I’ve seen a lot of people gravitate toward sales, seeing it as a rewarding white-collar career – with a little skill, a lot of personality, and a bit of luck or “timing” they think they can succeed. We all know individuals who are described as natural-born salespeople.
But career salespeople – more specifically, consistently successful salespeople – are a group of professionals who realize that success requires hard work, constant improvement, and execution.
The “naturals” will always point out that they have “15 years of experience.” Unfortunately, more often than not, it is the same year 15 times over, rather than 15 years of improvements, consistent results and contributions to their businesses. Business-to-business selling is as much blue-collar work as building something from the ground up, including the planning, the heavy lifting and the finishing.
A blue-collar seller is more likely to focus on and speak about the process, the execution and the outcome, while the white-collar seller tends to focus on the relationship, often putting it ahead of deals and revenue. The latter tend to prefer speaking about the finesse or art of what they are (or are not) doing, rather than whatever it takes to get the sale. You need to have and maintain good relationships with your customers, but the reality is that those relationships usually evolve over time after initial sales, rather than being formed first and then realizing sales over time.
Salespeople have never been paid commission for forming relationships with potential buyers. They develop solid connections with people who initially see them as vendors who can demonstrate how their offers add value to buyers’ objectives. Relationships normally flourish as a result of satisfaction with the early purchases.
It’s an age-old question: Is sales an art or a science? The white-collar seller will default to the former, but the risk is that art is subjective – it allows sellers to avoid the accountability that comes with process and metrics.
Sales is a science executed artfully. Blue-collar sellers are like good musicians – they know they need to learn the eight notes, chord progressions, and so on, that will give them the grounding to improvise the way Charlie Parker did. While the improvisation is the art, Mr. Parker practiced for hours a day for years. When was the last time your sales reps practiced for three or four hours a day?
The blue-collar sellers understand that while finesse, diplomacy and sensitivity are important, they also know sales is a contact sport. It’s less like figure skating – where judges hold up scores for artistic merit – and more like football, where you work a plan to move the ball down field and you are measured by the outcome. While you may get credit for the finesse of your playmaking, what counts is getting the ball over the goal line and the score at the end of the game.
Unlike many white-collar sellers who will tell you “no, I couldn’t do that,” the blue-collar seller will do what it ethically takes to score, even if it’s not pretty or it gets mud on their boots.
While I see these two approaches unfold every day, the case for the blue-collar method is much more compelling and sustainable in both up and down economies. The position was recently reinforced in an interview on CNBC, when Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, described the state of his business, the challenges, the opportunities and the levers available to his employees to deliver results.
While they got where they wanted to go, as he puts it, they “got there ugly.”