Recently, I was in Orlando speaking at a trade show. At the conclusion of my program on Prospecting, I opened the floor for questions and discussion. A man in the middle of the room raised his hand and said, “I think you missed a very important part of prospecting. You didn’t speak at all about making friends with the executive secretaries so that they will allow you to talk to their bosses. Why didn’t you cover that?” I answered, “Because, honestly, I believe that it’s an obsolete skill set. Few business owners, Presidents, and even fewer middle managers have dedicated assistants now.”

He looked at me for a moment, then smiled and said, “I just asked you a 1983 question, and you gave me a 2013 answer, didn’t you?” I laughed and replied that, yes, this was true. This question – and a few others that I received – started me thinking about how much the science and mechanics of selling have changed over the past 10-15 years. Even more, it started me thinking about how little much of the sales training and sales knowledge has changed to adapt with it. If you don’t adapt, you’re going to be left behind. So let’s discuss some of these changes:

Corporate Right-Sizing: What many companies learned as things got lean in the 90s, and into the 2000s, was that they had more people than they had actual work to do. This resulted in what many called “Right-Sizing,” and what others called “Downsizing.” I call it “reality.” Executive assistants were terminated in droves. Middle managers whose duties were often redundant, duplicative, or unnecessary were encouraged to find employment elsewhere. For many salespeople, these middle managers were our contacts, and these executive assistants our pathways to decision makers (hence the question that led off this article). If those people aren’t there anymore, what do you do? Some salespeople have found new ways to get to decision makers; others have simply failed as their skills have become obsolete.

There’s a second impact to this, as well. In the 80s, Miller and Heiman became big forces in the sales training world with a system built around the “complex sale” that happened when you had large numbers of middle managers and committees involved in major purchases. For most companies, those committees and middle managers have been cut drastically – and what’s left is a streamlined purchasing process that is very time-sensitive, and requires salespeople to give and get high value from the time we’re allotted. The complex sale has been simplified and intensified – can you handle it?

Customers Don’t Need Us. This is something I’ve been talking about for a few years. Virtually everything you sell can be purchased over the Internet, without the intervention of a salesperson (and if your industry isn’t there yet, give it time). That means that you now have to earn your place in the sales process, rather than have it gifted to you. Again, this means that you have a duty to give and get high value during your interactions with customers. The day of the “donut call” is over.

Good salespeople now must have an agenda, and a win for the customer, in every sales call – or they will lose opportunities to make sales calls. Much of the time, it’s more convenient for a customer to tap a few keys and get what they need, so if your sales call doesn’t make them better, you won’t be invited in.

So, how do you get in? Be prepared to dig. Forget about asking about your customer’s family, hobbies, etc. That’s 1975 selling. Instead, ask good questions that help bring forward ideas, clarify customer needs, and help the customer improve their condition – regardless of whether you sell anything on that sales call.

“Pain” is past. For years, salespeople have spent their time “finding the pain;” i.e. finding a problem that the customer has that they can solve. There are multiple problems with this. First of all, it’s too limiting; there are a variety of ways we can help our customers other than problem solving. Instead, focus on improving their condition – if they have a problem, help them fix it; if they’re doing well, make them better.
Secondly, if you’re only focused on pain, you may be ending up with a lesser client base than you’d like to have. Consider two companies. Company A has pain. Lots of it. If you try to find problems you can solve, you’re going to find plenty here. You’ll also find issues with profits, cash flow, and budgets – all of which can prevent a purchase. Company B has very little pain. It’s well run, successful, and organized. It also has good profits and cash flow. If you’re only focused on finding “pain” and “solving problems,” you’ll end up focusing on Company A – which may or may not have the money to buy from you. On the other hand, Company B is by far the more desirable customer. You’ll only get an opportunity from Company B, however, by focusing on improving their condition – which may mean helping them do something better that they’re doing well already. Selling in the current market means taking a much more comprehensive approach than in the past.

Straight Commission is Dying. One of the most controversial claims that I make is this one. In Orlando, a business owner took me on, telling me that he has a very stable and successful sales force that does great without salaries. His people, he says, are motivated by the lure of uncapped earnings, and moreover, he feels that the best salespeople are motivated this way. During the session, we agreed that he was probably the exception to the rule. He told me that his sales force was mature and long-tenured, and I advised him that he’s likely to see a generational shift when he gets ready to hire again (I’m seeing this with every company I consult with that does straight commission). Post-session, he approached me and admitted privately that he has, in fact, had to pay a salary to his three most recent hires. So, why the battle in session? My guess is that he’s still stuck on the idea that straight commission = guts = best sellers.

Here’s a truth. The sales hiring market has changed. You can’t simply toss out your shingle and expect to hire winners and pay them nothing. Nowadays, the truth is that there are fewer quality salespeople than there are jobs for them; this means that it’s a competitive market. Salespeople who have options (i.e. are proven performers) are going to be fought for, and one of your main weapons is an attractive salary plus commission package. This is simple psychology – one of our basic human needs is the need for security. You might like it or you might not like it, but it’s the reality.

Change can be difficult to deal with. And sometimes changing means swallowing some pride. But it’s essential that if you’re still going to be a thriving salesperson in 20 years – or even ten years, or two years – that you change with the times. You can still live in the fantasy world of what sales used to be like – or you can adapt to reality. I’ve discovered that reality buys more and pays better than fantasy. What are you doing to adapt?

Troy Harrison
About the Author
Troy Harrison is “The Sales Navigator,” helping companies improve their bottom line by building better sales forces. He is the author of Sell Like You Mean It! Also, both hiring and coaching are well covered in his Unconventional Guide to Sales Management audio course For information on booking speaking/training engagements, consulting, or to sign up for his weekly E-zine, call 913-645-3603, e-mail, or visit