Most sales books are retreads. While the buzzwords change, the basic concepts remain the same. After a while, reviewing sales books feels like being in Groundhog Day, but without the funny bits.
However, every year there are a handful of sales books that are outstanding, either because they provide a new perspective or express fundamental truths in an engaging way. Here are this year's gems.
1. Agile Selling
Subtitle: Get Up to Speed Quickly in Today's Ever-Changing Sales World
Author: Jill Konrath
Best Quote: "Research shows that in a world of nearly identical products and services, sellers and buyers have very different perceptions about what influences purchase decisions and customer loyalty. Sales people invariably cite pricing, brand, and the product or service itself as the most important factors. They often feel that things totally outside their control thwart their own best efforts. This belief is the source of lots of finger-pointing and blame. You know what buyers pick as the differentiator in their decisions? The sales experience itself--what it's like working with you during the course of all your interactions. They think this experience as a whole is more important than all the other factors combined."
My Take: This is a well-written, thoughtful, and useful book. However, while Konrath is exactly right in her prescription for the necessary changes in sales process, she begins her book with the myth that buyers use the internet to become informed. In fact, when outside of their own field of expertise, most buyers are overwhelmed by information and are much more likely to be misinformed than informed. The reason the "sales experience" (actually the "buying experience") has become so important is that buyers want sellers to simplify choices rather than to provide more information.
2. The Go-Giver, Expanded Edition
Subtitle: A Little Story About a Powerful Business Idea
Authors: Bob Burg and John David Mann
Best Quote: "Go looking for conflict, and you'll find it. Go for people to take advantage of you and they generally will. See the world as a dog-eat-dog place, and you'll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you're his next meal. Go looking for the best in people, and you'll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and goodwill you'll find. Ultimately, the world treats you more or less the way you expect to be treated."
My Take: If this hadn't been an expanded edition (and therefore not really published in 2015), it would have taken the No. 1 spot on this list. This classic, engaging book teaches lessons that go far beyond the realm of sales and business, and into the realm of living a fulfilled life.
3. The Sales Acceleration Formula
Subtitle: Using Data, Technology, and Inbound Selling to Go From $0 to $100 Million
Author: Mark Roberge
Quote: "Business owners, sales executives, and investors are all looking to turn their brilliant ideas into the next $100 million revenue business. Often, the biggest challenge they face is the task of scaling sales. They crave a blueprint for success, but fail to find it. Why? Sales has traditionally been referred to as an 'art form,' rather than a science. You can't major in 'sales' in college. Many people question whether sales can even be taught. Executives and entrepreneurs are often left feeling helpless and hopeless. [However,] in today's digital world, in which every action is logged and masses of data sit at our fingertips, building a sales team no longer needs to be an art form. There is a process. Sales can be predictable. A formula does exist."
My Take: Not surprisingly, given his background scaling up a sales team at the inbound marketing firm Hubspot, Roberge's ideas are real-world and practical. While not exactly revolutionary, this book provides the latest thinking in metric-driven sales management and is written in a clear, no-nonsense style. If I have any reservations, it's that the whole "sales is a science" idea has been written about so much that one has to wonder why so many authors feel the need to make the point. Consider: Every geology book (for instance) doesn't begin with a paragraph explaining that geology is not an "art form."
4. Fanatical Prospecting
Subtitle: The Ultimate Guide to Opening Sales Conversations and Filling the Pipeline by Leveraging Social Selling, Telephone, Email, Text, and Cold Calling
Author: Jeb Blount
Quote: "What's the secret that separates superstars from everyone else, and why do they consistently outperform other sales people? Fanatical prospecting. Superstars are relentless, unstoppable prospectors. They are obsessive about keeping their pipeline full of qualified prospects. They prospect anywhere and anytime--constantly turning over rocks looking for their next opportunity. They prospect day and night--unstoppable and always on. Fanatical! Superstars view prospecting as a way of life. They prospect with single-minded focus, worrying little about what others think of them. They enthusiastically dive into telephone prospecting, email prospecting, cold calling, networking, asking for referrals, knocking on doors, following up on leads, attending trade shows, and striking up conversations with strangers."
My Take: I'm not sure whether I buy the premise that prospecting is the essence of sales superstardom. I've seen situations--especially with highly targeted emailing--where pipelines become so full that the challenge is closing, not prospecting. That being said, if this book can't get you motivated to prospect and enjoying the process, you've got no business being in sales. An essential book for every sales tool kit.
5. Hacking Sales
Subtitle: The Playbook for Building a High Velocity Sales Machine
Author: Max Altschuler
Quote: "Having a process, even if it's weak, is extremely important. Without it you're disorganized and disjointed. If you're not tracking and measuring, but how are you supposed to get better? A process is always a work in progress, no matter how good the results. The best assets of sales teams and sales people are great organizational and analytical skills. Companies that figure this out early, and build a strong and streamlined engine, will surpass their competitors. Reps that figure this out will outsell their peers.
My Take: Over the past 10 years, sales technology has moved from basic CRM (usually Salesforce.com and some add-ons) to a set of tools that are strung together to create a process that may be unique to the company or even the individual. The advantage of the new model is that it's cheap and easy to create. The disadvantage is that such tools become a system only if you apply a systematic approach to their usage. This book helps you puts the mental order and common sense into what might otherwise be a Frankenstein collection of pieces and parts.
6. Secrets of a Master Closer
Subtitle: A Simpler, Easier, and Faster Way to Sell Anything to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere
Author: Mike Kaplan
Quote: "Before reading further, take a second to look at a clock or your watch and note the time. Go ahead, do this now and then continue reading. Just like you can control or direct your own body or control the driving of a car, you can also control or direct another person's attention. If you had looked at the time when I passed, I was then able to control or direct your attention to a clock. As a result, I made you aware of the time. A salesperson does the same thing when he controls and directs the prospect's attention to the various features of this product or service and makes for aware of how it will solve her problem."
My Take: Even though I've used the phrase "sell anything to anyone" in a post, I've come to the conclusion that it's a misleading and even dangerous concept. It encourages the notion that selling consists of manipulating people into buying things that they don't want. That belief, and the behaviors it drives, are why so many buyers intensely dislike salespeople. However, if you believe that selling is all about technique and the development of specific skills, you will find this book insanely useful. Again, it's not my cup of tea, but if you're looking do "Jedi mind tricks" on your customers, this is the book for you.
7. The Ultimate Sales Revolution
Subtitle: Sell Differently. Change the World
Author: Steve Lishansky
Quote: "The way sales is practiced today is fundamentally wrong, outdated, and so disreputable but no one wants to be called a salesperson. One of the greatest days in my career happened when I realized I didn't need to walk into a meeting with a client or prospect armed with all the answers and the classic sales techniques. What I found liberating, empowering, and, best of all, far more effective was to do something totally different than sell what I had. Instead, I became a facilitator of what was most important to that client."
My Take: This book espouses the exact opposite philosophy to the previous book. While Kaplan is all about technique, Lishansky is all about building the right relationships and then doing the right thing for the customer. The challenge here is to keep yourself from unconsciously assuming that the right thing is always to buy your product. It's very easy to make this mistake unless you're self-aware of your own motives and thought processes. Aside from that, though, I think that Lishansky has basically nailed it when it comes to what really works in selling in the long term.
8. Storytelling With Data
Subtitle: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals
Author: Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic
Best Quote: "Advances in technology, in addition to increasing the amount of an access to data, have also made tools to work with data pervasive. Pretty much anyone can put some data into a graphing application (for example, Excel) and create a graph. This is remarkable, considering that the process of creating a graph was historically reserved for scientists or those in other highly technical roles. And scary, because without a clear path to follow, our best intentions and efforts (combined with oft-questionable tool defaults) can lead us in some really bad directions. You can put some data in XL and creating a graph [but] for many, the process of data visualization ends there. This can render the most interesting story completely underwhelming, or worse, difficult or impossible to understand. Tool defaults and general practices tend to leave our data and the stories we want to tell with that data sorely lacking."
My Take: This book should be required reading for everyone in sales and indeed anyone who gives presentations that include graphs. All too many people seem to believe that data or information tells its own story. It doesn't. The story is what puts the graphical data into context, making it useful and actionable rather than adding to the information overload.
9. The LinkedIn Code
Subtitle: Unlock the Largest Online Business Social Network to Get Leads, Prospects and Clients for B2B, Professional Services and Sales and Marketing pros
Author: Melonie Dodaro
Quote: "While you may have a hard time reaching your prospects or target market using more traditional marketing methods, new methods such as social selling are proving very effective. Keep in mind that 82% of your prospects can be reached socially via online networks and these same decision makers are using social networks, such as LinkedIn, to research and exchange information on vendors and their products or services. In fact, a 2012 survey found that 77% of B2B buyers did not speak with a salesperson until after they have performed independent research."
My Take: This long overdue book is required reading for anybody working in sales or marketing. LinkedIn plays a huge role in selling today and using it effectively is an important skill. I might note, however, that using social media effectively is primarily an ability to write in concise, meaningful sentences, both in your profile and your InMail (i.e. email) messages. Based upon my experience, most people in business today lack that capability and tend to communicate in airy abstractions and important-sounding buzzwords. In other words, even if you master every technique in this book, your social selling will fall flat if you can't write well. (Hint: Always hire a good copyeditor for any essential communication.)
10. The Sell
Subtitle: The Secrets of Selling Anything to Anyone
Authors: Fredrik Eklund With Bruce Littlefield
Quote: "If a kid off the shrimp boat from Sweden can make it big, you can, too. You, too, can be the best at what you do, whatever it is. You are no different. You probably even understand the language and know a few more people than I did. You have a leg up! Plus, you have this book in your hand. So, high kick!"
My Take: I've included this in the top 10 list because the book has sold well and gotten generally good reader reviews. I must admit that it does make for engaging reading although it probably helps if you're "into" the author's reality TV series. Personally, though, I'm not impressed. While there's no denying that Eklund makes money, he seems too self-centered and self-promoting to be a good role model for most salespeople. For example, the book cover (in addition to the tired and ridiculous "sell anything to anyone" canard in the title) features Eklund shooting his cuff to reveal an expensive watch. Maybe that works when selling real estate to the .01 percent, but try that "look how rich I am" stuff in a B2B sales situation and you'll quickly make yourself salespersona non grata. Again, maybe it's just me, but I don't think that imitating Eklund is a good idea.
Coming Soon: The 10 Best Business Books of 2015
Every year, I name the best business books in multiple categories and then (this year on December 15), I name the best of the best. In addition to this post, here the categories so far:
Next to come: Best Marketing Books of 2015. Stay tuned!