An Idea Worth Selling

Most people don’t understand how sales jobs have changed.

See the new issue of Briefings magazine, available at newsstands and online.

When was the last time somebody told you he or she worked in sales and you just fell out of your seat impressed? Or asked for an autograph? Let’s face it, as technology continues to be the steady drumbeat of business, the world belongs to the innovators, the entrepreneurs and the developers who can create the toys of the future.

And yet there’s something so true about a line from “Death of a Salesman”: The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell. Written decades ago, it still makes plenty of sense—after all, there’s no point creating some great gadget or software if no one knows how to sell it.

Which brings me to some recent white papers you can find on our website (kornferryinstitute .com) that suggest companies have forgotten this. Or at least they’re drifting pretty far away from sales-centric leadership. In a paper by Rick Sklarin, senior client partner in our Global Technology Industry practice, we learn something kind of startling: Of the 10 top publicly traded U.S. tech firms, which combined sell more than $850 billion in gadgets, software and services, only one has a CEO with a primary background in sales. Pull the telescope a little farther back, and you find that only eight of the top 100 tech CEOs do. Only about a third have any sales experience at all.

Obviously, early-stage tech firms need leaders who come from the innovation and production sides to develop all new devices and software. But the firms in this survey are a long way from the garage. Wouldn’t it make sense to have some CEO benchwarmers who know how to sell the stuff?

My own theory—which is backed by some of our other new research—suggests that sales as an important skill set just keeps moving off everyone’s radars. That includes all the new job hunters. According to a survey of more than 1,000 hiring leaders, the hardest job to fill these days is in sales. Take note, that’s ahead of engineering, finance, even IT.

But maybe that’s because most people don’t really understand how sales jobs have changed. Salespeople once could educate people about a product or service to help close the deal. But consumers today can get almost all of that from social media and Google. “It’s difficult for a salesperson to surprise a customer with a fact or feature,” says Bill Sebra, chief operating executive for Korn Ferry Futurestep.

So today’s true “salesperson” is more consultant-like, with a wide range of expertise to help buyers solve problems. This is all more about relationship building and the ability to get help from throughout the firm—in effect, not just closing but also forming the deal. This is just the latest example—and take note, as it’s a theme in this issue’s cover story—of how agility has become such a core skill.

All of which kind of smothers that old-fashioned image of a one-dimensional Willy Loman or even a slick Madison Avenue salesperson, and makes the work every bit as challenging as, say, software development in Silicon Valley. And every bit as important. The trick now is convincing companies to elevate the potential future for top sales execs.

But for that to happen—well, it may take a bit of a sales job.

Download the PDF