Martyn Drake: Who is responsible for your sales?

Many charities are neglecting sales because of outdated prejudices about sales techniques, our columnist says

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

Imagine someone you know says to you: "I’ll introduce to you a guy I know. He’s in sales." What kind of person would you expect to meet?

If the first image that springs to mind is some combination of an Apprentice contestant, a second-hand car salesman, or Alec Baldwin’s iconic "Blake" from Glengarry Glen Ross, you’re not alone – most people still associate sales with those sharp-suited stereotypes, but their prejudice is almost entirely unjustified. The profession of sales has changed almost beyond recognition since Baldwin screamed "always be closing". Indeed, the salesperson he characterised is a rapidly-dying breed, largely thanks to the internet.

Years ago, when the world was still in black and white and I was a retail buyer at Boots, I’d be pitched by sales people every day. Whether smooth and fluent, or robust and passionate, the conversations were almost entirely one-way. I remember one occasion where a young man took me through probably 30 pages of his company’s product catalogue, extolling the virtues of each range, and asking if I’d like to stock it. At the end of the catalogue, and an unbroken string of ‘no thank you’, he literally turned the catalogue back to page one and started again.

Thankfully, buyers at Boots don’t have to sit through meetings like that anymore. They have a wealth of information at their fingertips. If someone asks for a meeting, they can check out their website, read everything they need to know about their products, and decide in advance which, if any, might be of interest and what, if anything, they’d gain from a conversation.

The same is true in almost every buying situation these days. Few people need a salesperson to tell them the specifications of a particular car, dishwasher or laptop – most of us will have compared the options, read the reviews and narrowed down the shortlist long before we approach a store, let alone an assistant. None of us likes to be "sold" to and now, thanks to the internet, we don’t have to be.

The information balance between buyer and seller has shifted so much that the role of the sales person has fundamentally changed. Their job can’t simply be to tell a potential buyer what’s available and try to convince her to buy. Nobody needs that any more, nor do they want it, and they certainly won’t tolerate the hard sell when they know there are other options out there. In fact, the role of a modern salesperson is not to "sell" at all – it’s to help people choose the right thing to buy.

That’s not just semantics, it’s a total inversion. It changes the whole dynamic, from pitching products and their features, to asking serious questions about what’s important to the buyer and why, and it’s driven by a completely different mindset. It starts, not with the thought "what can I sell this person", but with "how can I help them solve their problem; how can I help them make the best choice for their needs?" The modern sales toolkit doesn’t comprise the sharp suit, the easy charm, and the smooth pitch. Instead it’s based on a deep expertise, a genuine desire to help, the skills to listen and ask insightful questions, and the ability to find the best solutions. And there are few places you’ll find those qualities in greater abundance than the third sector.

When you consider that over half of all charity income is from commercial trading, that the ability to sell services is fundamental to many charities’ missions, and that the skill-set is such a natural fit, it’s striking that so few people in the sector are trained in sales, and virtually nobody has the word ‘sales’ in their job title. Moreover, when I ask most charity leaders who is responsible for sales in their organisation, I rarely get a straight, simple answer – try it yourself. It makes me wonder how much the outdated prejudices that cling to the word are seriously holding us back.

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