Last week, the Globe and Mail featured an article “Companies struggle with shortage of sales talent” which I believe was suppose to feature a new program at Wilfrid Laurier University. This new program has been created to teach sales training, something not traditionally taught by universities. Unfortunately, the article got derailed and took on a focus of the shortage of sales talent in Canada with Vidyard being displayed as the poster child for the problem. Given the nasty comments the article garnered, I suspect CEO Michael Litt probably wishes he had passed on giving that interview.
Have you ever noticed that in a company there often seems to be jealously, almost bordering on hatred, for the company’s own sales team? Ever noticed the derogatory jokes being told about the sales team; the stereotyping of them as not knowing their product; their lack of attention to detail; their being motivated only by commissions, or their being shallow and self-centred? In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, they just “don’t get no respect”. Why does that happen, given that this team is the life blood of the company? If they don’t sell, the rest of the company doesn’t work.
There is a great article in the Economist “The Art of Selling” that states that, “Reports of the death of the salesman has been greatly exaggerated”. The article raises the question why isn’t there a Chief Sales Officer (CSO) in most companies, sitting at the executive table next to the CEO, COO, CFO, CMO, and even now the CPO (Chief People Officer). Instead this person is often disguised with titles like EVP of Global Operations, Chief Revenue Officer, Chief Customer Officer, etc. Is it that distasteful or politically incorrect to admit that a company has to sell its products to survive?
I currently am re-reading Lou Gerstner’s book “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” and was reminded that at IBM, their sales people were called Marketing Reps up until the 1990’s (I still have my business card from the 1980’s) . Think about the number of sales reps you encounter today whose job function is hidden behind the title Account Executive, Account Manager, or Client Manager. Think about the number of people whose business cards read Regional Sales Manager, Sales Director or even VP Sales, yet don’t have a sales staff working for them. All of these people are sales reps, yet all want to try and hide it from their customers because many seem to be embarrassed by their chosen profession.
What is the impact of this Corporate Inferiority Complex that we have cast on to our sales people?
One of the best sales reps that I have ever met was not confused or embarrassed by his job description. On more than one occasion, I heard him explain to a prospective customer that, “his job was to sell and their job was to buy” and if they weren’t interested or ready to buy, the implied message was “don’t waste my time”. This sounds harsh and plays into the stereotype of the dreaded salesperson but his message was that for interested customers, he would go to the moon and back to educate them, service them and get them value for their purchase; but if you were just tire-kicking or didn’t have the authority or influence to make the decision then he couldn’t afford to spend time with them. In sales jargon, this is called “qualifying the prospect”. Yet I have seen so many “Account Managers”, “Account Executives”, etc waste time doing things in the name of customer satisfaction for people who have no intention or ability to become a customer in the foreseeable future. Did their job title confuse them as to what their job really is?
A myth I see in a lot of companies is that the sales reps are overpaid, underworked and often only a bystander to the sale. They are the ones who take clients to lunch or dinner, often with a technical person dragged along to answer all the customer’s questions. They are the ones who attend the fancy conferences and schmooze with the customer’s executives. Meanwhile, the rest of the team write the proposals, answer all the technical questions, do the demonstrations, and design and deliver the conference room pilots, yet the sales rep gets paid the big commissions.
So what does a sales rep really do?
Well, it seems that they do a lot. Just ask one of those many sales support people after they have decided to become a sales rep. They are the ones who were often making the derogatory jokes about how easy it is to be in sales, until they became the salesperson. My experience is that two out of three aren’t successful or if they are, they don’t like it and go back to their old job. All of them will tell you it is a harder job than they originally thought but they can’t really tell you why. They will talk about the pressure to perform, the black and white accountability for results, the intensity and the weight of carrying a team of support people on their back. They will talk about the lack of job description or job clarity. Anything the customer needs, whether reasonable or not, which is not part of someone else’s job description, falls to them to solve. They will talk about how hard the travel is, even though it seemed like a bonus when they weren’t doing it. Finally, they will talk about how hard it is to like some customers, even when they are totally unlikeable, because it is your job to like all customers so they will buy more from you.
So if you are a CEO of a startup and designing your organization, here are some suggestions on building your culture:
Make sales a proud profession in your culture because if you don’t sell, you are dead.
Don’t tolerate the derogatory jokes or snide remarks about your sales reps. Squash the people making them or better yet, make them a sales rep for a while.
Don’t confuse people with job titles. Sales people are hired to sell. Call them that. If a person is worried about having sales in their job title, then they probably do not have the right DNA.
Train them. There aren’t college or university courses on Sales as there are for Marketing, HR, Finance, Accounting or Engineering. You can’t hire a person with a Bachelor of Science in Sales so the onus is on you to equip them with the skills required – from making their first sales call to negotiating a complex sales contract.
Pay them a lot. If they get rich, so does your company. These are your top performers. Don’t begrudge them their BMW’s
Sales is the hardest part of a company. The reasons are subtle, especially for those not in the profession. As a CEO, don’t underestimate the challenges that managing this crucial component of your business will bring.