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What Keeps Us From Doing What We Know Is Right?

by David Brock on September 11th, 2018

Most Fridays, I take great joy in reading Hank Barnes #FridayFails.  Hank features terrible prospecting emails, calls, LinkedIn messages and critiques them–always with a bit of humor.  A lot of the emails inflicted on me are the subject of Hank’s columns.  It always is fun to read them, chuckle, and ask oneself, “How could people be so clueless?”

Hank’s posts happen to be a lot of fun, but we see hundreds of articles every day about poor sales and marketing execution.  My own posts, often, focus on huge gaps in sales and marketing execution.

In my experience, the majority of sales and marketing leaders, as well as practitioners know best practices with sales and marketing.

We know we must be customer focused.

We know we must create value in every customer interaction.

We know we must align the customer buying and our selling process.

We know we must understand the customer business, their markets, priorities, strategies, goals, challenges–engaging them in conversations that are impactful and relevant to them.

We know that we have to present the value of our products and services in ways that are impactful and relevant to customers.

We know we must research, plan, and prepare for each interaction with the customer.

We know we must focus on our ideal customers, that we are more effective when we focus our efforts on our sweet spot, venturing outside it wastes our time and resources as well as the prospect’s.

We know, as leaders, we must coach and develop our people.  We must hire the best.  We must provide tools, programs, processes, content, training that enable them to be productive and effective.

We know the importance of culture, engagement, empowerment, leadership in driving high performance in organizations.

We know the fundamentals of effective sales and marketing, how to be relevant and impactful to our audiences.

We know we must be disciplined and structured in our marketing approaches–segmenting customers, creating high impact/relevant communications, not wasting time on things that are irrelevant.

We know we must be disciplined and structured in our sales approaches–prospecting and finding new opportunities, qualifying them effectively, moving them through their buying process, and, again, creating differentiated value based buying experiences, managing our time effectively and for maximum impact.

We know relationships and trust are the foundations of success within our organizations and with our customers.

We know………

Most sales and marketing leaders know the “right” or impactful ways to drive performance in their organizations.  Most sales people, at least those who have gone through any level of training know the principles of modern sales, buying and how to be effective.  Most people I encounter are knowledgeable of the fundamentals and principles that drive high impact sales and marketing.  (Of course there are a small number who are clueless or unethical, I don’t waste my time on them–and nothing we say will ever have an impact on these people.)

Anyone who has followed any writing on sales or marketing for at least since the early writing of Peter Drucker knows the basic principles of effective marketing and sales.  Thousands of books have been published.  Billions are spent in training, seminars, and workshops on how to be effective sales and marketing professionals.  The words change, the technology we leverage change, but the underlying principles are constant.

Yet, there is a chasm between what we know to be right and our abilities to execute it.

Why do otherwise smart and driven people, consistently do things that go against what they know to be best practice?  It seems like insanity to keep doing what we know doesn’t work.

I’d love your perspectives on what holds us back.

Why do we seem committed to what doesn’t work, when we know what we should be doing?

What is it about human nature, that keeps us, so consistently from changing?

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  1. Dave, you have tackled the very topic I have been thinking a lot about. Frankly, I am just as perplexed that with all of the smart/talented/experienced people out there, “sales” isn’t being executed well.

    I know there are the usual suspects:
    – Lack of clarity… leaders aren’t communicating their expectations on what success looks like as good as they think they are
    – Lack of empowerment… leaders aren’t equipping their people with they need to achieve success (for example, did you see Vendor Neutral’s chart that showed the #1 issue where technology actually hinders sales is the CRM?)

    But it’s getting to the root causes of those issues that have me (and you) thinking. My current line of thought involves:
    – Sales and Marketing people are stressed, and stress causes poor decision-making. Is stress overtaking smarts, talents, and experience?
    – Do people recognize when to shift from influencing the situation to adapting to it? And vice versa?
    – Are people being given the freedom to adapt and influence – or are they being expected to “control” 100% of the time? Being expected to “control” will only increase the stress – and force more bad decision-making.

    What do you think?

    • Tim: I think you have hit on a couple of the key issues. I think there are several others, though I’m struggling with how to express them. In some sense, the power of “habit,” both organizational and individual conspires against the best of all our intentions. If breaking habits were easy, we’d all be eating, exercising, prioritizing, reducing distraction, etc. Organizationally, we’d be providing the right leadership, learning, empowerment, etc. But it’s huge work, with huge failure rates breaking habits.

      I also think there are real issues both at the senior sales executive and corporate management level that call into question their commitment to sustainable results. In any case, I’m starting to build some ideas, hopefully will publish them soon.

      The issue is, this isn’t new. It’s persisted at various levels since I’ve started selling. I think now, it’s a lot more visible for a number of reasons, but the underlying reasons are probably no different.

      Thanks for continuing the discussion.

  2. Yeah, great question. I’ve been trying semi-successfully to engage people in this dialogue on LinkedIn over the past few months. I’m thinking of banding some people together in an effort to educate executives or at least senior sales leaders about this. Not sure what that looks like, just germinating an idea. Open to thoughts or collaboration.

    On my LinkedIn posts, I hear everything from lack of knowledge or ignorance, lack of belief or skepticism, fear (for sales leaders, perhaps the 18-month tenure timeline), especially the fear of taking massive action and the ensuing risk, lack of expertise, inability to socialize and gain consensus or alignment on the need for change and therefore not getting enough funding, what Covey calls the “whirlwind of daily business life” that distracts or overwhelms us, bright shiny objects, the lack of team talent to execute on plans, the pressures of quarterly performance cycles, the tyranny of the urgent (over the important), and more.


    Aubrey Daniels, in “How to Bring Out the Best in People,” writes about behavioral science and PIC/NFU… that people almost always choose actions with consequences that are Positive, Immediate, and Certain over things that have consequences that are Negative, Future, and Uncertain. He uses smoking as an example. The nicotine hit and habit reinforcement is immediate, makes the smoker feel good (positive) and it’s certain to produce that response. Death from cancer or other complications from smoking is future, negative, and uncertain. That, in addition to the addiction element, of course, makes it hard to quit.

    Ferdinand Fournies has an interesting take on why people don’t do what they’re supposed to do, based on research of overall 10,000 managers and their employees. You can see a graphic of his 16 reasons here:

    Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton wrote an interesting book called the Knowing-Doing Gap:

    Let’s keep the topic alive. In our profession, the list of things you wrote about are simple and yet absolutely transformative when combined and executed. Why aren’t more doing it? Why is Mack Hanan’s advice from almost 50 years ago still largely ignored?

    I admit that I get frustrated enough that sometimes I just want to say “I dunno” and watch some TV, but that’s the same behavior that keeps the problem alive.

    What do you think we should do?


  3. Dave,

    A few possibilities from my perspective:

    1) There seems to be a significant percentage of salespeople, sales managers and sometimes even sales leaders who DON’T know the “right” things to do. I’m amazed at the number who don’t read (anything worthwhile). Are we giving the collective group too much credit in assuming they know?

    2) Companies where the CIO does not value (or a least appreciate the value of) Sales tend to have inept people in sales leadership positions and on down the line.

    3) There is a lot of bad advice out there which some have apparently latched onto. LinkedIn’s latest feature enabling a “connect and pitch” ability is an example.

    Just some thoughts.

    • Interesting ideas Don. I tend to agree that a lot of this is driven from the corporate level, with CEOs and executive teams not valuing the role of sales. Consequently, they don’t provide the support, etc critical for high performance. While it’s hard to admit, I am coming to a belief that many sales leaders have not stayed current and may not know the best practice. Having said that, there are still too many that know but don’t execute.

  4. John Bushee permalink

    Because under the pressure to perform sales people will sink to the level of their most practices training. They don’t go to the new learning they go back to what they feel has worked in the past. A good coach will take the person from training into the filed and have them immediately begin building new skills muscle memory.

    • John, thanks for the comment. I tend to agree, it’s critical for managers to coach, develop, and continually reinforce “best practice.”

  5. Dave, as I read your post it reminded me of Ferdinand Fournies 1988 book, “Why Employees Don’t Do What They’re Supposed To Do.. and what to do about it.” I think it’s still in print… which in itself shows the timelessness of the adage… “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

    What we often ignore in sales and marketing is that it’s far more a social human process, than it is an intellectual exercise. We ignore the fact that the current hOS (human operating system) is still the same as our ancestors of 70,000 years ago. Without due respect for our human-ness, all the lastest technology, business models, and the like are just a series of Bright Shiny Objects.

    • Well said Mark! I fear there is too much focus on the mechanization of selling, we are losing sight of the “human process.” Thanks so much for adding this dimension.

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