Let’s hear it for the sales team

Why does sales get such a bad rap?

Anything but sales…

Let’s play word association – “Sales”.  What do you instantly associate with that word? Honestly now. The usual response to this game are words like ‘dodgy’, ‘shifty’, ‘dishonest’, ‘pushy’, ‘talks too much’. That’s just the polite stuff.

In my experience, across continents, cultures & industries the response is the same, time and again. The really sad thing is that I normally play this word association game during sales programmes WITH the sales teams. This is what they say about their own discipline!

Marketeers, doctors, accountants, logistics experts, actors, nurses – these professions and many more seem to pass the dinner party test, “what do you do?”. Sales? Oh no. The job title gets mangled and contorted with great creativity – relationship manager, customer director, account manager, experience consultant etc, etc. The list goes on.  Anything but sales.

What about the good times? Only 5%!

Facial expression is a wonderful way of understanding human emotion. I look for the ‘sales grimace’ (normally there’s a few around every group) when I ask another request – “think about a time when you’ve bought something and it’s been a really great buying experience for you”. The ‘sales grimace’ reflects the struggle people often have actually recalling a good experience.

Most eventually get there & when they get talking about it, there’s a collective realisation that, contrary to most beliefs, sales can actually be a hugely value-added experience. These experiences really stand out; it’s just that it’s so rare.

When asked how rare, most groups estimate low single figure percentages. We reckon it’s only about 5%, an embarrassingly small number of good sales experiences. An elite 5% ‘club’. No wonder why there are so many strange job titles; anything but sales.  

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The biggest number on a P&L……

Many years ago I started my career training as an accountant. Dull, I know, but at least dinner parties weren’t too awkward. One thing I did learn was that the biggest number on the Profit & Loss account was ‘sales’, assuming the business was in some way healthy. Again, it was often fudged (we really don’t like the word) – revenue, turnover, NPS. Anything but sales.

This makes for a dilemma – sales is the biggest number on a P&L. It’s the number that allows a business to pay for everything else, yet most people have such a negative view of it. Why is that?

You don’t know what you don’t know…so wing it

For those of you who feel the need for speed, you’ll be delighted that a sequel to the great, but incredibly cheesy, ‘Top Gun’ movie, is due out in 2020. Let’s take that analogy. For about $100m you can get a pretty top of the range modern fighter plane. Then imagine that you are invited to fly it, by yourself…Great, except for one thing; you have had no training as to how to fly the thing.

Ridiculous, of course. No-one in their right mind would trust you with such an expensive and dangerous piece of kit with no training. It takes about 4 years, a £4m cost & over 300 of flying and class hours to fly a modern fighter jet. Success needs a system and it needs practice. Obvious, right?

Seven years into my Sales career, I was given the responsibility for a group of customers worth c.£100m per year & a team of account managers to run the business. At no point in those previous seven years had I ever received any sales training. Nothing. I did have some great colleagues and we made a decent job of it, but knowing what I now know, we were worryingly unprepared for the job. We had no system for engaging with customers, therefore couldn’t practice and couldn’t coach around that system. In hindsight, we were using the most commonly found practice in the 95% club – winging it. We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

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This was no small, badly run organisation but a large, global and highly successful company. Maybe that’s the issue; if it’s going well, why bother? My experience is not unique, it been validated time and again. The worst example I have come across? A guy with a 35-year career in sales with not one day of training.

Flying modern fighter aircraft & selling widgets are different things but both have significant value at stake; the principles should apply to both. When the stakes are high & life is at risk, organisations tend to focus on systems, training & practice. Most businesses don’t take that approach when it comes to Sales. It’s why those that do, stand out – the 5% club.

Yes but it’s the results…..

“Putting customers first”, “client-centric approach” or “listening to clients” – most businesses have something like this in their Mission, Purpose or Values but yet the 95% club exists. CEOs will frequently talk about things like “growth”, “customer experience”, “innovation” but yet the 95% club exists.

There’s often a huge focus on results. Lots of time taken talking about results. Less time is taken on the two things that make the results happen – what are the things we are supposed to do and how well do we do it?

Imagine a sports team obsessing over the result after their match where they lost 3-0. It’s done, the result won’t change. The best teams look at what things they were supposed to do and how well did they do them. Then they train to put it right. Most businesses don’t, it’s why the 95% club exists.

3 steps to get into the 5% club

What are the key areas to focus on to get into the 5% club? Here are my top three steps:

  1. Get Real – good results don’t necessarily mean you’re doing it well. Check out what your people actually do to prepare for client interactions. How do they actually perform in front of clients? What framework do they use? How consistent is it? If you’re not hearing common themes, you don’t have a process and you’re unlikely to be in the 5% club.

  2. Recognise that you don’t know what you don’t know – Seek out what works. What do the very best sales organisations do (& don’t be fooled by the “my country/industry etc is different” excuse)? We are talking human beings here and, whilst cultural differences are important, any good sales process is rooted in core human needs.

  3. Commit to change focus – the past results have gone. You can only focus on future results. What should you be doing & how well do we do it?

As an area we are passionate about, we incorporate this kind of thinking in our sales training programme.

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If you have any comments, feedback or just want to know more, it’s all welcome at our website or please email me at: gareth@expressionforgrowth.com

Gareth Moxom