There’s a word you need to hear that I’ve been struggling to say to you. I’ve been keeping it from you because I have incontrovertible proof that you don’t like this word. Now, you, the individual, might be an exception but you and your peers as a group don’t like it. I know because every time we use this word or any of its derivations in a subject line, the open and clickthrough rates plummet.
You already know what the word is, don’t you? Well, stick with me because beyond saying ‘Don’t fear the word!' I want to show you how to embrace it and maybe ratchet up some wins by leaning into it.
Of course the word is ‘sales’. (Wait, don’t go!) When we substitute the term ‘new business development’ for that dirty word, the opens and clicks go right back to normal.
My goal for this article is to have you reclaim the S-word, to see it as the noble and effective endeavour that it is and to show you that by improving your basic selling skills you can dramatically lower the cost of acquiring new business and feel better about your role in helping to grow the firm.
Let’s start by correcting some misconceptions.
It’s Not Everybody’s Job to Sell
Few mindlessly-repeated phrases have done more professional harm to good people than the refrain that it’s everyone’s job to sell. It’s not. Some people should be left to just create. When you accept this, a whole bunch of good things happen. I’ve written about this before so I won’t rehash the points beyond saying that I understand why a lot of people in the creative professions wouldn’t want to read about sales.
You, however, are on the website of an organization dedicated to new business development training for creative professionals. That should predispose you to the topic, but for too many of you it does not. You see yourself in a role tangential to sales but not in sales itself. Just like me when I was in your shoes.
Marketing Is Not the More Noble Path to The Same Goal
After a few months in my first agency job, at the age of 22, I was handed new business development responsibility for the firm. (Probably because I was such a lousy account manager, the position for which I was hired.) My friends would remark “Ahh, you're in sales.” I would protest in indignant tones that what I was doing was far nobler, more complex and sophisticated than sales. I was in ‘new business development’. “It's more marketing than sales,” I would explain to the quizzical stares.
I thought I was above the S-word and so I ended up incurring huge costs on opportunities I pursued too long and at which I threw too many resources. If I had acted more like a salesperson – a real, proper, sales professional and not the shudder-inducing stereotype – I would have known how to navigate a conversation, how to keep from wasting time by asking more direct questions and how to help my clients make better choices for themselves, knowing that some of those choices would have benefited me and my firm. Instead, I didn’t ask questions of which I was afraid of the answers; I pitched, presented and lunched my way down many long, expensive dead end streets, giving up all my power along the way.
New Business Development Defined
New business development and its acronym NBD are unfortunate labels for what we do. It’s our special code for selling that isn’t really selling. Which is bullshit, of course. The components of new business development are just two: marketing and selling. When done well, new business development has a healthy amount of respectful selling in it. When it doesn’t it’s expensive as hell.
Selling, when done properly, is not the act of talking people into things. I’m adamant that in your NBD role in your firm it’s not your job to convince anyone of anything, ever. When I’m in the salesperson role and a prospective client is expecting a pitch or a push from me, I like to remind them that it’s not my job to talk them into working with us. It’s a bit disarming for a salesperson to say this but I’m convinced of its truth.
Selling is the act of facilitating a buying discussion between someone who has a need that matches your firm’s expertise. The selling role within that discussion set changes from helping to inspiring to reassuring as the client moves through their own decision-making arc but at no point is a good salesperson representing a good firm required to push, cajole or persuade.
Sales Gone Wrong
If you think of your most nightmarish buying experience with an offensive or unethical salesperson, I’ll bet two conditions were in place. The first is that salesperson had a very high competitive drive. That’s by no means a bad thing on it’s own, it’s just the foundation which can create a problem when this next variable is also in place: a highly-leveraged compensation plan that is not aligned to helping you, the customer. There’s little worse than being on the end of a buying conversation with a high-drive, full commission salesperson who needs to meet quota. Throw in a lack of training, or worse – training that supports that win-at-all-costs-or-your-children-don’t-eat approach, and things get uncomfortable.
Fortunately, we don’t see that type of salesperson nearly as often as we used to. Things are changing, especially in your world of B2B sales.
The New Selling
What’s changed about B2B sales in the last five years or so is it’s become largely disentangled from lead generation. I’m going to get irate emails from the old-timers out there claiming that nothing beats old fashioned cold calling but they’re wrong. It’s effectiveness has been declining for years. In a world where B2B buyers conduct research online and people no longer take calls from unknown callers, leads are largely pulled in instead of hunted down. (While there’s always a place for some targeted old-school outbound in a firm's lead generation mix, it’s only the poorly positioned and the weak marketers now that lean heavily on it.)
Moving lead generation to the marketing department has allowed businesses to hire sales people whose sole focus is to navigate the decision making journey with prospects who are already predisposed to such a discussion. The hard-driving, barge-through-any-obstacle approach that was so valuable at uncovering leads was often at odds with the characteristics required to navigate the sale of a complex, customized knowledge-based service. Separating the functions has allowed for the rise of a more specialized salesperson.
This new breed of salesperson is a true facilitator rather than a persuader. They have a higher degree of technical knowledge, or, in a creative firm, strategic acumen. They’re patient where their predecessors were pushy. Their compensation plans look more like those of people in other departments and their incentives and motivations are more about creating value for the client than they are about talking people into things.
In many creative firms today the salespeople are also the strategists who deliver on the first, most valuable phases of the engagement. The ‘I killed it, you clean it’ mentality of yesterday doesn’t play when you’re the one who has to deliver strategic value after the close.
Selling, especially a sophisticated, complex B2B sale, has never been more noble and rewarding than it is right now. And while it’s still not everyone’s job to sell, selling is a valuable, basic skill that many of us would do well to embrace and cultivate.
You are a salesperson. Own it. Love it. Get better at it, and thrive.