The words selling and noble are rarely seen together. Most people believe that money is the primary motivator for top salespeople and that doing good by the world runs a distant second.
That belief is wrong.
Six years ago, I was part of a consulting team that was asked by a major biotech firm to conduct a six-month-long double-blind study of their sales force. The purpose of the study was to determine what behaviors separated top salespeople from the average ones.
The study revealed something no one expected: the top performers all had far more pronounced sense of purpose than their average counterparts. The salespeople who sold with noble purpose—who truly wanted to make a difference to customers—consistently outsold the salespeople who were focused on sales goals and money.
It was a startling discovery that I might have missed had it not been for a curbside conversation at the Phoenix airport.
I was finishing a two-day ride along with a sales rep. As she dropped me off at the airport, I asked her a question I hadn’t asked the other reps: “What do you think about when you go on sales calls? What’s going on in your head?”
“I don’t tell this to many people,” she confessed, looking around the car as though someone was going to hear her secret. “When I go on sales calls, I always think about this particular patient who came up to me one day during a call on a doctor’s office. “I was standing in the hallway talking to one of the doctors. I was wearing my company name badge, so I stood out. All of a sudden this elderly woman taps me on the shoulder.
“‘Excuse me, Miss,’ she said. ‘Are you from the company that makes drug x?’
“‘I just want to thank you,’ she said. ‘Before my doctor prescribed your drug, I barely had enough energy to leave the house. But now I can visit my grandkids; I can get down on the floor to play with them. I can travel. So thank you. You gave me back my life.’”
The sales rep told me, “I think about that woman every day. If it’s 4:30 on a rainy Friday afternoon, other sales reps go home. I don’t. I make the extra sales call because I know I’m not just pitching a product. I’m saving people’s lives. That grandmother is my higher purpose.”
Sitting in that blistering Phoenix heat, I realized she had said something incredibly important. I thought about that conversation during the entire flight back to Atlanta.
Our consulting team had spent months shadowing salespeople all over the country. We’d conducted in-depth interviews and analyzed every aspect of the sales calls. But this was the first time anyone had spoken so openly and dramatically about their mind-set.
Was the big differentiator between top performers and average performers really a sense of purpose?
I went back to the transcripts of the interviews looking for purpose, and I didn’t see it at first. But then I looked closer—and there it was, in the rep who said, “My dad was a doctor. Doctors have an even harder job than most people realize. I want to make it easier for them.” It was there in the rep who was thrilled to be discussing the science, practically glowing when he said, “Isn’t it amazing the way that we’re able to do these things?” There were other reps who talked about the impact they had on nurses and patients. And although none of these people actually used the word purpose, it was there.
At the end of project, the client asked us to look across all the reps and identify who we thought were the top performers. It was a double-blind study, so the other consultants and I didn’t know who was at the top and who was just average.
I found seven reps who had that sense of purpose when reviewing the interviews. I told the client, “I think these seven are top-performing salespeople.”
I was 100 percent right, which confirmed my belief: top performers weren’t driven solely by money. They were driven by purpose.
And the rep in Phoenix who went on sales calls thinking about the grandmother? She was the number one salesperson in the country three years running. While her average counterparts were trying to win the incentive trip, she was playing for much higher stakes, which translated into higher sales.
Ironic, isn’t it? The salespeople who cared about something more than just money wound up selling more than the salespeople who were focused only on quota. This surprising finding led me on a quest to understand what goes on inside the minds of top-performing salespeople and how leaders can replicate that mind-set throughout their organization. After six years of research and 10,000 hours of studying salespeople, the results leave no doubt: a noble sales purpose ™ (NSP) is the difference between a merely effective sales force and one that’s truly outstanding.
You don’t need to look any further than the auto industry to see what happens when salespeople lack a noble sales purpose. The auto industry has genius engineers. They do extensive consumer research to identify exactly what we might want or need in a car. Their marketing people create compelling ads. But what happens when you go to the dealership? The only thing the salesperson wants to know is, “How much a month can you pay?” and, “Do you have good credit?” Years of work, thousands of hours researching the consumer, millions of dollars spent, and it all falls apart on the showroom floor.
As anyone who has done it can attest, buying a car can be an absolutely soul-sucking experience. Car salespeople don’t care about making a difference in your life. All they care about is closing the deal—because closing the deal is the only thing their sales manager has told them to care about.
The conversations managers have with salespeople drives the conversation salespeople have with customers. The internal conversation becomes the external conversation. So if the internal conversations are only about price, volume, and targets, with no mention of a larger purpose, that’s exactly what your salespeople will discuss with customers.
Lest you have any doubt about the power of purpose, consider this: the data from a 10-year growth study of more than 50,000 brands around the world show that companies who put improving people’s lives at the center of all they do outperform the market by a huge margin.
The study, done by an independent consulting group )Millward Brown Optimor — Stengal Study of Business Growth) in partnership with former Procter & Gamble chief marketing officer (CMO) Jim Stengel, revealed that “those who center their business on improving people’s live have a growth rate triple that of their competitors, and they outperform the market by a huge margin.”
Jim Collins and Jerry Porras of Built to Last fame also documented that organizations driven by purpose and values outperformed the market by 15:1—and outperformed comparison companies by 6:1
The research is clear, and it confirms what we know in our hearts to be true: a noble purpose engages people’s passion in a way that spreadsheets don’t.
You don’t have to create world peace. Your noble sales purpose can be about making your customers more successful or about changing your industry.
A friend of mine in politics has worked in several congressional and Senate offices and on some large national campaigns. She once told me, “In every office, there’s always a TB.”
“What’s a TB?” I asked her.
“A true believer,” she said. “That starry-eyed optimist who still believes they can make difference. But here’s the thing all the jaded staffers don’t tell you—everyone else in the office is secretly jealous of the true believer.”
I’ve come to understand the reason everyone is jealous of the true believer: we all have a secret true believer inside of us, just waiting for permission to come out.
Selling with Noble Purpose is about igniting the true believer that lurks in the heart of every salesperson. Because as much as salespeople want to make money, they also want to make a difference.