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Some wind in our sails

February 20, 2013
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Photo from freeaussiestock.com, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

I returned from the Lexis National Sales Meeting in Orlando on Friday. There was little reason for me to be there and I had no specific obligations. But once I was able to dissolve the burden of guilt I feel when I am not needed (or irrelevant), I sat back and tried to view the event the way an anthropologist might study gift exchange among Trobriand islanders.

Lexis employs 1,200 salespeople, and so attending this annual event was a wonderful experience for my three salespeople from Knowledge Mosaic. As you can imagine, sales might be the most difficult job in any business. Some people are naturally good at selling. They believe their product truly helps others (surplus value transferred from seller to buyer!). They can clearly communicate the benefits of their product (ideally, I am told, it should be 10 times better than the alternatives!). They possess an engaging personality, a winning smile, and are skilled at asking questions and listening to answers. And ultimately, the best salespeople simply experience and communicate joy in the act of selling. When they clinch a deal, these gifted humans sublimate a commonplace commercial transaction into a transcendent moment of satisfaction for all parties involved.

But this is an idealized, rarely realized, perspective on sales. Few among those of us who have sold are sales prodigies. We experience our work as rough and tumble, emotionally violent, unpredictable, and psychologically diminishing. Not unlike golf. Most of the time, we fail. We smile, even when we want to cry. Or punch a wall. Or punch our boss. Or punch the person we are cold calling. Read Death of a Salesman. Watch Glengarry Glen Ross. The prodigy drives the Cadillac. We receive the steak knives. Or the pink slip. When we win, the company wins. When we fail, we fail alone.

So the annual sales convocations that large corporations annually organize serve an enormously important purpose. They bring together people who often feel marginal and for whom success is never more than fleeting, and they shine a spotlight on these people and celebrate their successes, their efforts, and their commitment to the organization. In these meetings, senior executives of a company can say, “No one else may appreciate you. But we do. You are our infantry, our boots on the ground, our cannon fodder. And we – the generals – support you and salute you.”

In small companies, this annual rite of rejuvenation remains essentially out of reach. Perhaps a leader more skilled than I would have done a better job supporting my sales team through the years, but my focus was on product development, and while I did quite a bit of selling myself, and met regularly with my sales team to monitor their progress, I never successfully created a sales culture. I sent my sales people into the field with no formal training, no marketing support, and only limited efforts to buck them up when sales were hard to come by (as they often were). In retrospect, they would probably say the gaze I cast upon them was, more often than not, impatient and disapproving. And that must have stung.

But this may well be a reality of small company sales. When a business is hustling to build innovative products and gain credibility, and resources are scarce, every business decision is an act of triage. The look and feel of the company is not – contrary to the common image of technology startups – a spa. It is more like an emergency room. And the bottom line consistently was that money had to go to support product creation, not product sales, because without a good product there would be nothing to sell. I sometimes took grief from my product people for not putting more money into marketing, but the reality was that they were continually badgering me for funding for their own teams, and if that tradeoff had to be made, I knew the product development effort had to take priority over the sales and marketing effort.

So the Lexis National Sales Meeting must have seemed like a warm bath for my tiny sales team. As Jason wrote to me toward the end of the week, he felt like the belle of the ball. Not only were the sales folks (like Nemo) freed from their little Knowledge Mosaic aquarium to swim in the big sea with hundreds of their fellow fishes (community!), they received special attention and care and encouragement as the new kids in town. They also know that Lexis can lay a foundation for their future professional success and growth, through robust marketing support, state-of-the-art technology, advanced training, and skilled management.

And honestly, the reception my sales guys and gals received in Orlando only mirrors the consistently professional and supportive integration experience that Lexis has provided everyone at Knowledge Mosaic since the purchase.  I am realistic enough to know that we are still in the “honeymoon” phase of our relationship.  And I realize that if we don’t deliver on our goals in the coming months and years, we will have fallen short of our charter.  But after ten years steering my little ship across the open ocean, I remain trusting enough to appreciate the respect and kindness Lexis has shown us. I also remain cynical enough to know that other large companies are more likely to chew up and spit out the businesses they purchase than support and nurture these little companies and invest wholeheartedly in their vision as Lexis has done with Knowledge Mosaic.

So here’s to the honeymoon. Let’s hope it’s a long one.

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