Don’t forget the sales!

The sales function far too often treated like an impenetrable combination of personalities, voodoo, and tradition.  It’s time for that to stop.

Geoff Wilson

I have a theory when it comes to sales.  It goes something like this: Along the way in their executive development, a lot of really smart people develop a disdain for sales as a function.  In some cases, they view sales as “dirty” or “basic.”  They might view sales as risky . . . why would a smart person ever subject themselves to the risks of not making a sales quota.

As that prejudice against sales develops, this particular sort of executive tends to think of sales and the people and systems that enable sales as a sort of mystery.  It’s a realm of knowledge that is best left to the salespeople, who take those risks and drive the relationships necessary for the business to thrive.

But they also leave a lot on the table.

Some of the most complete business strategies I have seen have also completely ignored the processes and tools that accelerate sales. Why?  Because, as noted above, it’s a mystery. It’s rumored to be personality- or relationship-driven.  The thinking goes that we can control our product.  We can control our operations.  We can control our cost structures and our hiring and our marketing messages.  But we can’t “control” our salesforce.

This thought process is dangerous since there are process losses in sales just as there are in a manufacturing operation.  The difference is that in a manufacturing operation if something is left by the wayside it gets calculated as a cost.  It’s a known quantity.

In sales, if a call doesn’t get returned or a meeting is botched–and millions of dollars of sales are lost as a result–the cost never gets really quantified.  Sales process losses are far too often an unknown quantity. . . and a lot of people have incentives to keep it that way. Sales leaders who make their number don’t really have to own up to unforced errors.

On the other side, there are also plenty of elements of focus and efficiency that can be missed within a salesforce.  Poor lead qualification can lead to salespeople spending a lot of time on dead ends.  Poor account planning practices can lead to salespeople spending a lot of time selling the wrong things, or at the wrong value.

Imagine if your manufacturing plant consistently produced the wrong product.  You’d likely be mystified and perhaps furious.  Now imagine how often your salesforce might be selling to the wrong customers, with the wrong products, and at the wrong times.  Do you know?  Can you possibly know?

In most environments, you very much can know these things. But, your attention must be focused on sales as a function, as a process, and as an integral lever for strategic management success.

What do you think? 

Your Customer Has a Voice. Are You Listening?

Why hanging out with customers should be on everyone’s job spec


When was the last time you visited a customer?  If you’re in sales, it doesn’t count; that goes with the territory. I mean visited them purely to find out what’s on their mind. When running workshops, I often ask this question, and you’d be amazed how few people can honestly say they have looked a customer in the eye in the last 12 months. Taking time to learn about your customers first hand, face to face is a small investment that can yield big benefits.

Let me explain. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on market research—nothing can replace the real experience. It’s like the difference between reading a traveler’s guide to a country and actually visiting that country. I am by no means suggesting that market research doesn’t play a role because it does, but being able to visualize customers when you are making decisions that affect them can be very powerful.

In addition, seeing the environment in which your product or service is being used can identify issues or opportunities that might otherwise be missed. You may see that your customer has “MacGyvered” your product for a different purpose, or that the casing on your product has become so worn, the branding has disappeared. Issues like these may not be picked up in traditional market research.

Including a diverse mix of employees in customer visits is also important. Functional expertise, for example, can lead to different perspectives on the same situation. R&D, finance, HR, and even legal can all bring valuable insights from customer interactions.

Customers are usually more than happy to participate. Who doesn’t like to talk about themselves?  It’s like free therapy.

So what’s stopping you?

Your Sleeping Dogs Can Bite You

In sales, customer service, and leadership, the cultivation of ignorant customers and followers is common, and figuratively lethal.

“We call those customers our sleeping dogs.”

The senior executive who said this was referring to customers who were being overcharged. You know, the customers who are really profitable?  The ones who are ignorant of their bad deal?

The executive referred to them as his “sleeping dogs” to honor an unspoken policy that loudly said “let sleeping dogs lie.”  As in, don’t bother a customer who is content to stay with a bad deal.

They exist in many businesses. In the cable and wireless space, they are the ones whose better deal is literally a few minutes away by phone. In the industrial space, they are the customers who have taken annual price increases loyally until their current deal is so far out of market that they could hire the procurement professional they sorely need if they only asked for a market price re-set.

The problem with this executive’s thinking is this:  Sleeping dogs bite.

A Matter of Service, and Ethics…

It’s a fact of life that if you choose not to serve your customers, somebody else will. A corollary to that is that if you bank on the ignorance of your customers, you are banking on a very fleeting thing.

Now, I’ve gone far enough so that some of you are thinking I’m writing about really unethical behavior, but that is only partly the case.

Sure, a company that charges your grandmother $25 a month for the Sunday paper (true story…) is profiting from the ignorance of a customer, but such behavior rarely passes the red face test when it’s found out.

The Lost Art of Calling on Customers

The reality is that in the realm of good sales and customer service, we treat far, far too many customers as sleeping dogs even when we are making only a fair profit from them.

You know why?

It’s the same reason our executive at the start of the story had: We are scared of our customer. We are scared that we might learn of our own shortcomings, or how unhappy the customer really is (but just hasn’t gotten around to firing your company).

In the modern world of sales and service (well, at least dating back to the fax machine), many transactions can be carried out virtually and without human interaction. Also, because many younger people have grown up without actually calling on people or interacting with them (I’m talking to you, Millennials), customers are being left alone as sleeping dogs far more often than in the past.

Combine that with a healthy dose of conflict avoidance on the part of many of the sleeping dogs, and you have a recipe for customer defection.

The Learning Applies to Leaders, Too

Don’t kid yourself that there aren’t also a lot followers who could be considered sleeping dogs as well.  You know them?  They are the people who are making 70% of the salary of the guy next to them while doing twice the work.

They deserve better customer service, too.  If you know this inequitable circumstance exists, and bank on it; you are right there with the friendly senior executive in my starting paragraph.  No, I’m not saying that we should all go out and re-trade our employees’ comp plans, I’m saying that your tolerance for inequity is a defining trait of your leadership profile.  We all have some tolerance for it, some of us to the extreme.  If you are found out by your followers as a leader who readily and enthusiastically allows a follower to sell himself too cheaply; you will lose their trust.

Count on it.

So What…

What this means is that in your customer service, sales, and leadership approaches, you have to embed a much better appreciation for sensing what customers are thinking. Sometimes, it’s a simple phone call from a customer service rep to see what is working (or not). Sometimes, sure, it’s a customer survey. Sometimes, yes, it’s an active sales effort to re-set pricing with customers or employees whose deals are, shall we say, out of market.

In doing so, you will create better customer and employee loyalty, you will learn more about your own company’s strengths and weaknesses, and you just might generate a moment of truth that brings in a few more customers via referrals and good press.

A customer loss is a damaging thing. In most industries, the cost of customer acquisition is far higher than the true cost of retention. The same is true (in spades) for employees.  A customer or employee lost to negligence is far worse—kind of like a dog bite.

When it comes to your sales, service, and leadership approach, beware letting sleeping dogs lie.

The near-term profit is rarely worth the long-term pain.

I welcome your thoughts and reflections.