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Google and the Culture of Technology Sales January 27, 2012

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy, Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I have a lot of respect for professional salespeople in the aggregate, especially in the technology sector.  It’s not a skill that I have, and I am well aware that their efforts and results pay for my services.  When push comes to shove, tech companies only need people who make the product and people who sell the product (and I am neither).  And they really don’t need people who make that product, at least in the short term, because a good sales person can sell last year’s product, or sell a product that doesn’t yet exist.

But the culture is one that is foreign to me.  Salespeople are both encouraged and incentivized to remove barriers to a sale, and that’s largely a good thing (a sales engineer friend cynically refers to this as “lie until they buy”).

But barriers can also exist for legitimate reasons.  For example, lowering the price until the sale is no longer profitable makes sense only in the most exceptional situation, such as if there is a strong expectation of future business at a better price.

Or there may be legal restrictions on a sale, such as certain pharmaceutical sales of unapproved drugs in the US.  It turns out that it is also a crime to advertise such products, which is what got Google into hot water not long ago (sorry, great article, but largely behind a paywall).  In the sting described in this article, Google sales executives enabled a man playing a role as an illegal drug provider to bypass the company’s own restrictions against such advertising.  In the end, Google paid a $500 million fine rather than be prosecuted.  Apparently there was some evidence that problems with these advertisements were well known within the company up to an including Larry Page.

The incentives to making the sale can be significant.  Certainly there is the individual component, both in sales commissions and in the recognition of your peers and management.  In most tech companies, the best sales professionals go to “Club”, a fully-paid motivational trip to an exotic locale (Hawaii and Caribbean resorts are common).

But the pressure on sales professionals can be significant.  They have quotas that are often unrealistic, and sometimes don’t get good support from the rest of the company.  They are often the “first up against the wall when the revolution occurs”.  And sometimes the line between legitimate and illegal doesn’t seem all that clear.

None of this is meant to condone Google’s likely illegal behavior in this matter, or to apologize for boorish and occasionally illicit sales behavior in general.  But I want to point out that at ground level, it’s at least understandable, if often ugly and ambiguous.

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