Ask most people in an organisation what they think of the salespeople, and the response it likely to be mute and/or confused. The best salespeople are, after all, a bizarre hybrid between the charming and arrogant, generous and selfish, calm and diplomatic extremely emotional and extremely aggressive. Unfortunately, the organisations which these salespeople represent tend to see most of the negative traits, in large part perhaps because all the positive ones are reserved exclusively for clients. Such unpredictable schizophrenia can alienate more sober members of the organisation, and lead many to believe that salespeople are just a necessary evil in any organisation.
This reputation has lead most firms over the past two decades to label their salespeople with distinctly neutral titles, such as “Account Executive” or “Client Services Representative”. Organisations claim that the titles detract from the negative ‘sales’ image prospective buyers might naturally associate with someone knocking repeatedly on their door for a deal, but ask any salesperson and you know this is fallacy. Most salespeople only too readily admit at the first prospective client engagement that “I am the sales guy/girl” or “What I’m trying to sell you is” … For a salesman there is no shame in the process of selling, and nor for the prospect: we’re all interested in being presented with offers, after all.
Ask most MD’s what they think of their salespeople and the response is likely to vary in accordance with the bottom-line performance of the company. This is unfortunate, because what such uncertainty signals is the inability of organisations to understand the value of their salespeople and fully utilise them for a whole spectrum of activities. Perhaps because people do not naturally empathise with these obscure egomaniacs, in most firms the salespeople tend to be left on the fringes of the organisation, with the clear instruction that their job is to create revenue. This emphasis only makes the situation worse, and the salespeople more arrogant and alienated, which in turn leads to further feelings of detachment from the rest of the firm. And ultimately, all this negative sentiment impacts the all-important bottom-line. (How many sales people usually end up leaving organisations, burned out or just plain pissed off?) But the smart organisation sees what motivates its sales people and what added value they offer the firm.
Untapped Knowledge Resource
The sales force is perhaps the largest untapped knowledge resource in an organisation. In large part this is because of the above, but organisations are also sceptical about the agendas salespeople hold in presenting any kind of unbiased analysis. To some degree the scepticism is justified; most of these individuals are, after all, in some way or another rewarded directly for quantity of delivery. But equally, these are the people who are talking to the organisation’s customers every day. They usually have a far better grasp of what customers want than any marketing survey (a real pet hate of mine) or even worse, demographic projections chart can offer. Even in more complex value chains, the salespeople are talking to the suppliers who are talking to the end consumers every day: it follows logically that they are the ones in the organisation who damn well should know the customer better than everyone else.
Salespeople usually end up with a broader knowledge of the product/service specifications in an organisation, too, because of the requirement implicit in their job descriptions to know such things. Add these two things together and as a manager you get the best part: your salespeople are nearly always the ones in an organisation that know what the customers like about your products and what your customers don’t like about them, what features they derive massive benefit out of, and which ones they don’t use at all.
What’s more, salespeople are, contrary to popular scepticism, usually only too happy to help out. A salesperson likes nothing more than to be called in to help out with something other than bottom-line issues. OK, so there are some organisations that use their salespeople in applications other than pure revenue-generation, but I have yet to see one that really “gets” the value of these individuals at every stage and process of the firm’s strategic analysis. What company, for example, pulls the top sales guy into a meeting on accounting in order to asses whether a certain cost is really necessary at all or to come up with ideas as to what other functionalities the cost represents? Maybe R&D departments in organisations work more closely with salespeople these days, but it’s still uncommon to see a sales girl from the front desk attending meetings on product design and specification and contributing usefully.
Organisations might save fortunes on hiring overpriced consultants just by asking these nomads a few simple questions. They are usually the lonely planet guidebooks to an organisation, because to succeed at what they do they have to be.