Respect your company’s sales force–they pay your salary

Buy it for a dollar, sell it for two.
Buy it for a dollar, sell it for two.
Image: AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili
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Another people-in-tech Monday Note, vs. tech itself, in the spirit of The HR-Less Performance Review and Firing Well, this time about the value of competent, service-oriented salespeople, and the respect we owe them – with our own interest in mind. 

We’re at the Board Meeting of a Valley start-up. An investor has exhorted the founder to go, go, go…push the (almost, we know how it goes) finished product to the market as quickly as possible. ‘But,’ the founder responds, ‘we first have to build a sales team, find some knowledgable people, teach them the product…’ The investor cuts him off:

“Don’t waste our time and money. Just get yourself a bunch of coin-operated salespeople…”

This thoughtless characterization of sales is too common, it’s counterproductive, and it has been part of the culture for a long time.

When a family catastrophe threw me out on the streets more than 50 years ago, I went through what California healers aptly call a psychosocial moratorium, a process of adaptation that landed me in a rapid succession of jobs, many in sales, from insurance and office equipment to pharmaceuticals and dietary supplements, mostly with undistinguished to really bad companies that treated their salespeople as cannon fodder.

When I joined Hewlett-Packard France four years later, I anticipated a more humane approach (accurately described in David Packard’s calm, almost reticent memoir: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company). But, to my disappointment, not everyone adhered to the HP Way. When I started recruiting salespeople after launching the company’s first desktop computer, my methods were challenged: “Why do you insist on tech college degrees? Salesmen are mere peddlers.”

I had an uneducated intuition: We need salespeople who are masters of their products. The more they know about what they’re selling, the more they’ll sell.

Experience led to a theory: My Prospects will tell me as much as they think I can understand about their situation, their needs. By exhibiting a command of what I have to offer, I engender trust, which leads the Prospect to tell me more about his/her headaches, including office politics. Thus armed, I can propose a well-defined solution, suggest alternatives… or avoid a bad sale altogether.

It worked very well for me and the people I worked with, but the cheap view of sales endured.

So it was in Apple’s early days. Hired to start Apple France and develop a network of French retailers, I took my baptismal trip to the hallowed halls of Cupertino’s Bandley Drive in February, 1981. I got my company badge and immediately took off in my rental car to visit Apple shops along El Camino Real. A surprise awaited me. Everywhere I went, store owners welcomed me, smiled at my heavy French accent, and said they were delighted to see someone from Apple – at last. They’d never been visited by anyone from Cupertino, even though it was just a couple miles away.

I returned to the office and asked the head of Sales why he and his people had never visited Apple retailers. He brushed back his permed locks (yes, some straight men permed their hair back then) and scoffed: “Why bother? Apple ][s sell themselves.”

After I flew back home to Paris, I set up a sales organization that had a thorough knowledge of Apple products and an affinity for the company’s considerable ambitions. (I also started my habit of weekly writings withApple Hebdo, a love and information newsletter from every department in the organization to our business partners.) The approach worked very well — well enough that I was brought back to the Valley in 1985, this time to run Apple’s engineering.

Back to the Board Meeting: I almost ask my fellow director why he wants to treat salespeople like street walkers. Doesn’t he realize that any sensible employee can sense our expectations and will naturally rise — or sink — to fulfill them?

Instead, I direct my questions to the CEO: Does he have a job description for sales? Prerequisites and salary range?

No. Not yet. The founder is an engineer and, regardless of his innate ability to sell his ideas to everyone from his parents to fellow workers and investors, he’s never “carried a bag”, he’s never had a sales job with a territory and a quota. And, like many fellow engineers, he oozes barely disguised disregard for sales and has mixed feelings about entrusting his precious creation into their less capable, dirtier hands.

Without a doubt (I assure him), the crystalline purity of what he and his team have created is the core asset. That’s who and what we invested in. But… what about the company’s money pump? Who fits the hoses into the proper spigots? Who works the levers and causes the sacred fluid to course from customers’ pockets into our coffers?

Fortunately, the CEO’s IQ overcomes his EQ, and he quickly regroups:

“You’re right…we need knowledgable salespeople. And really good ones because beta tests have shown early adopters to be happy… after a bit of orientation and learning.”

A salesperson’s domain knowledge isn’t just a boon to sales, it’s an important component when sales brings back customer feedback. Engineers know when they’re dealing with a “coin-operated” salesperson, and they have no respect for the species. ‘Ah, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!’. Actually, engineers don’t have much respect for sales, period, but they’ll listen to a technically competent salesperson, particularly if he or she is bringing back an esoteric bug report.

Then there’s the issue of compensation. Too much “compensation pressure” leads to incautious statements about the product’s features and benefits, which leads to disappointed customers. And unless you’re a de facto monopolist such as a cable operator, you can’t afford even one unhappy customer.

Furthermore, most people want to do good and do well, in whichever order. Salespeople are no exception. Compensation mustn’t send the message that salespeople need only work hard (and smart) when they’re bribed.

I’ve seen and been part of a variety of sales compensation structures: All commission, no commission, bonuses on goals, bell curve compensation… They can all be made to work, but the point is this: The focus of selling mustn’t be about the sale, but about a relationship with the customer, a relationship that can lead to a steady stream of transactions.

A vignette comes to memory. At the now defunct Data General minicomputer company, nothing ever worked coming out of the factory, products had to be finished in the field. The DG salespeople, true survivors, were paid a commission of 1%. Not 1% of bookings, nor shipped revenue. No, they got 1% of collections. They got paid when customers paid… and customers didn’t pay until they were finally satisfied that what they bought also happened to work.

From time to time, marketing would visit from the Home Office to “gift” the salespeople with a shiny new product presentation. Savvy salespeople nodded, grin-effed the presenter…and then went out in the field to present the products as they actually worked. They knew what their customers would pay for, regardless of what the missi dominici touted.

Here’s to salespeople and to those who appreciate them.

This post originally appeared at Monday Note.