Death of a Salesman

Difference between selling and buying
5 May 2017

Death of a Salesman

Apologies in advance to renowned American playwright Arthur Miller whose Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning drama Death of a Salesman (c. 1949)so eloquently explored the post-war aspirations of the American dream. The thematic of this piece while aspirational, is more literal, in that I believe we are witnessing the throes of a life and death struggle between sales as we have come to understand it (and its purveyors — the salesmen) versus the myriad market forces that have been unleashed by digital disruption.

My previous musings on subjects related to sales and marketing have focussed on how the rarified “terra firma” of conventional sales and marketing praxis have been impacted by emerging market realities. In Selling vs. Buying, I explored how companies both large and small have ignored dramatic changes in buying behavior by incorrectly modeling their sales strategy. Similarly, in When Prospects Are Prey, I discussed how our traditional, mostly masculine sales “personas” can create negative sales outcomes. In this latest piece, I would like to set up a framework for future dialogical encounters on the impending “death” of a salesman and more importantly the inevitable demise of “sales” as we know it today. In my previous pieces, I discussed how an external contradiction like buying behavior and an internal contradiction like incompatible sales “personas” can rattle the seemingly solid “terra firma” of conventional sales and marketing praxis. There are I believe several “sacred cows” of conventional sales and marketing wisdom that merit further dialogic examination and review. In no particular order of preference these sacred cows are:

  • That salesman are “coin operated” — they are primarily motivated to perform based on ever-increasing sales commissions and warrant a different (read, more lucrative) compensation plan than that available to other employees in your organization
  • That competition rather than collaboration among sales team members provides higher rates of return for the business
  • That “hungry” (or preferably starving) sales people will attack stretch targets more aggressively and ruthlessly than “fat and happy” salespeople
  • That the aggressive and relentless pursuit of sales objectives by smooth talking, super slick, mostly male, salespeople are preferred over straight-talking, honest and modest sales professionals
  • That a flagging sales engine can be instantly revived by the hiring of a rockstar salesman — the proverbial viagra like — “magic bullet” to end any sales dysfunction
  • That more leads must mean more sales — that more click-throughs means more conversions
  • That a shotgun approach to targeting is more effective than rifle like — precision and accuracy — that quantity trumps quality in your lead generation strategy
  • That customers need to be “sold” or “told” rather than facilitated and listened to during the buying process
  • That building trust and rapport is “old school” and passé in this digital era of the socially networked customer who supposedly prefers crowd sourced, everything-as-a-service, augmented reality, big data driven, self-service offerings (agreed, I am just joining buzzwords together — but you get the point)
  • That sales and sales teams are somehow magically insulated and impervious to internal and external stimuli and events
  • That anyone can sell — how hard can it really be
  • That you are either a born salesman or you are not
  • That my competition is down the street and not halfway across the world or “just” a virtual entity on the internet
  • That yesterday’s sales personas and associated tactics still work in this new digitally disrupted, globally connected, SMAC-led world
  • That sales is a lowly profession that requires no advanced degrees, training, experience, talent or smarts (interestingly, there are reputed universities that offer marketing degrees in addition to the professional accreditation that marketers can obtain from organizations like the Charted Institute for Marketing (CIM) but no such options are available in the Sales field) — no surprise then that your parents didn’t encourage you to “get into sales”
  • That salespeople don’t really need to know the ins and outs of the product or service they are selling — they need to just focus on the “pitch” or the story. That a salesperson selling used cars one day can turn around and sell cancer drugs or enterprise software the next day!
  • That your marketing team and sales team are two separate and distinct entities
  • That a startup should onboard a Head of Sales only when 1) you have a production ready product 2) you are profitable 3) you have raised VC funding 4) your sales have suddenly stalled and my personal favorite — 5) never!

In this epic struggle for survival, relevance, and meaning — sales as praxis and salesmen as practitioners — have to slay a fair number of these sacred cows. We have eschewed sales innovation, research and development, professional accreditation and mentoring for the sake of expediency, numbers, profits and short-term personal gain. The time for reflection, introspection and informed action is upon us — how we respond will not only impact the sales profession but to an even greater extent the businesses that depend on us to deliver market share and profits. In my sales related business interventions, I often find that the “blame” for less than stellar sales results usually fall into one of three broadly defined buckets: 1) lack of understanding and focus on sales related activities by executive management — senior leadership of the company has no experience or understanding of sales praxis 2) inexperienced or incompetent sales practitioners — sales leadership and/or team is incapable of delivering results and 3) in a surprising number of cases both problems persist.

Time permitting, I plan to expand and dissect some of these sacred cows in future pieces. In the interim, do send me your favorite sacred cows to and as usual feel free to take umbrage or otherwise engage in productive discourse on these and other sales and marketing related subjects.

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