My articles earlier this year addressed equality and fairness but, admittedly, these were aimed mostly at gender neutrality. Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25th, there has been both a national, and a global, wake-up call. A call for justice and, waking up to the systemic racism that has brought us to where we are today.
“America’s Enduring Racial Caste System” (NY Times Magazine, 7/05/20) and, “What Is Owed” (NY Times magazine, 6/28/20) spell out ways in which people of color–principally blacks—have been short-changed, and much worse. I’m not here to restate what each of those authors so eloquently described, but I do intend to invite the reader to, as Apple suggested in 1997, think different.
We have a unique obligation and a unique opportunity to do so. The obligatory part may strike you whenever/however these heretofore unknown injustices seep into your conscious awareness. The opportunistic part is the timing. People speak of the Great Depression (Aug 1929 to Mar 1933) and the Great Recession (Dec 2007 to Jun 2009). Some have referred to the lockdown period caused by the Covid-19 pandemic as the Great Pause.
Depending on where you live, the social distancing and shelter in place mandates started late last year (in Wuhan), early this year (in APAC and parts of Europe), or this Spring (in the US). For many, it has been a time to reflect, to slow down from the hustle of commuting, socializing, networking, working. It has been for many, and for longer than any have wanted, a time to pause.
Even as I write this, California and much of the rest of the country is pulling back from “re-opening” as hot spots of infections surge. At the same moment, the Black Lives Matter movement continues to turnout multi-racial, multi-generational, and completely energized crowds of protestors. What does all, or any, of this have to do with sales?
What Does It Mean to Sell?
Of course, it’s a fair question but, first, I have a couple of other questions. What does it mean to sell? And, given this obligation/opportunity, what does it mean to reinvent/redefine/rethink sales?
During the lockdown, the question on pretty much everyone’s mind was/is, “When will we get back to ‘normal’?” Or, “Will we ever get back to ‘normal’?” Normal being defined as the way things were pre-COVID. It seems pretty clear that we won’t be getting back to anything but moving ahead to a “new normal.” If this is the case, again, what would the New Sales Normal look like?
I’m not talking about Sales 2.0 or, even, Sales 3.0. I’m not suggesting you think during this pause about how to boost the productivity of your reps as they Zoom away though, God knows, there are plenty of calories being expended working on those issues right now.
I’m talking about innovation. What can we do to innovate a new way to sell?
Purpose and Passion
When the topic of innovation comes up, for me, it always calls to mind Steve Jobs. Visionary, independent, ruthless, dedicated. All of these adjectives, and many others, are ascribed to Jobs by his biographer, Walter Isaacson. One word that also seems to come up all the time is passion. Jobs described Apple as sitting at the intersection of Liberal Arts and Technology.
When it comes to innovation, I don’t think individuals wake up one morning deciding, “I think I’ll be really smart and innovate something today.” Rather, I believe innovative individuals are like a dog with a bone; they simply cannot let go of it. Having given this some fair amount of thought over time, I think innovation sits at the intersection of Purpose and Passion.
In his TEDglobal 2010 talk, “Where good ideas come from,” Stephen Johnson describes this as a “slow hunch.” That is, a notion you wrestle with, compile data and/or disparate inputs about, and rather than a lightning bolt or epiphany, an idea emerges over time. The idea literally emerges from what Johnson describes as a “liquid network.” An amalgam of lots of people, offering supporting/differing/opposing opinions, not in an orderly framework but, rather, in a chaotic and fluid debate.
He goes on to suggest that it happens by having an open discussion, where you connect versus protect ideas. Furthering this idea of innovation, at the same TED conference, Matt Ridley talks about, “When ideas have sex.” He suggests that ideas “meet and mate,” generating new thoughts. Though a provocative title and description, he’s really talking about knowledge built up over countless generations, accelerating with technology, and, importantly, combining everyone’s thinking.
Said another way, his construct is not special people (really smart people), in special places (colleges, think tanks, etc.), thinking special thoughts (brainstorming, etc.) but, rather, everyone collectively contributing to a global neural network. He goes on to say, no one knows everything, but everyone knows something and the sum of those somethings is what moves productivity, increased longevity, and humankind along.
What is Your Passion?
This is the first part of my invitation to each of you. To consider these two components. What is the “something” you genuinely care about and want to contribute to? For me, it has been about defining and elevating sales as a profession and, now, more recently, to do my part to see this is as gender-neutral and color blind as it can be. We need to go beyond even this definition and ask what new ways can be dreamed of that reach back, reach across and reach ahead toward broad and full inclusion?
Beyond this, however, a thing I’ve been saying for years is, fundamentally, I feel business is just an excuse for us all to hang out together. (Full disclosure: I’m a California native so this loosey-goosey philosophy should not come as a surprise.) It was only after saying this for years, that the follow-up question occurred to me and one that, in my view, is especially relevant in these turbulent times: Hang out together to do what?
The simplest answer: To do good. Not just do well but to do good. What does this mean in sales? To be our authentic selves, to be living examples of our companies’ mission, to be increasingly credible. These aren’t the typical responses when asking sellers what their job is, but maybe the time has come for new answers.
Sales and company leaders may take exception with me, but I do not believe the answer is, “To make quota.” Yeah, I get it, quota counts. It’s a way to measure, to reward, etc. But selling more stuff, so that we can then turn around and sell even more stuff, can’t be our reason for being. And, in case you missed it, the reason for being is your purpose.
My purpose is working to elevate sales professionalism and perceived credibility. This is non-gender specific and is open to all. But how does this translate to innovation? What could innovation in selling look like?
The Biggest Obstacle: Focus on “Making the Number”
It may be helpful to ask what is hampering innovation in sales; what is holding sales as a profession from transforming from how it was 50 years ago? My answer would be focusing on results, on making the number.
What are creative ways to think about sales, be it inside or field-based, B2B or B2C? If you can stand it, there is yet a third presentation at TEDx Berkeley 2014, “The art of innovation,” by Guy Kawasaki.
Many people are attracted to sales to not only “make their number” but, in so doing, to make money. Guy suggests the #1 key to innovation is not to make money, but to make meaning. He also points out that many who set out to make meaning (e.g., Steve Jobs to democratize computer access, Larry Page/Sergey Brin to democratize data/information access), wind up making a great deal of money.
Can the thoughts of these various presenters be brought together to inform a new approach for sellers?
Let me try but, even in attempting, let me say this is an invitation; let me recognize upfront, the wisdom of crowds to come up with many more creative/innovative ideas and tactics. Let me offer a couple of general ideas where, as Matt Ridley suggests, other ideas can meet and mate.
In “Glengarry, Glen Ross,” the sales reps are instructed in, “ABC, Always Be Closing.” We’re here to “get the order,” to “convert leads into orders and prospects into customers.” To add new logos. To execute the sales process. To tune into that most powerful station of all: WIIFM (What’s In It For Me?).
Give an Opportunity to Buy
Want to innovate? How about turning this sales culture upside down and, instead, support buyers looking for solutions? Instead of getting the sale, how about giving the opportunity for someone to buy? This won’t be new to many folks; I figured out some time ago, that I haven’t sold anything to anyone, so much as helped a lot of people buy stuff from the company I represented. It’s letting go of ego and, instead, adopting an attitude of service (not servitude).
There’s an old maxim: People love to buy and hate to be sold. When I say “old,” I mean really old; this one has been around for more than 50 years. But do we take it to heart with ABM, CRM, AI-enabled pipeline/funnel management, OMS, and ML-improved sales processes? Have we inculcated an attitude and posture of being in service to our buyers? Are we passionate in the pursuit of this purpose, or are we looking for that technological silver bullet (i.e., shiny object) to optimize sales?
Everything old is new again. Perhaps the time has come to rearticulate that the customer isn’t always right, but she/he is always the customer. And we are always sellers. This means showing up on time, fully prepared, having done our homework, with a clear and agreed-upon agenda. Some people will read this as that trashing of the Golden Rule often stated as: He who has the gold makes the rules.
Nope. He who has the gold has the gold. So what? You can’t EAT gold. And, hopefully, he who has the problem/pain also has the gold, to exchange for the diagnosis, exploration, proposing and delivery of the problem/pain’s solution.
Innovation? How about we start with ignition? How about igniting our passion to show up for every call, creating every possibility for connection by communicating with precision, and listening in earnest? We have so many tools and technologies available to us as sellers today. Let’s commit to being our very best (i.e., really present) and lifting up each person with whom we interact.
In this time of remembering George Floyd and so many others, of dealing with Covid-19, which it appears will be with us for some time, and operating in new ways to connect and carry on, let’s work to find meaning. Take advantage of this pause, to identify what matters to you, what you’re passionate about, and how you can bring that, and share that with your colleagues and customers. If we each do, and we all do, change gonna come.