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You Aren’t Selling If You Are Helping

by Dan Hibel

My Intro to Sales

When I was 22 years old, I took my first job in sales. I was hired by a startup job board that catered to the college market.  Employers looking to recruit and hire recent college grads could purchase a subscription to this service and receive access to college students looking for work upon graduation. My job was to sell those subscriptions.

I remember being very enthusiastic about joining a startup, but simultaneously nervous about taking on a role in sales.  For me, “sales” always came with very negative undertones.  When I thought of sales people, I thought of people who were pushy, wouldn’t take no for an answer, and were primarily looking out for their own best interests.  With that in mind, I was determined to do things my way.

A couple of weeks into the job, I contacted a friend who led a sales team. In passing, he mentioned that he was always looking to train recent college grads, and I thought our services would be a natural fit. He was indeed very interested in accessing the types of job seekers found on our board, and the only detail we needed to iron out was which subscription would be the best fit for him.

There were multiple options ranging from a three-month trial period to a three-year subscription.  My friend quickly gravitated toward the one-year subscription.  As we were discussing his options on the phone, I was adamant that he should lower his risk and start with the three-month trial until he was sure our services met his needs.  It was my belief that if the job board did what it was supposed to do for him, he would become a long-term customer, so I wanted to be open, honest and truthful with him, even if it resulted in a lower commission for me up front.  We ultimately agreed that the three-month subscription was the best place for him to start, and I hung up the phone beaming about closing my first deal.

The pride I experienced was short lived. Moments later, my boss came over to me, angry that I had coached someone away from the more lucrative option.  I explained my logic to him, but he only seemed interested in making the quickest and largest buck, while I was hoping to build a trusted partnership.

Less than two months later, my friend called to let me know that the product I was selling was yielding little benefits for him or his company (something I was already starting to suspect). With my boss’s reaction validating a lot of the concerns I had about a role in sales, and the epiphany that the product I was selling was low quality, my tenure at this company was very short lived.  A few months later, I left, vowing this would be the last time I pursued work in sales.

On the Periphery of Sales

The next stop on my professional journey was at one of the “Big Four” consulting firms, where I was largely able to avoid sales during my eight-year tenure. However, as I started to progress in my career, I began to get more exposure to how our senior leadership sold work.

In 2005, I was working on a project that focused on outsourcing the learning function of a large company.  Our project team had largely honored its commitments in the initial phase of the work, but we had a critical meeting remaining to tie up some of the change management involved with the outsourcing efforts.  I was responsible for planning and facilitating that meeting, which included 20 participants.  An hour before its start, I received word that our client was likely not going to renew our service for the second phase of the effort, and I was to skip the pending meeting.

Once again, I faced a moral dilemma.  With very little time to ponder the consequences, I decided that I was committed to facilitating this meeting.  My moral compass would not let me use the premise of a failed meeting as a bargaining chip to sell additional work.

Shortly after facilitation, I received a phone call from the engagement lead questioning my decision to move forward, and I explained why, morally, I could not and would not step away from facilitating that meeting. Once again, my explanation of integrity was met with concerns for revenue targets and my undermining of authority.

Two months after this incident, I decided that maybe I wasn’t a fit for this large consulting firm.  Quite honestly, at that point I wasn’t sure where I would be a fit.

My Next “Short-Term Gig”

After a very brief search, I was introduced to Kenway’s founder and CEO in 2006.  We met for lunch, and he hired me as a subcontractor.  The position offered everything I was looking for in a “short-term gig.” It would allow me to find my bearings and help me figure out or confirm where I wanted to be in 5-10 years.  I would earn a wage increase, and I wasn’t obligated to hit any revenue targets or sell any work.  And if I was asked to do anything that was out of line with what I believed was right, I wouldn’t be terribly invested and could quickly find something new.

Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled upon a company that conducted business with the same set of values as I did. Kenway was providing the highest quality of consulting services with unwavering integrity.  Led by the CEO, we were doing things differently by putting ourselves out there to help everyone with whom we came into contact, no matter “what was in it for us.” Kenway strived to do what was right for the client, even if what was right led to less business and lower revenues. And we helped everyone with whom we came into contact, whether it was by providing services, providing referrals, or simply by being a sounding board and providing advice in our areas of expertise.

I have now been at this “short-term gig” for 12 years.  I went from a subcontractor to a full-time employee, and Kenway has grown from a company of three to more than 50 employees strong.  Our revenues have increased every year, our client list has grown, and the capabilities and services that we offer in the marketplace have expanded.

But more important to me than the growth we’ve experienced and the things I have been asked to execute during my tenure, are the things I haven’t been asked to do.  I have never been asked to compromise my integrity for the betterment of Kenway’s balance sheet (or for any other reason).  I have never been asked to put a proposal in front of a client that I didn’t believe in my heart of hearts was their best viable option. And I have never been asked to “sell” anything.

Doing What’s Right Regardless of the Outcome

In the years since 2006, Kenway has documented these core values, and they serve as our Guiding Principles. Oaths, if you will, that each of us as Kenway employees promise to uphold.

And as Kenway has grown, our approach to business development (we intentionally avoid the term “sales”) has always stayed true to these Guiding Principles.  Employees are asked to help grow the business, actively network with their contacts, and seek opportunities to help. No one is accountable for revenue targets at Kenway, as it is our belief that compensating individuals based on their ability to hit numbers can lead to bad practices and flawed decision making.

Instead, we believe that as employees grow in their careers, they should be able to identify complex business challenges and help formulate a strategy to resolve those challenges.  When called upon to help, it is expected that Kenway employees will answer that call and provide help in the best way possible.

What I Have Learned About Sales and Selling

It has been 20 years since I quit my first sales jobs, and my perception of sales and selling has changed dramatically.  I no longer find the prospect of “selling” to be daunting, and I don’t believe that sales people must be pushy or self-serving.  What I believe instead is that there are a lot of bad sales people who, unfortunately, focus on the instant gratification that comes from a quick sale and the associated commission instead of focusing on the right means necessary to help their client, prospect, and own firm, and then accept the outcomes of those means without regret.

I am very proud to work for a company whose business development strategy focuses on helping others and developing long-term, mutually beneficial relationships.  It is my belief that this approach will position Kenway for sustained growth.

I am very proud that at Kenway, we choose to reward the quality of our business development process and not the outcome.  This method ensures that our clients and prospects are getting the best possible proposal without nefarious tactics designed to ensure we are hitting any revenue targets or personal sales goals.

I am very proud that everyone at Kenway is tasked with building and developing their own personal network, and identifying individuals and companies we believe we can help. This approach ensures that we are not only helping companies or individuals based on their status or their available spend. Instead, we are rewarding all parties that we encounter by helping them identify and solve the business challenges that face them.

Most of all, I am very proud to have stumbled upon a “short-term gig” at which I can see myself for the next 20 years.

For more information on our Guiding Principles and how Kenway can help, please visit us at www.kenwayconsulting.com.

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