Is Selling Warfare?

Last Updated May 7, 2007 9:26 AM EDT

The final page of yesterday’s New York Times "Book Review" magazine contained an article about the guilty pleasure of reading bad books that specifically cited, as one of the worst examples of the breed, “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.”  That book (...indeed a stinker of cosmic proportions) was one of an entire genre of books espousing the idea that business is warfare.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t some wisdom that can be extracted from the comparison of the two activities, but most of the literature on the subject, and all the corporate lingo, bears more resemblance to the kind of army thinking in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” than to anything resembling modern military theory. And the military metaphor can definitely damage a company's ability to sell.

To understand why, lets look outside the business world. For the past five years, the U.S. has been fighting a “war on terror,” a metaphor that automatically frames the challenge in terms of military action, rather than, say, political action. The same is true of the hoary “war on drugs,” which keeps our government from seriously considering alternative approaches, such as decriminalization. Regardless of the merit (or lack of merit) inherent in those alternative approaches, as long as the debate is framed inside a warlike metaphor, alternative tactics remain practically unthinkable.

The same is true in business. Companies that internalize the military metaphor are irresistibly drawn to build large, hierarchical, organizations fraught with iron-strong "chains of command."  Sales managers inside such firms find it difficult, if not impossible, to allow their sales teams the freedom to adapt to customers’ buying processes. Instead, they expect sales reps to be good troopers who follow orders, usually in the form of a highly rigid sales process.  Worse, such companies have an incredibly difficult time dealing with customers as partners rather than as territory to be conquered.

Here's a real life example.  In the 1990s there were two companies – Cisco and Cabletron – competing for the same market. Cabletron’s CSO co-owner was a guy named Bob Levine, and he had the military bug, in spades.  For instance, in addition to wearing military fatigues to sales meetings, he bought a surplus Sherman tank to drive customers around the grounds of his New Hampshire estate.  Under Levine's leadership, Cabletron became the epitome of the military-minded high-tech firm. The culture was so extreme that a journalist (that would be me) who dared write an article critical of the company received two telephoned death threats.  True story.

As is typical in high tech, Cisco and Cabletron were not just competitors, but naturally drawn together as business partners.  (It used to be called "coopetition"; now it's just "business as usual.")  Cabletron was a big licensee of Cisco’s software, which constituted an important feature for many of Cabletron’s best customers.

Unfortunately, Cabletron’s militaristic culture couldn’t help but see Cisco as the “enemy.”  Consequently, Levine slandered Cisco, falsely blaming their equipment for a widely-publicized outage at America Online.  Then, at a major trade conference, Levine staged a mock boxing match between Cisco (as represented by an overweight palooka) being pummeled by Cabletron, represented as “a tower of muscle and testosterone,” to use the words of one attendee. 

Cisco responded by declaring Cabletron in violation of their license to use Cisco’s software. Cabletron’s user base, which depended upon that software went totally ballistic (as they say). Suddenly Cabletron’s sales force found that they were persona-non-grata at customer sites because the company was seen as being cluelessly hostile to a company that was critical to the customer's success. “Even Apple and Microsoft get along better than that,” an analyst told me at the time.

More importantly, Levine's militaristic thinking permeated the sales organization to the point where it was alienating those customers who still remained within the fold. I once sat on plane trip next to the vice president of a large media company, who told me a story about a Cabletron salesperson that had given him a sales pitch. The salesperson kept using the word “targeted”: The product was “targeted” for the media industry, the ad campaign was “targeted” at new customers, sales resources had been “targeted” in this geographic area, and so forth. Finally the VP told the rep to leave. “I felt like he was aiming a gun at my head,” she confided to me. “Not once did he bother to tell me how he was going to help me make money.”

Long story short, Cisco grew to become one of the greatest companies in high tech and Cabletron, which once commanded a billion dollars in yearly revenue, dwindled into an industry footnote.  

This is not an isolated case.  For the past decade, I've watched dozens of companies get bit by the corporate militarism bug, with predictable results: unhappy customers and broken business partnerships.  From my perspective, the lesson is clear:

  • Selling is not warfare. 
  • The competition is not the enemy. 
  • The customer is not territory to be conquered.

In today's sales environments, even Attila the Hun would be taking classes on building better relationships.