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Moral Skill in Sales

04.06.2009

Barry Schwarz at TED talks

Barry Schwarz at TED talks

“Not just is it profitable, but is it right?” -Obama

I just listened to Psychologist Barry Schwartz  give a lecture on “virtue” at TED Talks.  If you have not heard of TEDTalks, they are Technology, Education, and Design talks,  a free-form gathering and speaking by some truly intelligent people.  I highly recommend it.  In this season’s speakers, Barry was a standout.  I also found his talk on moral intelligence and virtue particularly relevant to sales.

First off, we need to eliminate the “pusher” and “manipulator” salesmen as not “real” salesmen because the value of a true salesmen is that they connect need with ability to supply.  A true salesman knows that discovery is key:  “You probably did know we exist (or could do this) but….”   While this is a necessary part of selling, it is only the first, smallest, step. The real bulk of the work begins when the salesman has identified a customer with a need his company can fulfill.  After discovery, the salesman identifies an entire list of reasons why the customer will not make the obvious business engagement; They can’t decide;  the order process is too complex;  already committed to another (likely less good) supplier: we don’t trust your company;  we are scared and can’t decide…  There are also supplier side barriers that come into play:  We don’t know that they will pay; they want special treatment; we sold to them before and had a bad experience….

On both sides, corporate processes are typically designed to protect against undesirable decisions.  Unfortunately, these processes also block desirable decisions as well.  Great salesmen see the big picture, identify the rules and processes that inhibit action and find solutions that benefit both sides.   This is where Barry’s thinking takes my small idea about salesmen to a another level.

Barry slowly builds the thesis that virtue and processes are at war with each other throughout the business world.  He directly finds our crisis in the banking industry as a consequence of too many processes, rules, and rewarding optimizations.  He starts his thesis by identifying a conceptual framework of virtue and morality combined with moral intelligence.  To highlight three of his concepts:

  • A moral person knows when to make the exception to every rule
  • A wise person knows how to improvise
  • A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the pursuit of the right aims.

If you were to identify eight top skills required of a salesman, these three would be in there for sure.  Unfortunately, and perhaps because of the all too common pusher/manipulator kind of salesman we do not generally link salesmen with morality or wisdom.  However, it is my experience that great salesmen have this in abundance.  Barry points out that morality and wisdom are requirements for managers and the general worker level as well.  He explains why the heavy focus on hard skills and processes is creating a cycle of destruction in our current “efficient” business environment.  Simply, when things go wrong, as of course they do, we reach for two tools — processes and incentives.

Barry goes on to point out that processes and incentives can create short term benefits but have a lasting impact in the form of a war on moral skills.  Pursuit of the right aims combined with morality, virtue, and wisdom should be our guiding principle.  Processes, rules, and compensation plans are not only insufficient substitutes but they are, in fact, contra.

I recently hosted a strategic planning session to identify new business area possibilities.  As is good practice with such an event, I set the ground rules:

  • We must serve our existing sales territories,
  • We must employ our key delivery staff and their skills, and
  • We must bring exceptional value to the customer and not just give them what they ask for.

The above final pre-condition was immediately challenged by one of the engineering managers:  “Why not just take the money?”.   He is still a colleague that I hold in the highest regard, but at the time I bristled in anger and disappointment at his comment.  It took me time to understand my own reaction, but it was clear that, at that moment, he did not understand the moral values that we need to employ for successful sales and marketing.   I believe he was thinking about how the first two requirements were necessary to ensure that our normal sales goals did not create problems for the company.  But he could not understand the connection to the third requirement.  Instead, the sales and business development people needed this 3rd condition to release their moral skills.  For my engineering colleague, protecting the company was the only real risk.

This then starts to explain to me why, as a general rule, management that goes about fixing a sales problem with new controls, processes and incentive plans often find themselves just making the problem worse.  “Customer focused” does not mean responding to every e-mail in one hour — it means honestly wanting the customer to be more successful.  How fast we respond to e-mails is merely good business etiquette.   The sales controls and commission plans should address and measure the value that your company provides to your customer, it should measure the sales approach that you use to identify customers and their real needs, and it should empasize the tools we use to remove artificial barriers.

Processes, pressure, and pushes to create a more aggressive sales force will not encourage them to break down self-destructive artificial barriers nor will it encourage that they respect the real and needed barriers.  As a result, the company will win far too many customers that it should never have had.  Just look at the past sales practices of the mortgage industry to see what happens when processes and incentives trump moral intelligence and virtue.   Focus on the morality at all levels and the company will grow and prosper over the long run.

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