Roughly seven out of 10 workdays, I bring unsalted chicken and steamed vegetables for lunch. I am never excited about it and often ridiculed for the monotony. But I sit down and eat because I know it’s good for me.
This is sales. It’s certainly good for any business and nourishes a society built on the exchange of products and services. Yet no one in the history or future of the world gets excited to talk to someone in sales. I will admit to adjusting exit routes at the grocery store to avoid making eye contact with the girl scouts selling cookies.
At a digital agency, our deals are less transactional. We aim to build things never done before and relationships along the way. It takes a lot more upfront thought than a box of thin mints and a tremendous amount of teamwork. Herein lies another audience that salespeople must navigate — our own colleagues best suited to analyze needs, strategize responses, scope projects, present concepts… These are the people who help us pitch and close deals. A little conundrum: If we win, they get more work. If we lose, then we just wasted their time.
Maybe that’s why a full thesaurus exists for sales title euphemisms: business development, client partnerships, account executive, etc. The pretenses evaporate, though, at the first mention of budget and timing. Then we’re left with the responsibility to do a job that depends on people whose primary interaction with us revolves around a one-way stream of requests and questions.
Sometimes the last thing I think about before falling asleep at night is a client, and this is probably a reflection of some poor leisure outlets and identity issues on my part. I am OK with that. I am not OK, however, with being that last nagging thought in a coworker’s mind. I don’t want my needs haunting anyone’s precious free time. Sales is tough enough without feeling like you’re draining the friends you go to battle with every day.
I can think of four ways to make the inherent friction less abrasive. These are not overly dramatic, original solutions. But applied consistently over time, they make a difference. People will be less not-excited to talk to you, which goes a long way in everybody’s daily grind.
Lest this turn into one big sales-bashing session, I would encourage anyone in any walk of life to take a look at these four things. Whether you’re an accountant or mechanic, CEO or intern, some parameters apply universally to companies. You have to communicate. You have to work with people. You have to solve problems.
There is a difference between talking and email. The ease of the latter does not mean an open invitation to send multiple messages on one topic as additional fragments pop into mind. No one wants to be embedded in your stream of consciousness.
Take a deep breath and think about the purpose of the email. Read all previous correspondence and materials and develop a comprehensive understanding of what we know, don’t know, and need to do. Organize. Include a subject line that makes sense. Forget about the electronic part for a minute and think of it as just mail. You wouldn’t write a letter, address it, stamp it, drop it off at the post office, and then do it over again to add something.
Some of the people who receive your emails get hundreds per day. If their inbox consists of consolidated, purposeful notes with clear next steps, they will have a shot at acting on all of them. If they get buried with ambiguous, piecemeal thoughts, this incredibly useful mode of communication becomes unsustainable. Sloppy emails deserve sloppy responses.
Inevitably you will run into a blocker of progress. You need an estimate, timeline, creative concept, dense technical approach, whatever. Following up is obviously important, but so is exhausting your own abilities in an effort to push forward.
You don’t just stop once the brick wall comes into view. You go right up against it, tap for crevices, find footholds to climb. You should be face-planted against the surface by the time someone comes to the rescue.
Do everything you are physically and mentally capable of contributing. Research, collate materials, schedule meetings, write copy, proofread, format slides. For the things beyond your purview, give it a whirl anyway. Make an outline and form a perspective to be challenged and edited. Provide a starting point, direction, or rough draft, even if it will be discarded. Ultimately this mitigates some of the inertia and diffusion of responsibility holding up that brick wall.
A catch-22 is never far from reach in sales. A prospective client needs to have confidence in your agency’s ability to do the work, but you need to do the work to deliver that confidence. A final budget must be approved in order to kick off, but you need to kick off to determine what goes into the final budget.
If you send some requests internally with no background, you will be massacred for not providing enough information. If you send a bunch of background, it overwhelms the requests, clouds the path forward, and leaves behind questions like “So, what?” and “What do you want from me?”. Go with a hedged approach by offering brevity with backup. Make the focal point a list of action items and organize the rest of the information into easily digestible sections.
The numbered list naturally caters to the busy mind. This is why HYFN’s producers use JIRA for project management. This is why our sales and marketing team uses Pipefy for every response. Break a large problem into small actionable parts and assign them. If you send an email resembling a scattered essay with questions here and there, the chances of them all being resolved diminish. If you send a numbered list and include structured supporting information, you’re in business.
Michael Jordan had an extraordinary 6-foot-7 teammate with an ethereal game by the name of Scottie Pippen. He would score when the team needed points, rebound when needed, be a playmaker for others when needed, guard all five positions or the opponent’s best player, and basically just adjust to the situation and fill in the gaps.
Be Scottie Pippen. Be versatile to the point that when you explain your job to a stranger, the sales title euphemism does not suffice. Step up and manage a project or workflow if there is a vacuum. Lend a hand with QA. Pick up the SOW appendix or anything that falls through the cracks, even if it’s not related to you. Be the ultimate team player. Stay out of the way when needed and take charge when no one else will.
Some might disagree and say you should focus only on lead generation and contracts in sales; that division of responsibility is the way to maximize output. And it is — if you work on an assembly line. This is digital. Conditions and requirements change constantly. No project can be defined perfectly before it starts. Most RFPs require a litany of work that does not fall cleanly under job titles. Embrace the miscellaneous, from account management and client services to production and marketing. You will learn more and show by example that sales is really about the big picture for everyone.
I like chicken and broccoli. I like sales. There is an overlooked honor to being on the front lines, mustering the gumption to find opportunities with strangers and solutions benefitting all. Your teammates are smart. They probably don’t have to think very hard to conclude that revenue is pretty fundamental to any company. They will help, and you should too.