SELL, SELL, SELL
November 1, 2010 9 Comments
Nothing happens in this world until somebody sells something!
Which makes “selling” the noblest profession of them all !!
It may not officially be the oldest profession, but I doubt that even that could have existed without some sales effort.
I am not talking about the pressure selling of things that people don’t need and can’t really afford such as we have seen in the housing industry in the US most recently and which has brought the world to its economic knees. I am talking about the professional selling of products and services that can add value to people and organisations.
I was surprised when I first joined SAP to find that the Germans generally don’t actually hold any salesmen in high regard. The common term for a salesman is “Klinkenputzer” (door knob polisher), and salesmen are considered to dwell way down the bottom of the social scale with grave diggers and septic tank cleaners, and only just barely rank above serial killers.
In the same way that Ken Olsen, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), believed that salesmen were really unnecessary, as he believed that they couldn’t do anything significantly more than could be achieved by mailing out the PDP-8 and PDP-11 handbooks, the German culture of engineering excellence tends to believe that “ … if you build it they will come …”. This is based on the fact that if people or organisations need things they will seek them out, and then you just need to demonstrate that you are the best available. It may work well when you are the only game in town, but starts to get shaky when you have serious competition and the market starts to look for more than just product excellence from its suppliers, such as industry knowledge, an understanding of its pain points and how to solve them, and a mutually beneficial business relationship that is based on more than just product price-performance ratios.
DEC, who drove the mini-computer revolution and dominated the market in the 70s and 80s, is no longer with us, and I have no doubt that part of their demise was because they never really overcame this basic lack of belief in the need for a skilled, professional, passionate, capable sales force. It did survive and prosper for a time based on the “let’s change the world” culture, and brilliant engineering, but faltered as competition flourished and the world started to change towards non-proprietary operating systems and networked workstations and PCs. (Building a multi-directional matrix organisation that strangled initiative and killed personal accountability didn’t help either, but that’s another story).
I remember an article in Fortune magazine in 1979 comparing DEC and Data General titled the “The Gentlemen versus the Upstarts”. It was interesting that both companies used this as marketing material, as they were equally proud of their labels. The problem is that gentlemen finish last and upstarts can eventually annoy everyone, so both are now resting with the Dodo.
The one serious survivor in our industry is IBM, who I believe have written the book on professional selling. When I first started playing with computers back in 1965 (See “My son is in typewriters” posted on July 08, 2010), the IT Industry was dominated by IBM and the “BUNCH” being Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell), all no longer with us. IBM, despite a serious hiccup in the 80s is still here and flourishing. Whilst they have always been towards the forefront of most technologies, they have rarely been at the leading edge, having been a fast follower in many instances rather than the initiator, and yet they have remained a force for over 60 years.
I have always believed that one of the major reasons for this has been their sales professionalism. Many companies paid significantly more, many companies had hungrier and more aggressive compensation plans and sales forces, but few have matched the skill and power of the IBM sales machine. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand in my 8 years at International Harvester in NZ and afterwards when competing with them in the late 70s and 80s (IBM was a partner rather than a competitor at SAP), and have always been impressed with their sales excellence, which I believe has been unmatched in the industry.
The major thing that IBM seems to have always understood, beyond the need for serious training programs and the protection of their culture, is that whilst being at the forefront of technology is important, true competitive edge lies in the quality of your people and the right to engage with the customer, elements that IBM have built into their corporate DNA over the last 60 years.
Outside of a small handful of the large global consulting companies IBM more than anyone has earned the right to engage at all the relevant senior levels in major companies around the world. Their sales teams are welcomed in board rooms because they are seen as serious value add and as business advisors, not necessarily because they have the latest “hot” products.
That’s what professional selling is all about.