Is this a sales call?" I always ask this question when I get a phone call from an insurance firm or a bank. Usually there is a brief silence before the person at the other end responds. In India, I have never had the person who made the call respond by saying, “Yes, this is a sales call." Their responses have ranged from “I’d like to tell you about this really great retirement plan we have" to “I just need a few minutes of your time". Why can’t they respond with a simple, “Yes, this is a sales call, and..." and then say what they want to say?

To me, the primary reason for the refusal to answer the “Is this a sales call?" question seems to stem from the widely held view of sales as a smarmy, at best, and slimy, at worst, profession. Of course, globally, insurance and used car salesmen (rarely depicted as women) are much maligned and held out as examples of what’s wrong with selling and sales people.

Ram Charan , Portfolio Hardcover

Harvard professor Theodore Levitt, in his seminal 1960 paper Marketing Myopia, drew the distinction between selling and marketing as more than semantic. “Selling focuses on the needs of the seller, marketing on the needs of the buyer. Selling is preoccupied with the seller’s need to convert his product into cash, marketing with the idea of satisfying the needs of the customer by means of the product and the whole cluster of things associated with creating, delivering, and finally consuming it." And this definition had worked well for the remainder of the 20th century.

Globalization, the rise of the Internet and social media over the last decade have turned so much conventional wisdom about business on its head. The role of marketing and sales has been under attack, with some even claiming the death of marketing as we’ve known it. In-bound marketing, content marketing and other variants of social media marketing, it is argued, have changed—particularly business-to-business—marketing forever.

The good news is that there is a healthy debate and a growing body of work on how customers are better informed and why such customers may actually be better. In this new world, marketers are really facilitating the customer’s quest for information and building credibility and a value-based relationship. Digital marketers and social media “experts" are sprouting, like mushrooms after a good rain, and there is a sense of innovation and excitement. And yet a re-reading of Levitt only shows how relevant his definition of marketing is even today.

However, does Levitt’s definition of sales being solely preoccupied with “the needs of the seller, and to convert product into cash" still hold good? More importantly, does such selling work any more? Is this the reason for sales and selling to be perceived negatively and talked of pejoratively?

When was the last time you heard a potential father-in-law boast that his future son-in-law was “in sales"?

My own conversion from a disparager of salespeople to a true believer in their value came when I had to walk in their shoes for several months.

Having to sell my company and its products on a daily basis so that 50 people may eat, at least occasionally, gave me religion. Since then I have been evangelizing the need for everyone from engineering to finance to go on sales calls. While commendable, it’s not always a practical solution.

Luckily, Ram Charan, the author of several best-sellers, in his latest book, What The Customer Wants You To Know, presents a compelling case of “how everybody needs to think differently about sales".

He calls for a value creation selling method that places solving the customer’s problems ahead of trying to sell your product. Of course, solving their problem would require you to understand your customer or at times your customer’s customers. It would also require your entire company to work with sales as a team to pull together custom solutions that will drive your customers’ revenue and margins. In other words, help your customer’s business succeed and you will succeed. We all know how easy that is.

Fifty years after the publication of Marketing Myopia, Charan’s call for selling that focuses on value creation in many ways redefines selling and makes it totally about the customers’ needs first. A must-read for every employee.

K Srikrishna is an entrepreneur and angel investor. He writes about issues that business leaders and managers regularly face and books that could help.

Comments are welcome at