I have a confession to make. I can only hope that, when I’m done, you’ll remember that people are capable of change and you won’t judge me too harshly.
I started my career in “sales.”
I put “sales” in quotes, because here comes the confession: You know those really annoying people in malls that harass you as you walk around their kiosk and try to sell you cell phones?
I used to be one. Worse, I used to train them. I worked very hard teaching my teams to interrupt as many people as possible and drag them into conversations they didn’t want to have about their cell phone plans.
Training and motivating those teams was about as stereotypical as you could possibly imagine. In training, we actually showed new employees clips from movies like Glengarry Glen Ross and Boiler Room.
The strategy was simple: Hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people walked past our mall kiosks every day. If we interrupted each one, 20–30 would stop and talk to us depending on how sneaky our “greet” was. That was usually enough for us to sell 3–5 phones per rep per day.
We had people look down and hurry past to avoid making eye contact. We had people yell at us. We had people throw stuff at us. We even once had a guy say he was going to go get his gun and shoot us.
WOTs, we’d call them. Wastes of time. “A lion doesn’t concern himself with the opinions of sheep,” we’d tell our reps. They were lions. Prospects were sheep.
We trained our sales reps to deal with the emotional trauma with some pretty impressive mental gymnastics to rationalize what we were doing. I feel gross just thinking about it now. It’s not a period of my professional life that I’m particularly proud of — but it’s a culture that remains ingrained in many sales organizations. A.B.C. Always. Be. Closing.
Imagine if I tried to sell software that way today, doing something crazy like — I dunno — cold calling you when you have no interest in talking to me:
“Sir! Sir! Who do you use for sales and marketing software? One second, please, let me tell you how you can save money. Sir! SIR!”
“Ma’am! Excuse me — ma’am! Did I miss your response? You must have responded and I missed it somehow because this deal is too great to pass up! Only a crazy person would ignore this and you’re not crazy, right? So your reply must have gotten lost in my email inbox.”
Vomit. Is this really what we should call “sales”? Is this a profession we can be proud of?
But that company made piles of money and was extremely successful from a revenue perspective. Our CEO became a millionaire many times over, and most of us made pretty damn good money as well. If we never missed quota, were we doing anything wrong?
It turns out, yes. We were making far less money than we could have been if we hadn’t been so damn irritating.
Coffee is for listeners
Several years ago, the sales executives at HubSpot did an analysis to see what characteristics of sales reps had the highest correlation to long term quota attainment (which is how most companies define the success of their sales organizations).
The findings were a clear indictment of everything the old culture of sales taught us about success. All the things we used to associate with being a great sales rep — such as being a convincing “closer” — actually hurt your chances of hitting quota long term. If you actually did what I was training you to do, you’d make less money. So would the company.
2010 study showing correlation to long-term quota attainment for sales rep characteristics as rated by management
Domain experience and adaptability had a higher correlation to success than rapport building? Objection handling? Closing ability?!
Everything that we trained on, everything that the hustle culture of sales was built on, all that energetic selling I trained my people to do — it was bad for the company and bad for the sales reps in the new world. I wasn’t doing anyone any favors.
There’s a psychology experiment called the candle problem that measures adaptability. In it, participants sat at a table are given materials like a candle, a book of matches, and a box of tacks, and asked to affix the candle to the wall in such a way that no wax will drip on the table.
Many try tacking the candle to the wall or melting the wax and using that to keep the candle up, but obviously, none of that works. The right answer is to empty the box of tacks, tack that box to the wall, and put the candle in the box.
This is a test of adaptability. It measures your ability to overcome what we call “functional fixedness,” meaning you only see things as useful in the way you understand them. A box of tacks is designed to hold tacks. Until — aha !— it’s also a candle holder.
But a strange thing happens when you get people excited by offering them money to complete it quickly — they do a worse job than people who are doing it for free. Their functional fixedness increases and their adaptability decreases. They don’t see the candle holder, only the box.
Whether it’s the stress of timed performance or the excitement created by the incentive, adding pressure to a situation decreases our ability to be creatively adaptable. When we let ourselves get excited or afraid or focus on closing the deal in order to get our commission checks, we suffer from the same cognitive bias. We see what we’re selling as what you expect it to be. We don’t step back and think about the ways in which our customer is unique and how they can use it differently to be the best solution for them.
If we let ourselves focus on closing and allow ourselves to get excited or pumped up, we’re going to close fewer deals. We’re going to make less money.
The sales job has changed
When did all of this change? When did closers become losers? For most of the history of sales, the sales rep has had all of the power: pricing information, testimonials, functionality specs, and deep context around what features actually matter to whom and for what reasons. If a prospect wanted to learn more about what they should buy and why—they had to come through me.
All of that changed when the internet made the world smaller. Prospects arrive in the sales process already armed with more information than they can possibly process. They can access testimonials and reviews from anyone — not the ones I’ve cherry-picked. According to the Corporate Executive Board, B2B buyers are now 60% of the way through their purchase process before they ever actually talk to a sales rep.
When the internet gave consumers the keys to information, it broke the traditional sales tactics.
This is the new core advantage for human sales reps — we can help you make sense of all that information. All of those pricing comparisons, customer reviews, specifications sheets, different features — it can all be very overwhelming and confusing. But we deal with this stuff all day, and we’ve seen hundreds of people use our solution in thousands of ways — that’s our position of strength.
This isn’t just feel-good pontificating: The data backs this up. Teach, and win. Close, and lose.
“For me, sales was always about building relationships.” —an inevitable response. But I’ve been honest with you, so I want you to be honest with yourself: In the pre-internet age — before the prospect had all the power — you were a closer or you were a piker. This was the culture we knew, because this was the culture we built. This is what we were taught by our sales heroes, and this is what we taught the young professionals after us.
Sure, we all told ourselves that sales was about “relationship” building and rationalized that we weren’t slimy sales reps. But we didn’t train — or incentivize — our sales reps that way, so they didn’t behave that way. We trained and paid them to Always Be Closing, and we lost a lot of customers that way — we just didn’t know it.
Preparation, adaptability, and enough domain experience to help a customer make sense of the deluge of data they have to make decisions is how customers are won.
Hitting quota isn’t enough
It’s obvious why sales reps would care about this. They will make more money if they focus on coaching instead of closing. But why should sales leaders care if they’re already hitting quota?
Close the deal, get the customer past the 14-day window where returns have to be processed through corporate (and you still get paid). Profit.
Our reps didn’t care if the customer actually needed the phone. They definitely didn’t care if they were setting that customer up with the best plan for them. It likely didn’t even enter their minds if they’re going to be a profitable customer for the company — since it never entered ours as sales trainers and managers.
Today, smart business leaders know that customer retention and long-term monetization is one of the most powerful points of leverage in a business. Recurring revenue models (like, I dunno, cell phones) can create models where sales+marketing costs can actually exceed the amount of revenue a customer pays in their first transaction or even their first 10 transactions. Depending on how good you are at keeping customers around long term, you can spend way more money to begin a revenue relationship than you get back in the short term — but only if your sales team is feeding quality inputs into the business model.
If they’re not, your entire business can fall apart astonishingly quickly, and you won’t realize how screwed you are until you’re way too far into the cash-consumption section of the curve. This is why some companies have aggressive “clawback” protocols to take commissions back from sales reps whose customers cancel and why some companies create additional promotions and commission multipliers tied to long term customer success.
The yellow curve company can spend more on sales and marketing than the red company. The green curve company can spend even more than the yellow curve company. When you know your customers will stick around, you have a lot of leverage.
Gold in, gold out
Sales is the engine that fuels the growth of your company. When you recruit, train, compensate, and coach sales reps focused on winning long term by doing the best thing for the customer, you will hit quota more often. Your company will grow by farming a healthy base of existing customers.
This is the wonderful age we live in: Doing the right thing for the customer, the thing that makes you feel good and proud of your profession, is now the best thing you can do for your business. You will make more money. Your company will make more money. Your customers may become lifelong friends.
Today my customers don’t run away from me, they take pictures with me.