Are Salespeople Misunderstood?

A recent LinkedIn piece (from the CEO of a company with the “#1 product roadmap software”, not exactly a huge market) states that they will never hire another salesperson again. It is a bit of fluff, but I noticed a couple of things, one about the content, and one about the “ecosystem” around the article. Methinks the author doesn’t really know what a good sales team can do.

What Good Salespeople Do

I am not a salesman. I have worked with sales in a number of companies, in different situations, and I have seen what good salespeople do, and what bad ones do as well. But I am still a technologist. Creating a sales relationship isn’t in my skill set.

Good sales people build relationships with the customer. Sales, as portrayed in the article, isn’t about “coercing a sale”. It isn’t about the stereotypical “used car salesman” tactics that people tend to equate with sales in general. In the case of a B2B sale (the focus of the article), the goal isn’t to just move product. The goal of the salesperson is to build a lasting, long-term relationship that is beneficial to both parties.

Yes, it is true that customers can get most of what they need to know about your product or service from your web site. Customers in all categories, business and consumer, have the ability to be more informed going into a purchase than at any time in history. But the salesperson’s job isn’t to just pitch the features. They aren’t also just “order takers”, there to ask “how many do you want?”. Their job is to define the relationship with the customer. What will you do for that specific customer? What do they need from you to make the relationship work? Sure, a lot of the times, the “relationship” is “I buy a licence, and pay you so much a month/year, you provide me with support and updates.” Products like that often don’t really need a large sales team to get new customers. What you need is a good on-line shopping cart and a way to take credit card payments online.

But for more complex products and services, the salesperson is the customer’s first real contact with your company. That first conversation can set the tone for the entire rest of the relationship. When the customer has a problem, one that isn’t being resolved to their satisfaction, they should be able to turn to their advocate within the company, the salesperson that they built the relationship with in the first place.

To make this work for sales, the compensation needs to be structured appropriately. The message also has to be communicated to sales properly. Reward short-term “move as much as you can” behaviour, and you will attract salespeople who respond to that. Reward long-term relationship building, and you get a different class of salesperson. These aren’t zero-sum positional negotiators, where everything they “give up” is a “loss” and everything they get from the customer is a “win”, and I need to score more points to be the victor. These are “getting to yes” principled negotiators who try to satisfy the needs of everyone at the table to the extent they can. This isn’t about coercion. This is about a long-term conversation.

If you are a retailer like Amazon or the iTunes App Store, you can probably get away without having much, if anything, of a sales team. But if you are selling B2B products or services, a good sales team will be critical to your long-term success.

But That Other Thing I Saw

This next bit, though, has nothing to do with the specific article, but an observation on the nature of a “comment feeding frenzy”. A colleague of mine commented on the piece (but, of course, LinkedIn doesn’t show me their comment, I have to go digging for it). At the time of this writing, there were over 2,000 comments, spread over 200+ pages (10 comments per page, basically).

Some might say this is a real “conversation”, and this volume of commenting points to “engagement”. To that I say BS. First, it is unlikely someone is going to take the time to wade through the comments. The author of the piece might, but most people will read the most recent half-dozen or so, and then move on. This isn’t engagement. This isn’t a conversation. This is a large room full of people talking at the same time. It’s noise, not signal.

Frankly, if there are more than a couple of dozen comments on most articles anywhere, I don’t bother adding my own thoughts. Why? Isn’t that rather antisocial? Not really. First, my thoughts (which may or may not be insightful) will simply get lost in the confusion. Second, with a sufficiently large volume of comments, the most I might do is simply reiterate something that someone already said. That doesn’t add anything to the conversation beyond more volume. Louder doesn’t make it better or right.

If a piece like this, which has thousands of comments on it, merits further thought, I turn to this platform, my blog. Sure, it may not get the same number of views that a comment might. But this way it is my commentary, hopefully with some thought and extra insight, on my soapbox. I don’t have to try to share a soapbox with thousands of other people.

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