OPINION

Selling, Reality and Economics

I am a bit of an economics junkie. My interest in the dismal science carries over from my interest in evolution and can be summarized as, why things are the way they are and how they got that way. I am currently finishing up a book that gets me where I live, Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction & Economics by Paul Ormerod. This is no crackpot author, Ormerod was head of the Economics Assessment Unit at The Economist and he has taught economics at the university level. Nevertheless, perhaps another, more positive, way to look at the same phenomena is simply to acknowledge that nothing is permanent.

That nothing is permanent seems to be the height of observing the obvious and the ultimate “Duh!” moment. As my grandfather might have said, “You needed to go to college to figure that out?” It is simply amazing to me how often we humans look for permanence — or something close to it — whenever we try to observe reality. In Ormerod’s book, one of his major critiques of economics is that its practitioners look for permanence where there is none and by implication where they should know better than to look.

That reality is complicated is highlighted whenever economists or other mortals try to model it in the form of a mathematical equation. Ormerod points out that the best we can do is search for an equilibrium point — a single point in time and a single data set that makes the equation work out because reality is too complicated otherwise. Here I think Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle might have served as inspiration. Ormerod’s point is that we are forever deluding ourselves by extrapolating a single data point at equilibrium into a model for complex reality. It never works.

Selling and Uncertainty

All this got me thinking about my own career in sales and later my humble attempts to analyze selling and the increasingly sophisticated tools we invent to manage the process. There were times in my career when I could sell you the chair you were sitting on and other times when I couldn’t sell oxygen in an emphysema ward and I can’t tell you why.

I was with a client not long ago, and he inadvertently gave me some valuable insight. He told me a story about meeting with one of his customers who voiced a complaint about something. With his latest sales training in mind, he said something like, “I know how you feel. Many of our customers have felt that way and what we found…” That’s as far as he got because the client cut him off with, “Don’t give me any of that ‘feel, felt, found,’ I went to that training too.”

Back when I did rigorous research into spending priorities in CRM, we always found that sales received the most spending. Other parts of CRM got substantial investments too, especially customer service, but sales was the perennial champion of spend. For a long time, I thought that we must all be a little dopey to continue spending vast sums on all things related to selling despite that fact that we always fail to reach that Nirvana where forecasts are spot on, sales processes go as expected, and everyone makes quota, but I am over that.

Selling and the Real World

As my client found in his real world customer interaction, even great ideas and methods get overused and eventually lose their effects, like medicine that loses its effectiveness against a disease and eventually needs to be replaced. In selling, when the method or technique loses its mojo, we are left exposed and look for the next way to shape reality.

Selling is definitely about the real world, and as much as we would like to find and stay on the equilibrium point, we can’t. The real world is complex and complexity leads to unpredictability and because of that, we are forever searching for the next thing. Smart practitioners realize this instinctively and never stay with one style, method, approach, or even product, for too long.

Market leading companies and those that want to be in that position are forever proactively searching out the next thing in selling. Many years ago now, there were methodologies and SFA systems, then analytics. Today, we’re seeing the introduction of myriad tools that help capture the voice of the customer, and customer experience management is the watchword.

Will all of this work? Yes, absolutely — for a while at least. No matter what though, the thing that never goes out of style is the direct, empathic, one-on-one relationship; it’s reality, it’s just about impossible to model, and it can be fleeting. The tools that help us build that reality will always be prized, even if they eventually fail us.

Nothing works forever, especially in selling, that’s why we keep innovating.


Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing, and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com


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