Q&A with Neil Rackham, “The Professor of Professional Selling”

Neil Rackham has been observing the world’s best sales forces for decades, and here he answers some of the frequently asked questions he has received from sales professionals and sales managers:

How does one become a good salesperson?

It’s not magic; it’s hard work. A few people have a natural talent for selling, but most people must practice, then practice more, then practice more. It’s just like football. You need a good coach and lots of practice at basic skills, like asking good questions.

Which motivational strategies shall a CEO apply to improve the productivity of his/her sales force?

Pay your top salespeople well. Give them lots of freedom. Create a “high performance culture.” This means that you recruit only the best. When salespeople join your company, you tell them, “Only the top performers will stay. After a year, you must prove that you should stay – we don’t prove that you should go.” And get rid of poor performers quickly. Research shows that the number one reason why a salesperson doesn’t improve is that there is another person in the same team who is doing worse. Money is an important motivator but it is not everything. Money attracts and keeps high performers. It encourages people to sell harder. But paying people more doesn’t make them more smart.

What does it take to create a strong sales force — the “dream team”?

A great sales team starts with a manager who is a great coach. Next, the salespeople must have shared values. For example, they must care about their customers. They must be truthful and they must understand their products. Salespeople are very competitive and they are not good at helping each other. To create a “dream team” their manager must encourage cooperation and caring. The salespeople must learn to help each other.

How do you generate value for the costumer?

In the past, the product generated all the value. Each company made a unique product. The job of the salesperson was to explain to the customer the product’s value. In other words, salespeople were value communicators. Today there are many competing products and they are not unique. So the product has not enough value for the customer to prefer it to a competitor. The job of the salesperson changes under these circumstances. Salespeople today must be value creators. They must be experts and they must be creative problem solvers.

How to define the objectives of the sales force to reach results? Which are the fundamentals of productivity?

In simple sales, the best productivity objectives are about activity and efficiency. So success comes from selling hard. Good salespeople make lots of calls and the more calls, the more sales. This doesn’t work in complex sales. More calls can even lead to less sales. In complex sales the best metrics are about effectiveness, not efficiency.

The image of sales people is tarnished. How can we change that perception so they can be considered by society as professionals?

Society always judges on the past, not the present. In the past, many salespeople lied and cheated. They gave selling a very bad name. But today the sales job has become professional, honest and has high standards. Society will catch up with the reality, but it takes time.

Are entrepreneurs good sellers?

Entrepreneurs are usually bad at selling. During sales calls they usually talk too much. They don’t listen to the customer. They are too enthusiastic about their products. When I’m training entrepreneurs I tell them that good selling means asking questions and listening to the customer. I tell them, “If you talk for more than one-third of the discussion, then you are selling badly.”

How do we create efficient global enterprises that make high-level sales domestically and worldwide?

A global enterprise starts with good strategy. This means that marketing and sales must work very closely together and make detailed strategic plans for each global account. In most organizations, this isn’t happening well. Another thing: most successful global companies started in one market and then expanded. As a European, I have had to break into the US market. Sometimes it’s easier to start by breaking into one geographic region or into one type of industry, rather than trying to immediately break into an entire country.

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4 Responses to “Q&A with Neil Rackham, “The Professor of Professional Selling””

  1. Rabi May 1, 2009 at 12:16 am #

    Dear Sir,

    SPIN is a great tool to be used.
    But is SPIN related only to sales, because I feel that these technique could be used by any department in the organisation.

    Plz. clarify

  2. rollie animo May 6, 2009 at 10:17 am #


  3. Ad Caram September 17, 2009 at 8:54 pm #

    I like the ask questions and “talk less than 1/3” rule-of-thumb. The answer to “motivational strategies”, above is dead on. SPIN was a major contribution to my sales career.

  4. Buckley December 30, 2009 at 5:28 pm #

    Rackham is a cut above all the others. When I read his works almost 15 years ago I was finally convinced Sales was a ‘professional’ job.

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