Should salespeople blog? I don’t know. Should salespeople play golf? Exercise? Dress for success? After all, each of these activities takes time from a salesperson’s limited selling hours. Whether they’re diversions or success enablers depends on your view.
Maybe the question isn’t should salespeople blog? Surprisingly few do. The better question is can they write? As Jill Konrath commented on Dave Brock’s recent post on this topic, there are “very bad writers out there who could do more harm than good for their company. Their self-serving prattle, imbecilic comments and poor grammar could be downright embarrassing.”
No joke. Good writing is emblematic of good thought, and bad writing is emblematic of many things—none of them good. Dave, you raised a great question, but before we debate the answer, we must confront reality. Many salespeople, sales VP’s, and executives flat out can’t write. Sadly, discussing whether they should blog isn’t the core issue. But here are two that hit closer to the mark:
Supply and demand. Schools don’t produce enough people capable of effective writing and critical thinking. I recently taught undergraduate courses in IT strategy and Enterprise Resource Planning, and learned the magnitude of the problem, which I’ll illustrate with an example. For one written case study assignment, I asked, “What did Cathay Pacific’s management trade off when they created their IT strategy?” The following sentence construct was typical of the answers I received from students for this assignment and for others: “I believe what they traded off was money.” Over time, I honed my feedback to one word, unclear, for this and other clarity problems. I even provided my students guides for how to write business prose, including tradeoff statements: Rather than doing X, the company chose to invest in Y. At times, I felt under-equipped, because I’m a sales strategist who happens to write, not an English teacher. But I had to start somewhere. And I didn’t make friends with the Dean by recommending that students in the business program take Writing 101 before hitting my 400-level class.
It gets worse. Using the same example, a not-uncommon erroneous word substitution for money was many. (“I believe what they traded off was many.”) Phonetic confusion created the error, and you can only imagine my bafflement on the first encounter! But I learned to adjust, because these were not the most egregious writing problems. There are more examples than I have room to document in this blog. Text message shorthand (r for are and u for you) infected the essays. Some writing was so impaired that I returned assignments ungraded, and asked the student to work with a writing specialist before resubmitting. (I remind you, this is college!) In my experience, writing problems cut across gender, racial, and ethnic boundaries. What we have here isn’t just a failure to communicate, it’s a failure to read, write, analyze, and think critically. Maybe from too much TV and video, and too few parents like Amy Chua.
Sales Culture. I tried to remember how many times I’ve ever been asked “What’s a killer piece of writing you’ve produced?” or “Tell us about your best direct email communication and how you wrote a persuasive proposal.” Never happened. Nunca. Zip. And there’s good reason. When I was an Individual Contributor, good writing wasn’t a major part of selling.
Then came Social Selling, and all the writing that accompanies it, including blogging. But we haven’t changed tactics. We don’t vet today’s sales candidates on the ability to create compelling written communication, and we don’t reward them for being effective writers. We steadfastly admire other attributes, circa 1990, such as quota attainment, making Club, verbal communication style, ability to listen, street smarts, tenacity, and golf skills. We’re fighting sales wars on new turf with old weapons. Roman legionnaires entering battles with short swords against muskets and cannon. If you haven’t started already, it’s time to ask for writing samples, because as Jill pointed out, bad writing will backfire as surely as poor verbal skills. Even when limited to 140-character bursts, social media tools demand more writing, not less.
How can we debate whether it’s worthwhile to blog when our educational systems are challenged to produce effective writers and communicators? How can we expect salespeople to excel at written communication when organizations often don’t have the competencies to develop that talent, or don’t have the will to reward it? The demand for effective writing far outstrips supply. It’s time to make effective written expression a core value of our sales teams. We can’t persuade without it.