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Customers Aren’t Widgets

by David Brock on December 4th, 2016

I’ve always thought sales is more science than art.  I believe selling is a set of disciplined processes, many of which can be “engineered” to optimize our ability to engage the right customers/prospects, with the right conversations, at the right time.

Whether it’s a recruiting/onboarding process, talent management/people development, account/territory management, opportunity/deal management, pipeline/forecasting, prospecting, time management, performance management, defining/communicating/delivering value, and on and on; driving performance and more predictable outcomes is a what all modern sales professionals and leaders can achieve.

We develop these by with strong, purposeful strategies, based on deep understanding of customers and what is most effective in developing and growing relationships with them.  We develop these by identifying those things we must do to consistently produce results for our customers, our organizations, and the people in both the customer and our organizations.

We’ve seen individuals and organizations not doing these things in consistent, systematic, disciplined ways fail.

In recent years we’ve increasingly leveraged technology, both to improve productivity, but to automate as much of these processes as we can.  Even to the point that some commoditized or repeat buys are completely automated on the customer and supplier sides.  We are starting to see the capabilities of AI (I prefer the Augmented Intelligence descriptor to the Artificial Intelligence descriptor) enabling us to do even more in all areas of sales and marketing.

However, we are repeatedly see descriptions of selling becoming more like that of a manufacturing line–input a prospect at the beginning of the process, move them step by step through our sales machine, and at the end we spit out a paying customer.

We’ve developed predictable models of moving these customers through the process in very high volumes/velocity.  Disciplined inbound/outbound programs, SDRs to AE to Demo to someone else to Proposal to Close to Customer Success Teams.  One begins to see images of assembly lines with customers on a conveyor belt moving from station to station.

The problem is, customers are not widgets.

Each individual is different.  While they may hold similar jobs in similar companies, they are individuals with differing dreams, aspirations, fears.  Their companies are different, even though they may be head to head competitors, each company has a different culture, differing strategies, differing priorities.  How things get done in each is different.  Buying groups are different–independent of any vendor interaction, they struggle among themselves and within their own organizations.  Too often their projects or buying journeys end in nothing being done.

For those of you with strong manufacturing/agile backgrounds, we call this variability–and high variability is the killer of efficient and predictable processes.

Perhaps the most subtly arrogant assumption of this assembly line mentality is that we are in control.  The customer is in control, and always has been.  They have their own processes they must undertake.  To be successful, we have to align with their process, not force them through our factory.

For complex B2B customer buying processes, they are, very often, they are ugly and unpredictable.  They often end in failure or abandonment.  Increasingly, more people are involved–according to the CEB, it’s now at 6.8.  In complex B2B buying processes, it’s easy to understand this challenge–they probably don’t buy frequently so they don’t know how to buy, the buying process is a diversion from their day jobs, and there are a lot of people with different priorities/interests.  Even professional buyers struggle with these issues within their own organizations.

Layer on top of this, things change as they go through their buying process, people may change, priorities may change, needs/requirements may change.

And it’s different from customer to customer, situation to situation.

Then finally, these buyers are people, not objects.  They don’t necessarily behave rationally, they have ambitions, fears, ugly unpredictable things called emotions.  They may be concerned with things entirely outside the buying decison (a kid’s soccer game, putting away money for a college fund), but which impact them in the process.  Things like trust, relationships come into play.

All this adds on to the variability–the enemy of this manufacturing line orientation to selling.

Fortunately, our manufacturing colleagues have already seen much of this in dealing with inanimate objects.  They’ve seen in some processes variability can’t be predicted or eliminated.  They’ve developed highly adaptive and agile processes.

Rather than objects going down the assembly line with each station doing it’s function (e.g. get a meeting, do the discovery, do a demo(hopefully related to the discovery), present a proposal, ask for the order….), they look at the process differently.  Things like clustered work cells, where teams work together accomplishing multiple tasks and able to respond to changes/variability in real time–widget by widget.  In manufacturing, they’ve focused on developing workers skills to understand and solve problems, to think critically, to leverage teams to address these challenges.

One of the key things these manufacturers have learned is you have to put the authority to making decisions about how to address problems on the manufacturing floor, with the people dealing with the issues.  Having to always go up the food chain to gain approval destroys productivity, increases expense, increases waste, and decreases quality.

We can learn a lot from these techniques, incorporating concepts of adaptability, agility, collaboration, real time problem solving, and delegating decisionnmaking  into our engagement with customers.

Just as smart manufacturing executives have, done, we can invest in hiring people with these capabilities, providing skills around critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration.  We can trust our people to make the right decisions in real time.

But there will always be that wonderful gap.  The single thing that makes selling the most exciting profession in the world.

Customers aren’t inanimate objects.  They aren’t widgets.  They’re people!

We and they have all the quirks, insecurities, imperfections that make each person unique.  We change our minds, we aren’t logical (as Mr. Spock discovered decades ago).  The more of us that get together on a project, the more challenging it is in managing the various agendas, priorities, and perspectives.

We can systematize many things.  We can become more efficient and more effective.

In the end, the wonderful thing about selling is it’s people dealing with people!  Think of the poor folks in manufacturing that are just dealing with widgets.


  1. Martin Schmalenbach permalink

    As ever, a thought-provoking post Dave!

    My first job was working in my grandfather’s fish shop by day, selling fish and other sea food products – a people business. After lunch there was little activity, but we still stayed open – and that’s when relationships with other local businesses were made & cultivated – apparently by playing cards and drinking whiskey out the back of the shop, and smoking… I was 15 going on 16 at the time…

    By night at weekends aged 16 I also worked in a local night club collecting empty/dirty glasses and washing hem up – again, a people business, navigating carefully the hordes of very drunk customers, and trying not to be anywhere near the odd fight that always broke out.

    But my first professional career was as a design engineer and then production engineer, and some time later, a consultant in process improvements – Six Sigma and all that stuff.

    It struck me, reading the end of your post Dave, about learning from the process world, one aspect being to put the decision making as close to the place where the real stuff happens, and not rely on pushing decisions up the food chain etc.

    I agree.

    BUT… making decisions about widgets, and stopping the line due to a quality issue, by people who are typically not individually commissioned, nor exposed to the wonderful mindgames of the customer or procurement officer is not quite the same as being a sales person and having a lot of authority to do various things… AND being exposed to such pressures and influences.

    The one thing customers want sales people to have the authority to do is reduce prices. The one thing you don’t want to have happen as a supplier is have your sales people dropping prices all over the place in order to secure the business…. and their commission check, they thinking that something (reduced price & commission) is better than nothing (losing the business at full margin)…

    So we have to be careful what authority we do give to the folks on the front line… for example, another non-no is authority to extend credit terms beyond the standard the company has… too too many sales people just don’t have enough business acumen to know how dangerous this can be – or maybe they do and they just don’t care… especially when turnover of sales people is so fast…

    And yes, customers are messy. They do change their minds – heck, the whole point of ‘selling’ in the minds of many is to change the customer’s minds so they buy what you have, and they buy it from you…

    Perhaps that’s the problem – the mindset around ‘selling’…?

    If your singular focus is on creating as much value as possible with the client, and your approach to this is to always be talking (2-way conversation!) with the decision makers and key influencers about what THEY care about, then the only process you need is an unchanging one – that brings structure and discipline to getting the attention of these key players, building curiosity in their minds, and tension around the need to change and change now, and a framework of discipline around driving the client through their decision making process step by step – asking for & getting commitments to action & progress with you as partner…

    The beauty of this? Nothing about these processes is industry or product-specific, or culture-specific, as we have been finding out as we implement this approach with out 1300 field sales folks around the world. It’s a lot easier to learn & memorise than learning about our 40,000 SKUs! And clients prefer the conversations that arise from it… and tend to pay higher average selling prices – everybody wins!

    What has been interesting to see is as we bring the 250 or so sales folks from our most recent large acquisition, in to the wider field operation we have, these new additions to our family have been incredibly active applying this new approach – they didn’t have a sales process or framework before, and had the usual struggles around pricing, margin etc which ultimately made their company vulnerable to being acquired…

    But now they have a repeatable way to create value with the client, and get full margin… and they enjoy having these conversations with clients… who in turn enjoy the increased value being created…

    So yes, have some process, but not too much, and focus it in those few areas that really count and really benefit from it – leave the rest to the judgement and personality of the sales person, where they can bring their unique experiences and creativity to bear…

    • Martin, your comments are always so thought provoking – and cover so much. We can take many of the principles from lean/agile into sales, but we need to adjust them.

      1. I do believe in pushing as much authority as low in the organization as possible. But this doesn’t mean for all decisions. For example, a sales person should be empowered to offer certain standard price concessions, based on certain criteria. Before doing this, I would make sure the sales person was well trained in selling and defending value. I might also measure the sales person on some sort of margin. As on the manufacturing line, there are certain things the workers can’t do, but need to involve other levels.
      2. We do need to empower sales people to get the information/resources they need to support their efforts. Too often, we restrict that, both slowing them down and adding huge work to their efforts.
      3. The manufacturing analogy breaks down in these descriptions and in designing processes because of the very high variability that will always exist with each human being, each deal, at each point of engagement. But the processes are still hugely powerful, in keeping us going more in the right directions than wrong directions. I like to think of processes kind of like a road with curbs on either side. The road keeps us going in the right direction, but we are free to wander all over the road, keeping between the curbs.
      4. Perhaps, I made my point weakly, but the real issue, I was focusing on is the propensity I see in too many organizations. That is to ascribe near absolute precision to each step in the sales process, losing the humanity of it–that we are not dealing with inanimate objects, forcing them to fit a certain prescribed set or processes, but that we are dealing with human beings.

      Thanks so much, your comments always make me think–even if their origins are somewhat fishy (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself, I read that in the opening line and thought I have to leverage it in some way–you know my terribly perverse humour) Regards, Dave

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