It’s not the People, it’s the System

I recently read an interview with the CEO of a sales-technology company who made the following observation about sales people:

“The good news is, people are really bad at selling. People are literally awful at it, for a lot of reasons”

The evidence he cited was that 53% of sellers hit their quota last year, which is down from 63% five years ago. The CEO drew a correlation between poor performance and the large number of early career professionals in sales.

I don’t think it adds value to share the name of the CEO or the company, but I will mention they’ve raised more than $300 million from prominent VCs and corporate investors. I point this out to illustrate that it’s not an insignificant company and to suggest that the CEO’s view is quite possibly a shared one. 

At first, I shrugged off the comment as it seemed like a provocative ploy to drum up interest in his product. Also, quota attainment is not a great barometer for sales effectiveness, so the comment lacked support. While sales people are not strangers to criticism, I want to offer a perspective on people’s ability to sell – especially for those who are new to the profession. 

First, keep in mind that nothing happens in business until a something is purchased and a sale is made. The business junkyard is littered with great inventions that didn’t sell. Everyday new products and services hit the market, yet few if any ever sell on their own. Those days might be coming, but they are not here yet.

Second, there is no role in business more purpose-built for people than sales. Buying elicits a host of reactions—fear, anxiety, excitement, happiness and unfortunately, the occasional regret. A buyer needs a person on the other side of the transaction who understands both the practical and emotional aspects of the sales endeavor. We need to embrace all the incredible tech that enables more efficient and effective buying and selling—yet understand that the human touch deeply matters at so many points before, during and after a purchase.

Finally, as long as there are people involved in the evaluation, selection, purchase and deployment of products and services, we’ll need more people to serve them, not fewer. Now is not the time to give up on new sales professionals—on the contrary, there has never been a more critical need to train, mentor, and guide people who are entering our field. As senior-level sales talent leaves the profession over the next 5-10 years, businesses will scramble to attract enough new recruits to fill the gap. 

That said, the CEO’s comments should act as yet another reminder that we must keep evolving.

The buying process is fundamentally transforming within the enterprise. There is a consumerization effect taking hold. Buyers are opting for more self-service; interactions are less frequent and more digital. Long gone are the days of 1-to-1, buyer-seller interactions where relationships almost always win. The case for change manifests in every reliable metric used to measure performance—win rates, cycle times, cost of sale. It’s undeniable that selling is getting harder, taking longer and costing more money. Easy-to-predict sales are (at least momentarily) a thing of the past. 

Yes, the individual seller is struggling to consistently be effective in this new model, yet it’s the overall selling system that is fundamentally failing. Few companies have adapted to this new reality. Most companies still recruit the same types of talent, train with the same legacy methodologies, organize in the same silos, measure the same metrics, and reward the same behaviors as they’ve been using for the past 25-50 years.

If you are operating under the belief that best practices in sales include predicting the best time to call a client, or being more persistent than the person sitting next to you, or cleverly cajoling a customer into viewing your product—I encourage you to push your thinking much further and re-evaluate your approach. You are in danger of becoming a dinosaur in the digital world. 

If you’re a sales leader who measures your team’s success by the number of meetings booked, demos performed, and % quota attained—consider different quality measures like conversation rates, cycle time, pursuit costs, satisfaction and loyalty scores, deal sizes and term length.

In this rapidly changing B2B landscape, metaphors that categorize sales people as hunters or farmers are struggling to remain relevant. Enterprise selling is more analogous to herding – whereby you’re working in a team to safely navigate a large group across a rough terrain to a new and better destination. Another way to think about the new role of sales is the curator of the customer’s purchase experience. Your goal is to make sure it’s a positive, differentiated one. It’s what 53% buyers say most influences their purchase decision. Work to anticipate a buyer’s needs so you can effectively serve them in those moments.

To stay in front and lead the change, sales people must become obsessed with learning. Be more curious and more inquisitive than ever before. Pay even closer attention to buyer behaviors and preferences. Understand how different personas learn, receive and process information. Know at which stages buyers prefer to be autonomous. When they do engage, know why and with whom buyers reach to for help.

If you believe successful selling is driving the client’s agenda, not only yours, you’re on the right path. If selling means providing support in spite of getting the immediate order, keep on going. If selling is finding solutions to a client’s toughest challenges, remain calm and confident. If this mindset matches your skill set, you’ll undoubtedly create value for your customers, colleagues and your company.

Keep growing, learning, and evolving—and Happy Selling.