Is Sales Necessary? … Or Necessarily Evil?

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Salespeople fight a “guilty until proven innocent” reputation when working with customers. I know, because as a salesperson I’ve battled it for over 20 years. The customer reaction isn’t surprising. Sales people are on the customer-relationship front line, and they absorb the brunt of buyer vitriol. In fact, a survey that DDI International recently conducted with 2,705 corporate buyers worldwide, “2007-2008 Global Sales Perceptions Report,” documented the problem with painful clarity. The report reveals how salespeople are perceived, and over 47% of US survey respondents indicated that they “would not be proud to be called a salesperson.” According to the report, “the most common description across all countries was that Sales is ‘a necessary evil.”

Given the billions of dollars that are spent annually on sales effectiveness training and CRM systems, this sentiment is an indictment on the sales profession, and it says we’re failing at our efforts to improve our face-to-face experiences with our customers. Not all is bad, however. Tremendous opportunities exist for enterprises that strategically change how their sales forces engage with customers.

Why do buyers have antipathy for sales people?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to look beyond salespeople themselves and to the culture and systems under which salespeople have worked for several generations. First, ever since sales became a distinct entity in commercial enterprises, the tactical objectives of the sales force have been dictated by corporate revenue goals. A closely-watched metric by investment analysts, revenue goals are developed in the board room, and trickle down to the individual sales representative through a sometimes-perverse and inherently flawed calculus, the end-point of which is called a quota. This all-important number represents the salesperson’s revenue commitment to the organization, and it carries ponderous weight. With revenue as the focal point of sales-performance discussions, quota over-achievement often means significant financial rewards; under-achievement compromises a salesperson’s ever-tenuous job stability.

As any quota-carrying salesperson or sales manager can attest, the assignment of sales quotas frequently involve rancorous negotiations. Some quotas are completely arbitrary, based on the direction fairy dust blows when it is thrown up in the air. Others are based on conditions that are outside of the salesperson’s control—market and economic forecasts, product and pricing forecasts, assumptions, and growth factors.

Quotas are half the story. The other half is how revenue is credited against sales quotas. This exercise often results in a smoke-and-mirrors game that is as much political as it is the application of accounting debits and credits. The result is an unwieldy multi-page document, sometimes called a Commission Plan, which can require a lawyer’s expertise to decipher for all the ambiguity. Such complexity prompted one Vice President of Sales at a company I worked for to envision a commission plan that could fit on one side of a business card—a noble goal he never implemented.

So every day under this basic system of illogical quota calculation and revenue accrual, legions of salespeople engage with millions of customers worldwide. Lost in all the shouting and confusion are the answers to these questions: “What is valuable to the people and organizations that use our products?” And the corollary question, “How will our salespeople behave given the financial “ecosystem” we have created?” No wonder so many buyers decry their sales experiences. Any moniker purporting “customer-centricity” only serves to put lipstick on this big, ugly pig.

Second, many organizations have not applied thought to the question, “what value must sales contribute to our organization in order for us to meet our strategic objectives?” Yet, companies invest in recruiting, hiring, managing, training, and compensating their sales forces in spite of such vagueness, and without a coherent way to measure efficacy.

When I ask my clients what value their sales force must provide to their organization, the immediate answer I often hear is “revenue.” “OK,” I say, “but if there are no profits associated with the revenue, is that valuable?” My clients respond “Of course not, we must make a profit.” Taking this idea further, I ask “If you make a profit, but your customers aren’t satisfied with your product and wouldn’t recommend your company—is that valuable?” And the inevitable answer: “No, of course not.” Finally, I ask “What if your organization achieved profitable revenue targets, and had satisfied clients, but didn’t gain any market insight for future strategy—would that be valuable?” The answer: “No, our planners and strategists depend on our sales force to provide valuable feedback from the field!” Then the light bulb turns on: the sales force must deliver value beyond top-line revenue! Unfortunately, we’re stuck in a cycle of value-chain discord until organizations stop demanding multiple outcomes from their sales force, but understand only one dimension—revenue.

Happily, some organizations have taken important steps to break free from the revenue-at-all-cost myopia. One company I work with penalizes a salesperson if a customer has purchased its software, but does not use the capabilities the software provides. Why has the vendor taken this position when nearly all of its competitors are focused on pushing new licenses and version upgrades? Because their senior management recognizes that nothing puts a company’s logo into a customer’s budget-cutting crosshairs faster than a known wasted IT investment. Other examples abound in which organizations have taken a progressive stance on rewarding salespeople for activities that are valuable to the organization beyond revenue generation. Such changes are important because they serve as steps to mitigate the discord described in the DDI survey.

But if we can’t change the economic system, how can we find a better way for sellers and buyers interact?

Probably the more fundamental question is “do we need to find a better way?” Are you content with the status quo? The DDI survey clearly says buyers are not. Your answer likely depends on whether you view sales as necessary—or necessarily evil.

1 COMMENT

  1. Andy

    As usual, thanks for another spot on, deeply insightful commentary on the state of sales in business today. This topic has been a sore spot with me for a long time, but you have really gathered all the ends of it for us here.

    Perhaps as you say, we will begin to see progressive companies transform their sales teams and eventually change the reputation of sales people in general. Perhaps not. A reputation is a hard thing to change. Nonetheless, there’s no reason companies shouldn’t realize the benefits of new approaches to sales that are more holistic in nature – certainly the role can provide much more than simply revenue to an organization. As a front line knowledge worker for years, I can see how a company could benefit from many other additional contributions of someone who sits down regularly with it’s customers; data mining, field marketing and customer service to name a few. My two cents: I suspect that none of those things will matter to salespeople though unless changes are made to compensation plans that give them incentive to work these other areas.

    Great post!

    Don F Perkins

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