Category Archives: Sales readiness

Sales Lesson #1: Don’t “Get” Your Customers to Do Anything!

Every so often, an article with a title like How to Get Any Customer to Take Action Immediately, burbles into my newsfeed. There are infinite variants. No matter what you want your customers and prospects to do, you can count on finding a putative method for making it happen. But for all the how-to’s devoted to getting customers to do things, it’s easy to forget that the goal, of course, is helping them succeed, and not twisting their arms – figuratively or otherwise.

If you ask top producing sales reps – those who truly serve customers – how they get their customers to buy, they’d probably be confused by the question. Instead, they’d reveal that they don’t get their customers to do anything. What produces their excellent results is their ability to guide their customers, and ultimately help them achieve good outcomes. Guiding versus Getting: these are fundamentally different approaches, with little in common. Guiding assumes prospects can be trusted, Getting assumes they cannot. Guiding sees prospects as partners, Getting sees them as objects. Guiding views prospects as capable decision makers, Getting views them as inept. Guiding relies on inquiry and collaboration, Getting relies on telling and insistence. In countless interviews I’ve held with successful sales professionals, I’ve learned they embrace Guiding in every customer interaction, and eschew Getting.

“How to get your prospect to [fill in the blank]!” What regularly emerges are manipulative high-pressure sales tactics that break customer rapport and erode trust. Instead of improving sales outcomes and buying experiences, the resulting behaviors and activities undermine them.

The top producers I’ve worked with have figured out a better way, and honed their skills accordingly. They begin with a natural curiosity, and connect it to a sincere desire to understand customer problems, limitations, issues, concerns, performance gaps, and strategic challenges. They uncover the intensity of motivation to change the situation, and learn the mechanisms their customers have developed for investing in solutions. And if customers lack the mechanisms, top producers guide them to create a path forward. From there, they harness the power of the customer’s will to change. The energy might be low, or altogether absent, which is why reps, often goaded by their managers, turn to Getting. My question to them: how’s that working for you? . . .

The best salespeople know that attempting to force customer action can become a distraction. It can also backfire. As one rep, Denise, explained it to me, “I don’t push the monthly specials the way management wants me to. They don’t work, and it’s not the way my customers buy . . . When I talk on the phone, there’s no sales urgency to my voice.” The year I interviewed her, she was her company’s top producer out of over 50 reps. Though her immediate boss wasn’t clear about the reasons for her success, her statement provides much of the answer: Denise guides her customers. She doesn’t get them to do anything.

Considering a Career in Sales? Find Something Different!

“Do you know what a sales interview is?” a friend of mine quipped. “It’s one person lying about the future, talking to another lying about the past.” My friend knew his joke contained truth. Newly retired from B2B sales, he wasn’t sanguine about the future of the profession. As we chatted over lunch, I added a few of my own anecdotes and observations. It was a lively talk. No need for alcohol.

Selling ain’t what it used to be. It’s possible that my friend stowed his sales bag for the last time because he was burned out. Though, at age 61, it was probably the right time to get off the bricks. The rest of that afternoon and into the next day, I thought about what he shared with me. I ruminated on the meaning of his dark joke. I considered how I might respond if a young person sought my advice about whether to pursue a sales career. The assessment that followed my introspection did not come easily, but here it is: look elsewhere. Today, there are better choices.

When I began my business career in the early 1980’s, things were different. Salespeople were respected. While most of us toiled in offices with a boss sitting nearby, salespeople had autonomy. They worked variable hours. They dressed well, and from all appearances, they lived well, too. At many companies, salespeople could expect higher-than-average income, often garnering better pay than managers. At a time when level of education predicted lifetime earnings, selling careers flamboyantly defied the calculus. A salesperson’s earning ability depended more on his or her motivation, tenacity, and street smarts than having a college degree. It still does.

At the manufacturing company where I worked my first job out of college, you could easily identify the cars that belonged to the salesmen (the company had no female sales reps): big, new, four-door, and well-appointed. A sales rep’s car did not just provide transportation, it proclaimed success. An important message for customers and coworkers to hear.

As the company’s IT Manager, I had nebulous goals. But the salesmen were measured on one thing –  revenue production. And they were paid accordingly. No mealy objectives, no ambiguity, and no boss holding sole power to dictate next year’s income. If salespeople felt anxiety about their compensation at risk, their job perks and upside income potential eased the pain. For these reasons and others, I too became drawn to a sales career.

When I was hired for my first sales job in the 1980’s, Marketing Representative was a common title for entry-level salespeople. Dale Carnegie, Zig Ziglar, and Brian Tracy were popular role models. I read their books, and listened to their tapes on the way to sales calls. Their messages brimmed with optimism, and were consistently inspiring. “Success is getting what you want . . . Happiness is wanting what you get,” Dale Carnegie wrote.

I learned that great power came from an unwavering belief in yourself. Good stuff. Today, those messages can still be heard, but they’re muted beneath the torrent of condescension and humiliation that spills unabated into my newsfeeds. Mislabeled as coaching and tips for self-improvement, today’s writing upbraids the rank-and-file. It carries titles like Salespeople – Shut up and listen!, and Salespeople Can’t Sell Anymore . General Patton would be proud.

What happened? The sales profession has lost its allure. Technological, economic, and social forces have combined to erode many of the once-valuable tasks that sales professionals provided. None have been profound than Artificial Intelligence (AI), data warehousing and distributed information systems, and investor demands to increase profits.

AI: AI has displaced thousands of repetitive, tedious sales tasks, and enables buyer self-service. Lead qualification and content fulfillment, once large drains on selling time, can now be performed better, faster, and cheaper by using algorithms.

Data Warehousing and distributed information systems: The ubiquity of customer information has allowed companies to knock down the massive walls that once surrounded the sales organization. Today, almost any employee can make rain, or generate revenue. In departments as disparate as customer support, maintenance, and route delivery and logistics, employees can take an order, recommend upgrade services, sell new products, and make other changes without referring customers to a “sales desk,” or an assigned salesperson.

Investor demands to increase profits: Spending excess has always been a popular target for the CFO’s scalpel, and sales operations contain conspicuous fat. Peeling back the covers on Sales, General & Administrative expenses reveals copious spending hiding in plain sight. Cutting high sales salaries, generous incentive pay, over-the-top benefits, Quota Club, annual golf outings, and season tickets at sports events, quickly gains approval from investors. “Think about it: If you have to ply your clients with gifts or meals to get them to do business with your firm, then your product  probably isn’t worth its price,” Andy Kessler wrote in The Wall Street Journal this month (The Expense-Account Racket, December 4, 2017).

Young people will find sales and business development careers less promising than when I started out. Some key issues:

Money. Meh. Commonly used as a recruiting tool, the promise of high income for salespeople is often illusory. A chunk of annual comp is “at risk,” which means what’s actually earned might be less than what’s projected (recall my friend’s joke at the beginning of this article).

The University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce Destinations Report for 2017 reported average total compensation for its newly-minted grads who accepted sales and sales management jobs: $61,300. Tepid, compared to other business disciplines listed in the report. Among McIntire grads, the best coin goes to investment bankers, who were rewarded with a list-topping average annual comp of $115,000. Finance holds the #2 spot, at $90,294. (The average starting pay for 2017 undergraduates across all categories is around $50,000, according to Money magazine.)

Career path. You might think I’m mansplaining, but I’m not. There are two well-established trails:

  1. Revenue you produce meets or exceeds quota – keep your job
  2. Revenue you produce is less than quota – get fired.

If you crave living in northern reaches of the corporate org chart, the likelier route to get there goes through finance. “About 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs spent the first few years of their careers developing a strong foundation in finance. This is by far the most common early experience of today’s CEOs,” according to an article in Forbes.

Autonomy. Thanks to CRM software and advanced analytics, selling has become the most scrutinized, measured, and micro-managed business activity. “Drive higher quota attainment across your entire sales team by recording, transcribing, and analyzing their sales conversations,” one product website says. Some reps might welcome the assist. But I question the reasons. If a sales rep or manager needs software and spreadsheets to learn how customers perceive his or her words, or if they struggle to recognize positive things to say, maybe they’re in the wrong job. Or, maybe management simply doesn’t trust them to have adequate judgement.

Culture. A sales organization’s mission is to produce revenue, and its activities are aimed toward that goal. That’s a good thing if you don’t mind thinking about money above all else. But if you’re moved by more than how much business you will close this quarter, or the gross income figure on your W-2, that can become stultifying. Further, employers are often conflicted about sales. Sales VP’s expect reps to open accounts and build customer relationships, but they feel threatened when customers become more loyal to a sales rep than to the company. Hiring managers promise high income, but ratchet it back when they feel reps earn “too much.” It’s a power game, and companies try to maintain hegemony. As one district sales manager I worked with described it to me, “My ideal rep is a young guy with a stay-at-home wife, a mortgage, a baby, and another one on the way.” I’ve heard similar sentiment from others. A rep in a consumption trap can be controlled.

Goal conflict. Almost every sales position faces this problem, and it can be gut-wrenching to navigate. “Above all, make your number!” versus “Serve our customers!” It’s hard to keep two masters happy. But companies put their reps in a moral vise when they tie job security and pay to revenue results.

I don’t mean to imply that sales experience isn’t worth having. In fact, hands down, nothing prepares a young person better for success than gaining the rare combination of skills needed for converting prospects into buyers. This knowledge transfers to every business discipline, and provides understanding for how an enterprise achieves its central mission: acquiring – and keeping – customers.

You can’t learn any of it in a college classroom, and no other business experience provides a person anything more useful. People who have sales background understand not only that revenue doesn’t roll in on its own, they know the nitty gritty details of face-to-face selling. If you can get the opportunity to sell door-to-door, work as a sales intern, or have another sales experience, take it!  And if the work pleases you, stay with it. But keep your options open. There are other careers that are possibly more rewarding, and they can also benefit from your energy, effort, and passion.

From accounting to zoology, every career has its unique set of warts. Those that sully professional selling are no better or worse than any others. But whatever career you choose, make sure the warts that exist are warts you can live with. And as many in sales have learned, stay vigilant, because new ones grow all the time.

“Today, it is estimated there are anywhere from twenty thousand to forty thousand distinct occupations in the United States,” writes Robert Moor in his book, On Trails. “Rapid changes in technology, culture, education, politics, trade, and transportation have combined to allow people access to an array of lifestyles that was previously unthinkable. In the aggregate, this is a positive development, proof that our life’s paths are evolving to meet our varied desires. But a side effect of this shift – halting, gradual, and unevenly distributed as it may be – is that life’s options continue to abound until they overwhelm . . . Collectively we shape [life’s pathways], but individually they shape us. So we must choose our paths wisely.”

Learning: Does Your Sales Culture Lead – Or Get in the Way?

“Quit allowing your salespeople to make any excuses.”

This shiny emblem of willful ignorance carries a clear message: “Talk to the hand, ‘cause the face ain’t listening.” But under this noxious edict, some learnings thrive. For management, it’s how to be close-minded. And for salespeople, it’s that higher-ups don’t care.

Low-productivity sales organizations don’t just happen – they’re built on demands like this one. No-excuses cultures crush the ability to learn – a significant risk for revenue achievement. Knowledge impediments rank high with other selling risks that receive much greater attention – and most sales organizations unwittingly construct insidious barriers.

No excuses foists bad outcomes on a sales organization. For example, “Charmaine,” a software sales rep in the East region lost a major opportunity because her product lacked several features her competitor provided. The issue came up more than once in her client meetings, and her prospect told her it was a deciding factor when the buying committee selected her competitor.

But Charmaine’s boss constantly chided her to quit giving excuses and to “sell what we’ve got.” So, when the sales team met to discuss the revenue pipeline, Charmaine preserved the no excuses mantra, and didn’t share the problem with her manager. She didn’t share it with anyone.

At the same time, Charmaine’s competitor learned why his company won the deal. Predictably, he told other sales reps at his company, and anyone nearby who cared to listen. Which was everybody. From there, his company’s marketing department took the reins and proselytized the feature advantage to its global sales organization, its partner community, and its prospective customers.

The story doesn’t end there. No excuses claimed its next victim in the sales territory right next door. Charmaine’s Midwest colleague, Mike, faced the same competitor in a similar account. But he had just joined the company, and had no knowledge of Charmaine’s experience. Mike got clobbered, and lost his deal, too.

When Mike held his account review, his boss made a dutiful note, straight from the well-worn company Sales Playbook: “Rep failed to adequately differentiate our product from competitive offering.” More ignorance. As much as anything else, what lost the deal for Mike was a company culture that prevented knowledge sharing by championing “Talk to the hand!”

No excuses closed mindedness is just one way that sales organizations stifle learning. Edward D. Hess, Professor of Business Administration at UVa’s Darden School of Business, and author of a new book, Learn or Die, identifies other top learning inhibitors. Here’s how they infect sales organizations:

1. Complacency. “Our compensation plan is spot-on. I don’t see any need to change it,” one VP of Sales proudly told me. But if you asked members of his sales team, the package was way off target. Many reps were thoroughly dissatisfied with its complexity, and with the difficulty they experienced reconciling their commissions.

2. Fear of failure or looking bad. “Just move on!” – for many sales managers and reps, that’s a loss review. Meanwhile, wins are dissected with great zeal.

3. Intellectual arrogance. “Here’s everything you’re doing wrong and a list of what you need to do differently and you know now because I told you that’s why!” When a low-producing rep is put on “Plan,” managers assume the rep is un-motived, even stupid. So they behave didactically and squander the opportunity to learn from the rep’s perspective.

4. Emotional defensiveness. “That was the only pricing choice I could make, given what was known at the time.” “Emotionally, we are generally ‘defensive thinkers’ seeking to defend our self-image and our views of the world. That is our humanness,” Hess wrote in a 2014 article, To Get Ahead Today, Learn How to Learn.

Sales cultures block learning with other impediments, unique to selling:

1. Internal contests. Sure, they generate motivation, excitement, buzz, and enthusiasm. But they also encourage salespeople to hoard knowledge and know-how like a junkyard dog guarding a food bowl.

2. Focus on the machinery inside the sales funnel. A friend recently told me, “not looking is just as bad as not knowing.” He’s a cardiologist, and his point was that some serious conditions are missed even as they happen in full sight. Almost every VP of Sales knows his or her company’s sales funnel conversion rates. “28% of our leads convert to sales, so we’re right on target.” But few understand what caused 72% to exit the funnel.

Learning cultures don’t spontaneously generate. This article recently bubbled into my news feed: The 2016 Sales Must-Read Books: Build a Learning Culture. Wouldn’t it be great if by reading books, we could achieve this result? In reality, establishing a learning culture takes much, much more. “It is critical that the organization’s managers and leaders have learning mindsets . . . Paying more attention to the managerial mindset can help in the transition to a learning organization,” Hess writes. Reading books from sales thought leaders can improve sales performance, but not if companies allow learning inhibitors to permeate day-to-day sales operations.

Ways to create a learning sales culture:

1. Expose and extinguish Theory-X beliefs and attitudes wherever they lurk. Examples: “being nice to employees means they will take advantage of you,” “employees should feel lucky to work here,” and “employee-centric practices are inconsistent with high accountability.” [Hess]

2. Rethink what successful sales achievement means. That includes possibly re-defining it from revenue achievement to quality of customer engagement, and establishing metrics accordingly.

3. When conducting sales meetings, encourage candor, and be willing to confront facts, even when they are not pleasant.

4. Establish a meritocracy of ideas rather than acquiescing to opinions based on job title.

5. Champion intelligent decision making, while giving permission to fail.

6. Encourage members of the sales team to maintain a healthy skepticism.

7. Let go. “Smart, motivated people let go of decision making,” and trust subordinates to make worthwhile choices, Hess said. That means letting them learn, and not feeling personally threatened by their success.

Ego: Great to have, but for learning, check 95% of it at the door. When it comes to instilling a passion for knowledge sharing and intellectual development, sales cultures have a long way to go. A perpetual deterministic attitude frequently blocks the way: “We’re carrying a $200 million quota. Don’t tell me how you aren’t going to make your number – I want to know how you are!” Sure, we must create and execute a plan, but with “Don’t tell me . . .” I see a hefty chunk of knowledge, squished.

In a symposium I attended for the UVa’s Darden School in Virginia on April 11, 2016, Hess called out seven organizations known for exemplary learning practices:

Google
Amazon
Bridgewater Associates
IDEO
W. L. Gore
Pixar
US Special Operations Teams

The last one especially interests me. In the places where Special Ops conducts its business, imagine how things would go if the learning impediments common in sales prevailed. Most likely, there would be plenty more failures to talk about – and a lot fewer successes.

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.

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.

Or,

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?