Tuesday 14 August 2018

A Salesperson for Testing

One of the challenges of progressing in your career is maintaining the ability to admit you're still not great at some things. As you progress into more senior leadership roles it's easy to fall into the trap of getting more defensive about your shortcomings when a younger you would have been more open about them and therefore ironically more likely to address them.

As I progress in different roles I try to make sure I continually maintain a realistic sense of vulnerability and look for areas where I can continue to improve. One such area I'm working on right now is persuasive communication. I often find myself frustrated with an inability to persuade a group of my position, even if I feel that it is justified. I find that my inability to concisely persuade others is the cause of a significant amount of my work stress in not being able to turn insight and experience into influence.

Selling without knowing it

In order to try to improve on this I was recommended the book 'To Sell is human' by Daniel Pink. It's a fascinating book written around the idea that, although the number of people employed in direct sales roles has reduced, the number of people who spend their time in activities to influence and persuade others has increased such that we are all essentially salespeople in one form or another. One of the key sections of the book explores research performed on how much sales-like activity people are involved in as an inherent part of their working lives ... quite a lot as it turns out:

"People are now spending about 40 percent of their time at work engaged in non-sales selling - persuading, influencing and convincing others in ways that don't involve anyone making a purchase. Across a range of professions, we are devoting roughly twenty -four minutes of every hour to moving others."

I've never wanted to be a salesperson. I'll admin that I have harboured a certain level of disdain for sales jobs in the past, along with many of you reading this I'd dare to suggest. I felt that salespeople were a certain 'type' with potentially a higher level of extroversion coupled with a slightly lower degree of integrity than I was prepared to adopt in my professional life. They were prepared to mislead customers to a false understanding of the value that they were going to achieve in order to achieve a sale. I have in the past rolled my eyes as I tried to manage expectations with a customer after an over-enthusiastic colleague in sales has promised capabilities in our software which hadn't yet progressed beyond the white-board. How much of my opinion was informed by such experience and how much purely driven by stereotype I can't say for sure, however based on the research and analysis presented in Pink's book I'm certainly not the only one to have held such opinions.

Whilst I have always rejected the idea of being in sales, Pink provides a compelling case in his book that actually being more effective at selling is something that has benefits way beyond just sales. The ability to convince someone to exchange their resources in exchange for your product, idea or service is one that is invaluable in any role that interacts with others as part our information and communication rich on-line industry of software creation.

Selling testing

In the testing community I've long moved beyond the idea that throwing counts of test cases and completion percentages at people was an effective way of communicating the status of testing. What I had perhaps failed to appreciate, until reading Pink's book, was that I believe a lot of the value that testers can add is in selling. If selling is the process of persuading people to trade their resources for an idea, opinion or position then the testing role can require a great deal of such activity.

  • Testers sell the need to prioritise one issue over another
  • They sell the need to commit more time to risk mitigating activity prior to releasing
  • They sell the need for testability to developers
  • They sell the value of spending effort on rigour in development processes in order to reduce risk
  • They sell the reduction in scope of features in order to achieve greater confidence in a robust outcome

So, whilst we may not necessarily feel or want to be expert salespeople, to be an effective tester requires negotiation skills that would make most salespeople proud.

Reasons to be positive

Before you cry into your coffee in the realisation that you've actually been working in a sales role without realising it, there are some great take-aways from Pink's book that leave a lot of reasons to be positive.

  • Ambiverts make better salespeople - The belief that extroverts make the best salespeople is so ingrained in our expectations that it is rarely questioned - yet evidence suggests that it simply isn't the case. In actual fact there is a strong link between effectiveness at sales and level of extroversion, however the most successful level is in the middle - neither introvert nor extrovert. If you worry that to be effective at persuasion requires you to be the most gregarious character in the office - don't. Chances are if you're a tester who balances a strong analytical focus on detail with the ability to communicate with various stakeholders, you're probably better at selling than you think.

  • Salespeople with integrity are better - If we genuinely believe in the value of what we are selling then we negotiate on the basis of progressing towards a mutually beneficial outcome. Pink suggests shifting the focus from "selling" to "serving" and making sure that you believe that both parties will benefit from the transaction will result in you being a more effective salesperson.

These should be give us a lot of encouragement when it comes to 'selling' testing. To start with most testers I know fit solidly into the ambivert camp. Plus I'm confident that in the situations where I've negotiated for greater testability, or argued for the roll-back of a volatile change, then I'm striving to benefit both sides of the transaction. I'm not typically in the habit of just negotiating in my own interests or the interests of just the testers - it has always been from the position of trying to reduce risk and achieve the best outcome for everyone concerned. Just as a better salesperson who genuinely believes that what they are selling will benefit the customer, so as long as we believe in the value of our information and the decisions coming from it then we'll be better and more persuasive testers. If, however, our negotiations are purely geared towards the interests of our own roles or teams with no tangible benefit for anyone else (read this post for a great example) then we should consider ourselves no better than the stereotypical car salesman in a pie hat putting sawdust in the gearbox in order to flog a dying car.

Image: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Market_for_Lemons#/media/File:Kovacs_special_1968.JPG

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