A sales director contact of mine recently addressed an audience of several hundred sales people at an annual conference. She asked those that had the word “sales” on their business card to raise their hand. Among the legions of Account Directors and Business Development Managers, only one business card featured the “S-Word” – her own!
As a business psychologist (with a first degree in English Literature and linguistics) I believe that the language we use reveals a great deal about our state of mind. Our reluctance to use the word “sales” suggests at the very least a discomfort with the word itself and some worryingly negative associations – whether that is in our own mind or that of the customer.
The negativity that the word “sales” can often arouse was strikingly exposed by Dan Pink in his recent book 'To Sell is Human' in which he asked people online to let him have the first three words that come to mind when they think of the words “sales” or “selling”. The resultant word-cloud screams distaste – even disgust and contempt – for the word.
Why is this the case? Selling in general has a poor reputation in the perception of the public. One only has to think of the most memorable films featuring sales people to understand why: Glengarry Glen Ross, The Tin Men, Boiler Room and most recently, of course, The Wolf of Wall Street. All feature disreputable sales people (usually men) misleading, bullying and manipulating customers into buying real estate, stocks or aluminium cladding that was neither wanted nor needed.
In the parlance of game theory, the sorts of sales transactions that feature in the movies are described as zero-sum games. One person wins; the other loses. The net change in wealth or benefit overall is zero. The latter half of the twentieth century was the era of zero-sum selling in the Western world, particularly to consumers. With a huge expansion in property ownership, selling and advertising, the incentives for rapacious mass selling were enormous. Sadly, the mud has stuck and the sales profession has to live the stain on its reputation. This remains the case, even for those in business-to-business selling where, unlike selling to consumers, it is harder to manipulate a sole individual into buying and where it is also harder to move on to the next property or phone number with impunity.
The experience of the twentieth century was a blink of an eye in the history of human trade. Even before currency was invented, people were trading 20,000 years ago in the Pacific islands. In New Ireland, archaeologists have discovered pieces of obsidian dating from that period that came from islands 400km away. The history of human trading has been a non-zero-sum game, one in which both seller and buyer gain from the transaction; the overall pie has been greater as a result. For all the terrible things we hear about capitalism, that has how human civilisation has advanced and flourished over tens of millennia!
The sales people we work with are not playing zero-sum games. Their customers benefit not just from the sales transaction but from the ongoing relationship and all that comes with it. Everything about selling in the twenty-first century is about articulating this value. According to the CEB research behind the Challenger Sale, the sales experience itself is often so valuable that it is the single largest driver of customer loyalty.
So when it comes to getting a new set of business cards, give some thought to the “S-word” – its rehabilitation is long overdue.