What Does It Mean to “Sell”?

Establishing a desirable sales culture begins with understanding the kind of culture you want to advance. Not all cultures are good. Strong cultures have both created civilizations and torn them down.

The two sides of this cultural coin are represented by two different definitions of the word “sell.” The first—“to persuade or induce someone to buy something”—represents a cultural aspect we should seek to change. One of the biggest obstacles to creating a sales culture is grounded in this definition, because many of the people who will make up the sales culture do not see themselves as salespeople.

What constitutes a salesperson? For those whose only responsibility is selling, the role is easy to define.

But what about consultants who are in a seller-doer role? Are they considered to be salespeople? The bigger question is, Do you consider them to be salespeople? Is that cashier at the airport newsstand who asks if you want a water to go with your purchase in customer service or sales?

Making everyone comfortable with their role in a sales culture is critical to success—and a major challenge for many of my clients. I know of one case where the people managing client relationships are so averse to sales they have trouble accepting that the services they provide define the relationship, which makes it difficult to convince them they can strengthen the relationship by selling the customer additional services. This is a big problem for an organization seeking to increase wallet share with its existing accounts.

To help those who do not consider themselves salespeople become comfortable within the sales culture, I suggest they embrace the following definition of the word “sell”: “to cause to be accepted especially, generally or widely.” Positioning selling as the act of building consensus with the customer around a solution should help mitigate objections to the sales discipline.

Of course not everyone has a problem with their selling role. Many people thrive on the hunt and, in fact, have little appetite for anything else. These individuals can be like uranium. Properly harnessed and controlled, they can power cities. Left unleashed, they blow them up. Keeping focused on this second definition of the word “sell” positions us to address both ends of the spectrum.

The most effective cultural strategy is to establish a systematic approach for driving a continuous customer-centric orientation. For the pure seller, who might be prone to pitch rather than position, a disciplined customer focus is created. This will improve their results while at the same time preventing behaviors that compromise long-term relationships. It also creates a solutions-development orientation for those who do not see themselves as salespeople. The resulting comfort level opens minds up to exploring and adopting sales best practices.

What Is a Culture?

Creating a culture starts with understanding the kind of culture you want to establish. This article is not about creating a sales culture. You already have one—good or bad. This article is about creating the sales culture that you want. As legendary Yankee Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you are going, you’ll end up someplace else.”

The definition of the word “culture” most relevant here is “the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, science, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.” Selling is a science applied with art (or vice versa). Letters and manners reflect how we conduct ourselves in customer interactions. The scholarly pursuits of selling include building our customer, solution, and sales best-practice knowledge. A sales culture is the sum of how its members think, act, and behave.

Creating a sales culture is all about defining and driving the thinking, activities, and behaviors we want to characterize the culture. The best way to accomplish this foundational task is to identify and replicate proven success factors and top performer best practices.

Selling is a science applied with art (or vice versa)

I had a client who embarked on a company-wide commercial excellence initiative. Their goal was both lofty and admirable: They wanted to achieve world-class excellence in everything they did. But sales became a roadblock. As one of their manufacturing leaders put it, “When it comes to things like increasing production, speeding processes, and eliminating waste, I know what levers to pull. But sales is a mystery to me. It’s like some black art I just can’t get my arms around.”

While I understood her frustration, I could not disagree more. The same systematic, process-oriented approach used to improve performance in other areas of an organization are just as applicable in the sales discipline. It is simply a matter of measuring performance against proven success factors and best practices. However, the goals and performance indicators we choose have to be specific and measurable.

Think about the common goal most of us share of “getting more exercise.” What does that mean, exactly? Saying you are going to go to the gym “more” is very different than committing to 45-minutes of cardio three times a week. Without specific objectives and metrics, we are back to Yogi’s prophecy.

What Is a Transformation?

One definition of “transformation” reads “a change in form, appearance, nature or character.” Without a system for driving, reinforcing, and sustaining change over the long haul, we may achieve a short-term course correction. However, it likely will be doomed to become the latest flavor of the month.

Here’s a perfect example. A multibillion dollar industry is consistently growing despite a failure rate that exceeds 90 percent. Can you guess what it is? It’s the diet industry. Diets fail because they are not sustainable. They produce short-term improvement by forcing compliance. What they do not do is achieve long-term results by changing people’s eating and exercise habits.

The key to fundamentally altering the way people think, act, and behave is to make the elements of your change initiative the thing and not just another thing. Without constant, ongoing reinforcement supported by ease of use, people will quickly fall back on established habits. There is a direct correlation between the degree to which sales organizations embed measures designed to drive desirable thinking, activity, and behavior into daily activities and the degree to which these measures deliver results.

One of my clients invested a tremendous amount of time and resources into creating a culture of sales excellence. They did just about everything right. We built a robust sales system. Executive-level commitment was secured. Value was demonstrated. Results were achieved and communicated. Tools, resources, and support were provided. However, only pockets of anecdotal success were achieved.

That is because the client did not initially have a CRM system in place. This made using the sales system an additional task with no mechanism for tying everything together. When they did launch a CRM platform, the impact on the sales-effectiveness initiative was immediate and dramatic. Integrating performance drivers into daily activities in a way that made them easy to use established an unmistakable rhythm and cadence.

Defining the Formula for Success

While successfully executing the kind of change necessary to bring about a desirable sales culture is complex and difficult, the formula for success is relatively simple. It starts with building consensus for the need to change and defining exactly what the change should look like. Then, a clear roadmap is needed that everyone can follow. The map must be both firm and flexible enough to address detours. Perhaps Mike Tyson put it best when he said,

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Any good change-management initiative should be structured around a functional mechanism that allows you to roll with the punches while ensuring you stay the course.

Credits: Miller Heiman


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