The New Normal

By Lisa Gschwandtner

Sales professionals today operate in a fast-moving, hyperconnected, information-loaded environment. It’s no secret that the Internet has fundamentally transformed the relationship between prospect and sales rep. A company Website outfitted with media presentations, free trials, and resource libraries can eliminate the need for personal interaction between a potential buyer and anyone from the sales department – at least for information-seeking purposes.

In the wake of such automation, some of the most knowledgeable and talented sales professionals have been left wondering where they stand. During the last 15 years, author, entrepreneur, and marketer Seth Godin has made it his business to anticipate these watershed moments. Regularly addressing audiences at such companies as Google, eBay, Microsoft, and Disney, he has also spoken twice at the prestigious TED conferences, and his ideas about change have been a dominating influence among marketers and in the business world at large. Today Godin runs what is arguably the most popular marketing blog in the world, and he remains a pioneer in publishing. To date, he has leveraged the power of the Internet to turn all 12 of his books into New York Times and Amazon best sellers.

When we last interviewed Seth Godin in 2006, he was already talking about concepts that today seem obvious. Consider what he said in our November/December cover story that year: “Consumers today have more choices than ever, and more options mean more power. You don’t need a salesperson to buy a car, because you can go online. If one item disappears, you pick another. If you don’t want to watch commercials, you don’t have to. In the old days, if I got one or two cold calls, I might take them. Now I get ten cold calls and twenty pieces of junk mail. So I ignore all of it.”

In with the New

According to Godin, our current economic state and depressed job market aren’t conditions that will eventually correct. They’re permanent, and the implications are all-encompassing. As he tells it, the old formula for success went something like this: Keep your head down. Follow instructions. Show up on time. Work hard. Suck it up. If you stuck to these rules, the rewards included a steady paycheck, health insurance, job security, and a pension.

Godin says the new rules to succeed look much different: Be remarkable. Be generous. Create art. Make judgment calls. Connect people and ideas.

Godin has always been a fan of sharing a remarkable idea as a way to stand out in a glutted marketplace. In his newest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (Portfolio Hardcover, 2010), he says that the makers of those remarkable ideas will become most valuable. The new economy will reward those who can create unique experiences for their companies and customers. This will require a work force willing to take risks, trade on new ideas and innovations, and not follow the rules.

Creating Powerful Sales Teams

The good news is that great salespeople already possess the kind of creativity it takes to make connections with prospects. That’s the art of the sale. The challenge today has less to do with the art of selling and more with the environment in which selling is happening. That requires a whole new set of rules for sales management. A true leader, says Godin, is less interested in getting the sales team to “do exactly what it did yesterday, but a little faster and a little cheaper.” Instead of trying to use technology to simply increase the number of calls your sales reps can make in a day, sales leaders need to think of ways they can use technology to make their sales teams more powerful.

“What that would entail is saying, ‘How am I going to get my sales force better connected to one another and better connected to the people it’s selling to?'” says Godin. “That will increase the sales force’s power. That, I think, is the key distinction between working for an organization that embraces professional salespeople versus working for an organization that churns people through and treats them like a factory.”

Navigating Change

The old command-and-control style of management has shifted to a much more open and collaborative work environment. Some sales professionals have adapted to this quicker than others. Although top performers tend to have the competitive drive and risk-taking nature required to succeed, they’re not always flexible when it comes to change. In Godin’s experience, in fact, the most successful sales reps are likely to dig in their heels at the prospect of changing the way they do business.

“They say, ‘I like it this way because I’m good at it,'” he explains. “They don’t want to reinvent the game, even though it might mean dramatic increases for themselves and the company.”

Consider, for example, the traditional rift between sales and marketing departments. It’s not unusual to find that the top 10 percent of sales teams completely ignore leads from marketing. Treating sales and marketing as separate arms is a “completely dysfunctional” mind-set, says Godin.

The fault lies not with sales or marketing per se. This disconnect is fundamentally a failure of leadership. “The thing is, there’s a one-hundred-year-old problem,” Godin says. “And the problem is that traditionally, once something was made – a widget, say, or even a life insurance policy – companies went to the marketing people and said, ‘Here’s some money; figure out how to get this thing out the door.’ And then they would go to the salespeople, and they’d say, ‘Here’s a commission; go sell it.'”

Cutting both sales and marketing teams out of the debate is one of the biggest ways companies squander some of their most valuable intellectual assets. “This is the giant mistake in most organizations,” says Godin. “They forget to get the sales and marketing people involved in the creation of the product. Look at the legendary Apple Computer. Steve Jobs doesn’t know how to program, but he knows how to manage programmers. So here are sales and marketing people who are actually coinventing the products and making sure they don’t get compromised before they get out the door. That’s why Apple beats Dell every day. Dell is run by engineers, and the sales and marketing people don’t get involved until the end.”

A Different Kind of Sales Leader

Sales leaders who want to initiate real change must be open to breaking the conventional rules that guide the culture of the company. It takes guts to disrupt the flow of accepted order to uncover new truths. But that’s precisely the kind of action that the new economy rewards, says Godin, and leaders need to foster that kind of thinking within their sales teams. “What is the leader going to do to reward what I call a heretic, someone who is going to break the rules and do things in a way they have never been done before?” Godin asks. “Great companies aren’t formed by unanimous agreement.”

Sales teams need to learn to love mistakes, he says. In fact, they need to actively court them. Godin once called in one of his top people because he hadn’t made any missteps in 90 days. “He got all puffed up and said, ‘Well, thank you very much.’ I said, ‘If you don’t have a serious screwup in the next six weeks, you’re fired.’ And I meant it.  If you don’t start firing people for not making mistakes, you’re never going to get people over the fear. Why should they? What you are rewarding them for is fitting in, not standing out.”

Godin is well aware that this kind of thinking will sound nuts to a lot of sales managers. “If you grew up in the other model, you don’t like this because you think it’s just a gimmick. But this is the new normal. We are not going back to the other way.”

The new normal doesn’t suffer the natural inclination toward fear of change, sticking your neck out, and making mistakes. The same part of our brain that trembles at the thought of public speaking or walking into the boss’ office to ask for a raise will encourage resistance. To claim the rewards offered by the new rules for success, learn to respond differently to that instinct.

“I use it as a compass,” says Godin. “Any time that part of my brain says, ‘Don’t do that; you might blow it,’ then that’s how I know I should do it.” •

Top 5: The New Rules for Sales Success

  1. Empower your sales team. Stop asking for reports and start trusting that your best reps will do what’s good for the customer. “If you want replaceable, compliant people, this model doesn’t get you there. If, on the other hand, you want to make a connection to the world and grow, this model is what you need. So we need to say to salespeople, ‘If I can trust you, you can stay here forever. But the minute you start acting on your behalf, not on behalf of the customers, you are out.'”
  2. Use change to manage the fear of change. Many sales managers try to reassure nervous teams about big changes. Unfortunately, reassurance is a self-limiting cycle that has no permanent effect. Better to find ways to make change a constant factor. When Godin ran his start-ups, for example, he asked his employees to move their desks every 90 days to get them used to unfamiliarity. When major changes came down the pike, they were better equipped mentally to go with the flow.
  3. Treat customers differently. Train your sales reps to give gifts instead of asking for favors. A gift doesn’t have to be a physical object. It can be anything from a blog to a good conversation.

    “You can start by saying, ‘This is my competitor. Let me take you through, honestly, why you might want to buy from him,'” says Godin. “That act of generosity isn’t in your short-term interest, but you are creating a connection and trust. That is valuable in a world where everyone is constantly asking for favors: ‘Here, you can get this if you follow me on Twitter. Here, you can get this if you agree to buy my next book.’ Once it’s a trade and not a gift, there is no intimacy.”

  • Celebrate mistakes. The new rules for success reward risk takers and innovators, not those who cling to the same old routines. “There is a great story Thomas Watson from IBM told,” says Godin. “Some guy makes this horrible mistake that costs IBM three million dollars. It’s a giant error. The guy goes in to resign, and Watson says, ‘What are you, crazy? I just invested three million dollars in making you smarter.’ If your team isn’t aligning behind your vision, find ways to make them more afraid of the status quo than of making mistakes.”
  • Unify sales and marketing. One of the quickest ways to get sales and marketing teams to start collaborating is cross exposure. When marketing professionals accompany the sales team on calls, they learn all sorts of things their research can’t teach them. The same is true for salespeople who spend a day with marketers. “The salespeople come in to see what it’s like to actually develop the product, so they aren’t going to be in such a hurry to argue that the price needs to be lower,” Godin says. “Instead they’ll say, ‘You know, let’s add another feature, because I understand we can’t make this cheaper.'”
  • Failed Giants: 3 Victims of the Old Rules

    If today’s companies want to be successful, their leaders can’t be afraid to fall off the bicycle, says Godin. Here, he shares a few stories of some failed giants – and what they could have done to turn things around.

    KODAK: “What happened at Kodak happens at almost every company, which is that no one wants to say the emperor is wearing no clothes. Kodak was a chemical company, not a photography company. It measured things by the metric ton of chemicals. It didn’t choose to change that. Kodak didn’t say, ‘I want to take my best people and move them away from that group and make them invent a new way for people to leverage my brand.’

    “Kodak could have owned Flickr. It could have owned every sort of exchange of imagery. There are so many things that Kodak’s brand name could have led to, and it chose not to, and the reason is that most companies are naïve in thinking that the good times will last just a little longer.”

    AOL: “AOL was the Internet only eight years ago. It equaled the Internet. There was no distinction. And now it’s worth nothing. Why? Because every decision AOL made was, ‘How will this not offend our key players? How will this not offend our core business?’ What AOL needed to do was take a deep breath and say, ‘We’re going to take our thirty best people. They all have to leave their jobs, and we are going to start a new business model. That model might be a significant quarterly or half-annual hit to the bottom line, but we are going to become something else.’ Or, it could have done what Google does, which is to launch eight other businesses.”

    GENERAL MOTORS: “I spoke years ago to the top one hundred Cadillac dealers. General Motors would fly these top people in and wine and dine them for three days. And they were the cancer on the company; these one hundred people were wrecking General Motors. But General Motors didn’t have the guts to call them out and say things like, ‘We’re not going to send you any more cars this year because you’re selling our cars the wrong way, you are telling the wrong stories, and you are pushing us to make lousy, cheaper cars. Forget it.’

    “At some point, you are going to have to publicly break with the people who are slowing the system down. If they had said that, they could have put a fork in the road and gone in a different direction and been more like Mercedes and Lexus are today.”