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Expecting Our People To Think For Themselves

by David Brock on November 8th, 2019

I’ve not been following my normal cadence of blog posts the past couple of weeks. Normally I publish 4-5 a week, in the past two weeks, I published about a third that number.

Part of the reason is I’ve been consumed with doing my “day job,” which is helping clients drive higher levels of sales performance than they have ever experienced. But normally, that doesn’t divert me from writing, it actually gives me ideas for posts.

But the past couple of weeks, I’ve been in a bit of a dark place on the “state of selling.” I’ve been obsessing with the trend I see with too many sales executives and too many sales organizations to dumb down the sales person and to let–no, expecting– the sales person stop thinking for themselves.

This trend is, unfortunately, doing exactly the opposite of what our customers need and what enables us to create the greatest value with them. Critical thinking, the ability to help customers analyze difficult situations and problems, the ability to help them make sense of the turbulence and complexity they face, to help them gain confidence in the decisions they make are the most important things a sales person can do.

These are about the only things that customers value in their interaction with sales people.

These are the things that only a sales person can do. No clever marketing campaign, no digital marketing programs, no personalized web interactions can do this. They can’t help the customer with where they are at (each individual) at this moment, for their specific situation.

Sadly, too many sales executives, too many clueless corporate executives; all supported by vendors and consultants trying to sell them something are in a mad rush in exactly the opposite direction.

Their goal is to instrument and design every word that comes out of the mouths of their people. To define every action, their sales people take. To put customers on an assembly line where they are touched by an SDR, moved to an account manager, moved to a demo-er, moved to the next step and the next and the next…until the customer makes a decision.

This is all done in the name of “efficiency.” It’s done to reduce the cost of selling. Several years ago, an executive actually told me, “People who can think and execute for themselves are too expensive and too hard to find. I can easily hire cheap people who don’t have the capacity to do this…..”

They have organizations of people who depend on the script and the customer sticking to the script. They want to be spoon fed the answers to every situation, so they don’t have the responsibility of figuring it out or the accountability to make it work (“I did what you told me to do, it’s not my fault.”)

There is so much wrong with this statement and mindset, but it is becoming increasingly pervasive amongst sales leaders, who themselves are falling victim to this same problem. Rather than think of what is most critical for their success, their organizations’ success, their people’s success, and their customers, they just follow what they see others doing. Rather than doing the hard work of creating organizations, cultures, and workplaces where people want to work, contribute, grow and develop. Where the organization stands for something–for their customers, for their people, for the markets they serve, and the industries they represent; they follow the crowds.

And daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly we see the results of these great strategies. We see declining sale performance, we see customers doing everything they can to avoid sales people, we see average tenures of sales people and managers plummeting to 16.5 months (I have yet to figure out how 10 month onboarding, 9-18 month sales cycles, months to build sufficient pipelines, etc makes this a workable equation.)

We have marketers, both in trying to pick up the slack of sales non-performance, and seeing an opportunity for themselves, believing they can solve the customer problems remotely. Cleverly designed, personalized marketing programs, great web sites, the use of AI (because it’s the “in” concept), and everything else will make up the gap.

We are doing our customers, our companies, our people, and ourselves the greatest disservice.

Ironically, when you actually do the cost analysis, the very cheapest sales person on a “Cost Per Order Dollar” basis is the sales person with richly developed critical thinking, problem solving, sensemaking, project management, and empathy skills. The cheapest sales people are those with those skills who care about their customer and their customers’ success.

The reason is very obvious, yet too many are blind to it. These people are the most productive. These people have the highest win rate, the highest average transaction values, the shortest sales cycles. These are the people the customers call seeking advice on the next project. These are the people customer refer to their peers and others they meet.

These are also the people who push our organizations to be better–to create customer experiences that retain and grow customers, to develop products our customers need and want to buy, to provide services that fill the gaps in our customers’ own capabilities.

These people may be well paid, and should be, but they are the cheapest revenue generation resource we have!

And, it is relatively easy to do this. We have to expect our people to think for themselves, we have to train them–giving them the skills to think for themselves, and we have to trust them to think for themselves.

Fortunately, the future is not as dark or bleak as I portray it. There are an increasing number of leaders that recognize this. Some always have and have built the organizations that are consistently the best in the world.

Some are discovering it, frustrated by seeing that nothing is working. Tehy are discovering there is no magic sales methodology, no great sales enablement programs or tools, no marketing or sales automation tools, and most consultants are one trick ponies. They are going back to basics, they are putting the right people in place, coaching/developing them. They are expecting them to think for themselves and trusting them to do so.

I believe the future is actually very bright. I see a renaissance in the profession and practice of selling, driven by leaders and sales people who can think for themselves. Perhaps they recognize it’s what customers want and crave. Perhaps they’ve hit rock bottom and have exhausted all other possibilities.

Our futures, our success, our customers success, our companies’ success is not built on the strength of our products. Those are simply table stakes.

Our success is base on one thing only, expecting ourselves to think critically. Expecting our people to think critically. Holding ourselves and them accountable for that. Trusting them to do so.

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2 Comments
  1. Absolutely right. This is the same diseased thinking that drove customer service from offering real service to phone trees and offshored canned scripts. Except it’s even more pernicious when applied to sales.
    David, this is a very important issue you’re nailing down here, thanks for articulating it so well.

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