Putting the Cart Before the Horse?

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

When asked to define “selling,” buyers and sellers often use words like “convincing,” “persuading” and “overcoming objections,” and few companies recognize that people would rather buy than be sold to. Many organizations claim they are customer-centric yet look inward rather than outward when developing new offerings.

Taking this approach decreases the chances of bringing offerings to market that people want to buy. It’s time to take a fresh look at how products are developed.

Consider a startup company whose founder has a brilliant idea for a new offering. Everyone joining the company is laser-focused on product development. The most compelling slides in investor presentations are founders’ descriptions of their offerings, sounding like proud parents.

The weakest part is the description of monetization. Industry statistics cite the total potential market, and pie charts illustrate increasing slices of market share over time. What isn’t clear is why customers will buy.

After raising money, the company remains focused on the new offering. When ready for a beta site, the founder will find or be found by early adopters who recognize the product’s value. Early buyers accept the risks of doing business with fledgling companies.

Helping beta clients achieve measureable results is a significant milestone. These clients will serve as references for future prospects. At this point, founders have a long overdue epiphany: They must hire sales organizations to learn how to sell the new offering to the masses.

Growth and Success Provide New Challenges

If successful, fledgling companies increase staff as they enhance existing offerings and develop new ones. Ad hoc “staff meetings” over lunches are no longer an option. As startups grow, four distinct, independent and interrelated silos emerge: (1) product development, (2) product marketing, (3) marketing and (4) sales. Ironically, the creators of new offerings are furthest from prospects and customers.

CEOs expect silos to collaborate and cooperate, but there are many challenges:

  • The silo heads are peers; nobody reports to anybody.
  • All silos have a role in revenue generation.
  • The silos’ interaction is largely undefined.
  • With the exception of sales, which can calculate percentage of quota, it’s difficult to assess silo effectiveness and establish silo accountability.

Over time, many silo executives and staff develop silo blinders. Each head believes his or her group is doing a great job, but none takes an enterprise view. If silo heads independently and concurrently make changes they feel will help, what will be the overall outcome? My guess is that there is about an equal chance of improving or degrading results, because nobody sees the big picture.

Friction develops among silos over time. Finger pointing is common when top-line revenues aren’t made. Product development resembles a scull without a coxswain: four people using different oars and rowing at different cadences. They can’t see the destination, yet they are expected to win races.

Most companies determine how they will sell offerings after they develop them. Product development, with minimal input from customer-facing staff, creates a new offering and passes the specifications to product marketing, which determines what segments have the most potential. Marketing then creates collateral and go-to-market campaigns before the sales organization determines how to sell the product, hoping that sales will be able to deliver the revenue promised to investors.

The better product marketing addresses buyer needs, the easier the other three silos’ jobs are. Unfortunately, the converse is also true. While most product launches employ “push” strategies to sell to people, companies that correctly read market requirements can enjoy market “pull,” because people want to buy their offerings. A “build it and they will buy” approach is a dangerous way to develop new offerings. Missing market requirements can be disastrous.

Starting With the End in Mind

I’d like to suggest an alternative:

In the initial stages of product development, representatives from each silo collaborate to identify potential vertical markets. For each market, the group lists the titles that would comprise typical buying committees and brainstorms a menu of desired business outcomes for each title.

This exercise amounts to determining who would buy the offering and the potential value they could realize that would justify the expenditure. If the company can’t identify the product’s potential business outcomes, it may need to return to the drawing board or scrap the idea altogether.

Deciding who would buy and why allows organizations to decide early how to sell their offerings. It also allows sellers to interview those titles within the company’s client base to validate their assumptions and projections. By its nature, this exercise helps participants take an outside-in view by focusing on potential customer needs before spending money on development.

Marketing can better align with sales, because it can target its lead generation programs to specific titles and business outcomes. In fact, a “lead” can be defined as someone with one of the identified titles who is interested in talking about one or more of the outcomes.

After product training, many sellers make “spray and pray” product pitches to people who can’t authorize expenditures. If and when they call on higher levels, those buyers don’t want to be educated about offerings. Sellers must first earn mindshare by encouraging buyers to share the business outcomes they want to achieve with the new offerings.

Organizations can help sellers position offerings for specific titles by teaching them to make each goal a conversation. Once the company has developed a new offering, members from each of the silos can identify the specific features that will help a specific title achieve a specific goal.

This approach allows sellers to understand that buying cycles begin if and when buyers share those goals and are willing to spend money to achieve them. Once the goals are shared, sellers should ask diagnostic questions to determine which capabilities the buyer will need to achieve the desired outcome.


Buyers prefer to buy rather than be sold to. In fact, they resent push strategies: attempts to sell offerings that don’t address their needs. Vendors that provide a framework and common vocabulary to allow collaboration among silos can better align themselves with buyer needs. This framework can provide a sustainable competitive advantage. The jobs of product marketing, marketing and sales are easier when offerings address buyer needs.

John Holland is chief content officer of CustomerCentric Selling®. Frank Visgatis is president and chief operating officer of CustomerCentric Selling®.