I was reading an obituary today in the San Jose Mercury News on Joan Rivers and was struck by the fact that most sales teams could learn a lot from her.  There were three particular references to her career and what she will be remembered for that really resonated with me as a sales professional.

The first was that the “groundbreaking entertainer held nothing back – and was loved and respected for it”.  If you simply replace “entertainer” with “sales professional”, then you have an epitaph that all sales teams would love to be remembered for!  What do we see if we start to break this analogy down a bit further?

What we start to see are some foundational elements of great sales teams in that… they hold nothing back.  In reading through Joan’s obituary, you see the words “brazen”, “groundbreaking” and “bold” bandied about.  I would submit that great sales teams possess those exact sales capabilities.  To borrow from the great Star Trek series, great sales teams “boldly go where no man has gone before.”

  • Great sales teams refuse to accept that they can’t successfully sell their solution to a large enterprise F500 company simply because they have never sold to that sized company before or that industry.  Just like Joan Rivers refused to accept that she couldn’t succeed in the male dominated era of late night television hosts, great sales teams don’t make excuses that they don’t have any F500 customer references so they won’t be able to sell the first F500 customer.  Great sales teams, like Joan Rivers, make things happen that haven’t been done before.

Secondly, there was a subtle, yet poignant reference in her obituary to making her career by “brazenly mocking subjects most of us were afraid to talk about.”  As a long time VP of Sales, my biggest frustration was managing sales teams that were afraid to discuss certain “subjects” with the customer.  Ironically, the majority of the time those “subjects” that they were afraid to discuss with customer were the exact things that would differentiate them from the competition and were the things that the customer wanted to discuss.

  • Top performing sales teams are prepared and embrace the opportunity to discuss critical and sometimes sensitive subjects with their customers.  This is precisely what separates the winners from the losers as you establish yourself as a sales team that brings strategic business insight to the table that the customer wasn’t thinking about.  And the only way that you can do this is to proactively bring up the sensitive business subjects that most sales teams shy away from with their customers.  I can envision Joan Rivers asking the CIO from a F100 company, “Can we talk…about why you are losing 20% of your customers to your competition?”

Lastly, Joan Rivers pioneered the Hollywood event red carpet attire real time critique.  This is akin to entertainment royalty strutting through a palace with everyone thinking that they look silly but no one has the courage to tell them.  The sales metaphor that I draw from this is how intimidated most sales teams are by “C-Level” execs in a F1000 company.  They are afraid to challenge or share what they are really thinking with the C-Level exec because they are business royalty.

  • The best sales teams are not intimidated to challenge C-Level execs in F1000 companies, in fact they embrace that opportunity.  The irony is that all empirical evidence substantiates that C-Level execs actually prefer to be challenged by their sales teams.  Now the challenge needs to be based on actual domain expertise and sound business logic, but these C-Level execs are tired of the “parroting” back of requirements that they get from most sales teams without any insight or value add.  Now put Joan Rivers in front of a C-Level exec team and she would be honest and fearless in challenging them on things that they should be challenged on.

In closing, RIP Joan Rivers and may some of your life lessons help sales teams sell more effectively.  To quote Joan, “Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”