Our opinion of “business” could not exactly be termed admiring.
John Gilfeather, a researcher with Vision Critical says, “In forty years of studying corporate reputation, I have never seen this level of vitriol aimed at larger corporations. It is not just an erosion of positives, but also a rise in distinct negatives.”
Vision Critical reports that the current wave of corporate disapproval, which began in 2001 with the dot.com crash, ensuing bear market and corporate scandals at Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and others, is today at an all-time high. When business is viewed so negatively, it is no surprise that the job of sales—the very lifeblood of business—is both misunderstood and disrespected.
Naive people personify business as though it were a heartless, rampaging monster stalking about raping the earth and pillaging for profit.
The cycle begins when “nice people like us,” as a good friend of mine wisely puts it, buy some stock or put our retirement money into a mutual fund or a 401K plan.We are counting on that money increasing in value and providing us with security for the future. That requires that the businesses we and the fund managers invest in increase in net worth. The Board of Directors of a company understands that expectation and hires a President or Chief Executive Officer to “make it so.” Like Jean Luc Picard on the Starship Enterprise, the one who takes command accepts the mandate and has the authority and responsibility to make tough decisions.
The way we measure the resulting success or failure is earnings per share. Earnings are reported quarterly. The Board and the Wall Street analysts review them in detail and they better match the expectations that were set. If not, stock price drops and heads will roll, sometimes in the form of a new President but often in the form of lay-offs, restructuring and other painful facts of business life today.
I used to joke, “it’s right-sizing if it happens to someone else; it’s down-sizing if it happens to me.” But what we call it should not obscure the fact that the decisions are being made based on the mandate to produce profit, and that profit is expected not just by the mean old Board of Directors but by the “nice people like us” that own shares.
The culprit is not profit.
Profit is the expected and correct outcome when goods and services are provided that satisfy the buyers and meet their needs. Profit supports research, development and growth as well as civic and charitable contributions.
The issue is one of timeline. When decisions must be made on a short-term basis, quarter-by-quarter, it is difficult if not impossible to justify long-term investment. The shareholders have little patience for doing the “right thing” when it will not measurably benefit the business anytime soon. That pressure rolls all the way down to the individual sales person representing the business and its products and services. The pressure to make quota and “close” it fast produces the stereotype of selling we all can describe without even thinking about it.
Everyone has had at least one negative experience with a sales person and that feeds the stereotype. Most people have also had a good experience with a sales person, but they write that off as an “exception” to the rule.
How can we change such an enormous structure built for short-term gain?
What is this selling job anyway? Is it pushing people to buy things they don’t need? Is it manipulating people to make hasty decisions? No.
Selling is matching customers with products and services that allow them to solve a problem, achieve a goal or satisfy a need. That’s it. If you can’t help in some way, you don’t belong there. In my book, Selling with Soul Version 2.0: Achieving Career Success without Sacrificing Personal Integrity or Spiritual Growth, I identify two qualities as the foundation for successful selling: Integrity and empathy.
Integrity is doing what you say you will do, being honest with your customer, including telling your customer when you do not have the right product or service for them, and doing the right thing and well as doing things right. Empathy is seeking first to understand your customer and, only then, seeking to be understood. The best sales people practice good listening, prize their reputation for integrity and provide accurate information and good service to their customers.
The best sales people are all potential change agents within the world of business because they are able to represent the customers’ views and they speak from the power position of producing revenue. We can sell with soul whether we are part of a big business or our own small one and together we can transform business by fixing its crumbling foundation: selling. We can change it one sales person at a time until we have a work world that works for the world.
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Editor: Lynn Hasselberger