Quite often, managers need reminding that the bottom line might well be the end-all of business activity, but that the top line comes first. What do I mean? Well, unless you have somebody making the crucial decision to purchase from you, then you can forget about business development because you won't get any profit and will be left only with expense.
And yet the vital process of sales has long been ranked behind the younger business discipline of marketing.
While it is true that some people are out-and-out sellers who are uncomfortable with 'soft' issues like strategy, planning and branding, it is also true that the strategists, planners and brand managers are some way back from the front line.
Because the customer is outside the company's control, the sales person is a vital contact in a critical activity – and very worthy of the recent double issue that the Harvard Business Review devoted to the discipline.
The contribution that really hits home is 'The World's Greatest Salesman'. The world champion, it turns out, is Joe Girard, a car salesman who won his crown back in 1973.
He made the Guinness Book of Records (and is still there unchallenged) by selling 1,425 cars in one year, including 174 in a single month. (According to the HBR, the norm for the car sales industry is four or five cars a month.)
Girard had an abiding gratitude for those who bought his cars – something which he calls 'love'. He would make appointments to see customers and have their problem corrected immediately, frequently without charge. He would send them cards each month, always with the words 'I like you'.
The champ also regularly treated every fellow employee who helped him with a meal at a local restaurant or his home. The value of this strategy for business development is endorsed by several studies which show overall performance is improved by including supporting staff in productivity bonus schemes.
Some might think that a retail car salesman, operating in a business that has no production, design or new product functions, isn't a valuable model for the typical operation. But take note of the way Girard integrated his sales activity with the dealership's after-sales service. See how he negotiated the barriers that usually separate the two processes and how he accepted his customers as true partners in the operation.
Then compare Girard's exemplary performance with the 'biggest mistakes' attributed to American sales reps by two HBR contributors from the Forum Corporation. A survey of 138 business-to-business buyers showed that the biggest number (26 per cent) failed to follow the customers' buying process. A further 18 per cent 'don't listen to needs', while 17 per cent 'don't follow up'.
The moral of this story is that sales and marketing must pull together for successful business development, or the bottom line will be destroyed by the errors at the top.