Science of selling crucial to post-Covid recovery

No product sells itself. Just ask sales people who helped dig us out of the last recession

Amid all the talk of V-shaped recoveries and new normals, there has been little discussion on how we will actually battle our way out of the recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the restrictions required to deal with it.

If we look back to the Great Recession of 2007-09 and its aftermath, we got out of it by selling. Irish companies went out and sold their products and services on global markets. And they did it in one of the most intensely competitive environments in history when money was still tight, and companies were willing to do almost anything to get a slice of the action.

That sales effort has almost been airbrushed from history in the popular narratives recounting the Great Irish Recovery. Innovation, the sacrifices made by the Irish people, and good governance tend to top the list of key factors. All played their part of course, but the role of the sales teams who traversed the globe in search of new markets and customers has been all but forgotten.

Now is a good time to remember them: they will be critically important once again when it comes to the post-Covid recovery.

Clever marketing campaigns

Having the best technology or product in the world is absolutely no good to anyone if you can’t sell it. No product or service sells itself. Advertising and clever marketing campaigns can create awareness and open a few doors, but they don’t translate into hard cash in the form of sales. For that to happen, you’ve got to be able to sell.

Our problem is not just that we tend to overlook the importance of sales, we tend to look down on it as an activity. Marketing is regarded as a profession, if not a science, and people do undergraduate and masters degrees in it, but sales remains the poor relation.

I certainly didn’t hold sales in high regard when I qualified from UCC with my agricultural science degree back in the 1980s. But I was lucky enough to join a pioneering company in Carlow called Keenans.

That amazingly innovative company is providing high-tech livestock feeding solutions to farmers worlwide from its HQ in rural Ireland. What I learned there was that their technology and systems wouldn't have made it beyond Mount Leinster if not for the fact that they were equally brilliant when it came to sales.

They found a way to articulate a complex solution to a common problem in such a way that people were willing to invest large sums of money in it. And that's what has set Ireland's global success stories apart from the rest. Butter is butter and doesn't change when you give it a shiny foil wrapper. The sales professionals who go out to the wholesalers and retail buyers across Europe, America and the rest of the world make it the success that it is.

When you see Irish cream liqueur for sale in Costco stores across the United States, it's not because the chief executive picked up a bottle in the duty free shop one day and thought it might be nice to stock it. It's because a sales professional went through the hard slog of beating down the door to get in to speak to right person and eventually do the deal.

Global Irish success stories like Kerry Group and CRH are built on their ability to sell complex propositions to business buyers worldwide.

There is a mistaken belief that the ability to sell is some kind of gift or innate ability that people are born with. That is far from the truth. While some people may have some natural characteristics that lend themselves to sales, just about everyone can sell if they get the right training.

Moment of opportunity

The converse is also true. Even the most naturally talented sales people aren’t very good if they haven’t been trained properly. We are going to need an army of very good sales people if we are going to climb out of the economic hole created by Covid-19. And that means lots of highly trained sales people who are able to go out make the connections and win the contracts from businesses around the world in an intensely competitive environment.

This national crisis can be a moment of opportunity for Ireland to develop a new source of competitive advantage by creating a national sales academy, to give the science of selling its due recognition and to train the next and subsequent generations of sales people who will lead our recovery on international markets.

We are a small open economy which survives by selling abroad. We are dependent for our economic wellbeing on our companies succeeding by selling on overseas markets. And if we really want to succeed internationally, we need a highly trained entrepreneurially driven corps of professional sales people.

Among the best supports the Government could give to companies struggling to recover from the impact of Covid-19 is the establishment of such an academy to provide them with sales talent they so desperately need.

We are an intelligent people made up of great storytellers who can create fantastic products and technology, but we need to be able to get in front of the customer and close the sale. Giving our companies the people who can do that will be a win win scenario for everyone involved.

  • David Walsh is co-founder of security monitoring business Netwatch