The Death of the Sales Force
There was a time when, if you couldn't sell yourself, you couldn't sell the product or service. Today, when everyone knows everything--or thinks they do--the sales function is a lost cause.
General managing partner, G2T3V and Chicago High Tech Investors
I've complained for years that the fanciest and most prominent graduate business schools in the U.S. don't teach their students anything practical about sales. I'm not referring to marketing strategies or tracking and measuring sales; I'm talking about the most basic nuts-and-bolts training in what it takes to make a sale. I think they think that sales training is too pedestrian or vaguely vocational, déclassé and beneath them. They all teach their students how to keep score (everyone in B-school is a bean counter), but the name of the game is to make the score in the first place. Any mope can keep track of the money. Counting is easy; convincing is hard.
And, just to be clear, for this training to be successful, salesmanship needs to be as much about learning how to sell yourself as it is about whatever product, service, idea or cause you're selling. Because if you can't convince people that you're credible and authentic, and your name doesn't happen to be Kardashian, you won't be able to sell them much of anything.
Your pitch needs a purpose (an objective or goal) that both sides of the conversation understand (context is critical) because you're always "telling and selling" as advertising legend David Ogilvie used to say. Story is the way you build effective connections with customers and prospects. Story is how you put the soul and sizzle into your specs and stats. You could be trying to explain, excuse, persuade, educate, inspire or mislead - but none of these goals will be met if you're not believable. The same deal applies whether you're trying to sell a subscription or salvage a relationship or sway an uncertain voter. Connect, convince, and then close.
But, given the way the world is changing these days, these schools may have dodged the sales bullet. Because we may be witnessing the death of traditional salesperson in many marketplaces, in which case teaching sales skills may be as useful in the future as teaching people to be typesetters or cartographers.
There are many contributing factors to the demise of selling, including: (a) the glut of available information and opinion on the web about everything --whether it's accurate or not is a different question; (b) the ease and immediacy of comparative data analysis (just a click away), which makes us all feel like experts who "know" what we're talking about; (c) our impatience and willingness to make faster-not-necessarily-better decisions about just about everything; and (d) much more precise and effective targeting of individual consumers by advertisers and marketers. More than 70% of Facebook users who watch a product video believe that it was directly relevant to them.
The ultimate goal, for better or worse, is to remove as much as possible (and ideally all) thought from the consumption and decision-making process. "I see, therefore I buy." Jeff Bezos says all the time that people don't want to negotiate the price of the things they buy every day. And that's actually the most significant driver of all. If millions of salespeople lose their jobs and face-to-face retail continues to collapse, we've only got ourselves to blame because we're fundamentally lazy.
We don't really want to spend time looking for new products and services. Discovery is overrated as compared with automated replenishment and delivery. We aren't inclined to switch even though switching costs continue to decline and portability constantly rises.
We don't really want to have to make choices and complicated decisions. Decision fatigue is a real and growing problem given all the noise, clutter and confusion on the web.
We don't really want to change much of anything that isn't broken. It's not that we are so loyal to specific brands today as we once were; it's that we just don't really care as long as the products and services basically get the job done. Just okay (AT&T ads notwithstanding) turns out to be okay enough.
And, we really don't want to be cheated. We want the fairest (i.e., lowest) prices, and frankly, Amazon, Costco and Walmart have all done a spectacular job of largely convincing us that they are delivering the lowest possible prices and looking out for us in the process. People may gripe about various aspects of Amazon, but you rarely hear anyone complaining about the prices, with the possible exception of Whole Foods. But even there, the 150 million Prime members know that they are getting preferential pricing in the stores.
So, when you roll it all up, it feels to me like it's sayonara for sales folks. There's no space left in the process for them, there's no need or desire for their assistance, and, in many cases, we just feel like they're superfluous and time-consuming obstacles in the way of getting things done. And, of course, we know they don't work for nothing, so we also believe that they have to be adding costs to the whole process. In fairness, there will always be exceptions - Ulta Beauty for consultative cosmetic sales, maybe the Geek squad at Best Buy for help with tech - but, by and large, the sales staff's days are over.
The "know-it-all" curse is also spreading to other areas beyond retail. Ask any internist today how things are going and they'll tell you that they feel like glorified order takers. I'm not talking about oxycodone or Viagra. Patients walk in every day and want the "purple pill" or whatever magical cure-all they saw on TV last week for their affliction without the slightest hesitation or concern. Forget discussing their symptoms or any attempt to evaluate them and then to reach some reasonable diagnosis. They know exactly what they want, and they want it now. End of discussion.
They put far more weight these days in the power of a snappy TV jingle and some visuals of very happy campers than they do in their doctor's opinion. Everyone's an expert.