Madeleine Crum, The Huffington Post: The following is an excerpt from Philip Delves Broughton's "The Art of The Sale: Learning from the Masters About the Business of Life" [The Penguin Press, $27.95]. Aside from offering advice to burgeoning businessmen, this book explains the omnipresence of selling and its role in religion, art and dating.
The global financial crisis provoked an existential crisis at the world’s top business schools. What was the point of what they taught, if their graduates kept driving the global economy off cliffs? Harvard Business School reacted by revamping its first year MBA curriculum to bridge what it calls the “knowing-doing gap”. It created a program called FIELD, which breaks its MBAs into small teams who work together in classrooms called “hives”, sends them out into emerging markets to develop product or service concepts and brings them back home to launch what they call a “real microbusiness.”
It all sounds like tremendous fun, but still fails to include the one business skill which more than any other bridges the gap between knowing and doing: sales.
Business academics continue to treat sales as the ugly stepchild of marketing and mostly refuse to teach it. It is a ludicrous omission and a major reason why the business elite has become so unmoored from the rest of society.
When I was at HBS, I asked one of my professors why sales was not taught, and he recommended that if I was keen to learn, I should sign up for a Dale Carnegie course. We plugged away at our studies of arcane corporate strategy, knowing that without strategists business goes on, yet without salespeople it falls apart.
Now sales faces a new threat, besides academic snobbery. Using vast databases of personal details, marketers can slice us all into ever slimmer customer groups. They can divine from our keystrokes and swipes what we might buy next. Targeted ads and store design can do the rest. What use is left for the human touch of good salespeople?
Plenty. Rather than disappearing, the art and science of selling is undergoing its greatest revolution since the late 19th century, when America’s traveling peddlers were replaced by new corporate armies dispatched by the likes of Coca-Cola and the National Cash Register Company.
In an increasingly atomized economy, with corporations shrinking and freelancers on the rise, we are all salespeople now. On Twitter and Facebook, and in millions of blogs, it is all about the personal brand. Within organizations, the idea of the corporate man or woman has been challenged by what the business writer Tom Peters calls “the brand called you”. Selling is how managers coordinate the many fragmented parts of the global economy, persuading far-flung groups to work together. With the Internet, companies can communicate directly with consumers, politicians with voters and entertainers with their audience. The distribution paths to the market have been flattened, unleashing a scramble for Likes, Followers and ultimately buyers.
Instead of belittling salespeople, as the business schools do, we should be studying their skills as never before, and exorcising the worst stereotypes.
In 1961, Robert McMurry, an industrial psychologist from Chicago, published an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “The Mystique of Super-Salesmanship.” He offered a depressing view of successful salesmen. He described them as compulsive “wooers”, driven by feelings of inadequacy, abandonment and hostility to demonstrate their power over others by winning them over. They are “completely selfish...incapable of loyalty to anyone - employer, associates, supervisors, or prospects. They are, almost without exception, ‘lone wolves’ of the first order.” He depicts them as commercial Hannibal Lecters, highly attuned to other people’s needs and yet vicious in exploiting them.
McMurry’s view has been reinforced by the brutal sales culture depicted in films and plays like David Mamet’s Glengarry Glenn Ross. But it is not just dangerously incomplete. In the case of the very best salespeople, it is plain wrong.
Three years after McMurry, Herbert Greenberg, the founder of Caliper, a management consulting firm, and a young academic, David Mayer, interviewed thousands of salespeople to come up with a more nuanced and accurate picture of the good ones. They found that successful salespeople had a rare balance of empathy and ego, enough empathy to listen to other people, but enough ego to close. Their egos had to be weak enough to crave the reinforcement of a successful sale, but strong enough to be motivated by failure rather than defeated by it.
This definition allows for a great deal of variety. Successful salespeople don’t need to have glossy hair and dazzling smiles. They don’t require a strong handshake, glib patter, a snazzy business card or an artful set of closing techniques. Sales is not voodoo. In fact, the sizzle scarcely matters. Over the long haul, it really is about the steak.
Great salespeople are genuinely interested in what other people have to say, and able to distinguish between corporate wind-bagging and true feelings. They are able to take a product, not necessarily their own, and using their intellect and creativity find a way to convey its value to others. They must also be fortified with sufficient optimism and resilience to carry them through each day. The marketplace for products, service and ideas is not for emotional weaklings. Salespeople choose to make it their home.
The best salespeople bring us what is new and daring in business and politics, science and culture, and convince us of its worth. What they do is not just emotionally and intellectually hard, it also requires acute self-knowledge. Depending on their personalities, some will hurl themselves eagerly into parties and treat their children’s morning drop-off as an opportunity to network. Others prefer more discreet string-pulling and favor trading. Some enjoy the patient craft of creating value around a concept, for a building, a book or a work of art. Others revel in endless one-off transactions.
But all of us, in order to sell well, must be comfortable with our choices, with the masks we are ready to put on for different audiences, our readiness to mix the personal with the professional, and with our relationship to the truth. The answers are not always intuitive. But start selling without figuring this out and you are setting yourself up for psychological trouble.
In the process of transforming the nature of human networks, technology has sharpened rather than eroded the need to understand what underpins great selling. Virtual relationships, after all, involve real people. Technology is turning all of us into our own best or worst salespeople.
When Countrywide Financial was still issuing subprime mortgages, its CEO, Angelo Mozilo, would tell his colleagues them that he knew whether a homebuyer could pay the mortgage or not when he looked them in the eye. The problem was that Countrywide had stopped looking its customers in the eye when it abandoned the practice of personally interviewing potential borrowers. We behave very differently when selling to a credit score, credit card number or avatar, than when we have to meet our customers and decide whether what we are doing is in their interest as well as ours. Technology cannot become an excuse for bad sales behavior.
If business schools are serious about producing graduates of use to society, they won’t just start teaching sales. They will make it the core of all that they do, because every important question in business, financial, strategic, operational and ethical, can be derived from a simple sales transaction. How do I develop a product of value to others and profitable for me? How do I convey that value in way that is both compelling and honest? What does this transaction mean for me and for my customer, in the short and long term?
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