Two decades on, his 1995 text, SPIN Selling, is still lauded as the most influential sales book of all time, and more than half the US Fortune 500 use models from that research to train their sales teams. Professor Neil Rackham’s studies have stood the test of time, but as he makes clear in this interview – it’s important to evolve. In his own words: “It’s a Darwinian world out there. Adapt or die.”
In March we welcome US-based Neil back to these shores as Visiting Professor to Sheffield University Management School. Ahead of his return, we spoke to him about the sales and marketing sector where he has such legacy, his current research and any advice he may have for our students.
On the state of the sector, Neil identifies a number of key shifts in sales and marketing, albeit in the USA: “The integration of sales and marketing or, at least, a major shift in how they work together is finally underway. It’s curious that the only two functions in the organisation with an identical mission – the generation of profitable revenue – should so rarely work well together. A few years ago, Professor Philip Kotler and I wrote an article in Harvard Business Review called ‘Ending the war between sales and marketing’. It created a lot of interest; less because of the article itself, more because many senior executives thought that they had big problems in this area.
“The internet has forced new thinking and has taken over the selling of simple products. In many companies, marketing now does the selling, using the website, social media and telesales. Sales, meanwhile, has focused on high level, complex business-to-business selling. This change has altered the way companies think the roles of sales and marketing.”
As a University of Sheffield alumnus, Neil remembers the city fondly and has some advice for students considering a career in the sales and marketing arena: “As little as five years ago, if a student asked me if they should make a career in sales or marketing, I would tell them, ‘It’s a great place to start, but don’t stay there too long unless your sole objective is to make money: you’ll die of boredom’. Not so today. A background in both marketing and sales is an invaluable springboard to senior management success. Selling, in particular, has become complex, strategic and professional – it’s about creativity; nothing to do with the old stereotypes of persuasion and pushiness. It’s about creating new value.
“However, the days are long gone when you could succeed in either sales or marketing by seat-of-the-pants methods. Just like a doctor, lawyer, architect or any other profession, there’s a need for certification, standards and continuing professional development. The field is moving incredibly fast: the knowledge you had three years ago is already nearing the end of its shelf life. Bodies like the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) have an increasingly important role in keeping us up-to-date and providing an assurance to potential employers that we are competent professionals.
As well as speaking at the Management School on 12 March, Neil is looking forward to developing his research network and working with students: “What I hope to do at Sheffield University Management School is to inspire some smart and talented students to enter this exciting and fast-moving area. I always learn from working with students – much more than I learn from working in boardrooms. I get out of it a whole lot of ideas. I’m fed up with explaining social media to geriatric senior managers. I love it when a student tells me things I didn’t know about, say, trending bloggers.”
As this article noted earlier, Neil’s popular texts are still influencing sales teams worldwide and his research career hasn’t slowed down – though it has a slightly different focus: “I’ve lost interest in the large corporations like IBM, Oracle or Citicorp who funded my early research. Most of the new wealth today isn’t being generated by these dinosaurs. It’s coming from small nimble companies that are creative and fun to work with. That’s where I like to be.
“The methods I pioneered in the 1980s, by all rights, should be long extinct in 2015. But they are not. There’s a wide perception in business that the methods still work. Of course they have to adapt to new times and I can see a lot of possible changes I’d like to explore, but the fundamentals are still alive and well.
“My present research concerns ‘pipelines’. In sales, a pipeline is the amount of business a company has where the sale has been started but may not result in a final contract for a year or more. I’m interested in things like how do you speed the rate of flow in this pipe and how do you increase its yield. I’m also working on sales and marketing integration and I find myself fascinated with how really big sales are made; where there may be a team of 50 people working on one billion dollar sale. That’s exciting stuff. It really gets your adrenaline going to know that tomorrow you’re going to hear if you’ve won or lost one of these giant contacts.”
Neil’s research is still hugely popular, but it’s how this has influenced his practice that also interests us. As founder of Huthwaite International, a global research and consulting firm based close to Sheffield, he has always been concerned with the role of sales and marketing practitioners in an organisational context. We asked Neil to elaborate on how important it is that this sector is represented on a company board: “The big contribution that sales and marketing make to corporate boards is to bring the voice of the customer. That’s often sorely missing – even today – in traditional companies. I confidently predict that both sales and marketing will have an increasing presence, and an increasing impact, at board level in the future.”
In many sectors, this is a controversial proposition indeed. Then again, Neil’s never been afraid to cause a stir: “In my student days at Sheffield, when I was Secretary of the Union [my membership is still up to date] I was a loud and enthusiastic troublemaker. Today I’m less loud and a little more subtle about it but, once a troublemaker, always a troublemaker. I hope to shake a few things up – in a professional and professorial way, of course.”
We’re confident that the world of sales and marketing will be eternally grateful for Neil’s troublemaking ways. We look forward to welcoming them back to Sheffield University Management School in March.
Book your place for Neil’s talk on 12 March on our Management Gateway – click here.