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What Did You Sell That For?

by David Brock on August 31st, 2012

As a preface, I have to confess to a little frustration and some venting.  Too often, when I speak to sales people and ask them about what they sell and their customers, I pose the question, “What did you sell that for?”  The responses, while logical, are frustrating.  Often, the sales person responds with “That was a $ 1 million deal,” or something indicating the order size or revenue.  Alternatively, they respond with the product they sold, “The customer was looking to buy some new software and chose our solution,” or “They wanted to buy this piece of equipment, and I sold them ours.”

Just yesterday, I spoke to a sales person.  He had made a very large sale of a software system  (somehow).  I asked him, “What did you selll that for?”  He looked at me, wondering why I’d ever ask that question, but was patient and responded, “This is what our system does,”  describing the features of the system.  To me, it was meaningless that it allowed people to enter transactions on a Smart Phone, what I wanted to know is what result it produced for the person using the system, how it helped them better serve their customers, improve their operations, and so forth.  When I challenged him with these questions, he shrugged his shoulders, saying, “I don’t know that.  The customer was looking for a system that enabled transactions on a smart phone, thats’ what I sold them.

This isn’t unusual, time after time, in responding to my query, sales people can only describe what they sold.  In the end I’m frustrated, I still don’t know “What they sold if for?”

“What did you sell that for” really focuses on what the customer is trying to achieve, the problem they are trying to solve, the result they are trying to produce.  Thinking back to the old story–customers don’t want to buy drills, they have a need to create a hole in a wall and the drill provides them a solution to creating holes in the wall.

Too often, I think we engage the customer and respond to them without really understanding what we are selling our solution for.   Part of the challenge is we’ve trained our customers too well.  To often, our first contacts with customer focus on what we sell.  A customer may contact us saying, “we need to buy a new financial system,”  or “we need to buy this or that.”  They are good enough to present what they want in terms of what we sell. 

And naturally, we respond.  We may ask a few questions about their needs and priorities, how they will make the decision, the alternatives they may be considering.  But the conversation is all about what we are selling, and seldom really explores what the customer needs to buy.

The web makes this even more difficult, customers do research, they determine what they want to buy, then they engage sellers to determine which one they will buy.  The subsequent discussions focus on what we sell.

I think we lose a lot of opportunity.  It’s critical that we know the answer to the question, “What are we selling this for?”  If we don’t know what the customer is trying to achieve.  If we don’t understand their goals, if we don’t provide them leadership in improving their business, we are just vendors. 

If we don’t know what we are selling something for, it’s impossible for us to defend our value–whether it’s differentiating our solution from the competition or maintaining our price. We aren’t maximizing our ability to create and claim value to the customer.   We’re just peddlers and we are creating value for our customers.

If we want to maximize our ability to win, we need to know what we are selling our solutions for.  We need to be able to position our solutions in the context of what we help our customers achieve. 

What are we selling this for?  Do you know?  If you don’t you aren’t ready to be in front of your customer!

  1. Dave,

    I really enjoyed this post (no surprise there really).

    When reading your post the stat “57% of buying process is complete before the customer contacts sales” from either Forrester or Sales Executive Council sprang to my mind.

    I think this is an interesting stat when considering the point your blog is trying to make here when it comes to a sales reps being able to adeptly answer your question “What did you sell that for?”

    I would suspect those reps who looked at you blankly might have fallen into being one of the 57% of sales reps who only had to facilitate the transactional process of closing the deal as their customers had already made a decision before they entered the frame.

    The question then is what is the opportunity forgone by selling like this?

    Yes, you may have closed a $1m deal and retired a 1/3 of your quota, but the real question is how much did you leave on the table?

    Great food for thought and as usual I will look forward to your next post mate.


    Nicholas Kontopoulos

    • Nicholas, what a wonderful insight! It’s a vicious cycle–the less value we create in the customer buying process, the more unimportant we are, the less we understand about what the customer is trying to achieve, the less important we can become………

      It’s a death spiral, fundamentally initiated by sales. However, there’s a lot of data that says, customers want sales people to provide insights and help them think about their businesses differently. These sales people constantly create value, build the relationship, and maximize the business contribution–beyond just the $1M order. Thanks so much for the great insight! (As always) Regards, Dave

      • Thank you for your reply and sorry for all the typos in my original comment – one of the downsides of crafting a response on ones iPad on a crowded train 🙂

  2. No problem Nicholas, Im sittin in my ofc and strugle 😉

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