The Problem with Sales today


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Let’s face it – the world we live in has changed. We are reminded every day about how our customers have changed over the last 5 to 10 years. However, I am also surprised how few organisations are adapting to these changes, we tend to focus more on the shift in the technology (digitisation) rather than the change in the people who are using the new digital options.

Here are my top four ways in which customer behaviour has changed, and because they are behavioural, they are intertwined.

1. Customers are very ‘sales resistant’ these days. Anything that looks like, sounds like, or smells like a sales pitch, resistance levels increase.

2. And this corresponds with what are lot of people are calling a ‘self-service revolution’ – customers want to do it themselves. Do the research themselves, purchase themselves.

3. Customers are more informed than ever in history. Not only about products and services, but also informed about other customer reviews and alternatives available to them.

4. Rising expectations – because some businesses have really nailed the customer experience, our expectations as customers have risen to the point where the experience a lot of organisations provide is not good enough. We expect things to be quicker, smoother and no hassle.

Our businesses need to adapt, so that we can continue to deliver value for our customers in this age.

The problems with sales today is that much of the thinking and leadership of sales teams is driven by ideas developed in the last century. These ideas mislead managers to believing a certain set of actions will lead to the numbers they need to achieve. This is why I call these the “eight great misleading sales traditions”. It’s descriptive of what these things do.

The Problems with Sales Today

These misleading ideas are symbiotic that is, each one reinforces the belief on the other which causes the flow-on problems to worsen. So here is a brief explanation of each one.

1. The Perception that sales is easy. Sales is rarely seen as a profession. People (typically) do not go to university to become a sales person. Even though so many people that study the sciences find work in sales roles. Many pharmaceutical reps have degrees in medicine, similarly with engineering. Universities could be offering courses in sales to better prepare students for work, but this is rare, because sales is not regarded as a profession.

The perception that sales is easy leads to all sorts of poor decisions within the business. Such as: if sales aren’t happening the way it was forecast, then it has to be the fault of the sales team; the reaction to this assumption then leads onto a range of other issues within the business which are often about how they try to “fix” the sales leader or the sales team. This perception that sales is easy, leads on to the next misleading tradition.

2. Built it and they will come. The focus on the product being ‘right’ leads businesses to put effort into the product development rather than co-design with customers, or into finding the right customers for the product. In the academic study of entrepreneurs it has been found that the expectation for sales over time (almost) always exceeds reality. Even if the business starts up with the right intentions of growing a profitable business, the focus quickly changes to generating cash flow. The result is typically that the business creates a customer portfolio where 80% of customers only contribute 20% of profit, and so much of the effort of the business is in servicing these low value customers.

3. It is all a numbers game. This fallacy is firmly believed by many people. It’s the idea that if you have something to sell, then it is only a matter of the number of people you talk to, and it is supported by the idea of the sales funnel. I covered this misleading tradition at length in this article on the funnel. These ideas come from the era of door-to-door salespeople. Whether you are selling, brushes, cleaning products, or encyclopaedias, you just have to knock on enough doors. This assumption leads managers to think it is all about the numbers, whereas the reality is that it is far more about truly understanding your ideal customers, knowing how to find them, preparing for and having genuine conversations.

4. The gun sales guy. This is a classic tale of the hero. The business and sales manager were struggling to get their products to market, until they found the sales gun. Then everything changed, the sales gun brought in busloads of customers and lots of products were sold. Eventually the sales gun rode off into the sunset (with huge commissions) looking for the next business to save. Leaving the first business, none the wiser as to how it was done, and so they anxiously look for another sales gun.

I am still stunned by the number of businesses that tell me their strategy with sales, is to “get a sales gun”. Each business needs to figure out who their awesome customers are. Those customers in the sweet spot of the two-way exchange of value, the profitable promoters. Once the awesome customers are known, then develop customer engagement tactics.

Seeking a sales gun is never the answer to the problem with sales.

5. One throat to choke. This is about managing the parts rather than the whole. The idea of “division of labour” was developed in economic theory by Adam Smith in the late 1700’s. Business leaders are under the assumption that if you hold one person accountable for sales, another for marketing, another today for social media, then you have single point accountability (one throat to choke, as some say). This approach is fantastic for creating silos and environments where one team can succeed at the loss of another. Surely today we want social media, marketing and sales to work as one team to engage with our awesome customers and develop a customer portfolio for the business that is profitable and full of promoters.

6. Focus on targets and dollar outcomes. Flowing on from “one throat to choke” is the idea that challenging targets are set, predominately on some particular numbers or dollar figures. So what does success look like..? Get your numbers. Now the game is on. One B2B account sales team was given a target to get a one new customer each month, this they achieved by approaching the customers of their larger customers. Target achieved, but the consequences for the business were unfortunate. Profit for businesses comes from the portfolio of customers they have engaged with. Condensing this down to simple set of numbers and dollars does not work.

7. Close the sale. Sales managers often say they are looking for closers, people who can close the deal and make the sale. This is another idea that I discussed in this article about how the era for closers is over. Today we are in an economy based on a person’s perception of experience and their feelings of connection. As stated earlier, customers are more informed about products and sales than ever, and are more sales-resistant than ever, they are more aware and tired of the tricks sales people and businesses use to try and cajole them.

The goal today is not to close sales, but to open relationships with customers who will be advocates of what we do.

8. Sell the product or service. The misleading tradition of sales at the end and beginning of the symbiotic cycle is all about the focus on selling things, which leads to telling people (often anyone that will listen) all of the fabulous features and advantages of these particular products. And yes sometimes there is a discussion about benefits. Today customers are seeking value, and they define value in ways that do not relate to features. They don’t need to be informed by humans of product features, this information is readily available. Our conversations with customer needs to be more about true value exchange.

For people in sales roles and for their leaders – stop being deceived by these old methods and tactics. They are not relevant for this age. They are not relevant for building teams. Nor are they relevant for allowing customer facing people to focus on the experience they are delivering for the customer (yes, even sales people).

Consider instead building methods and tactics that are based on The Flow of Customer Engagement…
Image a pristine stream, up in the distance are some potential customers, we don’t quite know them yet, can’t quite see them clearly. As they are drawn towards us we start to see and understand them more clearly. Our role is to remove the obstacles that prevent them getting close to us. Draw them towards us. And, if the value exchange between us is right, and communicated well, then those customers will join our pool of customers who are also our advocates.

Mark Hocknell
Mark is a Customer Centric Business specialist with experience spanning three decades, from line management to consulting and academia. Based in south east Queensland, Australia, Mark led one of the first, large scale CRM deployments for one of Australia's leading financial institutions. For the last fifteen years Mark has consulted to leading organisations in Australia, as well as small-to-medium sized businesses. He is the author of Profit by Design: how to build a customer portfolio full of profitable promoters.


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