When I first sat down to write this column, I intended to focus on how young sales weasels have been irritating the fool out of me lately. I empathize with their plight. Selling expensive IT kit is much more difficult during the Global Pandemic than it was even during the Global Financial Crisis. Ever since March, businesses’ priorities have been (rightfully!) focused on transitioning to an all-remote workforce. Very few companies have had the excess resources to pursue “nice-to-have” problems. Then there’s the heightened difficulty factor of being unable to take one’s prospects out for a fancy lunch or a round of drinks. It’s tougher than ever to establish a rapport with a new client when cold calls, Zoom meetings, and spam emails are your only options. I get it, sales weasels: 2020 has been particularly rough for all of you.
Except … the more I tried to write about it, the more I had to admit that’s not really what’s been bugging me. If anything, I kind of admire the scrappy sales weasels’ moxie for continuing to play the game under such arduous circumstances. They persevere, like rugby players soldiering on through a torrential downpour.
After several abandoned drafts, I decided I was probably upset with the impersonal “scripted conversation” approach to their cold calling. Most of these sales weasels barely know what they’re selling as it is. They have zero idea who I am, what my organisation does, or what our needs are. I figured I could do a long piece advising folks to stop trying to “create” a sale by asking what they think are generic needs-triaging questions. There’s no “magic roadmap” for turning a first meeting into a signed contract. Whoever promised you that their “sure-fire prospect-to-sale script” was a money-maker couldn’t lose was talking nonsense.
That triggered an association for me and made me re-think the problem. As much as freshly minted sales weasels often get on my nerves, it isn’t really because of how gormlessly ineffective they are. It’s more about how and why they were put into that impossible position in the first place. Thrown out the hatch with a half-packed parachute and promised fabulous riches when they land. I hate watching what happens to these folks. It’s not their fault these useless scripts and grandiose product catalogues were all they were given to work with; they’re being exploited by industry practices that have promised them great results by bosses and organisations that are either incapable or unwilling to actually deliver on those grand promises.
I made the connection through a completely unrelated conversation; an examination of a very similar bait-and-switch scam that contemporary young adults are most likely already caught up in … and fed up with. Another get-rich-quick shortcut to fulfilment that never seems to pay off.
A few days ago, I was chatting with a young professional – let’s call him Bob – about how he was holding up during the pandemic. We shared stories about zany adventures in the office, commiserated over how the catastrophic rise in COVID-19 cases here in Texas has made it entirely too dangerous to leave one’s house for anything less than essential shopping. I asked Bob if pandemic restrictions had impacted his ability to date. He chortled. “Nah,” he said. “the dating apps I’ve been using did that to me all on their own. Despite their claims, they’re all useless.”
Bob related how he’s used a half-dozen different smartphone apps over the last two years to try and meet other singles over the last few years. Every single one of them, he complained, failed to deliver results. He’d spend hours every day trying to make connections with potential dates, and nothing would happen. Zero interactions. I thought that was odd, since a young man in prime physical condition, in possession of a university degree, a solid white-collar job, a range of artistic and cultural interests, and a love of cinema ought to be an above-average prospect. Worth evaluating at the very least. I wondered if he was “selling himself” effectively.
Curious, I bought Bob a pint and asked as many questions as he was comfortable answering. After an hour or so, I started to get the hang of it. All six of the dating apps he’d used, Bob confided, “interviewed” him during the establishment of his profile about his likes and dislikes to help him build his profile. Every site led off with the same bewildering nonsense question – “beaches or mountains?” – before continuing to algorithmically present him with similar pseudo-random “filtering” questions until it left him with a tiny online calling card that presented him so generically that he was only distinguishable from every other prospect by his profile photo. Then the site made his profile available to random strangers like a blind, idiot salesperson cold-calling random numbers in the phone directory so see if they’d be interested in “buying a Bob.”
Bob felt the range of potential romantic partners he was being presented by each service was significantly curtailed by the site’s matching algorithm because of his answer. I did some reading and learned there is some logic behind the seemingly barmy question. As Starre Vartan wrote in Treehugger back in 2017, “The theory behind the preference is that extroverts like flatter areas where they can spot new people easily and connect, while introverts are always looking for places to cozy up in and hide away. … Ultimately, of course, this information isn’t prescriptive — anyone who has been to a super-social ski mountain town in the winter knows that stereotypes related to landscapes are just that. But it’s fascinating that a question as simple as ‘beach or mountain’ can be a great predictor of personality.”
So, sure; there may be a smidgen of science behind the question. Reducing the probability of a mismatch seems like it would make the sites more effective. The problem, I assert, is that that raw question – devoid of context or explanation – isn’t likely to work well on people who are prone to overthinking things. People like Bob who solve complex problems for a living.
As Bob related in a hilarious extended rant, the “beaches or mountains?”” question left him angry because he couldn’t work out what the six dating app companies wanted to know about him. Would he prefer to holiday alone on a beach or on a mountain? Or would he prefer to take a date to one or the other? Why not have both at once since Hawaii is a real place? Would he prefer to swim or climb for exercise? Or is he more afraid of sharks than he is of bears? Further, why does it matter since he and anyone he might match with live in freaking Dallas where there are no mountains or beaches whatsoever? I found his tirade wonderful … and quite familiar.
I’ve experienced the same sort of inane questioning at work, most often over the phone at the end of every fiscal quarter. Like clockwork every March, June, September, and December, I’ll gett cold calls and emails from strangers who want to sell me kit and services that have nothing whatsoever to do with my work. I’ve seethed through far, far too many new “demonstrations” where a poor sales weasel had nary a clue who I was, what we did, or what problems we were trying to solve. The eager weasel’s objective was to sell me whatever they had before the clock ran out on their quarterly sales goals, not to help me or my organisation address an issue.
These new kids were utterly unprepared to understand my needs since they’d never spent a day in the trenches. They were completely dependent on copyrighters to feed them magic buzzwords that would hook a prospect. When pressed, most of them couldn’t answer basic questions about how their gear worked. These poor sales folk worked through a pre-generated customer triage script that would, in theory, narrow down which shinny box on their pricing sheet would be the weasel’s best – and only – option for scoring a win that they desperately needed.
The thing is, I understand why a new sales weasel relies on a script when they’re first starting out. 99% of IT companies that I’ve dealt with since the first Dot Com Book have hired new sales weasels fresh out of school. Young motivated, new graduates with shiny new suits and infectious fervour. Back at Yahoo!, we used to on-board new batches of recent college graduates into the sales team every six months. These charming new hires couldn’t wait to rush out and conquer the world. Win all the awards. Drive off in the company BMW. Win!
What most of them never realized is that they were corporate cannon fodder. Yahoo! would push these innocent kids into the field, let‘em run wild for six months, then fire 90% of them for not meeting their completely arbitrary and unrealistic sales targets. Their executives retained the kids they liked the most after what was, in essence, an extended fraternity pledge drive. That’s why the bosses never bothered to train or mentor their new hires; mentoring only ever came after the chosen had been retained. It was more … cost-effective … that way.
I always felt sympathy for the new hires. They never realized that they were destined to be cruelly used and abandoned with little to show for their efforts. It’s only been recently – thanks to Bob and his online dating experiences – that I’ve worked out why I’ve been so easily irritated by cold calls from brand new sales folk. In truth, it’s not that I don’t like them, … it’s that I’m mad as hell about what their employers are (most likely) doing to them. When a new sales weasel talks to me from a script like a bad telemarketer, I know that their days are numbered and that depresses me. There’s no point in trying to build rapport with them because they’re not going to be around much longer. It’s disheartening to see these poor folks hurtling towards the proverbial cliff’s edge without realizing they’ve been conned. All their sincere and clumsy efforts are for naught.
Listen, amigos: I want all of you to succeed in your professional life, every bit as much as I want Bob to find love and companionship. We’re all struggling to make it. If we didn’t inherit our success, we have to fight for scraps in a game that’s rigged more often than it’s not. The only real way to stop being exploited and start being competitive is to be given a hand up by a mentor or a friend. To be taught what’s what and how to invest in the right skills that make you someone valuable for your ability rather than for your enthusiasm and credulity. That’s the common challenge for all young adults. Y’all are eager, but you need a hand getting over the early obstacles.
Most of those “breakthrough” jobs dangled in front of new graduates are just con jobs. Same as the dating apps y’all use after work. Heck, my alma matter used to send a hundred new grads up to a Big Six consulting house every May following graduation with promises of white-collar success, instant professional creditability, and a guaranteed fast-track to making partner. It was all a lie; the consulting house would overwork their new hires throughout their first year and then lay off 99 of the 100 at year’s end with nothing to show for it other than a closet full of suits and a mediocre CV bullet.
Sales, consulting, matchmaking … they’re often (not always) scams that exploit the naïve and vulnerable. Over-promise, under-deliver, and leave the discards feeling like their failure to achieve success was their fault for not playing the game well enough. Why? Because they speak directly to the anxieties, dreams, and needs of people who don’t already know how to get what they’ve been told they want in life.
Do you see the connection? Look at Bob’s dating app experience: Everyone is doing it and they’re succeeding beyond their wildest dreams! You’ll find “true love”™ here too … and if you don’t, well, it’s because you didn’t choose correctly when we asked you “beaches or mountains?” … not because we were always ripping you off and never had any intention of delivering on our own sales pitch.
Swap out the setting and the same holds true for all those “fast track” career opportunities for people with no actual job skills like sales and consulting. Everyone is doing it and they’re succeeding beyond their wildest dreams! You’ll experience “fabulous professional success”™ here … and if you don’t, well it’s because you didn’t work your sales script correctly when you asked your prospect “beaches or mountains?” … not because we gave you a lead sheet full of people who couldn’t possibly want or need our products and we never had any intention of keeping you around long enough for you to get rich.
All of these promises were made in bad faith. The opportunities for success and a brilliant future were never there. The people were used … and somebody else made bank off of you good faith labour. Thanks for all the effort. See yourself out. It’s darned bitter to tell a earnest young person that they were only ever a transient source of revenue, faceless and disposable, easily replaced.
These young professionals deserve better than that. Everybody does. Everyone should have a fair shot at learning a trade, finding a partner, and making a life. I can’t help with the last two challenges, but I sure as hell can help you address the first one. Or, at least, help give you a boost up. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing for one another when we’re part of a community: we teach and support the young folk coming up behind us. We clear a path so they can have as bright a future as we had – if not a brighter one.
So, yeah, new salespeople. Go ahead and cold call me. Just … bin the bloody useless script. Set up some time with me to chat about what it is we actually do, how we do it, what we need, and why it matters. Don’t worry about trying to “sell yourself” or hawk your assets; instead, get to know our field. At the very least, you’ll leave the call having learned a new perspective. Then do the same with someone else. Repeat until you work out for yourself where you can be a valuable and trusted companion. The sales might or might now follow. What’s important is that you learn how and where you can compete. Scripts and apps and recruiting spiels can’t do that for you. Only adopting a genuine interest in other people and a willingness to really listen can create opportunities for personal and professional growth.