Where Sales Activity Came From
Early salespeople in the Sales Profession in the United States fell primarily into two groups. They were peddlers or canvassers:
- Peddlers carried trunks filled with goods; some pulled a wagon or traveled on horseback. They had to go from town-to-town, build trust, and sell in a very transactional purchase.
- A canvasser typically represented one product and would develop techniques to best sell that one product to as many people as possible. A canvasser would “canvas” an entire territory offering the product to everyone they saw or met. An early example of this was the canvassing technique used to sell Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir by the publishing house the represented him.
Both canvassers and peddlers were part of an ancient tradition that originated in people’s basic need to exchange goods and to communicate. As people established economic ties with their neighbors, they traveled extensively all around the world to trade or barter. An early catalyst for these salespeople was the development and use of roads and water routes for trading activity. Barter, the direct exchange of goods for goods, was the principal means of trade.
In Greece, the caravan trade that connected the Greek world with Asia prospered. Every day articles, domestic tools, metal kitchenware, and ordinary clothes were exchanged. Markets, in their fundamental stages, were meeting places for customers and direct sellers. Frequently, the salesperson used the market as one of his stopping points before continuing his village-to-village journey.
Early salespeople seized all opportunities to trade their goods when traveling. Fairs connected with religious feasts brought him to the armies stationed in the fields. Swarms of salesmen procured all of the products needed for the troops. The traveling merchant can be found in mythology as a notable seller. Ulysses, the mythic hero, once posed as a merchant. The little tale, repeated by ancient authors in many different forms, refers to Ulysses as a traveling merchant. These early merchants took action to synchronize what they were doing to meet their future customers where they were. It was about taking the right action. If they did, they would be rewarded.
This tale pre-dates the American peddler by almost 3,000 years. At the palace, Ulysses offered ornaments for sale that he had placed on his arm. The king’s daughters were “engrossed with the contents of the merchant’s pack.”
In early America, for instance, the Yankee Peddler walked to his customers while those of grander stature rode horseback. The prosperous sellers rode in wagons or carriages. As emigrants began to filter into early American territories in the 18th and 19th centuries, many became salespeople. Like their predecessors, these direct sellers began their treks on trails marked by nature. Proper roads developed slowly on the frontiers of early America. Early Indian trails evolved into major roads and eventually turnpikes. Each of these evolutionary steps was driven by action. To understand who was buying, and why they were buying.
And then something happened.
Sales became a “numbers game”
The first American company to define simple rules of a successful sales process and the corresponding methodologies was National Cash Register Corporation in the late 1800s. The simple philosophy used by NCR was:
- Know your customer,
- Know your product,
- Be ready for the customer to buy, and
- Stay engaged with the customer after the sale.
In the late 1900s, a significant shift in selling focus occurred, although it continued based on the initial processes and techniques of the peddlers and canvassers found in the early 1800s. This was the shift from product-centric selling to customer-centric or solution selling. And with it, a focus on activity, activity, activity. It became less about what actions mattered, and more about the volume of tasks to be accomplished in order to capture more market share.
Today, this philosophy of understanding the customer and consulting with them while developing win-win solutions still exists. And commercial enablement leaders are helping sales leaders evolve their teams. But it’s important to realize there is still a massive focus on volume of activity at the expense of value and quality for customers. There continues to be a considerable need for sales professionals to build relationships, understand the customer, and bring value to the lives of their buyers. But, they have to get back to the basics — of driving the right action with customers.
Defining Sales Success Today, Built on the Examples of Yesterday
Sales professionals enter the profession for their own reasons. Many salespeople end up in the trade after very nearly testing every other profession first. Some determined that selling was right for them while still in college. All great salespeople define success in their own way. The key is for them to decide what the most important element of success is for them. In the business world, there also has to be corporate, not just personal goals. Understanding that sales are a growth engine of the organization, it is easy to understand that the definition of sales success had better contain one thing for sure — capturing enough revenue in each sales territory to exceed the quota set by management. Just like NCR in the late 1800s. Activity over impact. It’s a numbers game.
This point is crucial because it is also the only definition that matters to the business world. We have a choice to make as leaders in the business. Why do individuals repeatedly meet or exceed their quotas? How does it actually happen? Is it because “it’s a number’s game” or is it because “we took the right action to understand our future customers and meet with them?” In this way, there are other attributes of this definition of success that are likely different for each salesperson and sales manager to drive action. For example, personal elements that define success could also include:
- Gaining access to customer change agents
- Meeting with executives
- Co-creating a vision of success
- Building a business case
To focus on action (and not activity), it’s likely salespeople won’t be able to achieve success alone. That’s the thing about “activity.” It can be assigned to one person and one person can “control” it. However, when you focus on the outcomes necessary to be successful, we’re talking about taking action. And that means involving others. Indeed, the most significant contributor to any salesperson’s or sales manager’s success will likely be the messages and enablement they receive from the company. For example,
- the value and impact of products sold (the perceived value by the market)
- the internal support received (in getting answers to questions, supporting clients, or fixing problems), and
- the availability of resources which is a critical contributor to success.
The sales management team, people in marketing, and others in the organization will all have different definitions of success, so it’s essential to keep your eyes on the critical determinant – achieving quota and ask them for help to achieve it together.
There is no such thing as a “flawless sale.” There are always concerns, problems, and issues to address. Many of the challenges salespeople face today are ecosystem-related. They are bigger than any one person. Sales success then boils down to ensuring that the relationship and partnership created with the customer are successful despite any hiccups.
Remember, based on this history lesson above, it was just a few short years ago that many sales organizations would sell a product or service or solution, get the ink on the contract, and have their salespeople move on with little or no regard for service after the sale. Simple tasks. But the world has evolved.
Service is Critical
More and more salespeople have come to understand the marketing function, the selling function, and the service functions in their organization, and they work to minimize any gaps in the customer’s experience between each. This scenario is tough to accomplish, but their ability to understand and empathize with the entire customer experience from initial needs definition, long into the sales process (and after) differentiates them. It’s time to focus on action, not activity.