,000 (compensation includes base salary, signing bonus, and annual bonus). That amount topped every business specialty, according to the 2015 McIntire Commerce Career Services 2015 Destinations Report. Not bad, considering the anodyne titles attached to the offers, including Financial Analyst, Sales and Trading analyst, and Consultant. (Disclosure: I am a McIntire alum.)

The report provided the following compensation information regarding job acceptances among the school’s graduating students (The figures for 2015 are on the left, adjacent to the corresponding 2012 compensation):

Finance__________________$92,932 / 81,117
Consulting_______________$78,557 / 71,633
Operations______________$77,417 / n/a
Information Technology_$66,500 / 67,133
Accounting______________$58,000 / 57,423
Marketing/Sales_________$54,062 / 52,762

Approximately 345 students graduated in 2015.

The numbers provide interesting comparisons: Finance comp increased 14% from 2012, while IT remained basically unchanged. Consulting had a handsome 10% gain. Marketing / Sales pay rests melancholically at the bottom of the heap in 2012 and 2015, with average comp improving only about 2% during that period. At least it didn’t decline. But on average, a graduate entering Marketing / Sales in 2015 got 72% less coin than one entering Finance. Odd, considering that Biz Dev professionals – long stereotyped as aggressive and money-driven – aren’t known for accepting delayed pay gratification.

But beyond superficial comparisons, professional trend-spotters will struggle to extract meaning from the Destinations Report. The findings are hard to extrapolate for several reasons. First, year-to-year, different companies recruit from a new talent pool of McIntire fourth-year students (UVa does not adhere to the common parlance of Freshman, Sophomore, etc.). Second, compensation is not the only motivator for accepting a job offer. Third, the compensation reflects the cost of living in the geographic locations where graduates choose to work (In 2015, 92% of graduates took jobs in the Eastern part of the US). Finally, this data reflects compensation on graduation – not beyond. So longer-term, we don’t know the numbers or how they compare.

Still, data from other undergraduate business schools reflect average base salary figures not far from McIntire’s. Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School, the #7-ranked undergraduate business school according to US News, reported a 2015 average of $73,582, 6% above McIntire’s $69,184. (McIntire was ranked #6 in the same US News survey.) In 2013, Notre Dame’s Mendoza School of Business, the #10-Ranked School, reported an average salary of $58,000. McIntire reported an average salary of $64,666 for the same year. The difference may be attributable to the fact that more of Notre Dame’s graduates work in Midwest cities, where the cost of living is lower than in the East.

All the hype that B2B customers want – demand, really – business-literate salespeople hasn’t produced more demand and better pay for newbie B-School grads choosing that field. As far back as 2010, I thought it would. I have pondered this inconsistency and offer five conclusions:

1. Business Development remains one of the few egalitarian business specialties, where characteristics like empathy, high motivation, communication skills, and personal integrity are strongly associated with success. Since people can gain these skills without attending college, employers hiring business developers don’t consistently require them to hold a degree.

2. Automation has de-skilled sales roles, eliminating some positions, and leaving others to be filled by others willing to accept lower wages.

3. Hiring managers seeking business developers who do have a college degree aren’t willing to pay a premium for B-School graduates over say, job-hungry religion majors. Both require equivalent training and development.

4. Many B-school undergraduates don’t seek sales positions in the first place. Some might recognize the degree that took four years to earn doesn’t ensure adequate earnings in a commission-driven biz-dev role, so they seek jobs with higher base salaries and more security.

5. The personal assets that business developers need to achieve a higher income – including a strong network of connections and tacit sales knowledge – aren’t generally present on graduation, and often take several years to accumulate.

When my kids prepare to graduate in 2017 and 2020, respectively, here’s what I’ll tell them: “Get your engineering degree. Learn how to sell by succeeding and failing. Take intelligent risks. Become an entrepreneur. And if you want to make decent money, don’t go into sales – unless you’re in Finance.”

That’s longer and far less memorable than Plastics, but hopefully, more useful.

Further reading:

2014 Commerce Destinations Report

How to Avoid Landing the Sales Job from Hell

Sometime in the next 12 months, you’re going to experience a back-you-into-the-corner-sign-the-contract-right-now appeal. A full-frontal sales pitch that homes right in on your jugular vein. I gaaaah-ron-teeeeeee it!

For what? Used cars? Home security systems? Timeshares in Aruba? No. The hiring speil from the VP of Sales who wants you to work for him, badly. He spews his company’s marketing fireballs with verve so powerful, it would make the most polished televangelist envious: “Our product sells itself! . . . We have no competitors! . . . The market on freaking fire! . . . Employees are our most valuable asset . . .”

Mmmmmmm. That sweet intoxicating aroma of money, with a hint of personnel love on the side. “You had me at ‘I just reviewed your profile, and . . .’ but let’s move on, and talk about comp, shall we?”

“Sure. At plan, you will earn . . .”

The numeral at the beginning has seductive curves, and it’s followed by the expected number of decimal places. The figure has mostly zeroes, with a smattering of 5’s cleverly embedded to break the monotony. “Talk to me. I’m listening . . .”

There’s further upbeat conversation. No smiling, though, but lots of direct eye contact. “At plan, you will earn . . .” I become giddy thinking about a second house, a boat, and a less-hungry, more-corpulent 401K.

Still, that subtle hedge, at plan, nags at me. At plan. Drat! Always a sour flavor that despoils the compensation stew. But I understand. Even though its taste cannot be masked, no right-minded company would dare remove that essential ingredient. Reality, biting again. Tacit admission that when it comes to making quota, [stuff] happens. Agreed – those risks must be shared. After all, I’m no socialist!

But here, let’s cut to the chase: No matter how compelling the income opportunity might be, at plan always carries a continuum of probabilities – from achievable to not-a-snowball’s-chance. The problem is, how can you tell? And how do you assess whether you will make the right decision by accepting the VP’s ardent appeal to join his team?

Before I answer those questions, please allow short digression to share something about the deleterious properties of quicksand. Hang in there with me. If you’re unclear about my reasons, they will become apparent shortly. Quicksand: “deep, wet sand into which heavy objects sink easily.” Or, the metaphorical meaning, “a situation that is dangerous and difficult to escape from.” Talk to anyone who has been selling for a while, and just by mentioning the word, you’ll hear a raw, emotional story about a past gig. A recounting rich in wisdom and saturated with insights. Take copious notes. They will help you avoid walking into a comparable trap.

OK. Where were we? Assessing. Right! Or, to be precise, assessing risk. Hard to do when comp – I mean, potential comp – obscures every important concern. But Gerry Cullen, author of The Coldest Call: Why Some Good Products Don’t Sell, provides a valuable risk-assessment framework for candidates seeking sales positions. His book, a straightforward counterpoint to the pervasive salesforce sucks tripe that infects the blogosphere, is an entertaining read, eloquently written. Had it been published twenty years ago, it would have saved me untold angst.

At plan, you will earn . . .” Before you initial Accept on the employment contract the VP has pushed toward you across his desk, before you prematurely trade in the six-year-old Scion you bought used, and replace it with a brand new German-built ride, take a moment to consider what Cullen examines when determining whether a salesperson can succeed at a company – or more ominously, whether a company can succeed for a salesperson:

1. Pain. If no one at the company can articulate anything coherent about the pain the company solves, you probably won’t have the patience to invest the time figuring it out. Cullen writes, “It’s a joy to work with companies that have a clear understanding of the pain their products eliminate. They understand the purpose of their efforts and understand why people like and buy their products. They know what they are good at, and may have a shot at being the best in their product category . . . On the other hand, it’s far harder to sell for companies that don’t use pain as part of their dogma. The salesperson has to create the pain statement on their own and bridge the gap between the company’s products and the prospect’s needs – a process that takes much longer and has a good chance for error.”

2. Promotion. Some companies dump the business development brick onto the shoulders of the sales force. Marketing, outbound lead generation, prospecting, qualification. Even content development. The whole kahuna. “Hey, we’re a lean company! Besides, if we just hand opportunities to sales, they’ll get lazy!” But, as Cullen writes, “Cold calling is terribly time consuming and generally it has a low rate of return. The task is finding out what your prospective company does to generate qualified leads for you and what sales support tools they have to help close the order.”

3. Price. Are the company’s prices and pricing policies clear and unambiguous? Can they be explained without your eyes glazing over? Equally important, are prices readily accessible, or are they squirreled away somewhere deep within the company’s document management system – or worse, just stuck inside someone’s head. “You can learn a lot about a company by examining how it prices products,” he writes. “It’s not what the actual price is, it’s getting the price to the prospect without confusion or hassle.”

4. Policy/culture. How does the company’s management regard its sales organization? As something valuable and necessary? Or, as a necessary evil? Does the company promote its star salespeople into new, challenging positions, or does it churn and burn? Does the company have star salespeople? Ask current employees, past employees, and people who have done business with the company. You’ll feel the vibe.

Deal breakers

Many sales veterans can relate a story about a job they accepted, or stayed in, even when their better judgment told them not to. A curious weakness that commonly plagues sales professionals, made poignantly funny through a dark joke in Cullen’s book:

A salesman meets a super model at a seminar, falls in love, and announces to his friends that he plans to marry her. His friends immediately advise him that she is an alcoholic and a drug user. They further counsel that, once married, she will bankrupt him, be unfaithful, and leave him despondent. “But still. . .” is his classic response.

Such delusional outlooks are often confused with positive thinking. “You can do anything you want if you have the right drive and motivation.” True. Just make sure to append “. . . but don’t be an idiot.” to that inspiring quote. If your assessment uncovers the following radiant-red flags, don’t sweep them under the rug, because they should be regarded as deal breakers, or at least give you reason to pause:

1. Commission or earnings caps.
2. A compensation plan that’s undocumented, unclear, or utterly indecipherable.
3. No compensation plan. “We’re working on it, and promise to have it you when you start.”
4. Less than 50% of the sales force makes quota.
5. Higher than normal sales force churn.
6. No resources committed to sales force development or skills training.
7. Racist, sexist, or obscene remarks made in the job interview.
8. Other comments or remarks made during the interview, or in other conversations, that are patently bizarre or inappropriate.
9. Employer contrives an annoyingly stressful situation to see how you will react.
10. Employer disrespects your time by being grossly late for the interviews and meetings, or by continually accepting phone calls and other interruptions during the interview.
11. Employer fails to disclose litigation history with salespeople, former employees, and/or customers.
12. Website content and corporate communications contain major factual inaccuracies, especially claiming marquis accounts as customers when they are not.
13. Sloppy corporate communications that include bad writing and poor grammar.
14. A CEO with a track record of running failed companies.
15. No significant new product introductions in previous 12 months (six months for IT companies).

Finally, in recruitment postings, be wary of the following phrases:

“Hunters wanted.”
What it means: “Our marketing and sales teams don’t work together, so lead gen is up to you.”

“Must be a self-starter.”
What it means: “Our work environment is stultifying.”

“Able to work independently.”
What it means: “Don’t expect anyone here to support or mentor you.”

“No limit on earnings.”
What it means: “You’ll get little or no base salary.”

“Must be comfortable multi-tasking in a fast-paced environment.”
What it means: “We operate in crisis mode, 24/7.”

As we know from Tarzan, quicksand can be deceptively camouflaged. The same for sales jobs from Hell. Everything looks great, until, flooooooossssshhhhhh! – you’re consumed in a swirl of passive aggression, confusion, leaderless meandering, finger-pointing, and overwhelming aggravation. Not to mention, you’ll realize that the at plan compensation discussed in your interview was only a mirage.

Even the best sales organizations have sales impediments, so seeking job perfection will lead to frustration. But knowing ahead of time what quicksand feels like under your feet will help you avoid sinking in it.