All That Sales Bollocks

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

I was asked by Jimmy Rodela to contribute a tip to his sales blog recently.  All the contributions were thoughtful and thought-provoking but all took a different perspective on the topic of sales.  It is hard to imagine any other facet of business sustaining such a wide range of opinion, apparently indefinitely.

What other business function is so long-established and critical and yet so poorly understood by its practitioners and commentators?  We really have no model for sales that stands up to any test of repeatability or scientific examination.  We have no body of knowledge and practice resilient and rigorous enough to be used as the basis for professional accreditation.  Even if we did it is hard to imagine we would be able to predict the results achieved by the resulting professionals in the way we can, for example, in accountancy or the law.

So here is my first hypothesis:  Sales is not a profession (although clearly there are many people, including me, who make their living from sales and work hard to improve their sales understanding and performance).

There is no shortage of sales methodologies out there.  A recent PR piece listed the “Top Ten Sales Methodologies Compared and Explained”, each described by their creator or vendor.  Another offers “Eight Popular Sales Methodologies Summarized”.There is no shortage of books either – Amazon returns over 174,000 results for “sales book” (a cheery fact for any of you in the process of writing one).

Now it could be that one of these methodologies or one of these books is right and all the others are wrong.  It’s difficult to find any research on this – most of what is published is either specific to an organisation (for instance this Harvard article), specific to a methodology or looking at recruitment and role performance more generally.  This is hardly surprising – there are some practical reasons why devising a proper scientific experiment in this field would be difficult.

So here is my second hypothesis:  It doesn’t matter what sales methodology you use (as long as you use something that is simple, repeatable and measurable).

Opinion pieces on the traits of star salespeople abound.  These tend to be lists of the blindingly obvious, such as “Follows a plan” and “Takes action” and to be largely anecdotal (that is, short on evidence).  The belief is that good salespeople will do well in any sales role.  There is quite a lot of real research on predicting individual sales performance based on trait analysis – Googling “Scholarly article for sales performance prediction” returns too many articles to reference here, although this meta-research is a handy short-cut (or possibly, “hack”, for you youngsters (or possibly, millennials)).  There are also various commercial psychological profiling services for use in sales recruitment, so some people are actually paying hard cash for this stuff.

However, here is my third hypothesis:  People who are bright, personable, organised and hard-working are likely to make the best salespeople (or engineers, or receptionists, or accountants).

Anecdotally, and from my own experience and observation, some salespeople who do well in one organisation do not do as well in another.  They are not stars, that select few who are apparently able to apply their innate or learned sales talent to any product.  The implication is that factors outside the individual (let’s call it the sales environment) contribute to the performance of most salespeople.  I came up with this list of factors in the sales environment before I got bored:

  • The product
  • Marketing, everything from positioning to promotion
  • Management
  • Training
  • The use of data and IT
  • Etc..

Here is my fourth hypothesis:  For most salespeople, external factors have more bearing on sales success than individual capability (so it’s not their fault, it’s yours).

I hear a lot about “the new sales”, mainly from people making a living talking about sales.  I don’t hear so much about it from salespeople (unless they have just been reading or listening to someone talking about “the new sales” and are wondering why, like sex, everyone else is doing it more often and on a wider range of platforms).  It does seem unarguable that more and more things will be purchased online without human intervention in the transaction.  This is already moving from order-taking to more complex sales; algorithms can ask questions and configure a solution.  Eventually, no doubt, we will be able to remove any carbon-based involvement in sales or indeed any other commercial activity.

However, until we reach that happy state, here is my fifth and final hypothesis:  Technology doesn’t change anything fundamental about the way humans sell (but it may eventually put them out of a job).

Please feel free to add your own sales hypotheses, or heap abuse on mine.

If you’d like to argue about it face to face you could come along to this event.

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