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Organizational Credibility and The Need To Tell Lies On The Job

Being in sales is incredibly difficult. If you are not in sales and you wonder why some sales people make crazy money, the answer is that sales is hard. Most of sales involves experiencing a steady stream of belittling and rejection and your average person simply cannot cope with that. I, for one, am on the record as being a terrible cold caller. Calling 99 people and hearing how dumb I am so that I can get to that 100th person who will hear my story is very tough.

The result is that if a sales person has a good relationship, that is like a gold vein to them. You treasure it! Someone that you can call on again and again and they will buy from you repeatedly is incredibly valuable.

The result is that, at some level, a sales person will treat a new job with suspicion. They simply cannot afford to burn their valuable relationships if it turns out their new employers products suck. Many sales people would rather fail at a new job and keep their confidence and relationships intact than risk blowing up a customer.

The result is that for a company to get a salesperson going, they must instill 100% confidence in their products in a salesperson. Particularly for early stage businesses that are just building their sales organization, this can be very difficult.

Instilling that confidence is not second nature to most people. In fact, I would say that the average person wants to:

  1. understate and overdeliver
  2. be honest about capabilities

These two things can be deadly in early interactions with a sales organization.

Selling a tiny bit ahead of capabilities is critical for the success of most organizations.

Quick sidebar: I was working at a publicly-traded company at one point in my life and I was listening to the earnings call and I heard the CEO describing some capabilities we were developing. I turned to my boss and said, “Oh my god, that was a complete lie the CEO just told.” To which my boss responded: “About time he started competing with everyone else.” My bosses point was excellent: Everyone else in our industry packed their calls with lies. We knew this. Turnabout was fair play in this situation.

Similarly, I was confronted with an interesting challenge recently: We are building a large sales force basically from scratch. We had a product that is coming out in 30 days and during a sales presentation, I presented it as such: “Regarding X, This product will be available in a 4-6 weeks, I will give you plenty of details then.”

I do this for two reasons:

  1. I am a believer in building my organizational credibility through meeting my commitments. If I say, “X will be done by Z”, it will be done. If I lack confidence, I refuse to give dates because I want people to know that when I give a date, they can bet their bottom dollar that it is going to happen.
  2. I like sales to sell what we have. One of the things that drives me nuts about sales people is that when you tell them what is coming, they tend to tell their customers – which can cause a customer to hold off on placing an order – which can cause a salesperson to say that the reason they can’t sell is because “X product isn’t done”. So I always tell people, “Tell the salespeople that the product will never get any better. If they want to work here, they have to figure out how to sell what we make.” Of course we want our product to get better, but a good salesperson should figure out how to sell what we have. To be all Glengarry Glen Ross about it, if you can’t figure out how to sell our crappy product to these good leads, I don’t want to give you the good product to sell. Make it rain!

Regardless, my boss came over to me afterwards all fired up: “You need to go back to the sales force and re-characterize our capabilities in this area as being available today.” My response was, “But it isn’t!”. To which he replied, “That is not germaine to this conversation!”

Great line.

Moral of the story, if we waited 6 weeks to start selling a capability we will have in 30 days, we won’t see a deal for the next 90 days. And it is Q4! Now we have the capability and our team is actively closing business around it. Win/win.

While many product people, and many people in general, take the same approach I typically try do – organizational credibility development through constant under-promising and consistent over-delivering – it is critical to success in life and in business that you recognize moments where this philosophy serves you poorly and a little over-promising and then going out and making it happen is actually what it takes.

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that sometimes your organizational credibility isn’t what is important. If the business needs you to take a body blow – hey buddy, that is why you get paid the big bucks.

One more story: In my first company, I remember closing our first six-figure deal. Prior to that deal, our biggest job had been around $70k and this job was for $250k. My partner said to me when they offered us the business, “We might not be able to do this!” My response was, “If we can’t do this, we will never have the kind of company we are trying to build.” We took the job, we made it happen, we built a company I was proud of and led it to a great exit.

It is easy to always under-promise. Easy. Just push back whenever people push on you to over-commit. It can be a habit. But don’t think that just because you are always making your commitments and managing expectations that you are doing the right thing. What is hard is recognizing moments when you need to demand more of yourself and your team to catalyze change.

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