A recent episode of “Downton Abbey” included a new servant tasked with passing out canapés at a dinner party. “Try one of these,” he quietly suggested to a guest. “I’m told they are quite good.”
He was immediately pulled aside by the Head Butler and chastised. “What are you doing?” the butler exclaimed. “You are a footman, not a salesman!”
Why does the profession of sales generate such an emotional response? I know many business owners who loathe their own salespeople, and regard managing them as a necessary evil. Executive assistants are commonly charged with “Don’t let any salespeople get through to me.” Top-notch customer service and technical employees wither at the thought of combining selling with their support functions.
College surveys asking students about their career preferences don’t even list sales as a choice. That isn’t too surprising. First, direct face-to-face salespeople only account for about 1.5% of the labor force. Second, few young people studying history, philosophy or psychology understand the odds against those degrees providing them with a comfortable living. (And the higher education system has no interest in waking them up, but more on that another time.) Some of those will drift into sales simply because it offers a bigger paycheck than they can earn otherwise. A few will discover that they like it.
As I describe in Hunting in a Farmer’s World, salespeople are hunters in a business culture dominated by farmers. They are linear, driven by goals, vastly preferring forward movement over introspective analysis and bored by process and repetition. They can also be a pain in the ass.
I picture the tribe of 10,000 years ago. The hunters have brought in a large kill. While the rest of the tribe labors to skin, preserve and cook the game, the hunters stand around the common fire (probably drinking some precursor to latte with an espresso shot) and tell each other what a terrific job they did. The skinners and cooks fume at the hunters’ idleness. They go out and kill a Wooly Mammoth, and they think they’ve done all they need to. They probably won’t do a damn thing until they have to go kill another one.
But despite their resentment, the rest of the tribe knows that the hunters make sure everyone else gets fed. They have a need, and the hunters fill it.
The best salespeople are focused on serving a customer’s need. They are problem solvers. They are the client’s representative inside the company, pushing for new products and services that they can sell. They are practical quality control, sounding the alarm when company offerings don’t meet the brand promise. They are street level R&D and competitive intelligence.
I think the problem lies in their behavior around the campfire. Top performers need recognition, and that often appears the same whether their “outside” persona is driven by genuine concern for customer benefit, or by self-serving “line ’em up and knock ’em down” pursuit of personal income over relationships.
As a business owner, your job is to understand that outside persona. Salespeople will probably always rub their coworkers the wrong way. The important thing is to look beyond their results, and know whether they are presenting your business in a way you can be proud of.
A Note to My Readers
This January marks the start of my seventh full year of writing Awake at 2 o’clock on a weekly basis. Many thanks to the hundreds of you who have commented, and who come up to me at speaking events and say “I’ve been reading your blog for years.” If you read regularly and find yourself nodding in agreement or quoting a column, then I feel that I’m doing my job.
I’m thrilled that I touch so many people, but would always like to reach more. Please help by taking a few minutes to pass along a link to any business owners or advisors that you think might also enjoy an owner’s point of view.
If you would like a printable pdf of this column or any other, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.