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We Don’t Need No Stinkin Sales People!

by David Brock on April 21st, 2016

I’m amazed by the number of CEO’s I speak with that don’t want to have sales people.  Most of them do have sales people–begrudgingly.  But because of their attitudes, their sales organizations suffer, reinforcing the CEO’s perspective that sales people are worthless.

These are otherwise smart, even brilliant business executives, who don’t like or don’t believe in the function of sales.  In many cases, it’s deeply and emotionally held–they can’t explain it.  When you try to discuss it, you can have “logical discussions,” but in trying to invest further, build or grow a sales capability, everything in them cries out against it.

These executives fully invest in other parts of the organization:  Development, engineering, manufacturing, operations, services, finance, HR, admin, and even marketing.  They struggle in their investments in sales–making the minimum they can, usually investing a little later than needed.

Of course, the outcomes of these attitudes and investment decisions produce terrible results.  They can’t hire the people they need, because they won’t invest in them.  They can’t retain people because the sales people can’t get the support they need, see no future, don’t like the culture–so they leave, leaving only the very poorest performers behind.  These top executives create a self fulfilling prophecy, a death spiral in sales performance, adding further fuel to their internal fires about the worthless-ness of sales people.

In the end, their businesses struggle.  They grow, but not the way they should.  They aren’t as profitable as they should be, usually winning on price because the sales people can’t present and win on value.  These unhappy business executives continue to blame the performance on sales.  Which actually is right–but not for the reasons they think.

There’s another category of executive.  Typically, it’s the “build it and they will come” type.  These are the executives that believe it’s all about the product.  All you have to do is build a fantastic product, promote the hell out of it. and orders will fly in.  Many of the current SaaS applications tend to have this strategy–sometimes, they  need a few SDR’s to bring things over the line, but fundamentally it’s all about the product.  And any sales investment focuses on that as well—pitch,  demo, close.

It’s a strategy that works until it doesn’t.   If you build your strategy around a great product, you lose to a greater (I know that’s grammatically incorrect–but give me a break) product, or the next, or the next.  It’s also a strategy that struggles at renewal time or when trying to break into complex enterprise level sales.

But to many of these executives, the solution is not investing in understanding how customers buy and building a responsive sales organization.  Instead, they go back to the tried and true–it’s all about the product, if sales doesn’t recognize this and produce results, then sales sucks!

Then there is the final category of executive, the grizzled veteran.  They usually start their sentences, “In my day…..” focusing on their success in launching the company, selling the product, and achieving success.  Their view is, “I did it, I don’t know why you can’t!”  They bolster their view by picking up the phone and calling the CEO of a prospect company.  Usually they get a response, because they have the CEO title and may have some visibility within the industry.  They proudly hang up after a pleasant conversation with a peer, then say, “It’s all set up to be closed, go get the order!”  Usually, it’s a long way from that, and guess who gets blamed for losing the “done deal.”

What these executives don’t realize is how much the world and buying has changed.  They have no current reference points for what it takes to be successful in selling, so consequently have a very distorted view of the sales function.

It’s hard to imagine businesses that grow and thrive–over the long term that don’t have a powerful sales function.  Imagine an organization that had no development, engineering, manufacturing, finance, customer service, HR/Legal (Well, maybe……).  No top executive would ever think of not having those functions in the organization.

I’ve never heard a CEO publicly state, “We don’t believe in engineering and product developers, we will never have an engineer or product developer in the organization!”  Yet a number of seemingly smart CEO’s wear their position of having no sales function as a badge of honor!

A lot of this “anti-sales” orientation is irrational and misguided.

But at the same time, we have to own a huge amount of the responsibility for the negative reaction to sales for ourselves.  We’ve created this—not just with top executives, but with prospects and customers.

How many prospects and customers look at an email subject line or a caller ID (or lack of one), responding, “Fantastic, it’s a sales person!  I have to talk to them!”

These “anti-sales executives” constantly see things that reinforce their poor opinions of sales.  The poor/mediocre performance of their own organizations are a result of their bad strategies/actions, but they get dozens of messages and calls from bad sales people.   All of this reinforces their opinions of sales, they take actions that don’t help sales, performance plummets, and they are in that inevitable death spiral.

Changing the perspectives of these executives is tough.  Perhaps my idealism drives me, but I keep trying to get executives to shift their positions.  Progress is slow, there are many steps backwards—bad sales performance reinforcing their beliefs of worthlessness or that terrible prospecting call they just hung up on.

We will never change the opinions, until we start getting our own houses in order.  We cannot tolerate clueless or bad practice–within our own organizations or those that prospect us.  We have to become shining examples of what “sales professionalism” means, accepting no excuses.

We have to constantly demonstrate that sales is always centered on the customer, creating and assuring they realize value from every interaction.

We have to demonstrate sales has all the discipline, process focus, metric/goal focus, and drive for continuous improvement and innovation as every other part of the organization.

We have to be totally accountable for the results — both intended and unintended.  We have to be committed to achieving the expected results.

I can’t imagine a thriving, world class organization without a sales function (even if we may not call them sales people).  But we have to earn that position within our organizations and with our customers.

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  1. Tim Ohai permalink

    Absolutely nailed it, Dave. I’m sharing this post as broadly as I can.

  2. Dave,

    I was right with you, cheering in fact, until you hit the part about “we as sales people have to shoulder our share of the blame”.

    What you have to go and ruin a perfectly good rant with fact and logic???

    Ultimately, nobody eats if somebody doesn’t sell something. But we as sales professionals have to be just that, professionals. We think it’s ridiculous for our non-sales colleagues to believe that the key is engineering, innovation, or some other such. Fine. It’s every bit as ridiculous for us to think our customers and prospects care about us, our companies and all that glorious engineering and stuff. When we as a profession break through the “top 15% do it right” and make customer alignment a consistent part of our professional DNA, we’ll get the organizational and collegial respect…even at the CEO level.

    Well said, on all regards.


  3. David, great points you made in your article. Equally frustrating are those CEOs who believe the answer to any revenue problem is to hire more sales people, instead of the appropriate mix of marketing and sales assets. I once had a software company CEO ask me: Why do I even need marketing – isn’t this what I hire salespeople for? Not surprisingly, this CEO had come up through the sales ranks. My favorite CEOs are those who come to the job with an open mind, determined to implement what produces results, not just what they are personally comfortable with.

    • Great comment Christopher! Clearly, automatically/formulaically adding sales people to add revenue is an approach frought with difficulties. Unfortunately, I see too many in SaaS and similar models doing this. If it takes 3 to create $1M, then ramp to 3K and all of a sudden you are at $1B. The math breaks down, and even if it doesn’t the cost of selling is prohibitive.

      Great sales executives look at the right balance of investments across sales and marketing, putting in place the lowest cost routes to customer that enable them to achieve their goals. Regards, Dave

  4. Sean Patrick permalink

    Pitch, demo, close, Too many situation questions, reliance on features, no in-depth needs analysis to align with, no demonstration of value and straight over to the demo because the product will sell itself. Been there so many times, had these conversations and those same sales people get more desperate, more pesky and take rejection personally and they take way too long to engage.

  5. Dave you address a problem that I care and think a lot about it. I am fully with you that it’s incomprehensible for rational CEO’s to have such images about the sales people. However looking at it from a rational perspective might be part of the problem.From neuroscience we no that the neo-cortex, the part of the brain giving us the cognitive capabilities has a higher latency to react than the lymbic system, here our feelings sit and the reptilian brain where our survival instincts sit.

    In the beginning of my workshops with sale leaders and sales people I often ask participants to raise their hand if they like sales people. At best very few hands go up. So how can you expect CEOs to have a high esteem for sales if the members of the profession themselves have a negative bias about the profession

    Once we dig a bit deeper, we find lots of examples of what causes this bias. This is the beginning of the cure. we start to understand what not to do to become a respected sales person.

    I believe that if we take CEOs through the same process asking them how their behavior causes the behavior of sales people they hate we might have a chance to get their ears.

    Then they probably will start to understand that the responsibility for defining the target customers for their products and services and the value that is provided to the targets is there’s.

    There is though one huge stumbling block from the economic theory which assumes that offer drives demand. I consider this my current challenge how to change this mindset. I hope I do not come to the conclusion that this is fighting wind mills

    • Thanks Christian, before we win the hearts and minds of CEOs and our customers, we have to first clean up our acts–being proud of what we do, how we engage, and how we create value for customers. If we can’t do this, changing our focus from ourselves and what we sell, then the battle is lost.

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