What Salespeople Can Teach Politicians!

For many, including myself, the results of recent high-profile elections and referendums has come as a shock. Results of the BREXIT vote, the US election and the uncertainty surrounding upcoming elections in Europe all indicate rising support for anti-establishment politics.

If these were the results of sales teams I was managing, I’d most likely be looking for a new job, and I’d also be asking myself just what went wrong. But on reflection, we shouldn’t be surprised. This has been brewing for decades and it is time for our political leaders to take stock of why they are in the positions they are in, what their job really is…and take a lesson from the sales world.

In business we’ve seen buyers deserting the traditional way they engage in their buying process just as we are now seeing voters desert traditional political parties. The difference is, successful sales people have adapted, politicians are still beating the same old drum.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”...Charles Darwin

For the past 15 – 20 years I have watched with disappointment at the elected members in my home country, Australia, became more and more focussed on managing by the results of the latest opinion polls, taking automatic counter positions to the opposition and focussing on how to do to be re-elected. There has been a lack of vision, lack of leadership, effectively zero bipartisanship (hard to believe every policy that one party puts forward has to be totally wrong in the eyes of the other) and a resultant lack of trust and respect among the people. Despite this the Australian economy has been strong. Many commentators far better qualified to talk on economics than me see this largely based around strong commodities and regional growth rather than great fiscal planning and management. But this piece is not about financial management, it is about what sales can teach politicians.

Past political leaders had true vision for the future. They governed for the people (their clients) and relied on the results of their efforts to determine their fate in the next election.

Today, politics is about managing the news cycles, the opinion polls and politicians doing what they can to belittle their competitors and gain the upper hand in public opinion. Well I have news for our politicians…IT’S NOT WORKING!!

“Politics has become a daily ‘conflict game’, dominated by career politicians concentrated on winning points on the other side, rather than on developing and delivering good public policy, and good government” …Dr. John Hewson, Former Leader Australian Liberal Party (Sydney Morning Herald 24th February, 2017)

So where has it all go wrong? Looking at a timeline of politics is almost like looking at the development of sales in reverse.

In the past, just as politicians are now, salespeople focussed on their competitors. They tried to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors products, service and business so they could counter what they believed would be highlighted in proposals. They were focussed on trying to close the sale. The win the order with little consideration of what the future would look like. Now before you start to jump straight to the ‘Comments’ and start to tell me this isn’t what it was like, let me say it might not have been the way you sold, but it was the way sales was ‘generally’ perceived by the buyer; and that is all that matters. In years past we had politicians with clear visions for the future and plans on how to achieve their vision. They were not focussed solely on the opposition because when you are focussed on your competition, you lose sight of your goal, and you disrespect your customer (constituents).

“Every great political party that has done this country good has given to it some immortal ideas that have outlived the members of that party”…James A. Garfield, 20th US President

So, I said above that ‘sales can fix it’, but how? Here are 10 ways where I believe sales has matured to a point where now, politicians can learn from sales:

1. Successful salespeople focus on what the customer gets, the ‘value’ they deliver. Poor salespeople focus on what they get. Good salespeople understand sales is a service and that they are there to serve their clients. They believe in win/win and that if the client loses, so do they. They know that their success is based on being there when needed. Politicians appear to have lost understanding of this basic principle of fair exchange.

2. Successful salespeople listen to the ‘voice of the customer’. Good salespeople are looking to better understand the market and what their clients are telling them. They can then provide insight that will challenge the status quo to help the client improve their business by taking advantage of opportunities and addressing problems. They provide valuable information and don’t concern themselves with ‘alternate facts’ (Donald Trump) or ‘core and non-core’ promises (John Howard when Prime Minister of Australia). Politicians are all too often telling us what’s good for us and then doing what’s good for them.

3. Successful salespeople do not focus on, nor ‘bash’ the competition. This now seems to be the only ‘game’ played by politicians and it is WRONG. To quote a sales author for whom I have great respect, David Brock, there are three reasons why this is a bad idea.

  • You shift the customer’s focus from you to your competitor. I have seen salespeople effectively ‘introduce’ their competitors into a bidding process by focussing attention on them when none existed. Good salespeople focus on their strengths and the value they can create. This sets a benchmark in the buyer’s mind that their competitors then need to match. Politicians do the opposite.
  • You lose your customers’ respect. If your product or service cannot stand up and deliver value as defined and appreciated by the customer, competing by undermining your competitors is the quickest way to lose the respect of your client. Pollies, take a look around and see what level of respect you have.
  • You’re likely to be wrong. OK, in politics this is probably not as ‘true’ as there is much greater visibility of the protagonists than in selling. But it remains that no matter how good your marketing support or personal research, in an environment that changes so rapidly (business or politics), you are unlikely to understand the latest strengths of your competitors. Or, you are likely to misread them – take a bow Hillary Clinton’s campaign team and the BREXIT ‘Vote STAY’ lobby!

4. Successful salespeople look for triggers – Good salespeople are always on the lookout for, and react to triggers; both positive and negative. They look for, and react to, events which may occur within a company, an industry or market that may indicate an opportunity to engage with their buyers. And when they engage they do so in a positive manner, looking to help the buyer address problems or provide products/services that will create and develop an opportunity. Similarly, good salespeople are always reading the ‘tone’ of engagement with buyers, addressing concerns and building on positive feedback. Our politicians do listen, but of recent times only to the latest opinion polls and their reactions are focussed internally, not on the voter (buyer).

“My job, [Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull’s job, is to take votes away from One Nation, away from Labor, away from the Greens and maximise the LNP vote” …Senator Arthur Sinodinos; Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science (ABC ‘Insiders’ 12/2/17)

5. Successful salespeople build a profile around their ‘authentic self’ and are true to that profile. In today’s digital world, building a personal profile and becoming a ‘domain expert’ is critical if one wants to be successful in B2B sales. My good friend John Smibert mentors sales and business people (and me) on building and maintaining their personal profile, and one of the things John stresses is the need to be transparent and honest. Don’t try to be something you are not. Good or bad, people will judge you for your real self and any attempt to present an image that is not genuine will soon be uncovered. Love him or loathe him, and even though he is caught out ‘stretching’ the truth, Trump is Trump; people know who he is and what he stands for. Contrast that to Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Since taking the reins as our ‘leader’, Turnbull has not lived up to the image he had created as an extremely successful businessman and in his earlier years in politics. Sadly, he now ‘toes the party line’ and he has lost a great deal of respect from his ‘Buyers’ (ie people of Australia)

6. Successful salespeople deliver better service. Building a better product is not the task of the salesperson (successful businesses do this), but if we accept that sales is a service, delivering better service is very much the salespersons responsibility. The salesperson’s role has moved from serving their company to serving their clients. In days past, it was the responsibility of the salesperson to sell, to convince the buyer of the need for their product or service. Today, successful salespeople help Buyers buy. They will walk away from a deal they know cannot deliver the value defined by the Buyer, even if it means their competitor wins. They know that this will gain the respect of the Buyer and position them well for future opportunities. When was the last time we heard a politician admit that a policy of their opposition was right, was better than their own? Politicians are elected to serve their constituents, not their party.

“The electorate wants politics to focus on competence, to deliver good public policy and better government, rather than on personalities and their careers, and cheap point scoring” …John Hewson

7. Successful salespeople look to build for the long-term. Good salespeople adopt a long-term mindset. They look to build relationships, not simply close a sale. They set short-term objectives that feed long-term goals and they create a strategy to achieve these goals. Their short term objectives may be aimed at surviving, but their long term goals are aimed at thriving. Again, politicians are tending to focus on the short term at the expense of the long term.

“Important issues have been left to drift, or in some cases have been compounded by short-term, populist responses, so that important problems remain unresolved, all having a negative impact on the wellbeing of the average voter, let alone the legacies being left to their children” … John Hewson

8. Successful sales managers hire the right people. With some exceptions, and of course the notable exception of Donald Trumpwe are in an era of the career politician. Unfortunately the skill sets and experience gained on their way to being elected does little to prepare them to lead and manage; they just know how to play the game of politics…they have never had a ‘real job’. Successful sales managers build great teamsby selecting not just the best players, but those who can make a great team. They look for not just relevant experience, but a willingness to learn and work collaboratively for the benefit of the team, the company and most importantly the customer.

9. Successful sales managers (and salespeople) have clearly defined expectations (think of JFK’s 1962 “We choose to go to the moon” speech). Politicians are elected on the back of their promises and once in power, while they do set budgets and have plans for the future, how many share these openly and honestly? How many share the KPIs and milestones that are set as part of the planning process? How many of them stick to the plan? Good sales managers share their plans and goals to give a sense of belonging and allow their team (and often their clients) to embrace their vision. It helps inspire their team towards their own goals and to give their best. Improved productivity and performance require the clear communication of expectations. Good salespeople know their roles and responsibilities — what they should and should not do. They understand the desired end game – what they must accomplish. They work toward set goals and use those goals to measure their performance.

“I am a firm believer in the people, if given the truth. They can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts” … Abraham Lincoln

10. Good salespeople are creative and innovative.  To be successful, salespeople need to be developing new and better solutions to customer problems, better ways to identify and deliver value. This requires a big dose of creativity on the part of the salesperson. Innovation and creativity hearten perseverance and spark performance breakthroughs. Salespeople, their teams and their clients understand that required solutions are not always easy to find and that the sales cycle at times may become a drawn out process. Successful salespeople must find ways to stay engaged and lead that process, not, as many politicians do today, have a simple ‘next term’ focus.

I realise this post will be seen by many as a ‘beat up’ on politicians, but it is not intended to be so. I admit I am greatly disillusioned by what is being delivered by traditional political parties and politicians generally, but I also understand the job is not easy. The roles undertaken by politicians, if undertaken in the private sector would command much greater rewards so perhaps it is a case of ‘if you pay peanuts you get monkeys’. However, the point I am raising here is that there has been an almost completely opposite shift in the culture of sales compared to that of politics. If sales can shift from the ‘snake-oil’ reputation of years past, politicians can surely do the same…or not let themselves go down that path in the first place.

Previously posted on LinkedIn

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