A job in sales is a little like this great blue heron living alone in the wild. Your resources are the ones you can find and you are on your own pretty well all the time. Sales people get it a little better than the heron. There are people who say they are going to help you, but the ones that understand your situation and provide the help you really need are few and far between.
A former colleague forwarded to me a copy of a Wall Street Journal article, "Why It's So Hard to Fill Sales Jobs." I have been selling concepts and products for a living for the last forty plus years. I have led some exceptional sales teams. I have worked for very good sales managers and for more terrible ones than I dare remember. I have sold for companies that understood the sales process and for ones that did not have a single clue about how a sale of their products really took place.
With that background, one comment in the article struck a nerve of mine.
...few employers have realized they need a different sales pitch to attract a younger cohort
Bear with me as I explain my reaction to that comment. First of all the whole idea of a sales pitch has been outdated for many years. If you want someone to use your product, subscribe to your services, or even become an employee, the first step is listening to their needs and figuring out if what you have to offer is going to match what they need. If not everyone needs to move on to plan B.
The reason organizations are having a hard time getting new sales people is that the sales environment they have to offer is not very nice. Trust me, I have been there. I still remember being vice president of sales at one company when the CEO told me that the only way to get something out of sales people was to threaten them. I vividly remember having my team skewered by Tim Cook at a national sales conference. The number we had not made was at the end of a five year plan and we were only in the first year of the plan and by the way, Apple had been unable to ship any product to our customers in the crucial fourth quarter.
In most sales organizations being lucky today equates with being micro-managed to death.
I can still remember my first sales manager, an ex-IBM sales guy, telling me that you have to ask for the order. There are surprisingly few orders that I have ever personally asked for in a career spanning over forty years. Each one of those cases was well over $1M. While I learned a lot from my first sales manager, some was a list of what not to do. Unfortunately sales managers and companies are still doing most of the things on the "what not to do" list.
While companies mumble about creating teams for sales, they most often do not really mean it. Fundamentally they still believe their best opportunity for success is that lone expert gunslinger who will go in and close the business. When I first became an official sales manager in 1993, I went through a succession of managers who told me over and over that my job was to create clones of myself since I was widely recognized as a great sales person.
It only took me a year or so of micromanaging to figure out that creating clones of myself was tiring, self-defeating, and not very productive. It was about another seven years before I got the opportunity and the power to create a sales team with the right environment, diversity and compensation plan to be so successful that people could hardly believe our results.
Diversity brings amazing benefits to a sales team. Male, female, black, white, old and young are all important building blocks for a great sales team. In those building blocks you have the opportunity to fix your own weaknesses as a leader.
Our phenomenal success was actually our undoing. We were so unorthodox that we challenged the foundations of sales philosophy within the company. The only solution was to get rid of us which they did but not before we more than tripled sales in Apple's toughest market. We also did it with our hands tied behind our backs and kept doing it even after Apple took successful markets that we created away from us.
So what did we do that shook the foundations of sales? At my insistence our team got a team goal instead of individual goals. We also got agreement that whatever sales we could drive through resellers would be credited to us just the same as ones that came direct to us. We even got agreement that once the Apple Stores were up and running that sales we could push through them would be credited to our team. Finally we pushed to create an individual government employee direct purchase plan. Its creation was like opening a fountain of sales.
In our sales plan we owned the customer and worked in the customer's best interest without having to worry about financial implications to our own income. It made doing the right thing for the customer easy.
Both the government sales through Apple stores and to individuals became so successful that Apple took them away from our team. It did not matter. We continued to do phenomenally well in growing Apple's federal business.
Now here is where the concept falls apart, Apple in its wisdom managed our quota to the point that we tasted very little of the financial reward that you are supposed to get if you are as successful in sales as my team was.
I even heard a high level finance person say, "Sales people do not deserve to be paid high commissions, they don't really risk anything." Seventy percent growth was not enough for them so we were always denied the true reward of remarkable compensation for remarkable sales.
How my team continued to do the great job that they did without the reward they deserved is my secret sauce.
If you want details about the Apple story, read my book, The Pomme Company. It is a look into Apple's sales culture from someone who was there for almost twenty years. There is no other book like it. It is an amazing roller coaster ride of a story.
So what should a company do that wants to have an easier time hiring sales people? You need to change the sales culture within your company. That might mean getting rid of some good sales people because they will be reluctant to change anything which might impact their compensation. What might be good for the company in the long run might mess up what has been good for their pockets. It is a choice a company has to make it they are building a new sales culture. Do you coddle those that have gotten you where you are or invest in those you are going to take you to where you need to be?
The years that I ran Apple federal sales team were a magic time for me. I had a very professional sales team that was almost self-managing. I spent most of my time trying to get what they needed from corporate to be successful. Apple did not really want that much success out of the federal market and they did whatever they could to prevent it including not even letting us advertise to the federal market that our team existed to help them with Apple products. Tim Cook also believed that sales teams within the company should compete for the same customer. In world where we were seriously outnumbered that made zero sense. He should try looking at having Apple teams fight over sales from a customer's perspective.
Sales does not have to be a dog eat dog world. It can be an incredibly rewarding and supportive environment, but that only happens in companies that really understand how their products get sold. They also have to create the right environments for good people to take their message to customers.
Honing a new sales pitch for new employees is a waste of time unless you change your company's sales culture.