Ram Charan may not (yet) be a household name in business, but he’s not far from it. Consider him, “the man behind the man.” He’s advised iconic leaders like Jack Welch and countless other CEOs from Fortune 500 companies for the past couple of decades. Ram’s guidance tends to be well respected, so I really tuned in when he wrote his most recent book on sales, “What the Customer Wants You to Know: How Everybody Needs to Think Differently About Sales“, instead of another treatise on management or leadership.
The Wall Street Journal caught up with Ram and captured his thoughts on what he feels is a need for the “reinvention of sales.” I beg to differ. This is a brief point/counterpoint on Ram’s view of sales and the reality of the sales departments for the vast majority of MarketingProfs readers. At the end of the day, Ram’s view on sales takes some pretty low shots at the past couple of decades worth of advances in the sales realm.
Ram’s point: “I found many companies had focused on the back end of the business: operations, accounting, finance, overhead. But the sales force had been neglected. I got horrified.”
Counterpoint: Sales being neglected? Seriously. One only has to delve into the first chapter of Marketing Champions to realize that it’s marketing that’s often in need of some TLC and attention. Further, according to a survey and report from the Economist Intelligence Unit sponsored by UK Trade & Investment on the corporate priorities for 2007 and beyond, sales (and marketing) were the areas that most were voted as the areas that CEOs could commit the most incremental resources to in 2007!
Ram’s point: “…salespeople should not sell the product any more. They should find out what the customer needs, which will be a combination of products and services and thought leadership.”
Counterpoint: As a small business owner over 15 years ago (I owned a bicycle shop in rural Wisconsin), all of the books that I read on sales (thanks Tom Hopkins!) told me that I needed to ask my customer questions and provide a unique solution to their problem. Don’t just sell them a bicycle, offer then a complete fitness solution to help meet their health goals. I was in high school then, and no one ever left my store with “just a bicycle”. We moved out of the era of “product as marketing” decades ago.
Ram’s point: “The old salesperson: gregarious personality, very sociable. Plays golf. Goes to ballgames. Quick to link with people. Highly motivated. Long hours. Very perceptive in reading other people. The more successful ones know how to close the deal. It’s still useful.
Going forward, the salesperson must build trust with the customers’ people that’s deeper than before and sustained over time. You cannot design a solution without information from the customer. And if the customer does not trust you, he or she will not give you information.”
Counterpoint: The three martini lunch went of style in the 80’s. By the time I got my first sales job selling capital goods in 1999, there were no ballgames, no golf and little socializing. Sales was (and is, even more so now) built on trust, partnerships, understanding each other’s business (it’s not just a one-way street!) and selling solutions not widgets.
I could go on, but let’s not. At the end of the day, and likely at the end of the book (I’ve not read it, but after this WSJ article, I can’t say that I intend to either) you’ll be right back in the sales department of the 1970’s. Other prominent sales authors like Neil Rackham have advanced the thinking on solution and relationship based sales that Charan’s account of the “broken” sales department is little more than a bad reminder of times gone by.
My real concern in all of this, however, is that Ram’s next target might be marketing. Let’s just hope that he teams up with a good co-author if he decides to set his sights on the “broken marketing process”!