In Defense of Competitiveness in Salespeople

Anthony Iannarino
Post by Anthony Iannarino
February 1, 2010

For more on increasing your sales effectiveness, subscribe to the RSS Feed for The Sales Blog and my Email Newsletter.


David Brock and I have spent a few days discussing competitiveness both online and offline. Our discussion started with my post titles Competitiveness in Salespeople.

David commented in the post. I responded to David’s comments, as well as a few others with this post Three Thoughts on Competitiveness in Salespeople.

David responded with Who Are We Selling Against?

Then we had an offline discussion and a private email exchange. I emailed David because my thoughts were too argumentative and too combative to post in the comments of David’s post. It would look too much like I was flaming him.

David’s email response was a strong disagreement with the points in my email, followed up by his posting Is Sales A Blood Sport, which is based on language I used in a prior post.

But before I post my defense of competitiveness, let my start by saying that David Brock and I are friends. We disagree with each other on some topics, and we agree with each other on far more than we disagree. David is a smart and thoughtful gentleman, and we have agreed to have this discussion in public only because we both agree that there is merit in doing so.

Some of you will benefit more from David’s viewpoint than you will from my viewpoint. Some of you will benefit more from my viewpoint. Take what you find beneficial from our discussion, and discard what isn’t helpful to you. Join the conversation if you wish to add your take. Disagree, but don’t be disagreeable.

In Defense of Competitiveness

In 2009, over 15,000 businesses filed for Chapter 11. There were 207 bankruptcies of publicly traded companies, the third highest number since 1980. I have no statistics on the number of small and medium businesses that were acquired by competitors or that simply shuttered up the business and went home.

Presently, there are over 15.3 million people unemployed. I don’t know how many of these people are salespeople, but having recently run an advertisement for salespeople the evidence says it is many.

Too pretend that sales is not a blood sport, hyperbole I use to demonstrate the zero sum nature of the game, is to ignore the stakes when they have never been higher. Business is a zero sum game. You could walk into your local Circuit City and ask them how they feel about competing with Best Buy, if there was still such a thing as Circuit City.

The companies that you compete with for market share and clients aren’t trying to help you by trying to take your customers and beat you for deals. They are trying to help you find a new line of work (more hyperbole). This is true even when we compete as politely and professionally, and most of us do compete politely and professionally.

In Defense of Salespeople

David’s criticism begins by suggesting that the strong word choices I make, are “too prevalent.” In fact, they are too rare. David continues:

Just ask people to talk about sales people, most of the words have to do with pushy, only care about themselves, liars, deceitful, and the list goes on.  The reputation of sales people, in the hierarchy of life is just above pond scum.  Perhaps only lawyers hold a lower place in people’s minds.

Here, I believe David is guilty of the sin of which he accuses me. This is pure hyperbole. The days of pushy salespeople are gone, with the rare exception. The pendulum has, in fact, swung too far in the other direction with professional salespeople saying things like, “I don’t want to come across as selling anything,” and “I want to be consultative. I can’t ask for the order.” Now, the simple act of cold calling is seen by some as a negative sales behavior and one to be avoided.

Professionalism and consultative approaches need be coupled with the ability to ask for the order, for God’s sake!

David and I both consult with sales organizations. I know many, many salespeople. Except the oddball here and there, I find few that I would describe using the words pushy, liars, or deceitful. There may still be some historical stigma, but it doesn’t apply to the professional salespeople I know. It doesn’t, and their clients don’t feel that way about them.

Even my car dealer requires me to sign a form after purchasing a car as evidence I wasn’t mistreated. This is not hyperbole; I have filled out the form.

Competitive sales behaviors have nothing whatsoever to do with pushiness or unprofessional behaviors. It has everything to do with playing to win.

In Defense of Sales Behaviors

David is concerned about how the language choices we in the profession make impacts our profession and our customers. He believes that using this language will be:

. . . reflected in our attitudes and behaviors, not just to our competition, but to our customers, colleagues, and others in our own organizations.  How can we as sales people talk about entering into “win-win” negotiations with customers, when we “define” ourselves as predators?  By definition, blood sports and predatory selling is win-lose; over the long term, it is lose-lose.  How do we expect customers to trust predators?

This is incorrect, and it underestimates the relationship salespeople have with their own teams and with their customers. Great salespeople are not great because they act alone. Great salespeople are great, especially now, because they can help orchestrate a team to produce an outcome for their customers.

David’s concern would be analogous to a quarterback competing with is running back for the football. It doesn’t happen. To continue the football analogy and apply it to customers, it is ridiculous to suggest that a football team competes with its fans and supporters. It doesn’t happen. A football team only competes with another football team. And only one of them wins, and only one of them loses.

Football, like sales, uses warrior and warfare metaphors because all of these endeavors are zero sum games. There are winners and there are losers in every contest. Sales, like sports, can be played hard and also be played fairly, with professionalism, and with honor.  In fact, most professional salespeople and most sales organizations play the game of sales exactly this way!

In Defense of Customers

No professional salesperson competes against their customers in a zero sum game. There is no way to win a zero sum game with your customer. There is no way to win if your customer loses. Your losing means not having the client at all. Professional salespeople don’t pretend or behave otherwise (although I am sure that there are a few holdovers who still behave this way, just as there are a few holdovers in some companies purchasing departments who behave in a combative way towards salespeople).

David argues:

How many sales people would walk in to a prospect or a customer and state, “I believe sales is a predatory activity,” or “Sales is a blood sport, don’t you want me fighting for you?”

I have never used the word predatory, so I will not defend that word. I don’t like it, but I assume it also was hyperbole, and I am pretty certain that it wasn’t intended as behavior exhibited towards customers and prospects.

Would I use David’s words when speaking to my customers? I would not. Would I be willing to thoughtfully discuss the statement that sales is a blood sport, and that it is in fact a zero sum game. Absolutely! But my clients know me well, and my serving them over a long period of time, always acting in their interest, would allow me to use this language without it being misunderstood.

The same trust that is developed by faithfully serving your clients in their interest over time allows open conversations about a range of topics that might otherwise be difficult to discuss.

Would I hesitate to tell a customer that I compete in sales as if it is a zero sum game, with one party winning and one party losing? I would not hesitate! In fact, I have had far more difficult conversations with many of my customers.

In Defense of Hyperbole

David concludes:

Words are important.  They shape perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors.  I don’t want to be a part of a profession that defines itself as predatory or views the occupation as a blood sport.  This type of terminology needs to be excised from our vocabularies and our discussions.  If we don’t we will be sink to a lower standard of performance and we deserve the lack of trust, and everything else that customers feel.  We’ve earned it!

I agree: Words are important!

Words do shape perceptions, attitudes and behaviors. While I don’t want the profession to be described as predatory (and it isn’t), I also don’t want salespeople to pretend that there are no consequences for failing to play as if it is a zero sum game. The stakes are too high to pretend otherwise.

It dishonors our competitors not to try our best to beat them. That is what we owe those who are trying to beat us. To believe or to act otherwise is arrogance or folly!

Competition with good and honorable competitors sharpens our game, and it is to the benefit of our customers that we do our best to create and execute a better solution than our competitors. It drives innovation.

The difference between David and I on this subject really boils down to whether or not you believe that our ideas are mutually exclusive. I believe that you can and must compete like sales is a zero sum game, and that you can do so while being professional and while playing fair. David suggests that these behaviors are mutually exclusive, and that they will cause behaviors and attitudes that are contrary to professionalism.

Leave your thoughts below. David and I will discuss them over dinner when I am in California this summer.

For more on increasing your sales effectiveness, subscribe to the RSS Feed for The Sales Blog and my Email Newsletter. Follow me on Twitter, connect to me on LinkedIn, or friend me on Facebook. If I can help you or your sales organization, check out my coaching and consulting firm, B2B Sales Coach & Consultancy, email me, or call me at (614) 212-4279.

Read my featured guest post on the Top Ten Sales blogs.

Read my monthly post on Sales Bloggers Union.

Get The Sales Blog iPhone App to read The Sales Blog and Twitter Feed on your iPhone.

Anthony Iannarino
Post by Anthony Iannarino
February 1, 2010