Losing customers is never something you celebrate. It’s bad for the bottom line, can hurt your reputation and lead to negative word of mouth, to say nothing about the high costs associated with new acquisitions.

Recently I lost a despicable customer. And despite conventional wisdom, I have to admit that I’m almost dancing in the aisles.

As with every churn, however, I did some deep reflection. What could I have done differently? I think my answers may surprise you. They’ve led me to see a bigger problem.

Degradation in the sales profession is emboldening bad buyer behavior. Incompetent, unprofessional sales reps are helping to create our own Frankenstein monster. It’s time we acknowledge our contribution to the problem, take ownership and fix it.

Bullies are Bad for Business

I knew we had a large non-renewal coming. My sales team and I had four recent requests from resellers requesting to sell our data – to the same account. While we allow companies to resell our data on a case-by-case basis, all four were asking to sell to an existing customer. When I pointed this out to a direct customer, they claimed that the buyer was smugly bragging that he was hell-bent on buying our data at as low a cost as possible, hence, working multiple resellers hoping one was desperate and we have a loophole in our reseller policies.

What’s interesting with this particular churn is that I should have known better. Five years earlier ‘Davy Jones’ from ‘Unicorn Networks’ had burned me in a business deal. The guy is smart, hardworking and spends real money. The problem is – he’s also developed a reputation as an abuser of vendors. So when I received his 3:00 a.m. email saying he wanted to buy HG Data, my heart skipped a beat. Here we go again, I thought. But rather than refuse outright, I turned him over to a member of our sales team. “Be careful,” I warned. I fell right into his trap. Damn.

Have We Lost Our Integrity?

When I started selling, I wasn’t buying new audio headphones every few months but rather resoling my shoes. I didn’t prospect by phone or email; I literally walked through buildings. I visited companies and met prospects face to face. Selling was hyper-localized. I ran into my customers and prospects at Stop & Shop. They’d see me at a local bar or restaurant, and our kids played together on the same Little League team. If I didn’t treat them well, I would be a pariah in my community. My clients were my neighbors. My livelihood was contingent upon how my reputation was spread among a very small community.

Today, with sales on a global scale, it’s not always easy to meet face-to-face. We tend to rely on phone calls, email, text and Skype—all of which have brought greater anonymity. When an exchange is nothing more than two voices on other ends of a phone and exchanging emails, it’s easier for buyers and sellers alike to lower their standards and treat one another badly.

While we can’t return to the good old days, we don’t have to throw civility out with our neighbors either. I still conduct myself as though I’m doing business in the old neighborhood, and I don’t consider myself a dinosaur. Rather, I think we’ve lost the checks and balances in our global, anonymous world. And it’s enabling bad behavior.

Sales Must Lead the Way Back to Civility

The fact that I’m disheartened about the dilution of the sales profession is not a new theme. I’ve ranted about this before. This particular churn of “Unicorn Networks”, however, reminds me that while some buyers are bad actors, sales has absolutely contributed to the problem. Although my team hadn’t done so with Unicorn Networks, I did wonder if the culmination of crappy sales interactions with other entities was contributing to Davy Jones feeling justified in being a jerk to everyone. Was he really just a bitter human being or had he been hardened over time the degradation of competence in the sales profession? From a personal perspective, I find it more difficult as a buyer of technology to be tolerant of bad sales reps. Not preparing for calls, not knowing their products, poor listening, inconsistent follow up and similar deficiencies tries my patience and has built up in me a negative bias I take into every call when I’m a buyer.

So whether Davy Jones is a jerk or just exhibiting jerky behavior is no longer of interest to me. I want to focus on what we can control, by upping our game in sales. Although I’m not suggesting today’s generation of sellers start foot-canvassing again, I do think approaching your role as if you were selling with a level of intimacy of bygone years is a huge start. It’s time for us to take ownership and fix our portion of the Unicorn Network problem. Here’s what we need to do:

1) Sell Like Your Mom is Buying
While this may sound altruistic, it’s not far off the mark. If you approach every sale as though you’re selling to someone you care about and who can call you out on any bullshit, you’ll do your best job. Conduct yourself in the field as you expect to be treated. It’s that simple.

2) Be Honest
Stop spinning your story. Stop lying by omission. Be candid and forthright. Give your buyers the information to make educated decisions. Even if you lose a few short-term sales, you definitely win long term because you’re building a relationship and establishing your reputation.

3) Know Your Differentiation
I go nuts when I ask sales reps how their products differ from Company X, and they drop the canned and cagey reply of ‘…I don’t follow the competition.’ That’s the most insulting, side-stepping, bullshit line that a sales person can use. Evah! You’re telling prospects that you’re either incompetent or that the competition has something that you don’t want them to know. In either case, you’re not fooling anyone. With me, all you’ve done is given me the motivation to now look at your competition, and hard. Damn you, but I’m going to figure out what you are trying to hide, and more times than not, that one snarky line causes me to find what you didn’t want me to know…and you’ve lost the sale.

  • Know your differentiation: If you work for a company that you believe in passionately, distinctions aren’t a problem. If you don’t have it with your current employer, go find another one.
  • Lead with your differentiation: Explain the single most compelling reason why someone should buy from you. Do it early and reinforce it throughout your dialogue with the buyer.
  • Reinforce your differentiation: Compare your best feature(s) against those of your top competitors.
  • Celebrate your differentiation: If you have a buyer that doesn’t care about your differentiation, graciously let them buy from someone else.

4) Be Competent or Get Out
If you can’t or won’t do these three simple things on every call, you’re just incompetent. Accept it. Even worse, you’re hurting the profession for the rest of us, by emboldening buyers to return their frustration by treating the good ones poorly.

Help me Build a Tinder for Sales

And if you happen to be an engineer reading this post and have some time to moonlight, I’m going to end with a special appeal to you. Let’s build something together that might return some civility to the buying-selling process. Physicians, teachers, service providers , local businesses and many other markets, all have tools that allow participants to be rated online. How about we do the same for b2b buyers and sellers? I know damn well that if my team’s actions in the sales process had the risk of being made public, with buyers literally rating their conduct, they would be on their best behavior. And the same holds true for buyers. Although I don’t have a monetization plan in mind, it would be interesting if this rating community got off the ground. I’ll contribute the design if you’ll contribute the code. Together, we can make the world of selling and buying a better place for all.

This article was first published on the HG Data Blog.