The art of not selling

Since setting up my own business eight years and before that whilst working for Ernst & Young I became more and more interested in the art of what I now call “not selling”.  During my early career at Ernst & Young, marketing and sales began to be introduced to the firm.  This was a breakthrough which came to dominate professional services and many other service sectors.  Since I coached many partners I was interested in their reaction to this.  Many were resistant, feeling that they had signed up to be Accountants not sales people.  But they were brushed aside by the wave of sales and marketing professionals and the exhortations of the senior management of the firm.

For my own part I had reservations about this wave.  In particular I had a partner that I coached.  He was someone who always took everything very seriously and worked extremely hard at doing what the firm considered important (mainly because of personal ambition!) yet no matter how hard he tried nothing quite went right for him.  His black hole game (the archetypal learning pattern of his life) was to constantly try hard and yet always been thrown back or rejected or meet insuperable obstacles.  Since sales was now the most important thing in the firm, the highest currency, he was determined to have a bit of the action.  He set about selling with absolute determination at every opportunity.  He attended all the courses and knew all the technical elements of selling yet he was spectacularly unsuccessful!

I asked him who he thought the most successful “rain makers” were in the organisation and he gave me two names.  I said that I was going to go and talk to them because I wanted to find out what they were really doing to be so successful.  So I went and spoke to one of them that I knew.  I asked him what it was he was doing that made him so successful.  At first he talked about building relationships, targeting clients etc.  Then I asked him what he really did.  He thought for quite a while and then he said that the truth was that he knew three or four people that he genuinely got on very well with as friends and that the work came through that.  I asked him about winning a recent very high profile piece of work and he described the fact that he had been given a half hour meeting with the client and had decided that there was nothing he could do in half an hour so decided instead just to find out about him and his business since it would be interesting to find out his approach.  He explained that after a fascinating discussion which went on for about 2 hours the client effectively asked him if he would do the work which took him by surprise.

I relayed this to the partner that I was working with and he was amazed.  So we set a target for him not to sell for 3 months but just to talk to people about what he was interested in and find out what they were interested in.  After 3 months of giving up on sales, he was surprised to find that clients were starting to give him work.  His was an interesting story because after many years of trying to do everything he could to be valued and appreciated by the firm with little success he was finally summoned to the management of the firm and told that they had decided that he could either take on a very unappealing part of the firm or they would have to ask him to leave.  He came to me and we debated what to do.  In the end, I suggested to him that he take the role as an experiment but this time give up entirely on the idea that the firm would ever recognise or value him and just do it because he chose to do it.  I did not see him again for a number of years but when we did meet up, he was full of amusement at his circumstances.  He explained that he had won a major national prize, he had been head-hunted by various different firms and Ernst & Young had told him he was one of their most valuable partners.  The biggest irony for him was that he had genuinely, in his heart, given up on it all, and he recognised that in giving up caring he had put all his effort and energy into supporting and developing the people in his team.

I have tried this approach of giving up as an experiment and just being interested in the work that comes with many people who are pushing and selling for all they are worth and the results have remained remarkably consistent.  In my own work for the last eight years, I have adopted the same approach, deliberately setting about not selling anything or even trying to “network” with people.  I adopt the approach that Life is deciding who I am going to be working with and I am simply finding out.  I notice that work has always kept coming.  I have only failed twice early on and in fear tried to contact two people I knew who were in strong positions to give me work and in both cases nothing came of it.   Recently someone asked me about this and wanted to know what the work was if it wasn’t selling and I realised it was holding back the fear that would cause us to push.

Since starting my own business, I have helped many others set up theirs and my advice is always the same; namely that the work will come and that unfortunately they will have to trust this.  If the work doesn’t come then there is a reason for it.  Some have been mistrustful of this and found it impossible not to push and turn their work into a desperate scrabble to sell and push and manipulate, but they also have acknowledged each time that the work they did get wasn’t in anyway connected to any of their pushing.

What I have begun to see is that most organisations are operating on a large but comforting myth.  The myth is that they control the work and its flow.  They are very uncomfortable accepting the reality that they are not in control so they convince themselves that there must be a correlation between effort in selling and pushing and work won.  Even if there is no work won, there is a comfort in feeling that you have made a huge effort.  Sadly, this comforting myth is so well established that everyone now believes it.  Yet we all hate the results.  None of us like being pushed or manipulated into buying yet we all believe that you must push to sell things to people.


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