When you think about it, sales people have an awesome amount of freedom–but also a huge amount of personal responsibility. In many senses, we really are entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs run their own businesses. They have goals, translated both to financial (revenue, earnings, growth), and strategic (share, market visibility, brand reputation, etc.) They develop strategies and plans to achieve their goals, invest in resources (people, facilities, capital, etc.) to execute the plans.
Great entrepreneurs are relentless, driven, disciplined and focused. They make no personal excuses, and focus on optimizing the deployment of resources and performance within their organizations.
Being an entrepreneur gives one a great source of freedom, great accountability (which great entrepreneurs revel in), and responsibility. Success or failure is really in the hands of the entrepreneur.
Sales is a lot like this. Whether one works for a large or small company, we are given relatively large amounts of autonomy. Our companies entrust us with a “patch.” It could be an account, collection of accounts, industry segment, or geographic territory.
It’s up to us to maximize the results produced in that territory. Yes, our companies give us quotas and goals, but like great entrepreneurs, we really want to maximize our penetration, share, growth in the territory.
Our companies also entrust us with resources to leverage in producing results. They may be pre-sales specialists, support people, marketing people (with programs), customer service and others. They also provide us tools, programs, and other resources we can deploy as part of our plans and strategies. We have to use these resources well to maximize our achievement in the territory.
While our companies may provide us various levels of “guidance,” about our strategies for growing the territory and maximizing our results, it really is our job to figure it out. It’s our job to develop the strategies and plans, lead the execution to produce the best results.
Finally, and perhaps best, to customers, we really are “the company.” While we may have armies of people supporting us, we are the face and voice of the company. We are the people they work with everyday. We are the people they are entrusting to help them achieve their goals. We are the people accountable for the commitments our organization makes.
Within our “patches,” or territories, we are the company. We are the entrepreneurs running our companies and maximizing our abilities to achieve our goals.
Can you think of anything more fun or challenging? (At least business wise.)
It’s critical that we differentiate our offerings and solutions from the alternatives the customer is considering. Marketing, product management, and sales all spend endless hours trying to figure out that differentiation, to create that edge. But too often we get it wrong.
We focus on unique features and functions of our products, how our approach is different and better. About a year ago, someone shared a differentiation document their product management team had put together. It was 200 pages. It went through each screen and each field of their software product. It had very valuable tips like, “The way the customer enters the date field is very different than the way it’s done by our competition.” or “The drop down box in this field provides the customer easy and consistent choices……, versus our competition which has a text entry box only….”
You can imagine a 200 page document filled with these “critical differentiators.” Surely, all we have to do is drop a copy of this on the customer’s desk, and they will be driven to issue a PO.
Or we seek to be unique, “We’re the only company in the world that allows you to enter all your data in Hex!” But who cares!
For differentiation or uniqueness to be valuable (remember, we are all about creating value for our customers), it has to be relevant! If the customer doesn’t care about it, or it’s unimportant to what they are trying to achieve, our attempts at differentiation only waste their time and aggravate them.
Until we understand what the customer values, until we understand what they are trying to achieve we can’t begin to determine our differentiation or uniqueness. Because, what each customer values is different! Once we understand this, we can determine the differentiators or areas of uniqueness that are relevant and create greater value to the customer.
So stop wasting your time creating endless lists of how you are different. It’s meaningless. Tell your marketing and product management people they can be spending their time more productively than putting together tomes on the finest points of differentiation.
Invest your time in understanding what your customer values. Then look at the areas of differentiation that are most relevant and add value.
Above all, never forget, the most sustainable area of differentiation is created by sales. It’s the value we create in engaging the customer and guiding them through their buying process!
The other day I was having a conversation with someone. He asked a very intriguing question, “Why do you do what you do?” He was referring to my businesses and how I work.
It got me to thinking, we each need to reflect periodically about the choices we make in our lives and careers. It’s easy to get distracted by all the activities and the sheer momentum of work, but if we don’t reflect periodically, we lose our ways. As a result, our effectiveness plummets. We start putting in the hours, but they have no meaning and it becomes work–drudgery.
Why do you sell?
The easy answer is, “to make money,” but that doesn’t really answer the question. There are plenty of other thing we can do to make money. Honestly, there are plenty of other choices to make lots of money.
Selling is tough, when you think about it, the money, however good it might be, is not enough to cause us to sell year after year after year.
So there has to be more to why we sell than just the money.
Here are some thoughts:
The sheer diversity of what we do and who we work with. Each customer and situation is different. We meet dozens to hundreds to thousands of new people every year, each facing different challenges. Every day is different, every customer is different. No chance of ever getting bored.
It’s very entrepreneurial. Our companies give us accounts and territories, saying, “Maximize our share in the territory.” It’s up to us to figure it out. We leverage resources to help us do it, but in a sense, it’s our own little business to build.
The accountability! It’s been said many time, “Nothing happens until someone sells something.” Our companies are dependent on our ability to sell. Likewise, we have an accountability to our customers, they are putting their futures in our hands.
It’s like figuring out a puzzle. Trying to figure out what is happening with the customer, trying to figure out what it takes to win.
It’s creative. Figuring things out, developing a strategy, executing it, creating a solution, no situation is the same.
The competition is exhilarating. Getting the customer to choose you above all other alternatives. Winning is great, but the competition is exhilarating. If we lose, it forces us to come back stronger the next time.
What else can you do that enables you to build so many deep, interesting relationships?
Having people bet on you and trust you! When you win, people put their destinies and that of their companies in your hands. If you recommended the wrong thing, they won’t achieve their goals. In some cases, they may lose their jobs, the companies may falter.
For me, the biggest reward is the ability to contribute–to Make A Difference–or to have an impact. To see people and organizations change, achieve their goals, their dreams, to produce results they couldn’t have with any other solution.
Money is nice, it’s one measure of success, but there’s so much more.
Why do you sell?
Sales people seem to be obsessed with negotiation. They read books, they take all sorts of classes, they strategize “negotiation” sessions. Oddly, when I push on the negotiation issue, most negotiations that sales people focus on is about price.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been involved in a lot of very complex negotiations for very complex deals and projects. Price is always an element, but there are a whole number of other elements–actually usually focused on ensuring each party has thought through things and is committed to shared success. There are lots of scenarios that require very complex negotiations, but for most of us, our “negotiations” don’t fall into this category. But sales people obsess over the negotiation–and it’s really an obsession about price. I’ve never quite gotten it.
I think one of the reasons we obsess over negotiation, is that we have set ourselves up for tough negotiations long before anybody steps up to the table. We leave the customer and ourselves with nothing to talk about but price. We leave our customer in the position that the only differentiation between alternatives is price. Our customer is indifferent to the solution.
And it’s our failure that puts both the customer and us in that position.
We do this by not creating and quantifying a high value to the outcomes the customer is trying to achieve. In the selling process we’ve focused on convincing the customer about our product/solution, not the business results they achieve of the business results they would forego by not making a change.
We’ve failed to differentiate our offerings from the competition. Sure our product has a few more features and functions and we’ve made sure to remind the customer constantly about those. But we’ve failed to demonstrate how our solution can help the customer achieve things they could not achieve with any other solution. We haven’t even gotten to the discussion that the competition “claims” to produce the same outcomes, because we continue to focus on differentiating the product. We haven’t differentiated the outcomes or the customer’s ability to achieve those outcomes with anyone but us.
We’ve failed to provide leadership through the customer’s buying process. Challenging them, getting them to think differently, helping them understand issues they may not of have considered, ask questions they may not have been aware of, helping them understand what they don’t know, helping them identify potential problems and avoid them. We haven’t made ourselves indispensable in their buying process, instead becoming easily substituted in the implementation.
By failing to do the right things and get the customer to focus on the right things through the buying process, we arrive at the negotiating table with little to talk about–but price. Each alternative is perceived as roughly the same, one vendor blends into the other, rather than standing out. The only way to choose is price.
It’s not the customer’s job to do this stuff. It’s our job! If we don’t, we set ourselves up for potential failure, or at least have an outcome that is less than what we want.
Win-win is critical in negotiation. But we don’t create win-win at the negotiation table, we create it long before. When we sit down at the table, the customer knows they can’t achieve their desired outcomes without us–no alternative comes close. They customer knows the business results they will receive–quantitatively and qualitatively. The customer know that every hour or day spent in “negotiation” (by this I mean quibbling over price), the defer their ability to achieve those results—or worst, put it at risk. What else is there to do but sign the agreement and move forward to produce the results?
Now, I can hear the shouts, “But Dave, you are being naïve and unrealistic, we have to negotiate, we have to arrive at agreement.”
Absolutely! But hopefully, we’ve been building that agreement through the whole buying process. Hopefully we have shared agreement on the desired outcomes. Hopefully, we’ve identified the risks and challenges together, developing an implementation plan that addresses those. Hopefully, we’ve identified and addressed all the issues that impact our ability to achieve shared success. These are all critical, but they really need to be solved before we get to the negotiation table.
But you’re still saying, “Dave, you are being naïve about price!”
Well if we’ve done our job, we can look the customer in the eye and state, “Do you mean that you want to defer your ability to produce the results you expect, to put your ability to achieve them at risk, in order to save a few dollars?” Last week, I coached a sales person in a small negotiation, but nonetheless important. She had done a great job in understanding and articulating the business value. Likewise, she created compelling differentiation–the customer really wanted her solution. The negotiation was very simple, she made the statement, “Do you want to defer your ability to save $14,400 a year for the next several years, as well as meet your project deadlines to save $186 for my product?” You know the outcome.
Negotiations can be very difficult. Price is an element of every negotiation. But don’t make it more difficult than it need be. Make sure you are doing the right things with your customer far in advance of sitting down at the table.
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.