In the novel A Bad Man, author Stanley Elkin deconstructs the word salesperson as “sales is person." In other words, individuals have perceptions — about themselves and about others — and (in this case) those perceptions about salespeople matter. How you view the sales channel influences your approach. For example, are you trying to become more empathetic with the sales team (or not)? Your strategy drives how you provide the content, skills, and tools that salespeople need to have a valuable sales conversation at higher altitude levels within the buying organization.
About once per quarter, we hold a Sales Enablement Roundtable. The roundtable event is cool because we bring portfolio, marketing, and sales executives into a room to tackle specific sales enablement challenges. During the course of one of our most recent events, we heard different points of view from a seasoned group of sales enablement professionals. For example, in our most recent roundtable, we heard statements like:
- "Our sales teams are hitting their numbers, but getting them to do something different is a challenge."
- "We're finding that it's not about what to sell, it's about how we sell."
- "Sales and marketing have to work together. To do that, someone has to bring the two together."
While most senior-level executives we talk to have a strategic view of the sales team, sometimes those perceptions don't trickle down into the trenches. For example, I have seen individuals in sales, marketing, and portfolio groups portray two often-conflicting points of view that stand in stark contrast to each other.
While the view of senior sales enablement professionals may be strategic, others within their organization may hold a positive or negative bias to salespeople:
- Negative bias: For example, individuals may view salespeople as product communicators who just need to talk about the product more frequently.
- Positive bias: For example, individuals may view successful salespeople as professionals who represent the pinnacle of commercial achievement and competitive advantage.
You can view the sales channel in a variety of ways. You can view it as a communication vehicle of product messages, as the face of the company, or simply as top-line revenue. It stands to reason that how you view the sales channel will ultimately drive the way you service it. Since the sales channel is comprised of individuals — the service you provide them can impact their success with customers. One way to think about it: Your perceptions of the sales channel in aggregate are a reflection of your individual views about the salespeople within the channel. To think more broadly, the individual bias that sales, marketing, and portfolio professionals have will ultimately impact the services they provide to the sales team.
View 1: The "Seller Is A Product-Pusher" View
The first view is represented in this short cartoon video below. In this video, the "salespeople" enter a candy- and chocolate-selling contest in order to win a trip to a fun amusement park. In this cartoon, one seller (Jimmy) follows a rudimentary sales process and approaches buyers with product knowledge (including the features and benefits of the candy and chocolate). His competition (Cindy) takes a different approach based on persuasion and influence.
Cindy sells the most candy and chocolate by far ("Cash only!") — But is she more "successful"?
Obviously, the way that Cindy approaches her role as a "salesperson" is a pretty negatively biased view of selling.
Even if Cindy's actual sales motion (door-to-door) doesn't apply to your organization, it's still useful to stop and think about the way the sales profession is portrayed. With this view:
- The salesperson is considered a product pusher.
- The most important assets are product knowledge (Jimmy) and persuasion (Cindy).
- There is a strong bias that salespeople are manipulative and highly competitive.
- There is a perception that they are only motivated by having a goal (sell the most), and incentive/rewards (win a trip).
- There is a perception that salespeople change who they are when they talk to people (becoming someone they are not).
View 2 – The "Seller Is A Professional" View
The best illustration of the second view I have found comes from a book that provides a realistic and objective review of professional selling. While most marketing texts devote just a few chapters to the explanation of sales and sales management, Walter Friedman's Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America provides the often-overlooked context, background, and history of professional selling often left out by most of those text books. Friedman's book provides an objective look behind the struggles that salespeople go through on a daily basis in their quest to have valuable sales conversations with customers — and it's an entertaining read. Every once in a while, I pick up my now well-worn copy to get back in touch with my professional roots and remember the importance of what we're doing in service of our customers (and our customer's customers).
With this view:
- The content, skills, and tools that salespeople need to be successful create complexity that must be managed by the vendor, not the buyer.
- Sales team members can be driven by many things, including making an impact, learning, and achieving something new.
- Individual salespeople can sell based on how they are driven and still make their company successful.
- Marketing, portfolio, and sales groups all have a role to play in how their sales teams sell.
- There are distinct sales motions that must be optimized (transactional, solution, consultative, etc.).
- Finding the right people and developing them over time requires a holistic view.
As I read Friedman's book, I kept telling myself how little the general public knows about the sales profession. Especially since this more positive image of selling is represented by the thousands of people I have talked to in many countries.
If you are a sales enablement professional responsible for supporting sales conversations on a daily basis, Friedman's book provides great context about the history of selling's contribution to the industrial revolution and the broader contribution the sales profession has made to the business world. The bottom line, though the book is focused on selling in America, has international application in how the evolution of selling, from transactional selling to solution selling to consultative selling, etc., have created a lasting legacy that still exists in most sales organizations today.
Helping sellers adapt their approach to adequately sell in a way that buyers want to buy requires a systematic approach to addressing skill, expertise, and role requirements. Improving sales team mind-share, increasing knowledge and skill transfer, and building the "supply chain" behind the sales conversation are all critical. We're finding that most technology vendors are having difficulties in overcoming the "muscle memory" associated with product pushing.
The answer may be to understand the system requirements and individual requirements of alignment with the buyer (a topic we dive into during our upcoming annual forum). And to do that, you may need to examine the perceptions you have about the sales team you're serving.