Not everything in life can be boiled down to sales, but an understanding of sales can be surprisingly instructive. One underappreciated sales axiom that has vast import for most people is that of balancing your inbound and your outbound. That is, your relationships of tomorrow may either be the relationships that others have determined for you or the relationships that you have chosen for yourself.
Broadly speaking, sales can be divided into inbound and outbound. This can be understood as the difference between working inbound leads (i.e., customers that reach out to the company seeking services) and outbound prospecting into a book of business or territory (i.e., going out and finding new potential customers). While some companies assign these functions to different salespeople, other organizations expect their salespeople to handle both.
Salespeople are typically measured and paid out by their performance relative to a quota or revenue target. The ends are decided by the powers that be, but the means to the ends are often executed with a high degree of autonomy. Therefore, many salespeople fall into the trap of prioritizing their inbound over their outbound. After all, the logic goes, if you have a healthy number of loyal clientele that are knocking at your door, is it really necessary to go out and find new customers? To an untrained eye, prioritizing your inbound would seem like the most energy-efficient and least time-intensive way to get to your number.
But truly exceptional salespeople never neglect their outbound. It took me a while to appreciate the notion that some of the best customers do not come inbound. This is because the greatest opportunity lies where the customers are least cognizant of the extent of their problems, and it is the job of the salesperson to understand those needs and educate them with a potential solution.
From my experience working in sales, the difference between an average rep and a great rep is whether one can shift the dollar amount away from the size of the allocated budget and towards either the size of the potential revenue upside to the company (if they sign the contract) or the size of the potential risk to the company (if they don’t sign the contract and keep the status quo). However, some clients that come inbound are either purely exploratory or are fixated upon a predetermined amount of how much they are willing to pay. When I go to the department store to buy a specific pair of shoes, I have already done my research online of how much these shoes cost, and I am heavily attuned towards any differences in cost that I might see.
If your pipeline as a salesperson is dominated by inbound, your outcomes are predetermined. Your paycheck is basically subject to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. You start to rely upon “lucky inbounds” and you end up dejectedly waiting for your next big break. There is very little juice left to squeeze, and you are left exposed to the whims of the market.
Outcomes in sales are usually downstream of your efforts. Even when your inbounds are plentiful, you should still be setting aside time and energy to proactively reach out to new clients. This makes a great deal of sense in theory, but it is very difficult to implement in practice. It is precisely when business is booming that we feel the mixture of elation, complacency, and exhaustion that altogether make it difficult to eke out time to grow your business further. It is not in our nature to want more when we feel that we have more than enough.
Now how might this dynamic manifest within our day to day lives? Suppose that I have a limited amount of free time to hang out with people - perhaps I am only free on Friday night and Saturday. Throughout the week, my friends message me asking me what I’m doing after work on Friday, and tell me about a festival happening on Saturday, and would I be interested in joining them? I glance at my schedule, decide I want some time to myself on Friday night, and say no to the Friday invitation and yes to the Saturday invitation (or, if I am Californian and struggle with saying no, I will say yes to both and last-minute cancel on Friday at 3:30PM).
In contrast to my early twenties, in which my default answer to every invitation was “yes,” I considered it a mark of progress that I learned to say “no” to entreaties to hang out. I began carving out time for myself, and no longer acutely felt the “fear of missing out.” I became more attuned to how my body would respond to a socially busy weekend that followed a professional busy workweek, and I would adjust my behavior accordingly. I am proud to say that I am far more comfortable being alone than I have ever been before. I felt that I had taken back control over my social life.
But understanding the “inbound trap” made me realize that I had failed to account for one key dimension of a social life. Let me reframe my aforementioned scenario by noting that my social life for the week has been fully determined within the scope of my inbound. By limiting yourself to the people that want to socialize with you, you are at risk of never seeing the people that you want to spend time with that would never reach out to you first. These are the people that might be too shy to reach out first, or people that you look up to and want to emulate, or people that you simply have always wanted to befriend.
Just like in sales, human relationships are often the downstream effects of efforts made today. This is what I mean when I say that your relationships of tomorrow may either be the relationships that others have determined for you, or relationships that you have chosen for yourself.
I cherish my “inbound” relationships. I am very grateful that I have people that want to spend time with me and want me in their lives. I am honored to be their “outbound.” But whenever I serendipitously bump into old friends that I haven’t seen in a while, I chat with them for a bit, say “we need to catch up sometime,” and never follow up to make it happen. This does not have to be the new norm. The world of possibilities does not have to be limited to the world that comes to you.
Thank you Nolan, Benyam, Andrew, Zane, Dad for providing feedback on earlier versions of this!