Short Cut Selling

When it comes to sales, I have very little experience.  Let me rephrase that: I have none. My career has been spent in either marketing or management roles.

But for the past couple of months I’ve found myself in a sales role at Puget Systems. We are a small company that builds high-end computers. A decked out system can often cost as much as a car, so it’s far from an impulse purchase. My job is to find out what the customer needs and see if we can build a system that meets those needs. Most people I can help. Some I can’t, and in those instances, I will direct them to a company that can.

After a back-and-forth discussion on Twitter with John Obeto I’m beginning to doubt that what I do has anything to do with sales, at least in the manner in which he describes.

The discussion started when I questioned Microsoft’s recent move to pay retail sales staff to recommend Windows Phones. Subsequent news reports have used words such as incentivize, subsidize, or commission in place of pay, but let’s call it what it is.

If you walk into an AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile store looking for a new phone, would you want to know if the sales person is being paid a kickback for each Windows Phone he or she sales? I believe such kickbacks erode trust in not only the sales person but the brand. Microsoft is reportedly putting up a $200 million bounty to encourage sales of their oft admired but slow selling smartphones. Nokia will also get in the action, tossing at least another $100 million into the pot.

I speak to people each day who are trying to make sense of the PC industry. Many are downright frustrated with the focus on technical specs, hype and buzzwords that do nothing but confuse the average PC buyer. When they ask for assistance, they are putting their trust in me to cut through the crap and help them make an informed decision. It would be foolish of me to take that trust for granted.

But what if Nvidia decided to “incentivize” me to recommend their video cards to every gamer who walked through our doors? If I were working with you to select a new gaming PC is that something you’d like to know beforehand?

Luckily, I don’t have to decide between taking a bribe and doing what’s best for our customers. Not once have I been told to sell a certain brand or model, or convince customers to upgrade to more expensive components they don’t need. John calls such incentives “customary practice” in electronics retail, but that’s not encouraging given my experience at Best Buy. I wonder if Circuit City and Ultimate Electronics also followed that customary practice?

Gartner just released their latest report on PC shipments which were down nearly 6% in the 4Q of 2011. Yet we are experiencing record growth, and I attribute much of that to how we treat our customers. That trust leads to personal recommendations and return customers.

Yes, I earn a wage, but it’s not tied to selling a specific model or brand and I can’t imagine a scenario where anyone in sales would be allowed to take a kickback from a supplier. My job is to take care of the customer the best way I can. I’m given an incredible amount of leeway to interpret what the means. Most of my day is spent educating customers. If I’m lucky, I will have gained their trust and put them in a better position to make an informed decision.

But I work my butt off to earn that trust, and the thought of trading that trust for a few bucks is mind boggling. That John refers to us “salesdrones” tells me all I need to know as I strive to change that perception.