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Confessions of a Reluctant Salesman

February 25, 2014

glengarry-glen-rossI came to sales, if not kicking and screaming, then certainly not doing backflips. Until four years ago, I was always a doer: musician, teacher, editor, project manager, business analyst, IT leader, then consultant (yes, folks, consulting does count as doing something). In 2010, however, I got the opportunity to step into a role at Doculabs that was my first serious sales role.

Sure, at the time I told myself it was business development, not sales, as if that would somehow insulate me from the unsavory, somewhat slimy world of selling people things. But in the end, of course, they both really amount to the same thing: you need to convince folks who aren’t doing business with you to do business with you by selling them something. Full stop.

Now, to be fair, I had (and continue to have) other responsibilities at Doculabs: creating and nurturing new service offerings, contributing to our go to market strategies, sponsoring and delivering on consulting engagements, coaching and mentoring my colleagues, growing the Doculabs brand through thought leadership activities, and working with my fellow leadership team members to chart a course for Doculabs as a whole to ensure that it will continue to thrive for years to come. But the fact is, if we don’t sell our services to clients, then all the rest of this stuff is meaningless—without a viable business, we have to pack it up and go home.

So the reality was that I took a sales job and needed to figure out how to sell successfully without turning into a sales guy, or at least the kind of sales guy that made my skin crawl. You know the type: totally focused on closing a deal, doesn’t matter what the client needs or what the product or service can do, just get them to sign on the line that is dotted, and once it’s a done deal, move on to the next one.

I was fortunate both to work at a firm that espouses a philosophy of selling that’s 180 degrees away from what I thought sales was and also to have mentors that showed me another way to sell, a way that generated revenue while allowing you to sleep at night.

The Doctor is in

The first breakthrough I had was to look at our sales process as analogous to practicing medicine rather than selling snake oil. That is, when you go to your GP because something is wrong and she gives you a diagnosis, you expect her to follow up by administering a cure (if there is one). When she recommends an x-ray or blood tests or prescribes some medicine, your first thought isn’t usually that she’s just trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. Typically, you’re relieved to know what’s wrong and what you need to do about it…and that your trusted physician will be with you every step of the way

In contrast, imagine if she delivered her diagnosis and showed you the door: how would that feel? Far from relieved, you’d feel frustrated and abandoned—how could she know what’s wrong with me and not do anything about it, or at least refer me on to someone who can?

What Doculabs does isn’t that much different from what a GP does. We meet with folks and talk to them about their problems. We facilitate a discussion and try to help them articulate their issues, challenges, and opportunities. We seek to understand the client context and make sure we’ve “heard” them before we suggest ways they can solve their issues and challenges to capitalize on their opportunities. And once we’re absolutely sure that we’ve done all that, we sketch out clearly and directly what we can do for the client and, as importantly, what we can’t, fostering an open, honest, transparent dialogue about whether what we can do fits what the client needs and what the next steps are, whether or not we plan to work together.

How strange would it be if we did all that with our prospects and clients and then bid them good day without offering to provide more services to them? They would feel like a patient whose GP didn’t stick around to cure them: abandoned, confused, let down, lost.

This breakthrough realization not only made me excited to take on a sales role, but it also gave me a framework within which I could be successful at sales and feel good about my job.

Live to Serve

The second big aha moment for me was when I realized that everything Doculabs does, from marketing and sales to delivery, is about serving clients—if we’re not serving our clients, nothing else matters. And if we focus on serving clients, then everything else, from revenue to the strength of our brand, follows of its own accord.

So, when I’m embarking on the process of selling I described above, I work hard to stay totally focused on serving the client, i.e., before I speak or act, I ask myself, is what I’m about to do or say grounded in serving the client or not?

This is easier said than done, because I have student loans and three kids with all the expenses that brings, and a mortgage, car payments, etc., and a wife who’s a stay at home mom—so I wouldn’t be human if some part of my brain wasn’t crunching the numbers and imaging how great it would be to get the sale and collect the commission. And I also have strong opinions about how to do enterprise content management (ECM) and IT and lots of other stuff, and my ideas don’t always gel with what the client thinks, needs, or wants. So sometimes I need to suppress my strong opinions to better serve the client, but other times I need to push back and speak my mind—and risk putting them off or angering them. In either case, showing how smart I think I am or how right I am is not the first concern…it’s doing what’s needed to serve the client no matter what my ego wants to do or my wallet needs me to do.

The Final Word

Okay, so much for the confessions of a reluctant salesman, who’s come to really enjoy sales in the sense that I’ve described it here. For me, honestly, my job doesn’t even feel like a job: I get to read and write and think about how to make organizations better; I get to meet folks from all over the world from all different industries and organizations and partner with them to figure out how to solve their problems; and I get the chance to work with some of them to actually solve those problems elbow to elbow in the trenches (and mostly live to tell about it). For me, I couldn’t think of a better way to earn a living.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2014 1:33 pm

    Great post Joe. I love your honesty and self-reflection. I could not think of “sales” in a more positive light.

    • February 26, 2014 7:20 pm


      Thanks for the kind words–glad the post made you see what sales can be if looked at differently!

      I hope all is well and hope we get to have a catch up 1.0 (i.e., in person) one of these days soon!



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