What B2B Sales Innovators Can Learn from Non-profits

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“. . . when Business Development goes awry.” A Far Side cartoon should accompany the phrase, but this is real life:

“Merck & Co. agreed to pay $950 million and plead guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge to resolve government allegations that the company illegally promoted its former painkiller Vioxx and deceived the government about the drug’s safety.” (The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2011)

Penn State’s former standards and conduct officer, Vicky Triponey, told The Wall Street Journal that in 2005, she was informed that ex-coach Joe Paterno had demanded that she be fired, or he’d quit fundraising for the school. (The Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2011)

Merck sold more than $11 billion of Vioxx between 1999 and 2004. Penn State’s football program brought $70.2 million in revenue between 2009 and 2010. Hard to imagine that achieving these big quotas wouldn’t involve a twisted ethical boundary or two. As one sales manager famously told me, “I don’t care how you make your quota, as long as you make it!”



So it was refreshing to learn less-told stories about how sales innovation achieves good in the world. A panel of social entrepreneurs shared selling insights at a conference I attended this month called Digital Capital Week. One takeaway: you don’t need Sales in your title to have killer sales instinct, but you do need to know how to fail forward.

For me, social entrepreneurs are the sales anti-hero, conjuring images of Prius-driving vegetarians focused on putting the needs of others before their own. In traffic, when people cut in front of them, they blithely shrug it off. But that’s not an apt caricature. There was the familiar go-for-the-jugular air one would recognize from almost any annual B2B sales kickoff meeting. Just minus the pictures of the venue for the upcoming Quota Club trip.

Here’s what I learned:

When you need a truck, ask for a truck. Bread for the City

Challenge: how do you raise money to solve systemic problems that are not only dire, but complex and broad?

Sales lesson: make your idea tangible

Bread for the City provides vulnerable residents of Washington, DC, comprehensive services, including food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.

But when you need a truck to deliver food, just ask for a truck. A picture helps, too. According to Greg Bloom, the organization’s Development Associate for Marketing and Communications, that direct appeal produced the best results for donations. Bread for the City volunteers work tirelessly to overcome society’s most intractable social problems. Important as that is, the outcomes are harder to explain than describing what a delivery truck provides for bringing food to people who don’t have any.

There’s no such thing as a “comfort zone.” Washington Area Bicycle Association

Challenge: How do you encourage people with diverse goals and objectives to get involved in public policy, and to take action?



Sales lessons:
1. Get out of your comfort zone!
2. You can tell your story without having to be the center of attention.

The mission of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) is to create a healthy, more livable region by promoting bicycling for fun, fitness, and affordable transportation, advocating for better bicycling conditions, offering transportation choices for a healthier environment, and educating children, adults, and motorists about safe bicycling.

When people have access to bike lanes, people bike. When they don’t, they won’t. But if the Washington Area Bicycle Association stuck to their comfort zone, they’d confine outreach to middle-aged, spandex-wearing white males who ride Serottas.

Getting people jazzed about something as healthy and fun as bicycling might sound easy, but it’s not. It requires engaging diverse people with diverse needs. Men. Women. Young. Old. Students. Professionals. Gay. Straight. White, black, brown, and yellow. People who ride bikes, people who used to bike, and people who have never biked.

“Is there a ‘white twitter,’ and a ‘black twitter?'” Greg Billing, WABA’s Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator, asked rhetorically. Possibly, sharing that Black Women Bike—DC has a common interest in creating bike lanes in Washington where none exist, and they might not follow the same conversations as those who want the latest cycling technology. So, connect, engage, and recognize that your organization won’t be the centerpiece of every group’s discussion. And that’s just fine.

“Spread the word to end the word.” Special Olympics

Challenge: how do you eradicate the conversational use of a demeaning and hurtful slur?

Sales lesson: “reward the passion of your fans.”

Originally, the terms mental retardation or mentally retarded were medical terms with a specific clinical connotation. Sadly, the pejorative forms, retard and retarded have been used widely in today’s society to degrade and insult people with intellectual disabilities. Additionally, when retard and retarded are used as synonyms for dumb or stupid by people without disabilities, it only reinforces painful stereotypes of people with intellectual disabilities being less valued members of humanity.

“Hey, lighten up—I didn’t mean it that way!” Too late. The sting is there, and r-word offends many people, with good reason. So Special Olympics began the campaign, Spread the Word to End the Word, in 2008, airing a public service announcement on the television show Glee that continues to generate controversy.



But the campaign tapped into people’s passions, and created awareness of an injustice where little existed, according to Ryan Eades, Senior Manager, Social Media at Special Olympics. As of November 29th, 2011, 229,198 people have posted online pledges to stop using the r-word.

There’s more work to be done. The site’s r-word counter reveals that the r-word has been used online 144,017 times on the web through November 29th. Through that link, you can provide the URL of any website, and the service quickly counts the number of occurrences of the word on that site. Every CRM website I tested, including CustomerThink, was clean. Same for Justin Bieber’s fan page. Maybe we are making progress.

Merck. Penn State. You can be certain that other companies will join that list in 2012. Quotas are overwhelming, and salespeople are never far from temptation to skew off the ethical rail. But as these social entrepreneurs have taught us, that doesn’t have to happen. It’s possible align creativity and sales tenacity to improve the world.

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