My blog title is from an HBR blog on critical sales skills, written by Steve W. Martin. Martin argues that over 70% of top salespeople are born with “natural instincts” that play a critical role in determining their sales success. His conclusion, he writes, is drawn from his “research.” So, Martin believes, top salespeople are born, not made. Duhhhh! We got rid of that same notion regarding top leaders about ten years ago. Now we have to go through the same song and dance about top salespeople. Aaaargh!
Take, for example, what Martin regards as the first and most differentiating factor of sales success--language specialization. Very few, he writes, are language mavens who can conduct intelligent conversations about the details of daily business operations. . . . Successful self-made salespeople possess domain-area expertise and speak the corresponding business operations language, or have deep knowledge of the industry's technical language. These languages are the yardstick by which customers measure a salesperson's true value and greatly influence their purchase decisions. Lesser-performing self-made salespeople are not as fluent in these languages, so they tend to focus on likability and friendliness with prospective customers.
This reminds me of my favorite movie line by Jason Bateman in the opening scene of “The Switch” in which he talks about his inability to relate: For most of us it’s about not being able to say what you need to say when you need to say it. Martin would say that Bateman’s problem is biology. Less than 30% of the top conversationalists are self-made. They are born with natural conversational instincts. So it’s our inheritance--the luck of the draw.
That’s utter nonsense. Martin hasn’t done the right research. It’s one thing to say that top salespeople grew up in families where good fiction that develops one’s experience was read, and critical thinking and interactional conversation were modeled and emphasized—and most don’t have that luxurious background. It’s another to say that some have natural instincts that play a critical role in determining sales success. I wrote asking for his research. Thus far, a month later, no response.
True. There is such a thing as language instinct, but only at the most basic level. Unless there’s a physical impediment such as Down or Joubert Syndromes, where a portion of the brain is underdeveloped, evolution starts us all out with basic language grammar. If you pay attention to toddlers you can recognize the grammar. Our eldest, when a toddler, understood it was “raining” or “snowing,” or the “sun was shining.” So of course when the wind was blowing, it was also “winding.” That’s toddler grammar—and it is instinctual says Steven Pinker.
Where we go from there is highly dependent upon environment, opportunity, learning and motivation. If you’re familiar with the conclusions regarding deliberate practice, you know that expertise in any domain requires a great deal of modeling, feedback, coaching and practice. That’s true whether the issue is chess, golf, math--or language. Buy shoes at Nordstrom’s and buy tennies at the local discount shoe store and ask both salespeople about their shoes. It doesn’t take much to recognize the language distinctions of trained middle-class people versus those of poorly trained people trying to work their way out of poverty. That’s the result of environment and education. Yeah, I know. The students of deliberate practice don’t want to rule out some special giftedness for world-class performers in golf, violin or chess. But let me assure you, you don’t need to be a world-class performer to become a top salesperson.
But at one point, I’m in full agreement with Martin. Top salespeople sure as hell need more specialized language skills than they’re liable to get in 95% of families or even in the better schools. They need to learn the art of conversation.
Why are the skills of interactional conversation so lacking in business culture? Or, for that matter, in the American culture? The answer is hidden in plain sight. The interactional skills of top salespeople are built upon a number of obvious issues: domain, operational and strategic knowledge. But interactional skills are also built upon dialog competencies. Specifically, critical thinking, listening, advocating, inquiring and turn-taking.
The better schools teach critical thinking, advocating and active listening. But questioning and turn-taking are a completely different animal. Business people, and especially the male of the species, are taught to advocate, not inquire and interact. Leaders who ask questions are thought to be weak and looked down upon. Amazing to me how that “W” is thought to be a leader because he advocated, but “Obama” is not, because he questions. And does it publicly. More nonsense from the idiocracy.
We’ve got a pot full of research explaining why in our culture and especially in the professional and business cultures we don’t inquire. (Lawyers question—but only with leading questions. Those aren’t the interactional and collaborative questions of development, innovation and strategic sales.)
In one of a number of studies, Fiona Lee asks, When the going gets tough, do the tough ask for help? She finds that individuals do not seek help—translated, they do not ask questions. Why? Help seeking implies incompetence and dependence and is therefore related to powerlessness. At bottom, questioning implies vulnerability and fear to most people. Letterman asks questions, but only so he can make fun on his show. They aren't the questions of dialog.
So, is language specialization instinctual for the few? Not at all. What holds us back is the fear of vulnerability and ignorance of the questioning process. Can that mental model be changed and people gain the necessary competence of dialog: the art of talking, thinking, turn-taking and questioning together? Of course. But it won’t happen overnite. As my friend, Alexandra Levit, puts it in her brilliant new book, Blind Spots (see my Good Book list on the left column), the widely held belief of overnite success is pure myth.
Once more. Is the language specialization necessary for top salespeople a matter of instinct? Of course not. Those who think so haven’t done their research.
Fiona Lee, “When the Going Gets Tough, Do the Tough Ask for Help? Help Seeking and Power Motivation in Organizations.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, Vol 72, No. 3, pp. 336-363, 1997.
Photo: Flickr, by Valerie Everett