Regardless of where you are in your professional career, everyone needs to have a certain amount of selling skills. It is essential, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
And yet sales is looked down upon, for various reasons.
Why is it essential? Think of a new college graduate, ready to tackle their first real-world assignment, at their first real-world job. Yet before they get there, they don’t take a standardized test (in most cases), they have to apply and then get interviewed for the job in the first place.
And at that interview they will be selling themselves as a product. What kinds of experiences they have, their aptitude, their expertise (reflected in grades or curriculum or major); it is all in front of the decision maker and perhaps other stakeholders in assessing whether that person is the best person for that particular function.
Some people interview better than others, some people have a better assessment of what they have to offer better than others, some people will get paid higher and get promoted faster over others. It all depends on perception, and these perceptions are shifted by that ability to convince others of their value. Thus the concept of selling enters into this consideration.
Yesterday I took a coffee-break at my favorite multinational conglomerate neighborhood-friendly supermega-store-cum-livingroom Starbucks, and I happened to be sitting behind a real-estate agent being interviewed by a person looking to sell their home. Now this particular retail establishment is in a luxury-home market, and it is clear that what was at stake was a home easily worth up to a million dollars, and at an average commission of 4 or 5% that means 1.5 to 2% to the selling agent once the home sells, or $15K to $20K for the selling agent’s effort.
It was clear from the brief snippet of conversation I overheard (I’m the guy who is sipping a cup of drip coffee who is either staring at his phone or reading a printout of a scientific paper), the prospective client was an executive, because after only a few minutes he stated: “what is your value proposition, what do you bring to the table that others do not?”
Upon which the agent declared, “I will work harder for you than anyone else out there.” Immediately I left my cozy spot, as I could not take any more of this overheard conversation. I felt like making a noise aloud, saying “Buzz, wrong answer!”, but instead I left the establishment. Hard work is a given, but is that the key differentiator to earn $15k-$20k of business from me?
This example is from a sales professional, in the real estate context, and these conversations happen everywhere around us every day. The real estate agent thought that his unique value is his hard work – but in this economy, under these circumstances, is that a real differentiator why the potential client would choose that person over another? So what does 5, 10 or 20 years of real estate sales experience mean? Wouldn’t a fresh college graduate in some ways work ‘harder’ than a person who is near retirement age?
What would the ‘right’ answer be in this situation, with so much at stake? How about, “I have 20+ years selling homes just like yours under many different market conditions, am in the top 5% of all real estate agents in the state, and have at the present time five active buyers who would be interested in looking at your home even before it comes to market. On top of that I have an active marketing plan to attract at least ten additional qualified buyers, and on average the homes I list sell under the average days-on-market metric by at least 10%.”
(By the way, having had to relocate across four different locations in the past 15 years, I count 9 different addresses, and no less than three house purchases, so I have learned a few things about the real estate selling business in the US along the way.)
Perhaps it is the beginning of a new year, perhaps it is the difficult economic circumstances at the time, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how critical it is to have strong selling skills. Of course paramount for a person who is employed as a salesperson – but also paramount in many other positions, regardless of title.
Return on investment
On the difficult economic circumstances, as I write this there is continuing legislative battles over the budget sequestration in the US. And this problem has immediate impact on the NIH budget. (If you are reading this, reside in the US and have not emailed your congressional representatives, this form makes it very easy for you and I invite you to fill it out.) There will be immediate impact across the life science tools industry, as NIH funding (depending on the company) can be a significant percentage of business lost due to these budget impacts.
Getting back to the selling skills topic, think about your own ability to persuade others of a great idea you had in a sudden flash of insight. No matter the position in a company, you cannot implement this great idea unless you are able to convince others of its merit. And this would absolutely require the need to convince others of the need for this idea, the benefits of this idea, the reasonable costs of implementation. And this is the essence of selling – the need that exists, the features and benefits of the solution, the reasonableness of its cost.
Look back at your own history of projects within your current role. What return-on-investment (ROI) can you claim? More than a bullet-point on a resume, what could you tell a prospective hiring manager should you happen to come across one at a social event?
It is of note that while Marketing is a discipline studied at the university and business school level (notably in Masters of Business Administration programs), Sales is not. You cannot get an MBA in Sales, although there are a few programs scattered around as part of undergraduate programs, from… how do I put this delicately… non top-tier academic institutions. And I am not hopeful that the highly regarded business schools will take up Sales as a discipline anytime soon.
Marketing from the oustside
Marketing is often comprised of inside-out thinking, from inside the safe walls of a company that is making its presence known in the marketplace. And marketing comprises of what the product is, its price, its promotion, and its place (the classic ‘4P’s of marketing’, known as the ‘Marketing Mix’). And these concerns are the same concerns at the highest level of a company, not exclusive to a marketing function.
Witness what Netflix went through about a year ago. Deciding to split its business model from its current iteration of a single subscription offering physical optical disc media mailed to homes along with streaming offerings, they decide to split it back to a physical disc model subscription, and a separate streaming media option, and hit their customers with what was in effect a 60% increase in pricing.
While they justified it on the basis of their own rising costs, this debacle is a great example of inside-out thinking. Their customers care about the value they receive, the quality of the product they get, not about Netflix as a company. And Netflix is very popular; a recent analysis of evening-hour bandwidth in the North American market indicated that Netflix, a single company, consumed a full 30% of all bandwidth served to homes every night.
The economic consequences to Netflix were severe – an immediate loss of 50% of their stock market price. (As of this writing, their value is currently about 30% of what it once was.)
Thus a marketing lesson to be gained here is who is the customer and what do they care about? What problems are they trying to solve, what implications of that problem exist, what is the needs-payoff? (To those unfamiliar with SPIN selling, Neil Rackham’s work is worth a read.) Beware of focusing too much on your own product’s features – focus on the benefits to the customer. This is a trap fallen into again and again in the life science marketplace, with every technical advance touted while customers care about a whole other set of items – what is in it for them.
And this should be the focus of the marketer – what the customer cares about, what problems they want to solve – and the marketing should reflect that.