Countering Misconceptions about Sales

After reading some of the comments on this blog from non-sales folk, I'm convinced that there are a fair number of businesspeople who neither like nor respect sales pros â€" especially the ones working in their own company. That attitude can be a major impediment to getting things done, so I'm going to identify the misconceptions that create that attitude, and give you some suggestions for coping with them.

Misconception #1: Great products "sell themselves." The adage "build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door" is alive and well in corporate America. As such, many non-sales personnel tend to look upon the sales function as, best case, a subtle insult to the product (which if it were really good would be selling itself) or, worst case, a parasitical expenditure that roadblocks in the "path" to the door.
To overcome this misconception, always differentiate between "products" (which are standardized for multiple customers) and "solutions" (which are customized for individual customers) when communicating about your job. Explain the sales function in terms of creating a solution, rather than convincing a customer to buy a product, and you'll be positioned as contributor rather than a parasite.

Misconception #2: Sales gets lots of perks and boondoggles. Non-sales personnel resent the fact that it takes money to make sales. They view taking a customer to a restaurant to schmooze and talk business as something that's "fun." (If only they knew how "fun" it is the 500th time, eh?) Similarly, an engineer working overtime in a cubicle during a February snowstorm in Minneapolis gets hot under the collar when the sales staff is having its annual meeting in Miami. To overcome this misconception, when you talk about things like business lunches and sales meetings, emphasize the reasons behind the expense, rather than positioning them as perks. Bragging about fancy food and nights spent drinking at the ocean-side bar simply confirms your non-sales colleagues' worst suspicions. Talk about what you accomplished, not what you ate and drank. And consider booking the annual sales meeting somewhere a bit less provocative, like the South Carolina coast.

Misconception #3. Sales pros don't deserve to earn so much. In many organizations, the sales pros are (quite rightly) the highest paid non-executive employees. However, because non-sales folk see the sales function as parasitical and bloated with perks, they simply can't understand why this should be so. To their minds, it's the non-sales folk (like engineers and marketeers) who are doing the "real" work. To overcome this misconception, emphasize that selling entails a high risk of failure, which is why there's a higher reward. Sales reps prefer to ignore the possibility of failure, but if ever there's a time to point out "if they don't buy, my kids don't eat," it's when talking to your non-sales colleagues. Let them know how difficult it can be to be "on" all the time during a customer visit. Share some customer horror stories. (You probably have a few that will curl their toes.) Needless to say, your internal dialog should remain positive, but if there's a time for some outward grousing, it's when you're around non-sales colleagues.

Misconception #4. Sales over-commits and under-informs. Actually, there's a grain of truth in this one. The popular sales adage "don't confuse selling with installing" is good advice, but the concept is subject to abuse. Inside many sales-driven organizations there can be tendency, in the heat of the moment, to sell solutions that the rest of the company may not be able to deliver. Engineers and support personnel resent suddenly finding out that they've got to add some obscure feature or provide some special service simply to support some customer they've never heard of before. To overcome this "misconception", keep in mind that special work, even if its needed to close an important deal, increases the cost of sales. So use it sparingly as a sales tool. And as the deal moves forward, keep everyone informed as it becomes clear that special work will be required. If you get buy-in ahead of time, the rest of your team can figure out how to get the necessary work done without working away their weekends.

Let's face it: some of your non-sales colleagues are going to treat sales pros like something the cat dragged in -- no matter what you say or do. But sensible, mature business professionals are more than capable of understanding enough about the sales process to value your contribution, providing you keep them in the loop.