Henry Ford and the 100 year old complaint about sales people

Henry Ford and the 100 year old complaint about sales people
Courtesy skeeze

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading Henry Ford’s 1922 autobiography My Life and Work. It’s truly fascinating to read the thoughts of a business legend at the peak of his game. It’s also interesting to see how much of Ford’s writing translates perfectly to today’s business environment.

At one point in the book, Ford shares probably the oldest complaint any human being has ever made about sales people:

Salesmen always want to cater to whims instead of acquiring sufficient knowledge of their product to be able to explain to the customer with the whim that what they have will satisfy his every requirement — that is, of course, provided what they have does satisfy these requirements.

Why such a common observation is practically meaningless

In other words, sales people know too little about their products, and they would rather throw their own company under the bus than upset their customer. I’ve heard versions of that complaint countless times. When you’re not getting the revenue numbers you expect, keep your ears open. Some variant of this claim will soon appear.

On one hand, this claim is true. Sales people are in a difficult spot, balancing the needs of their customer against the needs of their employer. Yes, ideally these needs align and everyone is happy. In the real world, conflict is inevitable. Sales people have to delicately navigate these turbulent waters.

On the other hand, in my experience, this judgment doesn’t lead to much. I’ve not seen anyone make this claim about sales people, and then work to correct the problem. Conventional wisdom is that the sales folks can’t properly manage the tension between the company and its customers.

We use similar claims to attack other groups

What a shame, right? It’s a common refrain that seems to carry little to no value. It’s an explanation for an unsatisfactory and unchanging status quo. It’s the broad brush we use to criticize sales people. For people outside the core of the business (i.e. sales and operations), we use a similar attack: they don’t know enough about the business to be helpful.

  • Engineers don’t understand our business, or our customers’ problems, so they design stuff no one wants.
  • Finance folks don’t know anything except the numbers, so while they’re good for bookkeeping, they can’t help us make better business decisions.
  • Human resources can help with routine hiring and firing, but we can’t rely on them to match people with roles and develop our talent.

There’s a hint of truth to all of these claims. Sales folks do face a tension between the customer and their company. Functional experts do have competencies that aren’t industry-specific. You can then form whatever judgments you’d like about people, given the realities of their roles.

The problem is these statements aren’t that helpful, at least in blanket form. They help you direct blame onto the “other”, which is whatever group isn’t sitting in the same room as you. They’re excuses for disempowering whole teams within your company. They’re practically impossible to combat. If someone truly believes any of these claims, they’re unlikely to change their mind.

These observations are only meaningful when applied to specific people

The only way these statements are helpful is if they’re targeted at a specific person. Say John is struggling in his sales role. It’s helpful to know that one key challenge for sales people is managing conflict between their customer and their employer. If that’s why John is struggling, then we can define a path forward.

Say Jane’s engineering team consistently delivers underwhelming products. It’s helpful to know that engineers don’t sit at the front lines of the business. They might not know how the company expects to position new products, which can lead to poor design decisions.

These kinds of statements, in blanket form, are nearly worthless. The only real use for them, as far as I can tell, is to catalogue predictable struggles of people in different roles. It’s not that every sales person will struggle to manage the tension between the customer and the company. It’s not that every engineer will struggle to understand how products will be used in the real world. But the struggles are common enough, that as a leader, it’s good to know about them. It’s good to know as quickly as possible if people are having these predictable struggles.

Offering these statements publicly, as though they’re an insightful diagnosis of our present predicament…what a joke. In fact, if any of these statements can reasonably be made about the state of a company, then leadership has failed. Miserably. These are all thoroughly predictable and preventable outcomes. If we don’t have the courage to acknowledge and address these issues head on, then we don’t deserve to have management responsibilities in the first place.

Henry Ford didn’t just run his mouth

Let’s return to Henry Ford for a moment. Here’s the very next passage in My Life and Work:

Therefore in 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be “Model T”, and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

That’s how Henry Ford responded to his observation and criticism of sales people. Rather than bitching and moaning and leaving it alone, he acted on it. He streamlined his product offering. He deliberately made it easier for his sales people to know the product and protect their customer relationships.

That’s what a leader does. A leader doesn’t offer some blanket statement about the failings of a whole group of people and then walk away. A leader finds a way to proactively address the most common, and most foreseeable, struggles of the whole organization.

It’s super easy to bitch and moan about an unsatisfactory status quo. It’s much more difficult, and much more respectable, to actually do something about it.

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