Why We Hate Salespeople


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The One Hurdle Anyone Who Sells Expert Services Needs to Overcome

A woman with a fuchsia jacket and large hoop earrings works to upsell us. “Are you interested in the cold-weather package and undercarriage protection.” A guy at the mall jewelry store with pants that hang impossibly low peers over the counter and says, “We find a good rule of thumb is three months’ salary on an engagement ring. Not sure what you make, but I wanted to show you this $15,000 princess cut.”

Most of us hate salespeople. They’re the bottom-feeders of commerce schooled in the art of deceit and manipulation. Think of The Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call, and Glengarry Glen Ross. Was there a character in any of these movies who was anything other than craven and rapacious?

This is a problem if you are charged with growing a consulting or professional services practice. You need to sell your you will die and yet loathe the person you must become.

In a charitable moment, we might think they are a necessary evil at the car dealership and mall jewelry stores, but we’d be quick to say that there is no room for a salesperson in consulting or professional services. That is because we think our world is above salespeople. We “engage” with would-be clients. We don’t sell.

Every year Gallup Poll conducts a survey asking which professions are thought to be honest and ethical. Estimable professions include nurses, pharmacists, doctors, engineers, fire fighters and clergy. At the other end of things skulk Members of Congress, Senators, HMO managers and — you knew this was coming — salespeople. The lowest seven professions included car salespeople, insurance salespeople, advertising executives and stockbrokers.

Most of us believe that sales is the practice of:

Causing someone to take an action they wouldn’t take if left to their own devices.

It’s no wonder we think of salespeople as odious and can’t imagine joining their ranks.
We think of sales lives at the intersection of:

  • Wrong: Consulting and professional service providers feel like selling is inconsistent with their commitment to professional ethics. If selling is causing others to do what they might not do if left to their own devices and professionalism is doing what is best for the client at all times, then there is an inherent conflict between selling and being a professional.
  • Ineffective: Top rainmakers in the consulting and professional services report that traditional sales techniques don’t work on their clients. Unlike the old door-to-door vacuum sales pitch perfected in the 1950s, no one dumps dirt on the carpet of a potential client’s office to demonstrate the effectiveness of their vacuum cleaner/digital transformation. We spoke with Jane Pierce who left ADM to start a consulting practice. She remembers what it was like to get calls from salespeople as a potential client. “I wouldn’t even take a call. I had a guard dog that blocked out all of those calls. I figured if I needed something, I’d go out and look for it. In the meantime, I didn’t have the time.”
  • Difficult: Sales is hard work. Salespeople cold call, knock on the doors of people they don’t know, bear near-constant rejection. Finally, sales is out of our comfort zone. We know accounting, the law or IT security, not how to sell our services.

To put a cherry on all this, most of us harbor feelings that sales is déclassé and below us.

“I don’t want to just be called a salesman. To me that is a woman at Lord & Taylor in a white blouse and black skirt helping you buy a pocketbook.”
Audrey Cramer, Vice Chairman, Cushman and Wakefield

We are told that people who have higher degrees manage salespeople. They are never salespeople themselves. Most professionals resolve the cognitive dissonance between the need to grow their business with the huge preponderance of reasons why sales are inappropriate to consulting and professional services practices by taking a hard line against sales.

Says Walt Shill, formerly of McKinsey and Accenture:

“A long time ago at McKinsey, before paved roads and electricity, we didn’t use the world sell. We didn’t even use the word sales. We recorded professional fees and so there was this view that clients have problems and we need to discover, understand and tackle them. And the way you do that is you build relationships and you demonstrate the capability to solve problems. And then once people realize you help them solve problems, then they will come back.”

I believe the historical aversion to the term selling has a lot to do with the fact that in professional services we are the product. Unlike others who may sell sophisticated software systems to the Fortune 500 or advanced imaging systems to large hospitals, we are selling ourselves. It seems boastful or distasteful to promote ourselves. We’ve been taught since kindergarten not to be a braggart.

There’s a strong, long held cultural value system among the professional services that selling ourselves is unseemly. Promoting ourselves is too crass. Too commercial. Too hucksterish. Many, if not most, of us in professional services have felt this way at some point.

Which is why successful rainmakers at all professional services firms speak of the need not to sell feature and attributes, but instead to build trust and add value to potential clients in advance of the sale. Only then, will would-be clients begin to see you not as a salesperson but as a partner with whom they can work to solve a problem.

Tom McMakin
Tom McMakin is the CEO of PIE, a marketing services company focused on professional service firms.He is the author of How Clients Buy:A Practical Guide to Business Development for Consulting and Professional Services (Wiley, 2018).He was founder of Orchard Holdings, a private equity firm and also served as the COO of Great Harvest Bread Co where he wrote Bread and Butter (St. Martins, 2001).


  1. Hi Tom: When it comes to attracting unlikable people, no profession is immune. Along with bad sales reps, I’ve met some thoroughly obnoxious accountants, lawyers, physicians, marketers, entrepreneurs, operations VP’s, senior government contractors, and restaurant chefs. It’s hard for me to malign an entire category of professionals over my negative experiences with a few individuals. People enter many professions for honest and honorable reasons. Selling is no exception.

    Many people share the same angst you described about salespeople, and they have extended it to the selling profession in general. But I think your antipathy is misdirected. Is it the sales rep who is unethical, annoying, and difficult to be around? Or, are their behaviors artifacts of the culture in which they work? Are the behaviors you and so many other dislike byproducts of the organizations they work for?

    Show me a sales rep behaving badly, and I’ll you show you a manager who encouraged his or her behavior, or who produced the bad conduct through the corporate comp plan. Managers and CXO’s have everything to do with what customers experience from salespeople. But they work in the “back office.” Sales reps are maligned because they are the most visible to customers. The vitriol directed at salespeople ignores the fundamental causes.

    I don’t see any inherent conflict between selling and being a professional. Most sales professionals would agree that your point about building trust and adding value to potential clients in advance of the sale is of paramount importance. But I don’t know anyone who would find those objectives outside the domain of selling, or even at odds with it.

    I have written two articles that look at sales and selling from a much different perspective. They collectively profile 17 exceptional salespeople. Many of these individuals were driven by an extraordinary desire to help society. They were about more – much more – than ‘making their number.’ I hope that you will read about these extraordinary human beings, and come away with a different impression:

    1. But Wait! There’s More! Ten Visionary Salespeople Who Continue to Inspire http://contrarydomino.com/2013/12/but-wait-theres-more-ten-visionary-salespeople-who-continue-to-inspire/

    2. But Wait! There’s More! Seven Visionary Salespeople Who Continue to Inspire http://contrarydomino.com/2013/12/but-wait-theres-more-seven-great-salespeople-who-continue-to-inspire/

  2. Just want to add, because I think it bears repeating: the two biggest scoundrels in the Wells Fargo scandal were not salespeople. They were CEO John Stumpf and his Executive VP of Community Banking Carrie Tolstedt, who carried out a devious scheme to exploit their sales staff and commit customer fraud – all in pursuit of their bonus tied to stock price appreciation.


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