Breaking Conventional Sales Rules

Malcolm McLean, son of a North Carolina farmer, began his career humbly with the $120 purchase of a pick-up truck in 1934. He and his brother and sister hauled farm products of their native North Carolina up to the ports in New York and New Jersey, where the cargo was then loaded onto great ships. By the end of his career, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation would call him, “A true giant,” and write, “We owe so much to a man of vision;” all because he allowed himself to think outside the rules.

It happened one afternoon in 1937, when McLean delivered a load of cotton bales to a port in Hoboken, New Jersey. As he sat and watched the longshoremen unpack the trucks and load the cargo box by box onto the ship, an idea struck him. What if the trucks didn’t have to be unpacked until they reached their final destination? The longshoremen’s process of loading and unloading was expensive and time-consuming, and happened at least twice: at the departure port and the arrival port, where the cargo was again unpacked from the ship, loaded onto a truck, and driven to its final destination. Instead, McLean, thought, what if the entire body of the truck was lifted off its chassis at the port, onto the ship, and replaced onto a new truck at the arrival port?

McLean’s idea challenged a standing rule of his industry – that longshoremen were necessary for the efficient transportation of goods. When he finally brought his idea to fruition, almost 20 years later, it transformed the shipping industry. By 1966, his company, Sea-Land Services, boasted the world’s largest fleet of container ships, had over 18,000 containers in service, and served 22 ports around the world. The containers shared between trucks and ships revolutionized the way goods were transported by dramatically reducing time and money spent loading and reloading goods.

By breaking that rule McLean built an empire and transformed not only global transportation but also manufacturing. By making transportation so cheap, companies were able to build factories where labor was cheap, as well. In fact, it’s possible McLean’s empire was built because that rule was in place, presenting an opportunity. Sales organizations can follow McLean’s lead: not all rules are meant to be followed, and some are even meant to be broken. When your team hits a wall during a brainstorming session, consider breaking the wall.

There are three major types of constraints: operating rules, procedural rules, and accepted truths.

  1. Operating Rules. These rules are core to the survival and operations of the business. For example, an insurance company might have operating rules about financial and actuarial requirements. These aren’t the rules that are healthy to break.
  2. Procedural Rules. These rules govern the supporting processes of the business. For the insurance company, they would include how the claims administration process works, and how they interface with their customers who make claims for property losses. While these rules are essential, they can also be broken carefully if breaking them improves the company’s capabilities.
  3. Accepted Truths. Many sales organizations have accepted truths about what works in their business. These are different from operating and procedural rules, which are well-established with a specific purpose behind them. Accepted truths, in comparison, are habits and practices a company has “because that’s the way it’s always been done,” regardless of whether there is logic to support it.

These practices are legacies; pseudo-rules that have been created informally over time. They’re often limiting for the sales organization and ripe for breaking. Disrupting these legacies are great opportunities for differentiation. Question what’s accepted with the eyes of someone new to the company, or even new to the industry. Ask “why?”

When considering whether or not to break a rule, remember operating rules are usually mission-critical to the business, procedural rules are about how the business functions through various processes, and accepted truths are those legacy constraints that have become well-worn and believed by many people over time. When brainstorming with your own team, ask questions to determine which type of rule is in your way. Can it be broken? Can it be bent?

Be a rebel. Know your internal and customer rules, classify them, and then break them to see what possibilities are revealed.


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