For those of us in the sales profession, it can be argued we are on the front lines of capitalism—the leading edge of demand creation. Salespeople who are paid wholly or partially on commission are daily living in a real world supply-and-demand marketplace where their financial worth is determined by the value of their productivity.
I have been thinking about our roles in a capitalistic society often these days, because the very worth and value of capitalism itself, shockingly, is being argued daily in this country and abroad since the banking crisis hit. If we draw the right conclusions about who we as salespeople really are and what motivates us within this tough, capitalist system, we can best thrive in the current continued economic doldrums.
Thinking about motivated salespeople also gets me thinking about an old friend and mentor, Tom Major…but more on Tom later.
Much has been written in the past two years since the economic meltdown about topics such as "the failure of capitalism," "the problem with capitalism," and even "the end of capitalism" (I'm not holding my breath for that one). In many of these articles, along with critiques of the structural nature of capitalism, an important part of the narrative is that greed is fingered as one of the key drivers of the capitalistic free market. And greed, of course, is so 20th Century, and we really need to move to a more altruistic societal model, right?
Surely, the perception exists that salespeople are driven to a large degree by greed. Reinforcing this view, when surveyed about the preferred type of incentive reward, some 78 percent of salespeople polled in a University of Chicago study answered "cash." One article I've read rails against "greedy sales forces continuing to corrupt the art of persuasion," who "attempt to sell you products that you don't need and that you don't want." Surely this is the dark underbelly of capitalism and sales, right?
There is no doubt greed plays its part in a capitalistic society, and anyone who thinks it doesn't play a part in collectivist societies needs to have his or her head examined. Greed plays its part regardless, and at least in a capitalist democracy, merit will most often be rewarded.
But at the individual level, the focus on the idea greed is the primary driver of capitalism misses Adam Smith's point that self-interest drives economic decisions—and that is a much more complex and nuanced motivator. One of the beauties of capitalism is that it will always be the economic system that best provides the human spirit with the means to pursue self-interest. At its highest level, it is the means to achieve dreams.
I believe most salespeople, while certainly money-focused (because that's how we keep score), have chosen sales because it is a most capitalistic profession, and the rough-and-tumble elements of selling provide the perfect arena for sales professionals to achieve their own unique self-interests and dreams.
I also believe successful salespeople—not just superstars, but the solid middle majority, as well—have bedrock beliefs in what they sell, why they are selling, and the value of their products, services, and personal intellectual capital. In other words, selling is about emotions and motivators that are far more complex and even more altruistic than the greed factor.
So what does that mean for a sales manager? You already have a compelling sales proposition, you are already doing an excellent job of training your people, your compensation plan is perfect, your incentives are motivational, and you recognize your people well. This is where Tom comes in.
Tom Major was a marketing manager with Eastman Kodak back in the early 1980s, when I was a neophyte sales guy. His job was to teach our training team the "Kodak marketing fundamentals." For two weeks, this fantastic, hyperactive, chain-smoking, verbal machine-gunning missile of a man taught us much more than marketing basics. He imparted the fundamentals of belief in the "Kodak way," and the goodness and truth of the mission of the Kodak company, and righteousness of the sales organization.
Yes, our training class was pretty young, and we drank that stuff in. But putting aside the propaganda, Tom taught us to appreciate what we were selling: not just a box of industrial film, but the quality-perfect fruits of a team of hard-working researchers and manufacturing professionals to a sales audience of graphics markets professionals, whose lives would be improved through the ease of use and precision of our products. Taken one step further, those Kodak products enhanced the world of every end user who read a paper or magazine produced with Kodak products.
At some level, Tom taught us to value the essence of being a salesperson and the worth we brought to clients. He also got to know each of us individually and learned about our personalities, so he could help us maximize our unique abilities to eventually realize our dreams.
We are in a different and far more cynical age, and I'm not saying the Tom Major approach would work today. But I am suggesting the essence of Tom's method of helping us develop a deep mission for our work, coupled with an understanding of what made us tick as individuals, was (and is) a recipe for developing a successful sales organization.
Here are a couple of things to pay attention to:
Sales culture of meaning. I speak often of developing in sales organizations a "culture of performance," but it's true a sales culture needs to embrace the importance of the mission of the organization, and the interrelatedness of sales to the other parts of an organization that develops and delivers the products and services.
It doesn't matter what we sell. We are all important to making people's lives better and happier, regardless of whether we are promoting life-saving drugs or paper clips.
One-on-one understanding of your people. Every salesperson has a different idea of success and what that means to him or her within the boundaries of the organization's sales model. It is imperative front-line sales managers get to know their people on a very personal level to understand what their talents, self-interests, and dreams truly are, to best be able to help them maximize their abilities and find meaning in their jobs and lives.
Recognition and reinforcement. You are already recognizing top sales achievers, but start to recognize your people in personal ways for victories in and out of the sales arena that are part of their dreams. Feed that quest for meaning and achievement.
Sales is the front lines of capitalism. Help your team develop a love for the sales profession and a passion for the meaning of what they do. Get involved in their lives to recognize them as they achieve their dreams, reinforcing their value and importance within this great American capitalist enterprise.
SMM columnist David Chittock is president of Incentra.