Half of What You’ve Learned About Sales is Wrong

Maybe you’ve heard the old line, “Half of advertising dollars are wasted – you just don’t know which half.” Something like that is true in sales – except that you’ve got a much better chance of telling which part to keep.

(Many thanks to Chris Downing and Anthony Iannarino for helping develop this thought).

The Challenge

Take this quiz, based on your own business:

1. I think closing is:

  1. obviously critical to selling
  2. one of the more harmful concepts in sales

2. I think cold-calling is:

  1. a tough, but necessary, and improvable process
  2. to be avoided like the plague

3. I think the customer wants:

  1. a clear value proposition
  2. a relationship
  3. a fast, cheap transaction

4. The critical job of sales management is:

  1. motivation
  2. training
  3. supervision

5. Price should be:

  1. mentioned up front
  2. not mentioned until value is established
  3. not talked about between sophisticated people

Now total your scores: Give 1 point for each a), 2 points for b) and 3 points for c). Now add them up. What does it all mean?

Pretty much nothing, I’m afraid.

It. Simply. Depends.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

We all know this, of course.  B2B is not like B2C. Internal customers are not like external customers. Inside sales is not like external sales. High-ticket items are sold differently than low-price point items. Intangible services are not the same as tangible goods.

We know that.  And yet – an enormous amount of sales advice out there doesn’t make the distinctions.  Here are some examples from page 1 results of Google searches on some terms:

15 Ways to Improve your Closing Ratios.  Probably great advice. For someone. Is it great advice for you? Darned if you can tell by reading the article, because it’s addressed universally.

How to Write a Value Proposition. An excellent article, by an excellent organization. But where does it rank in the scale of importance to your business?

When to Quote Price: Useful information in dealing with “be-backs” (i.e. “We’re just not sure, we’ll be back”). But how important are be-backs if you’re selling systems integration projects?

How to Turn a Relationship Into a Sale. Great advice for an industrial paper business; but do I want the counter guy at Dunkin’ Donuts establishing a relationship with me?

And I could go on; and so could you. I didn’t pick bad articles – those are pretty good ones, some of them excellent. But – they don’t explicitly deal with the relevance of the advice to you.

Fitting Your Size

How, then, to figure out what advice to take?  You might start by characterizing your business across several continuums (continua, if you prefer):

For example, draw five lines (one for each characteristic), connecting the two endpoints:

     a. from frequent to infrequent purchases

     b. from high to low price point

     c. from tangible to intangible goods

     d. from high margins to low margins

     e. from transactional to continuing revenue relationships

Then mark the midpoint for each continuum.

Now – for each issue – on which side of the middle does your business fall?

Now ask yourself – what’s the right answer for the other side of the spectrum? And what’s the right answer for my side? How and why do they differ?


A little reflection can go a long way.  If you’re a law firm, and you’ve figured out you need sales training (which you probably do), don’t go hiring sales experts from retail B2C businesses. If you’re selling web-hosting services, you may not need the world’s best advice on building deep relationships.

Another way to put this might be: if something doesn’t feel right to you – your gut may be telling you something valid. Have enough courage to at least ask questions about it.

Don’t just do what someone who wrote about selling tells you. Their advice might be in the “other half” of sales advice – the wrong half for you.

It depends. On you.

4 replies
  1. Mike Kunkle
    Mike Kunkle says:

    Ah, Charlie. This is *so* true. I call the whole “fitting your size” thing the “sales nuances.” Today, so many people are out there, proffering advice to anyone who will listen (or read). Some of the advice is really great, all the time. Some of it is, well, forgive me, but crap. And a lot of it is situational, or based on your own “sales nuances.” In the right context, it’s awesome advice. In the wrong context, not so much.

    One would hope that readers would sift through advice and filter it through the lens of their sales nuances or specific situation, but sometimes, in fairness to them, you just don’t know what you don’t know. Over the years, I’ve seen enough people try to implement well-meaning, otherwise-good, but misplaced advice and fail, to know it’s a real-world problem. It’s why, or at least partly why, I started quipping a few years ago that business books are dangerous. 😉

    I’ve been on this soapbox for awhile now, and I appreciated this post a lot, knowing that a respected colleague such as yourself shares the same perspective. As publishers of content, I think we all need to heed your advice here, try to put our recommendations into context whenever possible, or at very least, remind people frequently that context must be considered and that not all of our advice is universal.

    [hat tip] So thanks, Charlie. Oh, and that quiz? Priceless! I wasn’t sure whether to laugh out loud or clap, so I did both.

  2. Chris Downing
    Chris Downing says:

    This reminded of a friend who recently was telling me about management styles. Since both of us came from big corporate backgrounds, we would pretty much take an approach in line with much of what you talk about Charles – considerate, based on relationships, respectful in both directions, etc. However since he’s has been doing private consultancy, he has realised there are two successful management styles – one is the one we describe above, the other is what we might call the “Gordon Ramsey” approach to managing people – do it my way, tolerate me losing my temper regulary, I’ll treat you like dirt until you show me you are worth more – well you get the drift. Well, he was amazed that in the hospitality business, both ways work. The difference is, staff chose to work in the sytyle they prefer. Some staff actially like being bullied – and other staff hate it and join a different organisation with the more considerate approach.

    It is a clear example of two styles, that could be businesses in the same street – both as successful as each other – but with wildly differing management style and ethics.

  3. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Mike and Chris, thanks so much. I’m amazed at the Gordon Ramsey school’s success, but I shouldn’t be. It’s a great example: one size never fits all.

    And Mike, as to people filtering our advice, yes, sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know, and therefore make arrogant and incorrect assumptions. Though other times, and I suspect you’d agree with this too, they make incorrect assumptions based on over-believing the advice – thinking ‘well he’s the expert, I guess I’d better be doing that,’ rather than having the confidence of their own eyes and experience.

    You’re both reinforcing the importance of seeing situations for what they are, rather than blindly taking someone else’s assumptions.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] depends on the particular sales task. You wrote an excellent piece about this last year (“Half of What You’ve Learned about Sales is Wrong,” TrustMatters, April 15, 2013), and I agree with you: one size doesn’t fit […]

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