The other day I was reading about Palantir, where the management had decided to launch a sales force for the first time, letting go of the long-held belief espoused by founder Peter Thiel and the current CEO Alex Karp that their products sell themselves. Regardless of what triggered the shift—a plan to take the company public, new product offerings or just to be more in line with its tech competitors—there are signs that the strategy may already be paying off.
I would call that a major step forward for the company, which has already established its data mining technology, used by everyone from the CIA to News Corp., as a juggernaut of Silicon Valley.
As a salesman at heart, I found it encouraging they are building a sales function, particularly after comments that sounded like the profession had been held in disdain at the company. Bloomberg reports that Karp once said publicly the only way he’d hire a sales team was if investors forced him to, or if he was "hit by a bus."
Perhaps Karp, Thiel and others leading Palantir have never seen sales done well. After all, there are a lot of bad salespeople in the world—Daniel Pink in his book, To Sell is Human, asked research participants to identify the first word that came to mind to describe "sales" or "selling." The most prevalent answers included “pushy,” “sleazy,” “ugh,” “yuck,” “dishonest” and “manipulative.”
But eliminating a sales force because you don’t want it populated by a collection of amateurs is a self-defeating tactic. All companies—no matter how great—will need sales people if they want to reach their full potential. Yes, there are rare instances where a product can take off seemingly of its own accord, but that momentum is not sustainable. Business growth is built on high-trust relationships and consultation, things that the best salespeople are built to do.
Why are high-trust relationships so critical? Because innovation doesn’t last. It's easy to be out-innovated. Low prices don’t last. It's easy to be undercut in your price. But if you focus on building customer relationships where you are trusted, where customers are heard, and the buying experience is a helpful and enjoyable one, you’ll have a lasting competitive edge.
But if that loyalty doesn't exist and it's all about the product or pricing and nothing else, people will move on to the next “shiny object” in the store window.
Here’s what any company—particularly a company that is wary of salespeople—needs to launch a successful sales force:
Start at the top. For a major corporate cultural shift—like the one Palantir is undergoing—to work, everyone has to be on board, and that starts at the top. The job of any CEO is to support with enthusiasm everything in the company. But in operations where the CEO has espoused an anti-sales mindset, hiring salespeople, regardless of their expertise, will be a failure waiting to happen. Those CEOs have to first change their thinking about the role of sales, and then create the sales force they can be proud of—not the type they dislike.
Focus on the customer, not products or sales. It’s not about having a company culture that concentrates on pitching products or sales. It’s about creating one that centers on customers: understanding the problems that customers have and then providing them with products and services that solve those problems. As more than one executive has told me, “If you come to my office and start telling me about your products, it's going to be a really short meeting. But if you come to my office and start helping me solve the problems I have in my business—if you know my business—you can stay as long as you'd like.”
Fish in a different pond. If you don’t want the stereotypical salesperson, then don’t simply hire people with “sales” on their résumé. Discard your preconceived notions of what constitutes a successful salesperson and list the qualities you want. Do you want someone who is an expert with your product and knowledgeable about your industry? Someone who is supremely coachable? Or is an excellent communicator, who can serve as an adviser to your customers, rather than just a hard-driving sales agent? Then hire people who have been in sectors rich in those psychographics. They might be former teachers, customer service folks, entrepreneurs or athletes that end up being a great fit.
Connect with your customers. For some tech companies, the focus on product is the result of an engineering mindset, and stereotypically can be a focus away on the code, and away from people. But the connection to customers is too data-rich to ignore. To build the right sales force, or retrofit the wrong one, it begins with listening. Really listen to your customers. As for those customers who have moved on to your competitors, take the time to discover their reasons for leaving. This is cold hard math: it costs five times as much to gain a new customer than to keep an existing one.
Selling is often considered a social sport and people have to be slick or “salesy”—whatever that means. But that isn’t true. Customers aren't looking for friends. They're looking for people who can help them, who are committed to understanding their needs and providing the solutions to address them.
You also have the power to build the culture of your sales team. Like many things, it requires that you be intentional about it.
Challenge for leaders: If your sales culture isn’t what you want, begin by looking in the mirror. What needs to change in terms of your beliefs, words and actions? Start here.
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