Sales Tribalism: What It Looks Like and Why It’s Dangerous

Blake Bartlett, Partner by

After being a VC for the last 10 years, I’ve learned about VC etiquette by trial-and-error. In addition to religion and politics, I’ve learned that it’s not polite to talk about sales amongst a group of founders. Most people have a rather dogmatic point of view on the “right way” to do sales. And dogma doesn’t make for good dinner conversation.

Dogma and tribalism go hand-in-hand. If you ascribe to certain dogma, you want to hang out with others who share your dogma. If you gather enough followers of your dogma, then you have yourself a tribe. And the tribe isn’t content to merely uphold its own dogma in isolation. That wouldn’t be powerful enough. It has to be better than all the other dogmas out there. It’s us versus them. Tribe against tribe in a fight to the death.

Let’s look at three of the most popular sales tribes:

The “Enterprise Sales is King” Tribe

  • Tribe vibe: Sales is war. Each deal is a battle.
  • Key tribe members: The sales team is an army. The VP Sales is the general. The competitors are the enemies. Underperforming sales reps are dead weight and should be left behind so the army can advance and take more territory.
  • Tribe’s view of product: Product features and releases are merely arrows in my quiver. It doesn’t matter what the product is actually capable of, because I’m going to sell the vision. Whatever it takes to beat the enemy in this battle.
  • Tribe’s view of engineers: You mean the techies?
  • Tribe’s view of marketing: Arts & crafts
  • Key opposing tribe: The “Inside Sales is Eating the World” Tribe.
  • View of key opposing tribe: Inside sales is for kids.

The “Inside Sales is Eating the World” Tribe

  • Tribe vibe: Work hard, play hard! Turn up the volume on the sales floor and let’s ring the gong, bro.
  • Key tribe members: The sales team is a sports team slash fraternity. VP Sales is your coach slash hype man. Sales reps are your teammates slash fraternity brothers (and token sister!). SDRs are pledges.
  • Tribe’s view of product: The product is what I demo 5-10x per day.
  • Tribe’s view of engineers: The guys down on the quiet floor who fuel my demos.
  • Tribe’s view of marketing: Demand gen – give my pod those MQLs, baby!
  • Key opposing tribe: The “Enterprise Sales Is King” Tribe.
  • View of key opposing tribe: Enterprise sales is for bag-carrying, blazer-wearing, golf-playing, steak-eating, old guys.

The “Sales is Evil” Tribe

  • Tribe vibe: We’ll increase customer acquisition and conversion after we ship product. Can we talk once the team has finished our current sprint? I’ll put it in my backlog.
  • Key tribe members: Anyone with “growth” or “product” in their title.
  • Tribe’s view of product: What else is there?
  • Tribe’s view of engineers: BFFs
  • Tribe’s view of marketing: Word of mouth is the only good channel. Content is a necessary evil. Paid acquisition is a crutch.
  • Key opposing tribe: Anyone who does sales.
  • View of key opposing tribe: Sales is sleazy, outdated and unnecessary. You should try making something people want.

I’m using hyperbole to prove a point. I encourage you to be honest with yourself and ask if any of these descriptions hits a little too close to home. If one of them rubbed you the wrong way, maybe you or your company are trending in that direction.

It doesn’t matter which tribe you belong to. They’re all bad. Not because they have wrong ideas or flawed strategies. Tribalism itself is bad. Proving the other tribes wrong becomes more important than learning from other successful people. The reality is that no single go-to-market strategy is always the right answer for all companies at all stages. The right answer is always going to be some kind of hybrid strategy – the trick is figuring out what kind of hybrid strategy is right for your business in its current stage. And don’t get too attached, because you’ll need to revisit your strategy again before long.

A good business is always learning and evolving. A good tribe member is not. Leave the tribe behind and join the rest of us open-minded truth-seekers on the never-ending journey of evolving into a better business.

  • johncousineau

    Blake: brilliantly put. The antidote to the dogma + tribalism you note? Humility + curiosity. IMO, there’s an enormous role for hard evidence of the need for more of both.

    The sales profession is ripe with folks who *know* what works. Who lack the humility to admit better might be possible. Who lack the curiosity to see if better might be possible. To them, hard evidence of what’s working and what isn’t is merely flawed evidence of what they know to be true.

    By contrast, to the humble + curious are going the rewards. Of continuously improving results. From continuously improving practices. Here’s to the open-minded truth seeking that you’re championing. It’s a whole new ballgame. – John

  • Chris Beall

    Blake: Couldn’t agree more. Tribalism takes root quickly everywhere, but sales (and marketing) seems to provide the most fertile ground for it. There are lots of reasons for this, but three that stand out to me are:
    1. Results are inherently varied and generally delayed, so the relationship between cause and effect is hard to establish, even for honest, curious people. For someone whose living depends on taking credit for any lucky outcome, science takes a back seat to survival. The tribe’s religious answers translate easily to “our tribe is getting it done – no matter what the facts say” – definitely good for survival.
    2. Sales doesn’t exactly recruit from the sciences. Not that the sciences, or math for that matter, are immune to tribes and religious thinking; but at least they are formally founded on curiosity and respect for facts.
    3. Sales results are usually tracked and reported in time units that have exactly zero correspondence to how things actually happen. Watching sales teams use monthly, quarterly and annual numbers to try to figure out how approaches, actions and events relate to results is like watching someone trying to time an Indy car with an hourglass. There’s a lot of room for just making up answers – so why not use my tribe’s canned answers?

    As John Cousineau says, the antidote is humility and curiosity. One thing that can help is to team sell even when efficiency suggests otherwise. Throwing folks from all three tribes into the foxhole together with the goal of winning “this one”, and letting the roles blur a bit while folks walk in each others shoes, sounds chaotic; but there are benefits that come from getting that “survival” feeling from winning, not being right; to broadening the team to include techies (who must be allowed to talk) and blazer-and-golf types; and to fitting the measurements into “deal time” rather than the compensation calendar.

    Tribalism will always arise, but teams can sometimes be functional substitutes for tribes – and less likely to be quite as dogmatic.