Do you really understand ‘sales’?

Neil Rackham, visiting professor at the Cranfield School of Management and Portsmouth Business School, questions some “truths” about selling


Which of these statements is true?

  • Selling is about persuasion.
  • The job of salespeople is to show customers how and why their products and services are better than those of their competitors.
  • The best salespeople are extraverts who are outgoing and enjoy interacting with people.
  • If you watch a sales call it’s easy to tell who is selling and who is buying.
  • Salespeople are born, not made.

The answer, in the year of Our Lord 2012, is that none of these five statements is true.  And yet, at various times in the last 50 years, every one of them has been true and widely accepted.

It’s a measure of how sales has changed that yesterday’s truths have become outdated and a burden on our thinking. Take “salespeople are born not made”. In the days before we had validated sales models, effective sales training and decent sales process, all the evidence suggested that people couldn’t learn to sell.

We recognise that most people can learn the skills and strategies that today’s selling requires

Now that we know how to develop competent salespeople, we recognise that most people can learn the skills and strategies that today’s selling requires.

And how about the image of sellers as outgoing and extravert?  In the 1950s, one study showed that 92 per cent of salespeople were above average in terms of extraversion. In those days we thought this meant that you needed to be an extravert in order to sell, so recruiters looked for extraverts. We now know that this was a stereotype – a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Many of the world’s best salespeople, at least in high-level sales, are introverts.

Those ideas have been discredited for a while. Now let’s look at some myths that still have wide currency. Perhaps the most pernicious is that selling is about persuasion. It may have been at one time; it certainly isn’t today. When I’m recruiting salespeople, I look for creativity, business understanding and listening skills.

What has changed is the customer. Armed with more information, today’s customers neither want nor need to be persuaded. They expect salespeople to create value through problem-solving and expertise. They look for business equals who are able to hold an objective conversation.

That’s why I notice a curious change when I’m watching sales calls. Ten years ago I could tell in seconds who was selling and who was buying. Today I can’t. What I’m seeing today isn’t classic “product” or even “solution” selling. It’s a business discussion where buying and selling roles are blurred.

Salespeople who see their role as showing customers why their products are better than those of their competitors are failing everywhere. Why? Partly it’s because of increasing competition and decreasing differentiation, so your mousetrap really isn’t much different from theirs. Partly it’s because customers already know all about your offering.

Neil Rackham, visiting professor at the Cranfield School of Management and Portsmouth Business School, is an authority on sales and marketing; three of his books have been in the New York Times best-seller list.