Selling sand in the desert
For someone who has worked in pre-sales and client management for a very long time and managed sales teams of all sizes for a long time… I have a very complicated relationship with ‘salespeople’, or rather the language others use to describe a good salesperson.
And let’s not talk about the fellow exec who once told me I should hire ‘pretty females in their 20s’ to front the sales of our software as most buyers are middle-aged male bankers.
Let’s not go there.
Let’s not discuss how often stuff like that is said in the workplace, how ludicrous that perception is (oh yeah, here’s looking at you kid, where do I sign for a 10-year, $6 million ARR deal?) or how ugly our conversation got when he decided to double down when challenged.
Oh the fun we have every day at work.
But honestly, even if, like my former colleague, you are not simultaneously objectifying women and thinking so little of your clients, you are still likely to describe a good salesperson as someone who can sell sand in the desert.
Because if you’re in the desert, surrounded by sand, you don’t need to buy sand, got it? So, if you can still sell sand to someone in that scenario, you are some kind of amazing.
I hate that.
First of all, even people who have sand in general may need particular sand.
I am from Greece. We have loads of sand. And yet there are 5-star hotels popping up in secluded rocky alcoves who buy sand to make their pebbly outcrop look like a Caribbean island.
They are your buyers for sand.
Seriously, there is a market for sand. On first thought, there shouldn’t be… but there is.
So why don’t we use that phrase instead? Oh, that salesperson is so good, they will even find a market for sand. They will find someone who needs what they are selling even if what they are selling has no general appeal or usefulness upon first inspection.
Because that would be good.
But we don’t say that because we don’t mean that. When we say someone can sell sand in the desert, the implication is not that a good salesman finds his way to the right market, but that a good salesman will sell anything to anyone.
Even if they don’t need it. Especially if they don’t need it.
So your sand-selling salesperson is a bit of a conman.
Or conperson. It can be a woman, but can we agree to call the woman a conman too? Conperson really doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Specifically, selling something to people who don’t need it (as is the implication) is a weird badge of honour.
I don’t want people like that around me, I don’t want people like that on my team and I don’t want people like that among my vendors. If you ever pitched to me or interviewed me with your best snake-oily salesman foot forward and wondered whatever went wrong, now you know.
I don’t like and don’t believe in the idea that a sales process entails getting one over each other. First of all, you will get found out: the trick only works once. Twice at a stretch. Then the party is over.
So you won’t be selling much more sand. You will need a new career.
I really do like the salespeople who will tell you ‘my solution is not right for you’, who spend time understanding your needs and seeking to meet them. And hey… of course it’s a beauty parade. In the process of working out what you need, they will endeavour to present themselves in the best possible light and they may decide to stretch their product to meet your needs in a way it wasn’t originally going to… and that is all par for the course and a million miles away from selling you something you specifically don’t need.
I am not saying that doesn’t happen, by the way.
Snake oil is sold in FS by the bucketload.
Solutions that don’t do what you are shown, vapourware, systems laden with a lot of heavy and expensive functionality you don’t need, services you don’t need, consulting work you don’t need.
This happens a lot. It was always thus, but it doesn’t need to always be so.
We have talked about consultative sales for years now. Understanding the problem the client has and helping them solve it.
That doesn’t mean making the client think they have a different problem to the one they have.
But it may mean helping them understand that, maybe, they don’t have the problem they thought they had. Maybe they have a different problem, or a problem with a different solution. A solution you can help with.
And maybe they don’t have a problem at all. If they did, it would make you money… but they don’t.
And you won’t make money this time.
But you know what?
You will make money next time.
Because the client will remember both your expertise, that helped guide them through the options, and your decency.
Because nobody will think highly of you if they are found stuck with heaps of sand they don’t need. And they won’t be forgetting your little trick in a hurry.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to play a long game.
I prefer shooting straight. And I prefer the vendors who do, too.
For everyone else, if I need some sand… I will be sure to call.
Leda Glyptis is FinTech Futures’ resident thought provocateur – she leads, writes on, lives and breathes transformation and digital disruption.
She is a recovering banker, lapsed academic and long-term resident of the banking ecosystem.
Leda is also a published author – her first book, Bankers Like Us: Dispatches from an Industry in Transition, is available to order here.
All opinions are her own. You can’t have them – but you are welcome to debate and comment!