Product Experts Are Out, Business Experts Are In

By John Holland, Chief Content Officer, CustomerCentric Selling® – The Sales Training Company

Salespeople are expected to be product experts, but senior executives have neither the time nor inclination to acquire significant amounts of product knowledge. They’re busy and simply want to understand the potential value that can be realized with a product or service. Despite this fact, companies continue to provide extensive product training to sellers.

Old selling habits linger. But selling realities are changing.

Having started my career with IBM, I’ve witnessed the shift from product to business focus in sales firsthand. A large factor in IBM’s troubles in the early ’90’s was their reliance upon selling to CIOs that for decades had purchased technology with little regard for cost vs. benefit. New announcements created knee-jerk first day orders. But in the late ’80’s clients started to more closely scrutinize IT expenditure, and technology buying decisions migrated to business executives.

What caused the company’s sales slump? In the end, the consensus was that IBM salespeople had lost the ability to have conversations about business issues with non-IT executives. In 1993 IBM took the unprecedented step of hiring an outsider, Lou Gertsner, as CEO. He shifted the culture to focus more on business issues rather than product issues.

The Evolving Role of Sales Requires Business Experts

  1. Business (42%)
  2. Marketing (23%)
  3. Engineering (12%)

Sales executives with business degrees could start to steer organizations toward business issues rather than product knowledge.

From my perspective, business acumen is a requirement of the modern salesperson. Whether opportunities begin reactively with inbound inquiries from mid-level staff or proactively through prospecting, I believe competent sales professionals must:

  • Understand different vertical markets and be able to position their offerings in ways that align with them.
  • Share ideas with executives as to how to improve business results.
  • Help clients understand how they compare with industry best practices.
  • Understand the impact that improved results can have on a company’s financials. For example, one of our clients found that by having sellers reduce discounting by 10%, they would realize an additional $.23 earnings per share.
  • Work with buying committees to assess early in buying cycles if there will be enough potential value to offset the cost of offerings.
  • Present business cases rather than just proposals.

The days of leading with product are a thing of the past. Reducing the emphasis on product training would allow more time to arm sellers with a better understanding of business issues for the verticals they call on. Failure to adapt to this new reality will often result in losses or no-decisions.