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Imagine this. Your sales team just landed an introductory meeting with a huge potential client — a client that could easily increase your annual revenue by 25 percent if you land the deal. How do they prepare?

The first thing the sales team does is learn everything they can about the potential client. They do research, gathering intel on the client's current performance and looking for insight on their vulnerabilities. If they already have a relationship with the company, they milk it for all its worth. Then, the sales team makes their case: How will their product drive the client's business by increasing revenue, reducing expense or improving market share? Unless the team can drive the client's business forward, the client won't give the deal the time of day.

Why should HR — or any overhead department for that matter — approach work any differently? We in HR have been lulled into a false sense of security: Our clients need us to keep them out of trouble and prevent leaders from doing anything stupid. But that mindset isn't working anymore.

HR is under intense fire for being bureaucraticirrelevant and dispensable. New disciplines like Six SigmaLEANproject management and change leadership are getting in front of the executive suite because they have proven techniques to improve human performance — and therefore drive business. Meanwhile, HR is chasing after managers who are not complying with rules, policies and deadlines.

No wonder the business media is condemning HR and calling us irrelevant.

In order to demonstrate our business value, it's time for HR professionals to take a page from the sales team. By treating our work as if we were selling it to our customers, we can learn how to drive business forward. Here, four key lessons HR can take from sales:

1) Understand the Client

Organizations today are overflowing with data and business intelligence. An internal HR team is far more informed than an external agency, because we have access to both quantitative and qualitative data. Use it.

Assess your company's business performance, leadership skills, risk, workforce and pain points (the areas where business leaders are uncertain about how best to improve). We in HR knows that business improvement will come with improving human performance, but we need to communicate to leadership that their time and energy spent on talent will pay off in business results.

2) Put a (Business) Stake in the Ground

This is where HR can use the wealth of empirical data to draw a clear line between human performance (e.g., engagement, turnover, etc.) and business results. But first, you have to put the proverbial stake in the ground with your customer and show that you have a solution to fix their problem.

Don't try to explain that research shows over 70 percent of workers are disengaged until you have gotten leadership's attention and convinced them that your end game is to improve business performance. Otherwise your argument will sound like a lot of pyscho-babble and work they don't want to do.

3) Define the Products

Everything HR asks the workforce or leadership to do comes down to a product or service. With each product or service, HR can conduct a strong needs assessment, gather data and propose a solution. Don't be tempted to short circuit getting the client to commit to a new product or service — define exactly what you need.

4) Build a Joint Commitment

Any good sales person knows that the effectiveness of their product relies not only on the product, but also on how the client uses the product. Once you have the client's attention and they are excited about the possibilities, it is time to propose the work required — on both sides — and gain commitment to the project (e.g., a mentorship program, a new applicant tracking system, etc.).

If they aren't willing to do the work, you need to be willing to walk away and come back with a better case. More often than not, after the leadership thinks about it and realizes there is value in what you are saying, they will come back to you.

By learning these four pillars of good sales work, HR can reignite the industry and demonstrate both how and why talent management is critical to business success.

Photo: Creative Commons