Humility in Sales

Last week, I found myself sitting in the audience of a presentation by the sales team of a major experimentation platform. The team consisted of two members – two alpha males – who during the course of the presentation went from gentle pleasantries to an expected proclamation that their platform is the best and the implicit declaration that they knew everything about the prospective client’s business strategy. The presentation also included improvements to the Experimentation strategy. They ended up rubbing everyone including me – a Consultant – the wrong way. The attending Vice President left the room before the meeting ended, followed by the remaining members of the Leadership Team who got the message. The cordial conversations of the sales people with the remaining Product Managers in the room at the end of the meeting could not salvage the situation. They had lost it. The reason is simple. In the modern world, where dynamism, extroversion and invincibility are celebrated, it is easy to forget that nobody likes the one who knows everything. The team assumed they knew everything.

But the modern world described above is changing. The air of invincibility no longer leaves people in awe; it breeds suspicion, jealousy and contempt. Modern studies of human psychology reveal that every man craves to be useful and for others to recognize his value. A person who reveals his weakness draws more friends. During my days of working at a major investment bank, where people were busy flaunting their intellectual superiority, people found it surprising that I being a Consultant was ready to admit that I found their systems complex and the architecture daunting. As I approached people with no hesitation to learn from their experience and to get a deeper understanding of their work, they overcame their initial reluctance and began to actively share their knowledge of the system. They also took my inadequacies in their stride and opened doors they rarely opened to outsiders.

An admission of weakness or lack of complete understanding is always taken as a sign of sincerity. I must clarify at this point that I do not advocate admitting absent weaknesses for the sake of appearing sincere. But as human beings, we are all fallible. Admission of this reality to one’s self is the first step in becoming humble.

What was missing in the sales personnel of the platform firm was humility. I felt that they would be have been well-served if they had started by saying, “From whatever limited knowledge we have of the industry… ” or politely asking for permission before trying to advise the Leadership team on their experimentation strategy. Every manager takes pride in his strategy and does not appreciate suggestions from anyone outside his team – definitely not from a salesman.

We are all salesmen, and what we sell varies with the time of the day. A person who seems to not care for anything is selling his or her care-free attitude. As Arthur Miller, in The Death of a Salesman, says,  “The only thing you got in this world is what you can sell.”, let us sell but with humility.