The Roberto Selbach Chronicles

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Why do Salespeople Believe in Magic?

File this one under techies complaining about non-techies. Over the years, I have noticed a pattern with salespeople, they have a firm belief in wishful thinking. They honestly believe that wishing something to be true will magically make it so.


The specific pattern I noticed many a time goes something like this.

The customer wants something done and goes through their account manager to request that. The account manager — a fancy name for salesperson — commits to a date without talking to the developer first. They then go to the developer and tell her something to the effect of “yeah, I’m going to need that by Friday morning.” The exasperated developer explains that this is not feasible and the account manager responds by simply repeating that they will need it by Friday. They usually leave at this point satisfied that everything is fine.

Come Friday, the account manager is then horrified to discover that the feature is not ready. “But we made a commitment with the customer,” they’ll say, emphasizing the “we” that never was.

This has happened some many times in my career that I should no longer be surprise and yet I still do. Every time.

Of course, what they are really doing is trying to put pressure on the developers so that they will hurry up and deliver on the desired timeframe. And to be fair, it can sometimes work, but if the developer tells them in no uncertain terms that the deadline is not feasible, then the salesperson is taking the risk by herself.

By committing to a date with the customer before talking to the developer, the salesperson has already taken a big risk. They will then try to spread that risk by sharing it with the developer. Since the developer never had a chance to agree with that in the first place, it is only fair that she should be able to refuse to take the risk if she doesn’t believe it is worth it. Why should she?

And yet, we developers often accept the risk by being passive and simply accepting it. This problem can be exacerbated by managers who are also passive. Many years ago I worked at a company where the engineering power that be were submissive to the sales department, which led to some of the worst experiences in my life as a developer, including the Project From Hell.

At the time, I led the engineering services group, so whenever a new project came about that required software development, it had to go through me for analysis. Another group leader analysed the infrastructure projects. Then one day this large project showed up on my desk. I looked over it along with the infrastructure guy and we agreed that it was a monster of a project, including developing a huge distributed nationwide (Brazil) infrastructure, a huge system developed from scratch, and a lot of technology transfer and end-user training.

The project had some timeframes attached to it and although they were tight, they were not what immediately caught out eyes. We saw the pricing they were offering the customer and it was clear to us that it was low. We raised the issue but were told not to worry about it. There are valid business reasons to do projects at a loss sometimes, so it was okay, except the exact wording to us was, “please limit yourselves to your little expertise sphere.” Ok then.

We talked to our teams and we committed to the dates defined in the project documentation. Again, it was a little tight but feasible: we would have many months to get things ready for initial deployment.

About a week after we approved the statement of work, I received a call from the customer. At this point, I had not yet engaged the customer at all, so they had gotten my phone number from their sales rep. The customer was possessed. This person I had never talked to before was shouting at me on the phone that we were late. It took me a while to call him down and understand what the issue was.

As it turns out, the sales team, in an effort to get the customer’s signatures before the end of the quarter, changed the statement of work after we had gone through it, moving the dates to right that very moment. We had not even started working on the project yet and the customer was expecting it to be ready right then. We were late before we even started.

Many stressful meetings later we managed to agree on some new dates, but they were much tighter than the ones originally in the statement of work and would required us to outsource parts of the project to a contractor to help speed up things. Incidentally, what we paid the contractor for only a part of the project was more than what our company made on the project. All because the sales team wanted to make sure they got their commission in that quarter.

The people responsible would eventually be let go of the company, in great part due to this, but that did not prevent the company from losing at least an order of magnitude more than what it made from that project.

And still, I continue to see salespeople ignoring the developers and then trying to share the fallout. Developers need to stand firmly by their professional evaluations of deadlines and technical feasibilities.

Of course, if you turn out to be wrong, all of this is moot.