What is authenticity and why does it matter?
In my new book, Authentic Selling: How to Use the Principles of Sales in Everyday Life, I make an argument for embracing authenticity in the selling process. Why is that? Well, there’s two reasons, one of which is based on opinion, and a second reason that I believe is more rooted in fact.
The first reason that authenticity is so important is because authenticity builds trust. I view authenticity as presenting an honest version of yourself. It does not mean you are honest, per se, and it also does not mean you are a fun or great person, either. It just means that you make no bones about who you are and you do not put on a façade for the sake of pleasing others. This is important because people can register authenticity and sniff out fake behavior: you know when someone is acting or reading off a script. So even if someone is authentically strange, their ability to embrace their own persona when they interact with you actually serves to build trust. It shows you that they are not going to put on a different hat in the interest of manipulating you.
However, the second reason that authenticity is more important than ever is because automation is changing entire industries. From self-driving vehicles to self-checkout machines at CVS, we are starting to see the infiltration of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in various industries, sales included. Within the sales world, automation is being used to send emails in specific cadences, to respond to inbound leads, and even to help sales reps come up with the right things to say. In a matter of time, human beings will be competing with machines for their sales jobs. With that in mind, it is more important than ever to embrace the one thing we humans have as an advantage over the machines: our humanity, or really, our authenticity. And let’s face it, people prefer humans to machines. When you call customer service, chances are you do not like punching buttons in the IVR if you have a complicated problem to discuss. So let your humanity shine in sales interactions. Customers appreciate it far more than whatever the machine will give them.
With that in mind, below is an excerpt from the book about how Revenue Operations can unintentionally get in the way of authenticity, and what we can do to try to fix it. I will close with some new thoughts about ways that RevOps leaders can think about solving for these challenges.
Most traditional sales programs do not engage in authentic selling. They fundamentally cannot, because the very idea of having a “philosophy” on how to behave requires someone to behave differently than what their natural inclinations might otherwise dictate for them. Let’s just think about this simply from the top down in most organizations.
The CEO reports to the board, and the board has ambitious goals for the company this year. So the CEO sits down with the company’s revenue leader and explains the ambitious goals and what kind of growth needs to be attained over time. In turn, the revenue leader sits down with her army of salespeople and explains the goals to them. But she knows all the while that she needs to have insight into what is going on within her ranks so that she can properly report to the CEO and the board, so she feels forced to lose her own authenticity in how she might want to manage her team and instead resorts to measures that she knows will help her look good to the CEO and the board. What are those measures?
First and foremost, she implements a quota for all of her reps. This ensures that they will work hard towards a goal and be compensated based upon their ability to drive revenue for the company and their ability to march the sales team towards its common revenue goal. This will make it easy for her to know who on the team is going to help carry them to the goal and who will need to be replaced by other, more worthy sales reps. What is lost in all of this is a lack of trust and autonomy for the team members. Surely, you would never tell one of your friends that you have a “quota” for them, and that if you do not have fun hanging out with them more than three times in one calendar year, that you might consider replacing them with another friend.
More importantly, the revenue leader has overlooked the very real possibility that her team of sales reps will now inevitably change their behavior towards customers based on how they are pacing against quota and what time of the month it is. If you have never been on the receiving end of a sales interaction where the sales rep is desperately looking to meet quota, then good for you. It is not fun to be a customer in that situation most of the time. I have even had sales reps tell me not to interact with other sales reps in their own company for fear of missing their own personal quotas!
What else happens? The revenue leader needs to be able to forecast properly so that she knows how to set expectations for the CEO and the board. And in order to forecast properly, she needs to make sure that certain questions get answered whenever a sales rep is talking to a prospect. She might even deploy the famous “BANT” model, which stands for “Budget, Authority, Need, Timing.” This model suggests that a lead is not qualified unless the prospect has the budget for a project, authority to make a decision, a need for the product being sold, and an ability to move forward quickly. What happens when the reps get on the phone with new prospects? They literally ask the prospect these questions. Do you have a budget? Are you the decision-maker? Do you need our product? Can you move forward quickly?
These questions are not rooted in an interest in the prospect. They are rooted in self-interest. And that is what makes them fundamentally problematic. If you are on the receiving end of a sale and getting questions about your budget and whether or not you are the decision-maker, it feels like the sales rep is interested in figuring out whether or not they can generate a sale. If you had some conflict with a friend because their significant other was keeping them from doing something with you, it would probably not be a good idea to ask your friend whether they make the decisions for themselves or if their significant other is the decision-maker in the relationship. Even if you were interested in the answer, you would know not to ask such a question because it would surely be considered offensive or rude.
What other traps does the revenue leader set for her team that prevent them from being their authentic selves? Well, by default, the revenue leader’s job is to be data-driven, so she must mandate that her team fill out certain information about every conversation they have so that the data can be used for strategic decision-making at the leadership level. It might be as simple as trying to understand something like the percentage of customers who are already working with or speaking with a competitor. Knowing such a statistic would be useful for understanding whether or not the presentation materials should speak to competitive differentiation against competitors, or if it should focus exclusively on how the product itself solves a problem. Perhaps the revenue leader wants to measure what percentage of the time the company is talking to an actual decision-maker. This would necessitate her to mandate that sales reps ask their prospects point blank, “Are you the decision maker?”
Inevitably, this does cause some problems. Because if it is mandated that a sales rep needs to know whether or not the prospect is using or speaking with a competitor, time that could have been spent having authentic conversation is instead spent running through a script that was pre-ordained by the revenue leader. And to the point I made earlier, the more and more that sales becomes scripted, the less and less we will need human beings for the job. And that is a bad outcome for the sales professionals who are reading this book, as well as for the everyday people who are looking to learn about applying sales strategies into their everyday lives.
I want to be clear in that I am not against compiling data for strategic reasons, nor am I against asking good questions that inform whether or not a prospect is qualified. I am just against asking for the wrong reasons. What I have found to be the case is that generally prospects will open up about the information that sales leaders want to know about if they feel that you deserve to know that information. For example, if you are going to embark on a proof-of-concept with a prospect, it stands to reason that you have earned the right to understand what their process is for purchasing your product, because certainly you are not going to go through with doing all the work for a proof-of-concept without ensuring that there is a path forward for you and the customer. Most reasonable customers will see things this way. And that is really no different than being in a relationship. You might not ask on the first date whether or not the other person is going to be intimate with you, let alone marry you someday. But as you continue dating, you both earn a right to ask one another if this relationship actually has a chance of going somewhere. Odds are slim you would even get that far though if you did indeed ask about having sex the moment you met. That is a turnoff, much like it is a turnoff to ask a prospect if they are ready to buy from you during your first phone call. Obviously, there are some exceptions, but you get my point.
The moral of the story is that sales leaders with agendas are capable of making their salespeople have agendas, and I think that this is bad. It is really no different from everyday life. Growing up, you might want certain things for yourself, but the desires of your parents or friends might steer you in a different direction. They have their own agendas and sometimes their agenda involves you doing things you would not be naturally inclined to do on your own. Today, when we turn on our televisions, we succumb to the respective agendas of the media. On one hand, CNN has an agenda, and on the other, so does Fox News. I have experimented with flipping between both channels when they are reporting on the same piece of ‘news’, and it is remarkable to note how perfectly capable they both are of ignoring certain facts that do not suit their agenda, all for the purpose of allowing their agenda to influence what yours ought to be.
Beyond that, there are other ways that RevOps can try to preserve emotional sanity amongst the team while still accomplishing its own goals that hinge around broader sales strategy. For one thing, we need to get out of the game by measuring reps based on overall CRM completion. There are naturally going to be opportunities that fall to the wayside early on, and such opportunities likely will not have much data ascribed to them. Maybe enough data to rule the opportunity as unqualified. Either way, these opportunities will skew the metrics in a way that hurts the rep. What is truly problematic is a rep who has gotten very far with a customer but still knows little to nothing about them. We should not encourage reps to ask a list of questions on the first call. If you deserve to know certain information, you will get it eventually. A sales leader should be concerned with data mining for opportunities in stages where a lack of information would otherwise indicate negligence or laziness by the rep.
Additionally, quotas are often used with accelerators over longer periods of time as a way of not influencing rep behavior too strongly. It becomes problematic if a rep feels, on the other hand, that they need to hit a specific quota every month or otherwise risk being fired. Striking the fear of god into a rep is not a great way to help them relax and act with authenticity. However, if the quota is merely used as an annual springboard towards accelerators, this creates a lot more autonomy for a rep and drastically reduces any sort of time-pressure they might feel.
It is more important than ever for RevOps leaders to start thinking about the human nature of sales, because one could argue that their jobs might be at even higher risk than the average salesperson’s. I say that because a lot of RevOps is formulaic and mathematical, and therefore much easier for machines to absorb the same responsibilities. I envision a future for RevOps that invests more heavily in human emotion – a RevOps world that measures how customers and employees feel in response to certain influences, and using that data to create the best possible environment for both. I saw a statistic lately that showed a very compelling correlation between the selling process and retention metrics. That is because customers are more likely to stay with companies when they enjoy the sales process. This is an example of how RevOps will start to see the bigger picture – the world beyond the sale. How does our behavior – our humanity – influence not just our own quotas, but also the entire company’s outlook? The days of running through spreadsheets are long gone. We should all be excited to see what will be out there in this new frontier.