Six Exciting Opportunities at the Edge of Sales


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Travel on an interstate highway almost anywhere in the US during Spring break and you’ll see a curious seasonal motif. Late model car, with dad driving. Next to him, mom, pondering a Sodoku or reading a map. In the back, a teenaged kid, wearing a hoodie, listening to an i-Pod. If the painter Norman Rockwell were alive, he’d capture the scene down to the last, splendid iconic detail: the college tour road trip, circa 2012. Our rite of passage was this April, when we visited engineering schools.

The teenaged kid in the back seat barely knows that the best part of her past still remains in her future. To those of us now middle aged, that’s an enviable naiveté. For now, all the teenager has to do is endure twenty-seven hours in the car with her parents and younger brother. Four colleges in five days. i-Tunes playlists queued up, earbuds in place. “I think I can do this!” she says to herself, and bravely rolls north with The Fam. Younger brother has his earbuds in place, too.

Each school proudly touts its quirky uniqueness. At Tufts, students follow hallowed tradition by slathering paint on a landmark canon, while at Carnegie Mellon, they slather it on a fence, installed for that purpose. At MIT, traditions involve less paint, but offer other thrills, such as roof hacking, in which large objects such as police cars find their way to the dome of MIT’s famed Building 10.

Aside from these obvious differences, the same crystal-clear statement was embedded in every admissions office sales pitch: The most exciting work in engineering isn’t being done in traditional disciplines. “It’s at the edges—where you find the junctions between materials science and civil engineering, between medicine and mechanical engineering, between information technology and robotics,” said the Cornell admissions Dean, who also told us about his school’s breadth of programs for work and study abroad.

Inter-disciplinary studies are the new collegiate Red, White & Blue. Disparate academic concentrations become conjoined when the words majoring in and minoring in complete the phrase. Today, companies value a workforce steeped in cross-functional knowledge, and higher education has heard their call. Inter-disciplinary curricula produce positive outcomes beyond simply protecting legacy liberal arts programs and tenured faculty.

“At Olin College, half the students create interdisciplinary majors like Design for Sustainable Development, or Mathematical Biology,” wrote Tony Wagner in a recent Wall Street Journal article, Educating the Next Steve Jobs. He added, “Though expertise is important, Google’s director of talent, Judy Gilbert, (said) that the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to teach them that problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline.”

Another article by Melissa Quinn in FastCompany, What Both MBAs And MFAs Get Wrong About Solving Business Problems, points out “Marketing classes should teach a deep reverence for the user in context and the power of observational research methods. Finance classes should teach the art of storytelling and information design. Strategy classes should teach systems thinking and synthesis. If the goal is to create great hybrid thinkers who will have real impact, design should not be tacked on to existing business education, but infused throughout it.”

You would expect hybrid thinking to involve the s-word, selling, but it doesn’t. “Modern economies are built by people agreeing to buy and sell for mutual benefit, but there is near-universal disdain for the sales process itself—including the people doing the selling,” writes L. Gordon Crovitz in his Wall Street Journal review of Philip Delves Broughton’s book, The Art of the Sale.

He continues, describing Broughton’s observation that at Harvard Business School, “. . . as a category of business activity, sales were largely ignored. The curriculum focused on apparently less grubby topics, like finance and leadership . . . Many people in business ‘are clueless about one of the most vital functions, the means by which you actually generate revenue.’ Salespeople are viewed as some sort of breed apart . . . They must be ‘goaded to perform and reined in when they sell too hard. They are patronized as feet on the street by those who prefer to imagine that business can be conducted by consultants with dueling PowerPoint presentations.'” Plenty of ugly in that prose. But well stated.

This knowledge gap—call it an appreciation gap—that Broughton writes about so compellingly, spells opportunity. And, if nothing else, salespeople are unrepentant opportunists! Just as the excitement in engineering lives at the edges, so it does in sales. Inspired by our college road trip, I explored the edges of Sales, peered over, and found these exciting junctions:

1. Sales and uplift modeling Predictive analytics meets pick the low-hanging fruit. Uplift models predict the influence on customer behavior gained by choosing one marketing action over another. Using statistical tools to identify prospects most likely to change behavior opens great possibilities for increased sales productivity.

2. Sales and software usability User testing, eyetracking, and field research to improve the odds for online merchants that when a prospect sees “click to buy,” he clicks. And you thought customers had all the power.

3. Sales and social entrepreneurship Did I just pledge $250 because I was passionate about providing medical care for children who can’t afford it? Or because an organization had sophisticated processes in place that made it easy for me to do so? Only their Development Manager knows for sure.

4. Sales and Enterprise Risk Management Pipelines, funnels, and forecasts remind us there are loads of risks—known and unknown—on the road between Identifying a Prospect and Having a Customer. Strategic planning works best when sales risk knowledge is integrated into corporate functions.

5. Sales and Linguistics “Sales is like dating,” someone told me—or maybe it’s the other way around. “To predict dating success, the secret’s in the pronouns,” according to a story about a study that recently aired on National Public Radio. The Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count program “has an ability to peer into massive data sets and discern patterns that no human could ever hope to match.” Inside sales and telemarketing will never be the same.

6. Sales and higher education. With much excitement, Harvard and MIT recently announced a joint venture called edx. According to the website, “It’s interesting to see technology being used to make teaching more efficient. But platforms like edx could also help institutions such as MIT and Harvard identify and nurture the smartest students from anywhere in the world.” Some of them will be salespeople. Maybe, the professors will have a background in selling!

SellingPower‘s Gerhard Gschwandtner wrote in a recent blog, Seven Steps to Sales Transformation, “to win in today’s environment, sales must be aligned with marketing, service, finance, HR, and legal.”

Alignment is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. Alignment doesn’t break sales from the black-hole gravity of its silo. As the Cornell Dean said, the greatest excitement—and opportunities—exist at the edges—where you find the junctions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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