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Do Sellers Really Understand How Businesses Work?

by David Brock on September 5th, 2022

I’ve been reflecting on projects I’ve been helping clients with over the past few years (in reality, I suspect I can trace it back further.) That coupled with conversations with hundreds of sellers and managers, I’ve come to a conclusion that even surprises me.

Before I wrote this, I had conversations with a number of colleagues, testing my premise. I had hoped they would prove me wrong. Sadly, they agreed with me.

The realization is, most sellers don’t really understand how businesses work.

They understand certain parts, for example they can work with their customers, say IT. They understand, somewhat, how IT works–or at least how they make purchase decisions. Some sales people can go beyond a price/budget consideration. They can look at how a solution can help IT goals, articulating some sort of value propositions to IT.

Others may work with end users, helping them address their challenges. For example, sales/marketing automation solutions can help improve productivity, helping drive performance/growth. So, the best sellers in these spaces can talk a little about sales/marketing productivity and performance.

But the real challenge, which very few do effectively, is connecting the dots to what it means to the customer’s enterprise. How does what we do with the functional/departmental groups impact the organization’s ability to meet it’s goals, execute the corporate strategies, and so forth?

Or they don’t know how to connect the dots to what the corporate strategies, priorities, and performance means to the functional group they are trying to get to buy.

Let me give some random examples, just to illustrate the point:

  1. Some years ago, I worked with a team selling a very large solutions (more than $10M) to a gigantic organization. They had worked with the users and execs of a small division. They had developed a good value proposition, outlining and quantifying the impact of that solution within the division. As they and the division execs went up the corporate food chain for approval, they were immediately rejected. They couldn’t understand, the justification within the division was powerful, but all group and corporate level execs wouldn’t approve. What we learned was, despite how strong the business case was within the division, the initiative didn’t align within any of the corporate priorities. The issue was, the only investments that were being approved were those with very strong business cases and which also contributed to the corporate strategies and priorities.
    1. There’s another lesson here, sometimes our customers don’t understand how the work they do contributes to the overall corporate strategies and goals. So while they might solve problems, save money, improve productivity, maybe even increase revenue; if they aren’t aligned with the overall organizational priorities, they won’t get approved. (As a sidenote, many organizations create OKRs which help their own people understand how to connect the dots between what they do and the priorities of the enterprise. If you don’t know what OKRs are, it’s an important business acumen principle.)
  2. A few years ago, I was working with another team. They were selling IT Solutions. They were struggling to get the customer to agree and move forward. They fit the budget, they solved some problems the organization had, but they struggled getting IT execs to prioritize this over the other projects they were considering. I asked, “Have you looked at their 10-K?” (I had done that and the need leapt out to me.) They looked at me quizzically, thinking, “Why do we care?” One senior seller actually asked, “What’s a 10-K?” When we walked through the 10-K, we learned the priorities of the corporate execs in driving growth (and some of the problems they were having in achieving their goals.) We went on to look at a few recent analyst presentations. In one presentation, we saw four charts that directly tied to the solution they were trying to get IT to implement. This presentation was given by the CEO and CFO to shareholders and analysts. Those 4 charts provided the ammunition my client needed to get IT to prioritize this initiative. They went to the CIO saying, “Here’s how this project directly impacts the priorities your CEO and CFO are sharing with investors….” They got the order, but never would have without looking at the overall business priorities, not just IT priorities.
    1. Again, customer priorities, sometimes aren’t aligned within the organization. Execs tend to prioritize what helps their organization the most, sometimes not realizing the impact outside their organization. Until we help them recognize this, we will not get an order regardless how hard we sell.
  3. Another client, had been working for two years on a solution. They just couldn’t get the user function to move forward with it. See the solution provided marginal benefit to the users, but it provided a massive value to a department supported by the user. I asked if they could get me an appointment with the top exec in that other department. In a 45 minute meeting with that exec, we outlined the problem they were having, the impact of the solution (which was massive), and the help we needed in moving forward. We had the executive of the original group with us, and he outlined the help he needed in justifying investing in the solution with his resources (which were critical). We got immediate approval to move ahead.
    1. Sometimes the biggest benefit/value to the organization is outside the group we are selling to. Getting their support is critical in accelerating the results we expect.
  4. A few months ago, I was giving a keynote to a large group of sellers. It had to do with value creation/delivery, understanding your customer, and, indirectly, business/financial acumen. I asked the audience of several hundred people to be honest in their responses, I asked managers to participate. The first question was, “How many of you have looked at the financials (10K, Proxy’s, Annual Reports, etc ) for one of your major accounts or as part of developing a deal strategy in the last 45 days?” Fewer than 10 people raised their hands. I asked, “How many of you have listened to an analyst briefing in the past 45 days?” No one raised their hands.
  5. More recently, I was working with a small team of people on an account strategy. We were trying to identify growth areas and divisions where they could expand the relationship. They had some sales enablement tools that provided them the “data/numbers” on performance, as well as narratives on customer priorities. So while the information was smacking them in the face, they couldn’t translate it into what it meant.
    1. “Understand, Don’t memorize. Learn principles, not formulas.” –Prof. Richard Feynman
    2. I am not as articulate as Dr. Feynman. Too often, we seek answers, but don’t understand how to figure the answers out. Our tools give us the data, or tell us the answers; but we don’t know what it means. And when the customer seeks to understand, we fail to help them.

I’ll stop here, sadly, there are too many examples of sellers being stumped because they don’t understand their customers, they don’t understand how businesses work, they can’t connect the dots between what the customer they are selling to is doing and the goals of the enterprise.

The other day, I wrote a post about Sales Enablement, Upping The Game. I’m shocked by the number of sales enablement organizations that offer the best training and tools about products. They offer the best training and tools on selling. I’ve found very few that provide basic business and financial acumen training.

Until we understand how businesses work, we are selling with one hand tied behind our backs.

Afterword: I’m writing a series on this topic and “systems thinking in selling.” So I’ll be diving into it much more deeply in the coming couple of weeks. Look forward to your comments and discussion!

Afterword: For those that want to follow the Business Acumen/Systems Thinking series, click on the link for the collection.

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