February 24, 2018

Remaining in the Railroad Business

In the 1980s and 90s I did a lot of sales consulting for radio and TV stations and cable companies. One service I provided was a Sales Audit. I would ask sales management a long list of questions, interview the sales force, and ask the salespeople to complete a confidential survey.

On the survey one of the questions I’d ask was, “In rank order, what do like best about working for your station?” The two answers that invariably ranked either number one or number two were, “Getting results for clients” and “Fellow co-workers.” Typically number three on the list of what the salespeople liked best was, “Management.”

Interestingly, when I asked. “In rank order, what do like least about working for your station?”, the number-one answer was typically “Management.” When I asked salespeople what they disliked most about sales management, the answer usually was, “They beat us up about closing and about making the station’s budget.”

In rare cases (about 10 percent of the time), one of the top three answers about what salespeople liked best was, “Money” or “Commissions,” which was surprising to most managers (they thought it would be number one), but the answer was consistent with the research on what motivates people. The top-selling Harvard Business Review article is by Fredrick Herzberg titled “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?” The 1968 article is about money not being a prime motivator of people – including salespeople – typically ranking number five or six.

A more recent affirmation of the money-isn’t–the-best motivator truism is Daniel Pink’s 2009 best-seller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in which the author concludes, after exhaustive research on the topic, that what motivates people is autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In fact, Pink stresses, money can demotivate us – a point he makes effectively in his TED talk, and in his excellent, white-board animated talk to the Royal Society.

Pink’s latest book (2012) is To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others,. One of the main points he makes is that the best way to move others is to make them look good – to serve them. Pink writes about a “more transcendent definition of service – improving other’s lives and, in turn, improving the world. At its best, moving people can achieve something greater and more enduring than merely an exchange of resources.”

Pink’s concept that selling (moving) people requires that you serve them, that you improve their lives, echoes the answers I got on my survey of broadcast and cable salespeople – that one of the top things that motivated them was “getting results for clients.”

The notion that salespeople are motivated by the purpose of helping their clients is forcefully reinforced by a new book by Lisa Earle McLeod, Selling With Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud.

McLeod builds on Daniel Pink’s well-supported claim that what motivates people is autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and what moves people is making them look good (serving them). She writes that in a sales force she was working with that “top performers weren’t driven solely by money. They were driven by purpose.” In company after company McLeod worked with, the top salespeople wanted to help their customers, wanted to help make their customers’ lives and their businesses get better and healthier.

McLeod discovered that internal conversations with salespeople became external conversations with clients. If sales management talked about closing, gaining share, and maximizing revenue, and, worse, offered incentive systems that reward these short-term internal objectives, that salespeople talked to clients that way (explicitly or implicitly) and acted accordingly. They left the client’s needs, interests, and objectives completely out of the picture.

The worst sales practices McLeod outlines in Selling With Noble Purpose read as though she were describing the sales practices in radio, newspapers, magazines, television, and cable: Internal discussions about closing, gaining share, maximizing revenue (price gouging), and negotiating to win – and then paying salespeople entirely or in part based on commissions, which maximizes selfish, predatory behavior.

I’m not sure the old media will ever learn before it’s too late. It’s obviously too late for most newspapers to learn (they thought they were in the newspaper business), and unless the other legacy media learn to sell with a noble purpose (help clients get results and make their lives easier), they’ll go the way of the Pennsylvania Railroad, which thought it was in the railroad business.

If you’re in the legacy media (or use legacy media sales practices) and are interested in learning how to sell in this new age of myriad media choices and motivating an idealistic young generation of salespeople, read 1) The Challenger Sale: Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, 2) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, 3) To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, and 4) Selling With Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud.

Read them, change accordingly, or remain in the railroad business.