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How Do You Define Sales?

I typed “Sales Definition” into Google: I got this returned: About 199,000,000 results (0.40 seconds). I did not read them all.

What is clear is that, although I suspect most of us know what sales is or, more probably, know what our experience of it is, there is no absolute definition of sales against which we can benchmark our experiences as being either better or worse than, to use the currently in-vogue expression, “what good looks like” and, therefore, what is acceptable, or not as the case may be.

It is a bit like trying to define a European: if by membership of the EU, what about the Swiss, or an American: if by geography, are Canadians American? And so on.

Here is a generic definition, to get the ball rolling: “A sale occurs every time something tangible or intangible is exchanged in a situation between one body and another for consideration”. Pretty generic, do you not think?

I suppose that the thing is, is that there is no “catch-all” that fits for all peoples’ experiences of selling, hence, I imagine, why there are 199,000,000 results from my Google search.

Perhaps, then, we should have multiple definitions according to the type of “something” being exchanged, the substance of the “exchange”, the “situation” in which the exchange is taking place and the kinds of “body” who are engaged in the exchange together with the nature of the “consideration”.

This, though, I would argue, fulfils a necessary pre-condition for a definition as it addresses the mechanics of the process but not a sufficient one. Why?

What about perceptions? As we know, there are some stereotypes and shibboleths related to selling and those who undertake it for a living as exemplified, perhaps, by the following.

I wonder, how many parents, when they rocked their babies in their arms said, “I hope that when you grow up you will work as a sales person”? Answer, I imagine, not many. Why?

I typed in “Perceptions of Salespeople” into Google: I got this returned: About 935,000 results (0.27 seconds). Needless to say, I did not read them all either. A brief skim, though, gave the impression that there were many more negatives than positives. Here are some of the things I read. “They lie”. “They’ll do anything to get the sale”. “All they care about is their own commission”. “They are irritating”. “Salespeople are more interested in making money for themselves than in providing a service for the customer”. One or two quotations included that they felt “conned and cheated” following interactions with salespeople. In summary: “Unwilling to listen; won’t take no for an answer; lacking knowledge about their products; pushy; deceptive; one-way street”.

If you analyse it, it is the behaviour that causes the negativity, not the “something” that is being exchanged.

But, how critical is all this?

In one of his “Thoughts for Today” on Radio Four’s Today programme, I believe Charles Handy mentioned that he had said to his children something along the lines of: “Whatever you do for a living make sure you have a customer for it”. Good advice. Nobody owes you a living.

It is axiomatic that in the absence of a customer for whatever you do for a living you will not be able to put a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food in your belly. By extension, no endeavour can survive without funding whether commercial, not-for-profit or Government (although they do have access to some funding denied to others!).

So, if you are going to obtain and keep customers will they just materialise, knock on your door, send you their cash? I expect we can all cite examples of where something like that has happened but, can you build a long-term sustainable operation upon serendipity and happenstance? Clearly not, and so as individuals and as participants in communities be they businesses, charities or governments we need to obtain and maintain customers, in other words, to sell. It is not just a nice-to-have it is vital, critical and of utmost importance: agreed?

And so, perhaps, is working as a salesperson, or at least, “being able to sell”, something to which, whatever our calling, we should aspire? I would say so.

However, what about becoming a salesperson? What about selling as a career? During my corporate career and since I set up my consultancy over nineteen years ago, I have had the privilige of working with some 2,000 sales people, their managers and their directors, from most geographies and cultures. And, although I have not undertaken a scientific survey, I can say that my anecdotal evidence and analysis suggests that most salespeople fall into sales (think parents and aspirations for their babies) and have had limited, and in some cases no, structured development and training.

“They get on well with people”; “They brought home a few deals and so we encouraged them to continue”; “They have the gift-of-the-gab”; “You either can sell or you cannot and those that can, do, and those that cannot, teach”; these are just some of the reasons given to me as to why and how people “got into sales”.

Thus, if Sales is really to be taken seriously as a Profession then the positives should be accentuated and the negatives dispensed with by operation of a definition or, perhaps, a series of definitions that can be universally agreed upon.

And so, our definition(s) must also take the mechanical, the perception and the imperative into account.

How about this as an overall definition? See what you think:

“Selling is helping people attain an objective, address an issue or provide for a requirement and then facilitating the buying process”.

Does this apply in all cases? Let us see.

Current practice is to classify types of selling by multiple criteria such as: B2B (Business-to-Business) and B2C (Business-to-Consumer) although perhaps the dividing lines are blurring and there is just S2B (Seller-to-Buyer)? There are also Vertical Markets for example: Financial Services, Manufacturing, Retail, Hospitality and so on and so forth. In addition the task maybe account management (AM) obtaining new business from existing customers or acquiring new business (NB) from new ones. Furthermore, there is the difference along a continuum between transactional-commoditised products at one end and individually constructed solutions jointly developed with the customer at the other end.

Let us paint some pictures to tease out how well this all applies.

Example 1: I am an Account Manager responsible for 3 Pharmaceutical companies and I am responsible for supplying chemicals and consumables from a catalogue of products to their laboratories. So, AM in a B2B environment in the Pharma VM! Do I help people attain an objective, address an issue or provide for a requirement and then facilitate the buying process? Yes I do!

Example 2: I am a New Business Sales Executive responsible for supplying SaaS based solutions to Financial Services. Do I help people attain an objective, address an issue or provide for a requirement and then facilitate the buying process? Yes I do!

Example 3: What about someone who runs a corner shop? Transactional-commoditised products to some regular customers and passers-by in a B2C environment. Do I help people attain an objective, address an issue or provide for a requirement and then facilitate the buying process? Yes I do!

But, it could be argued that, it is a mite overblown to say that it applies to situations where the customer is looking to purchase a chocolate bar. But, wait a moment: have you ever arrived at the till and been asked: “would you like this one for only £1.00 instead of the £1.20 for the smaller bar you have picked out?” Even though you can get more chocolate for lower cost, mostly the answer is no: why? I would argue that it is because it was not your idea and that price is not the driving factor. In the case of chocolate, it could be that the waistline is driving the decision!

Here is one of my experiences regarding transactional-commoditised products: some years ago I went into a ‘phone shop to see about buying a new mobile ‘phone. The assistant said that I had come to the right place as they had the cheapest ‘phones in town. I asked how they knew I wanted a cheap ‘phone? Perhaps I wanted a fully featured one that was at the high-end of pricing and that pricing was not the key criterion? A suitably mollified assistant acknowledged that they did not know.

My view is that in all the cases above, if the seller takes time to understand what the buyer is looking to accomplish, the resultant exchange will be more fruitful for both parties than if assumptions are made.

There is, though, another type of situation that probably does not conform to the above and likely serves to reinforce the stereotypical image of the “sales person” and that is the realm of the “wheeler-dealer” personified by the Arthur Daley and Del Boy Trotter characters in Minder and Only Fools and Horses. I do not think that the definition: “Selling is helping people attain an objective, address an issue or provide for a requirement and then facilitating the buying process” applies in these cases!

This is not to say that there is no room for this dimension: indeed, it would not be possible to eradicate it because it is part of human nature. But if we are going to differentiate then we have to say that certain types of behaviour are excluded from whatever we come to define as “Professional Selling”. Professional Selling should be seen and regarded as honourable and trustworthy and demanding the utmost standards of integrity.

So to summarise thus far, we can say that Professional Selling, regardless of whether it is carried out as B2B, B2C, in any given vertical and whether account-management or new business, should be underpinned by the following principles: Helping, Facilitating, Sincerity, Competence.

However, this all being said, what about the impact of social media upon the whole interface between customer and seller? Ever since I can remember, most customers have wanted to get rid of the need for salespeople: that way you don’t have to put up with all the behavioural stuff: we can just get on and buy what we need when we need it, sort of idea.

Up until very recently, that has not really been possible. I suppose you could argue that catalogue selling did provide this. However, the real turbo-boost has come with the Internet. The Internet has polarised Transactional and Consultative sales situations as never before and the pressure to consider all sales situations as Transactional increases day-to-day. It has prompted the concept I mentioned earlier, that of S2B, Seller-to-Buyer.

So let me pose this, afore we go. Who should own the Transactional sale, Marketing or Sales? Furthermore, does this presage the merging of Marketing and Sales such that there is a continuum with Transactional owned by Marketing at one end and Consultative owned by Sales at the other?

And, should there be just one operation that incorporates both? These are all questions that require further analysis and thought for another time.

Most professions have some kind of charter for which practitioners have to be examined by studying and passing exams and to whose principles they have to adhere and be held accountable and, if not, they are struck off.

The idea that a sales person could be struck off for “conduct unbecoming” may seem the stuff of dreams but, if we are to achieve true professionalism, then this is part of bringing it about.

In fairness, there are bodies that accredit selling and methodology organisations who provide high standards of training and development and a full analysis of these will have to wait for another time.

There is, though, a fundamental question that also has to be addressed. What if you have all the qualifications but cannot, or do not, perform? What if you have no qualifications and can and do perform? I suppose my own answer to that could be characterised as: “how would you feel if the person who was going to operate on your brain had never been trained or accredited”? I think, no matter how good that person was, I would not want them to operate on me! I would want someone who was good and well-trained.

Selling and sales is about futures. What is demanded from sales is that they predict and deliver with certainty “how-much-by-when” and with what degree of certainty or level of risk that it will or will not happen: so, no pressure then! It requires an admixture of the mechanical, the technical dimension and working with perceptions, the human, behavioural, dimension: science and art.

Hitherto, the “art” has been accentuated and put forward as the “key” attribute. Hence, I think, why the behavioural dimension has set the perception. Now, with the increasing pervasiveness of “sales effectiveness” there is the science. Just as it should never be all “art” neither should it be all “science” but a blend of both.

That probably calls for a different type of approach than hitherto; one that combines the analytical and problem-solving attributes that go with the science and the facility with human interaction that goes with the art. And, however “naturally” some of these attributes might occur, is it not leaving it too much to chance for there to be no structured development and training initially and over time?

The days must surely now be over when it is acceptable for Managing Directors to say, as a good number have said to me, that they pay top remuneration for their sales people and so they do not expect to have to train them as well!

The story about the Finance Director who said to the Managing Director: “What happens if we train our people and they leave?” to which the response from the Managing Director was: “What happens if we don’t train them and they stay?” surely has never been more apposite?

If we can reach a position where there is real credit that can be measured financially for “good” selling and real sanction for “bad” selling, then we can say that, although “a sale occurs every time something tangible or intangible is exchanged in a situation between one body and another for consideration” it can only be described as “Professional Selling” if the competence and behaviour meets generally accepted and acceptable criteria.

I was tempted to suggest that there is need of an over-arching “Professional Body” to provide the requisite accreditations to satisfy the “necessary” and “sufficient” criteria. But, perhaps, the accreditations and trainings that are currently available meet the “necessary” criterion and, instead, social media provide the “sufficient” criterion: who wants to deal with people and organisations that are regarded as pariahs?

Thus, in conclusion, I commend, that a definition of sales that meets all the above, including the “S2B” situation I described, is the one I mentioned earlier:

“Selling is helping people attain an objective, address an issue or provide for a requirement and then facilitating the buying process”.

If we take this as our definition then all else that flows from it will underpin true Professional Selling.

What say you? I welcome your feedback.


If you are curious about this, register your interest by contacting me, John Busby, to discuss at:; + 44 7968 066 165

Copyright©2014 John Busby

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