I like to believe there can be professionalism in sales.
So I was struck the other day when I ran across an article that talked about “selling on message.” (Pharma Voice, May 2007).
It has always seemed a curious phrase to me—sort of the opposite of customer focus.
Who talks that way? The three Ps, it turns out—that’s who.
The first P is politicians. Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, gave this advice for dealing with the press: “Never answer the question they ask; only answer the question you want to talk about.”
McNamara’s view has since been echoed by Clinton (“it’s the economy, stupid”) and by Bush ("it’s 9/11, stupid!"). Good politics? I’ll defer to others. But it sure isn’t trust-enhancing—look at pols’ polls.
The second P is public relations and marketing. Google “selling” with “on message” and you get “A major concern for marketing and sales executives is that they are always ‘on-message’ with all of the communications that reach their prospects and customers—helping to create, establish and build a customer relationship that will ‘competition-proof’ their customers.”
This seller-centric view of sales comes from a self-described “provider of sales-oriented public relations and marketing services—” which, ironically, lists a “customer-centric selling program” as a key client.
Another source from the same search says, “Less than 27% of CMOs report confidence in having adequately prepared sales to be on-message,” and "How do we enable salespeople to be “on-message” and empower marketers to do what they do best? "
(Those darn salespeople, always wandering off to what customers want to talk about, when they should be doing marketing’s bidding.)
This helps explain the third P, which is the pharmaceutical industry. The article quoted at top, “Sales Training: Moving Beyond the Message,” says “it’s become vitally important for sales representatives to provide value beyond the marketing message.” It quotes Peter Sandford, “in the regulated healthcare environment in which we work, selling on message is vital, but it is the additional knowledge that the representative has that can also be useful to the physician. This allows them to essentially sell beyond the message, but still within the guidelines.”
A May, 2006 article in the same publication called “Rebuilding the Trust—Sales Managers Lead the Charge,” says, “… representatives need to differentiate themselves by delivering more distinct messages, tuned to the needs of the healthcare providers they’re dealing with. They also need to better understand what creates value and align the messages with that goal.”
All this is the language of a sales culture and community that has been mugged and drugged by marketing. Only in such a business can it actually sound radical to suggest that salespeople give customer-specific attention, as opposed to staying “on message,” or “within guidelines.” You don’t hear this kind of talk at IBM, or Nordstrom’s, or Starbucks, or Goldman Sachs.
Marketing is, by its nature, a monologue—it tells things people want to hear to the people who want to hear them.
Sales is, by its nature, an infinitely customized dialogue.
Nothing wrong with either one. Each has its place. But they are different.
When sales is overly-subordinated to marketing, you emd up with “selling on message.” Kind of like the stereotype of telemarketing, or scripted sales businesses like ballroom dancing, or pump-and-dump brokerage houses. It can create puppets reading canned speeches, or at least feel that way, because—the "message" is, above all, about the seller.
The folks at PharmaVoice are right; they are doing their bit to drag pharma sales (forward) into the late 20th century. It must be the most sophisticated business in which marketing chokes off oxygen to sales.
I suppose this is because in recent years pharma—for a variety of structural reasons—has come to be dominated by the marketing function. It has tended, then, to frame other issues—customers, trust, selling—in terms familiar to marketing and PR.
More’s the pity. Marketers do not help the trustworthiness of sales reps by urging “selling on message,” and trust isn’t something the pharmaceutical industry is long on right now.
Now, about McNamara…