Category Archives: Sales process

Will Today’s Essential Sales Skills Become Obsolete in the Smart Machine Age?

In 2015, nearly four million babies were born in the United States.  Today they are toddlers, and many will be asked what they want to be when they grow up. Expect hesitation. The question will not be as easy to answer as it was for my generation. By the time these kids hit twenty, many of the jobs their parents and relatives performed will have vanished.

According to author Edward Hess, professor at UVa’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, about half of all current US jobs will be displaced by 2040. His recent book, Humility is the New Smart, cites a 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne which examines the impact information technology will have on labor and employment. Frey and Osborne estimate that as many as 80 million US workers will be directly affected during this upheaval.

People may disagree with these dire predictions, but it’s hard to deny the profound influence that the Smart Machine Age (SMA) will have on how people will work, and on how many will be working. Nascent developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, and driverless vehicles show great promise. But for society and the labor market, not every outcome will be benign.

If half of today’s jobs will be displaced, which ones will endure? That’s hard to say, but right now, if a machine or algorithm does what you do, it’s time to dust off your resume, and pray that the software that judges it will respond favorably. There’s more displacement coming. In an article, Automation and Anxiety: Will Smarter Machines Cause Mass Unemployment?, The Economist magazine offers a glimpse:

“. . . most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support (such as receptionists and security guards) ‘are likely to be substituted by computer capital’, and that many workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants) also faced a high risk of computerisation.”

In the SMA, jobs that are easily substituted by computer capital won’t be highly paid, and there won’t be much need for workers to do them, either. Yet, there’s hope. Smart machines and AI remain persistently cruddy at performing a myriad of valuable skills. Hess believes that the ones that will endure “will require high-level thinking, creativity, and high emotional intelligence. The consensus view is that humans will be needed to perform those skills that either complement technology, or constitute what machines can’t yet do well, and that list includes critical thinking, innovative thinking, creativity, and the kind of high emotional engagement with others that fosters relationship building and collaboration.”

Given Hess’s prediction, sales professionals can be forgiven for feeling a tad smug.  After all, no profession better exemplifies this rare combination of abilities. At least that’s the message we repeat to ourselves. Such “killer skills” are consistently mentioned whenever a salesperson is honored, recognized, or rewarded for high revenue production. But before anyone gets bullish and puts a deposit on a designer surfboard or a Ferrari GTC4Lusso, a sobering thought: the SMA has already nibbled away low-level jobs in sales and retail. Ominously, technology has a pattern of progressing from nibbling to gnawing, before becoming a full-on feeding frenzy. Temptation confronts senior executives every day. You can’t find a CFO on the planet who is unaware of the ratio of Sales, General, and Administrative costs to overall revenue at his or her company. And the number is seldom “good enough.”

Sales survivors who believe their skills will be coveted into perpetuity might want to reassess their hubris.  The “essential” skills that portend success today won’t be especially helpful in the SMA. In fact, for a variety of reasons, some will become liabilities. First, the nature of work itself will change. Traditional employees will become outsourced contractors. Goal-directed teams will rapidly coalesce and evaporate just as quickly. Decision processes will become more opaque. These developments fundamentally change how goods and services will be sold. It doesn’t matter whether the product is industrial pumps or property management services. Second, strategic success – and its measurements – will undergo massive change. It won’t be expressed simply in terms of revenue. Consequently, sales enablement will become much different.

The New Mental Model. Success in the Smart Machine Age favors companies that adopt what Hess calls a “new mental model.” Today’s sales organizations champion some skills that will be valued in the SMA – but others that are currently popular will get in the way.

1. Legacy model: individuals win

    SMA: teams win

For many decades, sales forces have been designed, staffed, and managed under a model where reps are “individual contributors.” The concept permeates everything from culture to process to compensation to hiring and professional development. Today, individual quota achievement as the key metric of job success. In the team-oriented SMA, that model creates substantial risks.

2. Legacy model: play cards close to the chest

    SMA: transparency

While Hess is referring to the organizational tactic of hoarding information, sales operations have long engaged in this practice. When it comes to taking responsibility for activities on the customer “front lines”, corporate boards and outside departments are reluctant to get involved. “What happens in Sales stays in Sales!” In the SMA, revenue generation will become a key part of every department in the company – from HR to Legal to IT – as well as Marketing and Sales.

3. Legacy model: Highest-ranking person can trump

    SMA: Best idea or argument wins

The person who coined the aphorism, “[Stuff] flows downhill,” probably worked in Sales as a “direct report.” In the SMA, titles, job description, and tenure won’t matter as much as the quality of an idea.

4. Legacy model: Listening to confirm

    SMA: Listening to learn

Today’s sales rep listens for confirmation. Sure, sales pundits talk a good game about why salespeople need to “shut up and listen,” and how “telling is not selling.” But today’s sales managers and coaches still goad reps to focus on listening for “trigger events” and “buying signals.” Today, listening to learn without having a specific sales goal in mind is a luxury. In the SMA, it will be a necessity.

5. Legacy model: Telling

    SMA: Asking questions

A bright spot for the sales profession’s evolution into the SMA. Asking questions to expose the truth has been an enduring part of sales culture.

6. Legacy model: Knowing

    SMA: Being good at not knowing

This element represents prominent awkwardness for sales professionals. Today’s sales culture insists that salespeople possess business knowledge, industry knowledge, competitive knowledge, best-practice knowledge, and product knowledge, not to mention common sense and street smarts.  “Know everything you can about your customers!” For reps, admitting a knowledge gap isn’t a career-enhancing move. Hess believes this unattainable interpretation of knowledge is becoming obsolete. “In the SMA, Old Smart will become the new ‘stupid.’ . . . NewSmart is a new definition of human smart that reflects the increasing cognitive capabilities of smart machines and is measured not by quantity – how much you know – but by the quality of your thinking, learning, and emotionally engaging with others. NewSmart is not about always being right, being perfect, and knowing more than others.”

7. Legacy model: IQ

    SMA: IQ and EQ

Another bright spot! Building rapport has long been considered an essential skill for top producers.

8. Legacy model: Mistakes are always bad

     SMA: Mistakes are learning opportunities

Sales organizations aren’t forgiving about mistakes, which range from screwing up a demo to failing to get an appointment with a C-Level executive to losing a deal. That culture makes them very weak on learning. “Just move on . . .” A terse, but all-too-common synthesis following a failed revenue opportunity. In the SMA, successful companies will be more open to admitting mistakes, and using knowledge to prevent them in the future.

9. Legacy model: Compete

     SMA: Collaborate

It’s nearly universal in sales organizations for reps to be indoctrinated with competitive spirit. And not just us against rivals, but you against each other.  In almost every organization, salespeople are ranked against their peers. There are monetary bonuses and other perks provided to “top revenue producers.” Reps are lauded when their individual accomplishments merit recognition – but rarely appreciated for leadership, let alone encouraged to lead. Evidence? A verbatim job description from a website that typified many I examined: “This is an individual contributor position that will not coordinate the activities of others.” In the SMA, sales teams will operate as teams, and not just be referred to that way.

10. Legacy model: Self-promote

       SMA: Self-reflect

“Customers buy from people – not companies!”  Today, removing self-promotion from selling compares to the result when helium is removed from a “happy birthday” balloon. The message is still communicated, but not nearly as well. How will sales professionals adjust to the introspection needed in the SMA? I’m not sure. Maybe a good start would be to subdue the ethos that everything a rep does centers on him or her making quota.

Does the advent of the SMA mean that hiring executives need to discover skills in sales candidates that were previously not considered predictive of success? Emphatically yes, if they believe that buyers and sellers will engage differently, and that the definition of success will extend beyond an individual’s percent-of-goal to include outcomes not previously measured or rewarded.

In 2037, a sizable portion of the four million babies born in 2015 will be newly-minted college graduates – or at least the product of what we now call post-secondary education.  As we progress further into the SMA, will most companies rely on uniquely human skills to generate revenue? Will AI become smart enough to substantially cannibalize the roles of legacy sales hunters and individual contributors? Will “pure” sales roles even exist?  Fun to ruminate on, but hard to predict. As we enter the SMA, the only certainty is that the most valued job skills – the ones likely to provide health, happiness, and prosperity – won’t be the same as today.

Additional resource: for related articles about Professor Hess’s May 16, 2017 lecture at the Darden Innovation Summit, please click here.


Wells Fargo’s Restitution Must Include Its Fired Sales Employees

Today, there’s a bold headline featured in full-page ads in newspapers across the US. In case you missed it, it’s printed in Wells Fargo red: “Moving forward to make things right.” Contrition, superimposed on a beautiful Western backdrop. In the foreground, a team of six strong horses in full stride pulling a stagecoach. No ethical feces anywhere to be found. All have been skillfully Photoshopped out of the picture. Great job!

“We are deeply committed to serving you and your financial needs . . .” the ad says.

OK – go on . . .

“We have provided full refunds to customers we have already identified and we’re broadening our scope of work to find customers we may have missed. If we have any doubt about whether one of your accounts was authorized, and any fees were incurred on that account, we will contact you and refund fees.”

As an IT professional, reading this makes me proud. Darn proud! – because I know that algorithms, flowcharts, decision boxes, and lines of code will rectify the filthy mess from human greed and poor managerial judgement. Geeks win!

But conspicuously missing from this humble outreach is any mention of the 5,300 or so employees who were fired because they “didn’t honor the bank’s values,” as Wells Fargo’s former CEO John Stumpf, phrased it. That’s wrong, because they, too, were victims.

In many instances, the bank hired young people just beginning their careers. Then, they manipulated their behavior through the Wells Fargo sales compensation plan – a tactic that included a sinister triad of low base pay, aggressive selling goals, and a menacing punitive cudgel for those who failed to “perform to expectation.”

Last week, NPR’s Planet Money podcast with Chris Arnold and Robert Smith made this agony visceral in their interview with Ashley, a former Wells Fargo employee who did not wish to reveal her last name.

When Ashley didn’t meet her quota, she recounted that two managers would show up at her desk. “They said ‘come with us.’ So I walked with them, followed the two of them through the large lobby, you know, past all my colleagues, whatnot – you know, it’s like being called into the principal’s office – sit down at the large conference table, no windows in this room. They shut the door, locked the door and put me on formal warning and say, ‘here’s your formal warning. You have to sign this. If you don’t meet your solutions, you will be fired, and it’s going to be on your permanent record.’ I mean, it was real, like, you were stuck. And it was the feeling that no other employer is going to want you because we will ruin you . . . I got sick to my stomach, and I threw up under my desk. Like, it really made me physically sick.”

For this, Ashley made about $35,000 per year working in a branch located in Wells Fargo’s corporate headquarters building in San Francisco where she regularly saw then-CEO John Stumpf. She became disenchanted with the ethical compromises her employer demanded of her. Most poignant was the price she continued to pay long after she was fired, as this excerpt describes:

ARNOLD: As far as Ashley, she started to refuse to meet her quota. She was just saying, look, I can’t ethically do this. She was calling the Wells Fargo ethics line trying to explain this, but eventually Wells Fargo fired her.

SMITH: Ashley tried to get another job in banking, but she found that she never made it very far past the initial interviews. She suspected that Wells Fargo had put some sort of black mark on her record somewhere. And it turns out that is exactly the case. Wells Fargo wasn’t joking around when they said they would make it hard for her to find work again.

ARNOLD: No. Wells Fargo wrote her up on what’s called a U5 document. It’s like a report card for bankers basically. We tracked it down, and we asked Ashley to read what it said.

ASHLEY: Failure to perform job duties.

SMITH: Any bank – any bank that Ashley applies to will see this line, failed to do job duties.

ARNOLD: The form does not mention that those job duties were the sales goals that everyone we spoke to said were unrealistic and that are at the center of a series of ongoing investigations at the state and federal level.

SMITH: It just says failed to do job duties. It was the first time Ashley had seen it in print.

ASHLEY: It’s like having a black cloud that’s kind of looming behind you. And I’m always trying to get in front of the cloud, out of the cloud, into the sunshine, but it’s always there.

How many Ashley’s are there? I’m estimating around 5,300, which is the number of employees Wells Fargo said it fired over several years for not succumbing to the bank’s seedy values. In the coming weeks, I expect we’ll hear from many of them. What restitution are they entitled to for their wrecked careers, lost wages, financial stresses, marriage difficulties, and broken dreams?

Yesterday, John Stumpf resigned his position as CEO in shame, after relinquishing millions of dollars in bonus, and having millions more “clawed back” by the board. But he still leaves the company a very wealthy man who will be comfortable in his long retirement. His grandchildren are all but ensured of attending college and graduating debt free. Future generations of Stumpf’s will live in decent homes in good neighborhoods. Health emergencies won’t send them into bankruptcy. Sadly, even that modest future eludes the families of many of Wells Fargo’s wrongfully-terminated employees. That includes those who stood by their convictions, and refused to accede to management’s deviant will. No good deed goes unpunished.

When it comes to restoring customer trust, algorithms and adjustments in credit scoring will patch management’s wrongs. Bogus credit card accounts will be discovered and closed. Fees will be refunded, making customers feel better. People will move on, and loan money will flow once again. But restoring what was ruthlessly taken from Wells Fargo’s employee victims will be much harder to accomplish.

Are Salespeople Making Good Bets for Your Revenue Pipeline?

Many years ago, New England Life Insurance, now part of MetLife, developed a series of cartoon ads that was witty and terrifying.

Each ad had a formulaic depiction of a person saying the caption, “My life insurance company? New England Life, of course. Why?” The situations varied, but the brilliance was that the reader could see always see an inevitable calamity about to befall the utterly oblivious central character. “Scare the living [bleep] out of people,” someone must have advised the creative director at the agency, “but in a jovial way.” Ha ha.

The vignette I remember best portrays a well-dressed executive in a sleek, all-glass corner office near the top of a skyscraper. He’s seated in a swivel chair chatting on the phone, his feet propped on his desk. Meanwhile, in plain view behind him, an errant half-ton wrecking ball attached to a crane is about to crash through his window. “My life insurance company? New England Life, of course. Why?” Somebody, please! Warn this man!

That visage represents the planning perils that CFO’s and other senior executives face. CFO’s feel confident when projected revenue aligns with targets. But too often, the risks are opaque. Watch out for that wrecking ball! Revenue projections are cleansed of the many uncertainties that lurk throughout the sales funnel. When I recently asked on several LinkedIn forums about whether anyone worked with a CFO who had influence over sales lead qualification practices, a reader question ricocheted back immediately: “Why would a CFO need to be involved in this?” His was the only response.

But it corroborated an observation: In most organizations, CFO’s do not guide the routine revenue bets that salespeople make. How confident can CFO’s be about the efficacy of sales force decisions? How do they know that the risks salespeople accept are ones the company can absorb? For example, one salesperson might have few scruples when accepting new leads: “Hey, if this deal closes, I make a boatload of commission. If not – adios! I was on my way out the door, anyway.” Her colleague might hew to a different risk viewpoint, unwilling to prospect new opportunities in favor of tending his cash cows. The moment those cows cease being reliably productive, he too will probably move on. Other reps, browbeaten by management’s obsession with hitting pipeline targets, might doggedly seek large, but highly uncertain, long-term deals. The pay bonus the company provides them for fattening the revenue pipeline cements the behavior.

Such risks seep covertly into cash planning worksheets, and CFO’s, feet propped on their desks, are sitting on all of it. “Projected Q4 Revenue, Northeast Region.” All the CFO sees is a single-integer aggregation, combining oodles of sales judgements. Smatterings of learned experience and buckets of wild hope – it’s all in the number.

Too much risk in the sales pipeline can create cash planning disasters. So can too little. How do companies manage this yin-yang? How should the most revenue-focused parts of the organization – Finance and Sales – collaborate on managing uncertainty and risk? I asked CFO-novelist Patrick Kelly, an experienced tech executive who has managed several IPO’s, for his thoughts. “Cash flow projections are the CFO’s responsibility,” he told me. In general, “a CFO needs to be involved in the mechanics of a sales funnel, but not in the details of qualification.” In other words, CFO’s need to understand how sales cycles work, how long it takes to close deals, and the percentages of leads that progress through each stage of the sales process, but they don’t need to be involved in the minutia of scoring leads and developing qualifying questions.

Kelly explained why knowledge about sales funnel mechanics is so crucial. “When Sales reports revenue projections to Finance,” he said, “Sales is going to say ‘everything looks great,’ but it’s the CFO’s job to have his own point-of-view,” and to use that perspective for making adjustments. “It’s not uncommon for a CFO to reduce the revenue forecast he or she reports to the board,” he told me. For example, Sales might forecast revenue to a Nigerian subsidiary of a multi-national corporation for the current quarter, but Finance might not include the opportunity for cash planning because the effect of low oil prices on the Nigerian economy could likely cause a purchase delay, or could scuttle the sale altogether. In essence, a CFO can translate what might have been an unanticipated wrecking ball to a cash flow plan into a recognized force against revenue. A force that he or she can possibly manage, especially when it’s anticipated early enough.

But what happens when Finance and Sales work in thick, impenetrable silos, and don’t regularly exchange meaningful information about revenue uncertainty? For example, when I mentioned the disparate criteria that reps within the same company use for accepting sales leads, Kelly acknowledged that a lack of risk standards could be problematic for cash flow planning. But he said that at smaller companies, silos are flimsier, and CFO’s tend to know useful details about individual revenue opportunities. At large companies, however, CFO’s cannot easily monitor the risk profiles for hundreds, or thousands, of pipeline opportunities. While low- and high-risk conditions among a large set of deals generally offset, that doesn’t mean the “average” risk among that group falls within an acceptable range for a CFO planning her company’s revenue flows.

This condition damaged a software company I worked for. The sales pipeline was fat, but customer buying cycles were painfully long, and opportunities did not convert quickly enough to satisfy the company’s ravenous hunger for cash. Finance was starving for money, but the CFO was oblivious to the pipeline risks. All she saw was a plump number on a spreadsheet representing next quarter’s revenue. Based on its cash position, the company had low risk capacity, and it would have been better off motivating the sales force to close lower-revenue deals with shorter cycles.

Sales never got the message. Instead, managers urged reps to hunt for revenue opportunities in the tangled thicket of big, bureaucratic Fortune 500 customers. A perilous high-risk, high-reward strategy for many companies, but disastrous for ones that can’t sustain the investment. In the end, the company laid off most of its sales force, canned its president, and reorganized the remaining management team. The terse press release did not mention anything about pipeline risks, just “Revenue did not meet expectations.” There’s always a back story.

Some companies commit to slogging through long buyer journeys and procurement cycles through maintaining the right capitalization and cost structures. Federal contractors, for example, regularly invest millions of dollars pursuing government sales opportunities that can require many months – even years – to close. If they close. When the stakes are that high, opportunities must undergo a thorough internal risk review before managers can decide whether to compete. One criteria: can the company afford to lose? Without a shared view of risk between Finance and Sales, more CXO’s would unwittingly bet the company. Many do.

Spreadhseet-facing Finance, and Customer-facing Sales – an odd organizational coupling, prone to bickering and personality conflicts. Yet, they must cooperate, because Finance and Sales grapple with the same uncertainties. Notably, how much will customers spend? When will they spend? and how likely are the answers to these two questions? The shared challenge of managing the risks should bring these two entities closer together. But that’s not always easy.

“Companies that embrace enterprise-wide risk management face the daunting task of instilling a risk awareness in a corporate culture focused on other objectives,” Barton, Shenkir, and Walker wrote in their book, Making Enterprise Risk Management Pay Off: How Leading Companies Implement Risk Management. An idea that some executives have put into practice. “To me, running a business is all about managing risk and managing returns, whether on the financial side or the balance sheet side, or running a field operation,” said Unocal CFO Tim Ling. Others agree. “Managers have to make a lot of day-to-day decisions without consulting the higher-ups. If they understand the financial parameters they’re working under, those decisions can be made more quickly and effectively. The company’s performance will be that much stronger,” Karen Berman and Joe Knight wrote in their book, Financial Intelligence.

Risk harmony between Finance and Sales means

1. Communicating the organization’s capacity (appetite) for risk. The CFO establishes this, and he or she is responsible for communicating to Sales which risks are acceptable, and which ones are not. Sales needs this information for its strategic and tactical planning.

2. Identifying and ranking revenue uncertainties based on frequency, probability, and consequence – a collaborative knowledge-sharing effort.

3. Developing strategies and tactics to support cash-flow requirements. Finance and sales must share knowledge about pipeline processes and velocity, sales compensation and incentives, lead qualification practices, and ethical sales governance.

4. Correcting inconsistencies. Companies get into trouble when Sales accepts more risk than the company can absorb, or avoids risks that the company requires to achieve its strategic goals. Similarly, Finance must develop risk mitigation strategies suited for the markets in which the company competes. Put another way, if you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.

Revenue volatility, the arch-enemy of cash flow planning, comes from risks that have come home to roost. CFO’s see the evidence in actual sales lines spiking and plummeting violently around their more graceful counterparts, planned revenue curves. Closer collaboration between Finance and Sales won’t eliminate the gaps, but it can reduce the area between planned and actual.

Most important, risk collaboration between Finance and Sales will help CFO’s better understand how close wrecking balls are to the cash flow plan, and which direction they are heading.

When Does Online Customer Rage Become Unfair?

“Give enough people a computer and a mouse,” Walter Mossberg said, “and you’re bound to get garbage online.”

That was 15 years ago, when Mossberg was the principal technology writer for The Wall Street Journal, and before social media became a powerful cudgel for verbal assault. Today, people also hurl anger and its byproducts into cyberspace, including complaint, criticism, fulmination, accusations, false statements, diatribe, harangues, and revenge. Bad Customer Experience (CX) fuels much of the vitriol. And for good reason: “The percentage of complainants who felt they got NOTHING as a result of complaining [through company-provided channels such toll-free call centers] increased from 47% in 2011 to 56% in 2013, according to the 2013 Customer Rage Survey.

Social platforms offer the perfect medium for exasperated consumers to get things off their chest. Click to complain! In fact, “posting information on the web about customer problems has almost doubled since 2011.” – a key finding from the Rage Survey. Companies collect the output, a digital slop of anguished storytelling and opinion, and place it in sterile repositories for data scientists to mull over. Marketers just call it negative sentiment, which sounds kinder than “I hate Internet Explorer.”

“Unfortunately, with all of that complaining, the implications of customer complaint behavior for organizations have been examined far less often. Yet, how an organization responds to a complaint can have a major impact on its customer’s post-complaint consumer behavior, from re-purchase intentions to likelihood to engage in word-of-mouth activities, and it may even affect the valance of the word-of-mouth message,” says Moshe Davidow, a professor at the University of Haifa, and a prominent researcher in corporate complaint resolution.

In 2013, nearly $76 billion of consumer revenue was at risk as a result of problems with products and services, according to the Customer Rage Survey. That’s the same amount as the 2015 worldwide revenue forecast for all tablet computers, the third largest consumer electronics category, behind TV’s and PC’s. “Companies are losing most of this revenue given the high levels of dissatisfaction with corporate complaint handling practices. Even though companies have substantially increased their spending on handling customer complaints, complainant satisfaction in 2013 is still no higher than in the 1970’s.”

When customers air this dirty laundry in public, revenue risks escalate. “Most research supports the idea that complainers on social media will complain to the company first, and only if they don’t get a proper response do they go on social media. In other words, if you want to minimize the damage of a social media complaint, it starts with handling the complaint internally, and then it won’t get to social media,” Davidow wrote me in an email.

Companies have responded with an effective antidote: sue the complainer. “In 2012, a Washington DC-based contractor sued a Fairfax [Virginia] woman for $750,000 over her one-star takedown of his work on her home. And the Virginia Supreme Court is expected to decide soon whether Yelp will be required to turn over the names of anonymous users who disparaged Alexandria’s Hadeed Carpet Cleaners,” The Washington Post reported in March, 2015. In April, the court returned its verdict: Yelp is not legally obligated to share the identities of anonymous online reviewers.

In another case, a Yelp reviewer, Jennifer Ujimori, might have to pay $65,000 for her comment, “In a nutshell, the services delivered were not as advertised and the owner refused a refund.” The owner Ujimori referred to, Colleen Dermott of Dog Tranquility, based in Burke, Virginia, disagreed. She sued Ujimori, claiming that her statements posted on Yelp were inaccurate and caused Dog Tranquility to lose sales.

The case balances two rights: freedom of speech versus freedom from defamation. “People should be free to express their feelings about their service providers. Companies using the legal system to silence their critics has a chilling effect on First Amendment rights,” Ujimori said. Dermott countered that the contract Ujimori signed had a no-refund clause, and that she offered a credit for future services, and other accommodations, but Ujimori rejected all of them. “[The negative review] had a significant impact in that I’m a small-business owner,” Dermott said. “I have to rely on these review sites as a major source of advertising.” The wife of a soldier, Dermott is raising two children, and trains dogs for assisting veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Whose right is right? The court will decide.

“Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open content platforms on the internet . . . The foundations of the Internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behavior,” Ellen Pao, former Interim Chief Executive of Reddit, wrote in a July 17 editorial, The Ugly Side of the Internet. The recipient of withering online abuse, Pao spoke from experience.

“It’s got no signs or dividing lines and very few rules to guide.” When songwriter Robert Hunter wrote New Speedway Boogie in the ’60’s, his lyrics were prescient about social media etiquette. Consider this vignette from The Ethicist in The New York Times:

“My wife and I recently stayed at a very good hotel in South Beach, Miami. We were generally happy there until our third day, when our room was broken into and we were burglarized. Luckily, our out-of-pocket losses were only $100 or so. The hotel moved us to another room but seemed to show little concern beyond that. In the end, I made a huge stink and they refunded us one-half of our stay. I made no promise to not mention this in the online reviews of the property. My wife wants us to post online reviews about the burglary and the hotel’s response. I think it’s unethical to do this after they more than made good on our misfortune. Who is right?”

Good question. In response, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino wrote, “The thing that tips me in favor of writing is the responsibility to third parties. Is it unethical to withhold this information from other people who might want to stay at this hotel if the hotel is going to take a lackadaisical attitude toward burglaries? That would make me lean toward saying that it would be ethical to write the review. I’m just not sure that I’m willing to say that it would be unethical not to write the review.”

That’s a circuitous way to say, “I’m ambivalent.”

If you want clearer guidance, go with what author Amy Bloom wrote: “I don’t think that everybody in the world who stays at a hotel has an ethical obligation to write a review about everything that happens there. I couldn’t stand to receive all that information.”

Do public customer complaints asphyxiate revenue? Yes, if you own Dog Tranquility. No, if you’re United Airlines. The granddaddy of negative online rants, United breaks guitars – which had 17 million views on YouTube – produced nary a revenue hiccup. As of December, 2014, United flew 27.2 million revenue passenger kilometers, second only to American on the list of global air carriers. The transgression didn’t malign United as an enemy of the arts, and it didn’t thwart the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from retaining United as its official airline. “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on,” Robert Frost said. If he were alive today, he would fly United, too.

“Did you see the video that surfaced [in 2011] of a delivery person throwing a computer monitor box over a customer’s fence? Augie Ray asked in a blog, How Powerful is Social Media Sentiment Really? “Which delivery service was it, and did you purposely stop using them after seeing the clip? Answers: FedEx and no.”

Even though consumer outrage can be ephemeral, vendors are plenty jittery. And increasingly litigious. Complaining through social media has spawned a new legal beast, called a non-disparagement clause. The Union Street Guest House in New York used this one, which Colin Shaw wrote about on CustomerThink in August, 2014:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.

Imagine your Aunt Diane, who you never wanted to invite to your daughter’s wedding, writing in a Yelp review, “The meal was fine, but the wine did not live up to the sommelier’s recommendation.” She just cost you an additional $500.

A less-wordy example mentioned in another article has even broader reach:

Any disputes between the parties remain confidential. Customers shall not make or encourage others to make any public statement that is intended to, or reasonably could be foreseen to, embarrass or criticize the company or its employees, without obtaining prior written approval from the company.

These contractual restrictions, often embedded into lengthy customer contracts, have provoked legislators. The Consumer Review Freedom Act, introduced in September, 2014, aims “to make it illegal for businesses to penalize customers who write negative reviews on Yelp or other online review sites. The bill was motivated by several examples of companies attempting to dissuade people from writing honest reviews by slipping non-disparagement clauses in their consumer contracts,” according to the website of Eric Swalwell (D-CA), one of the co-authors of the legislation.

Last year, California became the first state to approve a law that protects online reviews. “No consumer should ever face penalties for voicing their opinions on the services or products they have purchased, and California law is now clear that no company has the ability to silence consumers,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman John Perez (D – Los Angeles), said.

Healthy economies depend on informed consumers, who, in turn, depend on free speech. Non-disparagement clauses protect businesses, but they throttle conversation. While getting government off our backs makes popular rhetoric, these bills are vital for ensuring that prospects and customers have balanced information. After all, corporate communications – even from the world’s most ethical companies – are, at best, distortions. “Frankly, I think there’s a special place in hell for someone who markets a product and says it will cure Alzheimer’s,” Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said. Stifling conversations about customer experiences makes everyone gullible to marketing hype.

But what protections should business owners have? Reviews foster transparency, but they spread plenty of misinformation, too. How fair is it for a customer to post an online complaint when she is misinformed or won’t accept amends, as the owner of Dog Tranquility contends? The financial harm to a company can be considerable. And the risk that a company could be driven out of business through a sustained campaign of misleading negative reviews is not theoretical. “People that want to distress other people can now do it in the comfort of their own home,” said Michelle Drouin, an Indiana University psychology professor who studies technology. “It has less repercussions than harassment offline, and the Internet allows for this emotional distance between the harasser and the victim . . . the anonymity and connectivity of the Internet have created a ‘sadist’s playground.’”

The best advice: De-escalate grumbling – before it turns into public rage. “It would be a lot cheaper in the long run, just to make sure the customer is happy, I mean isn’t that what it is all about?” Davidow wrote in his email. “No hassles, no runarounds. Just a whole lot of happy customers spreading positive word of mouth.”

Leaving only lawyers to complain.

This article originally appeared on for Navigating Revenue Uncertainty. To read the original article, please click here. 

Salesperson Quits Job After Reading Article Explaining Why He’s a Loser

Last Friday, a colleague sent me an email asking me to share some Tweets she had composed. I replied that I would be glad to, but only if I could edit them. To use a musical comparison, she had sent me a dirge, and I wanted to communicate something up-tempo. With the weekend approaching, I thought, why not something, you know, meringue!

The sentiment in my reply was admittedly coarse, but in that crucial instant before clicking send, I had an unsettling epiphany: I am a hypocrite. I’m negative about negativity. Of course, I quickly forgave myself. It had been a long week, and her Tweet, “why are your sales going dark?” followed by a link to her blog, conformed with the daily stream of ways-salespeople-screw-up content that creeps into my email inbox. A tiny taste:

“Uh-oh! Why Is Your Customer Cheating on You?”

YOU are The Weakest Link. How to Stop Sabotaging Your Sales

Don’t Ask If You Aren’t Going to Listen

Behave This Way and You’ve Lost Your Meetings

The Real Reason They Are Beating You Down So Damn Hard

Stop Choosing to be a Loser

Clean up Your Damn Mess First

Five Reasons Your Deal Isn’t Closing

Hey, slow down! Curb Your Enthusiasm To Make More Sales

Not that anyone even needed to write that last essay. My sales ebullience had already been crushed.

Look, I’m not demanding that words like Rainbows and Eternal Happiness appear in every biz-dev blog title, but come on! Compared to reading these articles, I’d derive more joy from being alone inside a dank, windowless room, listening to Pink Floyd.

Ineptitude. Shaming. Goading. Futility. Check your RSS feeds. It’s all there. Wormwood that flavors the stew of professional selling “self help.” Dig in! Here’s a spoon.

To me, our self-castigating vitriol seems bizarre. Imagine how other professions might disparage themselves:

Accountants – Four Reasons You Can’t Do Simple Spreadsheet Math

Cardiologists – Your Surgical Techniques Suck – and What to Do about It

Social workers – How Do You Get Professional Counselors to Shut Up and Listen?

Medical researchers – Why Your Study Won’t Cure Cancer

Fortunately, these fields tend to offer more positive introspection – one way of ensuring newcomers are attracted to join.

I know, I just pushed a touchy button: finding the next-gen top sales producers. Scary to think how young men and women who are considering a career in sales might perceive all this dour messaging. One possibility: “Hey, how do I land a job as an Account Executive? Others can abuse you, and the self-flagellation looks like so much fun!” – though that impression seems doubtful.

A recent article in Forbes reported that by 2025, millennials will comprise over one-third of the US workforce, and that just over 25% of millennials believe that high pay is important. If this is true, why on earth would a newbie be attracted to enter the sales profession? How about you can save the world, or work from home? Oh, yeah. There’s that. If Mom and Dad will give up the space.

The sales profession embraces egalitarianism. For many positions, if you possess a high school diploma or GED, and can pass the interview, you can get hired. Voila! Sales Rep! No license required! No certification or peer review, either. Unlike CPA’s, Registered Nurses, physicians, dental hygienists, and lawyers, salespeople are not qualified by any governing authority (real estate agents, securities brokers, and some financial services professionals are exceptions). That might explain the preponderance of remedial content aimed at salespeople.

But it doesn’t explain the stinging condescension that infects the sales blogosphere. Don’t Waste Your Prospect’s Time by Asking Stupid Questions. Wow. Yet another dirge. A different tune, maybe, but the background vocals are familiar. “You’re a loser!”

How about, Ask provocative, interesting questions, and your prospect will beg – just beg – to dance with you!

That’s more like it! Meringue! Have a party!


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