Harvard Business Review

Why Your Salespeople Are Pushovers


Posted on Harvard Business Review: October 18, 2011 8:17 AM

by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson

This blog, the third in a four-part series, is also part of the HBR Insight Center Growing the Top Line. Its conclusions are based on data from a global study of more than 6,000 sales reps across nearly 100 companies in multiple industries.

One of the age-old stereotypes in business is the pushy salesperson. But what if we told you that the real issue in sales today isn’t that salespeople tend to be too pushy, but that they’re not pushy enough?

In our first post in this series, we introduced you to a special type of high-performing sales rep called the Challenger. One of the defining attributes of Challengers is that they take control of the sale by being assertive.

What does this look like in practice? Challengers take control in three important ways.

* First, as we discussed in last week’s post, Challengers use proprietary insights to change the way customers think about their business and that highlight the suppliers’ unique ability to create value. If customers respond, as they invariably do, that the insights don’t apply in their situation, Challengers don’t back down. They know that if they want customers to buy differently, they’re first going to have to get them to think differently — and that they may have to get a little scuffed up in the process.

* Second, knowing that today’s complex deals are often just as difficult to buy as they are to sell, Challengers actively guide customers through the purchase process. They maintain the momentum of the sale by pushing customers to engage the right internal stakeholders at the right time with the right message. Challengers don’t ask customers how the deal is going to get done, waiting for the customer to “coach” them. They teach customers how to drive consensus for the purchase — as more often than not, customers themselves don’t really know how to do it.

* Finally, Challengers take control in negotiating commercial details — especially at that crucial moment when the customer looks them in the eye and says, “If we could just get a 5% discount, I think we could get this done by the end of the week.” Unlike most reps whose response to a discount request is either to “consult with a manager” or to “meet the customer half way,” Challengers table the discount request altogether and instead push the conversation back to the value they’re providing to the customer. They acknowledge the request for a price concession, but defer a decision and, if pressed, offer other less costly concessions.

Now, of course, in all of these situations Challengers push back respectfully, professionally, empathetically and in a manner consistent with local culture (the way you challenge in Japan is different than the way you challenge in the U.S., for example). But, make no mistake, Challengers do push back.

When we present this research to sales leaders, we hear a common refrain: “If we tell our reps to sell like Challengers and be more assertive, they’ll go too far. They’ll take it as a license to become aggressive.” But more often than not, this concern is unwarranted. In reality, most reps are far more likely to be passive than aggressive with customers. Guided by years of training and a deeply seated but mistaken belief that they should always do what the customer wants, reps seek to resolve tension with customers quickly, rather than prolong it. But maintaining a certain amount of constructive tension is exactly what Challengers do.

Why do most reps fear tension? We see two reasons. First, they feel they have no choice — it’s either acquiesce or lose the deal. Yet, in a recent survey of sales reps and procurement officers, BayGroup International determined that while 75 percent of reps believe that procurement has the upper hand in the rep-customer relationship, 75 percent of procurement officers believe that reps have more power. What does that tell us? At the very least, if reps give in simply because of a perceived power imbalance, they’re conceding way too easily.

Second, most reps adopt a passive posture because senior management has told them to. How so? In ongoing efforts to differentiate their companies, virtually every leadership team has exhorted their team to “put the customer first,” or “place the customer at the center of everything we do.” It’s not a bad strategy, mind you, but it backfires when leadership is vague about how this translates to specific behavior. Without clear guidance, most reps simply slip into “order taker” mode, closing small, disaggregated, price-driven deals at a discount all in the name of “giving customers what they want.”

How would you describe the best reps in your organization? Do they acquiesce to customer demands and passively take business that’s given to them or do they push their customers and use tension to their advantage?

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