Why Sales Is Broken



profession – noun – /prəˈfeʃ·ən/ – a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation

There are many endeavors in life that are obviously professions such as medicine, engineering, or journalism.  Sales, however, would not be one of them.  Sales is not a profession.

If you are not in sales, you might think: “finally, someone calls it”.  If you are in sales, you might think: “what a jerk”.  And for those that know me, you might think I have lost my mental facilities.  Why would someone whose career has been dedicated to sales and who founded a global sales community say such a thing?  But rest assured, I am of sound mind.

Perhaps the best way to explain is by asking a few questions:

  • Do you possess a college degree in sales?
  • Are you certified or accredited through some program in sales?
  • Are you studying and practicing sales techniques and skills on a regular basis?
  • Do you have a reading list of materials and resources to help hone your sales acumen?
  • How much money and time have you put into your own professional development over the past year?
  • Did you attend any workshops, training sessions, or professional sales conferences recently?
  • What did your last sales “report card“ illuminate for you in terms of your professional strengths and weaknesses?
  • When people ask you what you do, are you proud to call yourself a salesperson?

If you are being completely honest, my guess is that your answers to many of these questions is no, or minimal.  And that is a shame, because it reflects a lack of seriousness that we all have for this proud profession we call sales.  And, if we do not take what we do as a living seriously, then how do we expect anyone else to do so, especially our buyers?

I think where we get tripped up is defining what exactly sales is.  When you break it down, sales is fundamentally about solving problems.  Sales is not about the transaction, or the deal, or the revenue.  Those are all end results.  What matters most, and what makes any of that other stuff even happen, is that someone has a problem and a salesperson has a solution.

“Good salespeople sell lots of product, but great salespeople make lots of customers successful.”

Success in sales depends greatly on where your heart is.  Your heart is where you focus and what you prioritize.  If you are focused on simply closing a transaction, you are not thinking about what ultimately helps customers to improve their current state.  In other words, salespeople are at their best and most effective when they are thinking and acting as advisors or consultants.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, the idea of consultative selling, or similarly called, solution selling, started to take hold based on books by Mack Hanan and Mike Bosworth. The methodology helped sales professionals move from product, to customer oriented approaches.  This was also the approach fostered in sales training programs at IBM,Xerox, and other large technology providers.

The consultative approach works well when the practitioners of such an approach come from a place of competency and knowledge.  Think business and technology experts who, after years of experience, are able to help many organizations solve problems.  Think doctors who are solving medically related problems of patients.  Think engineers and programmers that solve challenges leveraging technology based solutions to build better ways of doing things.

Why then, do most sales teams and sales reps still rely upon product based sales approaches?  Because they are not coming from a place of competency and knowledge.  There is a lack of capability in even the most basic of selling skills coupled with a complete lack of depth in the business elements at play in their markets, prospects, and industry. Consider this for a moment: the least competent individuals employed at a company are often the very first people that interact with prospects.  Every interaction boils down to a product pitch without the least bit of understanding of what the prospect is grappling with, or the challenges they are facing.

What has been the result?  Greater mistrust in buyers, lower efficacy rates in prospects methods, higher volumes of low-value communications, and less predictable pipelines.  To fight against these trends, companies are moving to specialized sales functions, heavily employing automation, creating highly scripted flows and communications, and digging deeper into metrics. In turn, buyers are tuning out and turning off the noise.

We are at an all-time low point in the sales industry.  In an age when there are more tools, more books, and more data to avail ourselves of, sales results are the same.  One graph I recently saw on sales enablement spend versus results was telling: while the spend was higher, results were flat.  All the hacks in the world, all the high velocity this and sales acceleration that, has made not a whiff of difference.  If surgeons accepted the rate of success that we tolerate in sales, we would be wheeling a whole lot more dead bodies out of the OR.

This begs the question, if other fields of professional endeavor can operate with higher levels of skill and consistency, why not sales?  It’s because no one ever went to school for sales.  No one is formally trained or mentored in sales.  The first exposure to sales that most reps have when starting their careers is a few weeks (or less) of some half-baked bootcamp.  The better ones incorporate core sales skills and follow it up with regular mentorship and coaching.  The typical onboarding programs merely push product information and internal processes.

This gets us back to my statement about sales not being a profession.  Despite sales being the first point of customer contact, the biggest driver of revenue, and a significant portion of the expense side of the balance sheet, sales is not approached with any rigor.  We throw resources out there into the wild to simply wing it.  Would you want to be operated on by someone that never did the procedure before, or even went to medical school?

No one that is in sales ever says they entered the field because they went to school for it. Mostly people happen into sales by accident.  So why do we accept this when no other field allows for such loose standards?  It has to do with the evolution and priorities of business schools, which would be the most logical place for a sales program and curriculum to live.

At the turn of the 20th century, the concept of business school was still new.  Before then, those that went to college often went into liberal arts or sciences.  Business was just something you figured out.  Given the lack of complexity at the time, it did not seem necessary to waste time on “business” education.  But as the industrial age businesses grew in complexity and size, new types of workers were needed.  By the 50’s, a new managerial class arose to help run these corporations.  To serve the more complex regulatory and financial environment, more skilled accountants were needed.  More business schools arose and added programs to cover subjects such as organizational behavior, accounting, and management science.

As the 60’s unfolded, the age of brands and advertising took hold.  Curriculum incorporated more brand management and marketing science to fulfill the need.  By the 80’s with Wall Street being the hot thing, schools catered to banking and finance careers.  In the 90’s, as reengineering and efficiency took hold, consulting became a burgeoning field with B-Schools supplying a steady crop of graduates.  Nowadays, the trend around entrepreneurship and startups has schools adapting yet again.

Sales is still an afterthought though in 2017.  That is not to say that some forward thinking institutions and people are sitting back.  I have seen the rapid rise of the University of Texas program under Dr. Howard Dover.  My friend, Mark Roberge, formerly CRO of HubSpot, is teaching sales at HBS.  There are over 100 colleges globally with formal sales programs.

The challenge that we face is that sales is still not taken seriously in the higher education world.  It is both negative perceptions and a misunderstanding of sales.  When you unfold all the elements that go into sales, it’s a complex combination of psychology, behavioral economics, sociology, game theory, cognitive science, linguistics, finance, and leadership.  What on the surface looks like art and chaos, has a deep underpinning of science, and a wellspring of research opportunities.

If there is a science to selling, then we have a starting place.  It stands to reason that concepts and principles derived from that science that can be formalized and taught.  There are skills that can be measured and refined.  There are methodologies that can provide a repeatable process to inform our actions.  And more importantly, we have a standard by which we can appreciate excellence in our profession in a more pragmatic, measurable, and systematic way.

Until the time when sales education is the standard rather than the exception, however, we will continue to flail without direction as a profession.   It is therefore incumbent upon sales professionals to treat their chosen career as a profession.  That is easier said than done, though, and, by some estimates, 74% of B2B salespeople are mediocre at best.

What can you do then, as a sales professional, to improve your game?  If you are not in sales and still young in your career, you should check out one of the more structured sales programs offered by various colleges.  If you are in sales already and not in a position to go back to school, here are some tactical things to do:

  • Wake up one hour earlier.  This takes discipline to maintain, and it gives you an extra hour of “me time” to get ahead of your day.
  • Commit to 15 minutes of learning and reading about sales every day, whether you consume knowledge through books, blogs, or podcasts.
  • Become an expert in your industry by researching key companies, subscribing and reading publications, following the news, etc.
  • Find mentors to ask questions of, and seek advice from, on a regular basis.  Likewise, actively seek out feedback and advice and incorporate into your process.
  • Join a local sales community like the Enterprise Sales Forum and meet other sales professionals to share ideas and learn from.
  • Build a plan for your day, your week, your quarter, and your year.  If you do not know where you want to go, how else will you achieve what you want?
  • Maintain singular focus on your mission.  Conversely, that means strategically removing all things that do not support the mission.
  • Write out your personal sales playbook.  You should be able to record the things that contribute to successful outcomes and can refine them over time.
  • Make time to practice key aspects of your sales process so that you can be more confident when you are engaging prospects.
  • Take full ownership and responsibility for your work and believe that you are the driver of your successes and failures.

Sales will rapidly change over the next decade to become a true profession.  It no longer suffices to be average in the 21st century, as my buddy Keenan often says.  Right now there is a giant void in skills and programs to teach those skills, but there is momentum to bring structure and order to the realm of sales.

Even a modicum of effort can lead you to massive results.  That is especially true in sales where the bar is so low.  Sales as an industry may be broken, but you are in the driver’s seat of your career.  You have to own it and go after it.  The ball is in your court.

If you want to be great; if you want to win in sales, the only person stopping you, is you.


Reprinted by permission.

About the author: Mark Birch

Mark is an early stage technology investor and entrepreneur based in NYC. Through Birch Ventures, he works with a portfolio of early stage B2B SaaS technology startups providing both capital and guidance in the areas of marketing, sales, strategic planning and funding.

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