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


Salespeople are expected to be product experts. Having started my career with IBM I can tell you firsthand they believed this to be true. It was unsettling to see the trouble IBM experienced in the early 90’s as clients changed their view of IT spending. These events led to Lou Gerstner becoming CEO in April of 1993. Skeptics were concerned about his limited knowledge of technology and that he was the first CEO hired from the outside. Both proved to be advantages as he changed the culture and the focus from technology to business results that could be achieved through the application of technology.

A large factor in IBM’s troubles was a reliance on selling to CIO’s. For decades IT executives bought technology with little regard for cost vs. benefit. New announcements created knee-jerk first day orders. In the 5 years before Gerstner joined, clients more closely scrutinized IT expenditures and decisions migrated to business executives. The consensus was that IBM salespeople lost the ability to have conversations about business issues with non-IT executives.

Old selling habits linger. Companies continue to provide extensive product training to sellers. In today’s environment, whom are sellers “educating?” Mid to lower levels self-educate via the Internet. They don’t want to be influenced or manipulated when determining their requirements. I hope you’d agree few senior executives would tolerate product presentations. They’re busy and just want to understand the potential value that can be realized through the usage of an offering.

The Role Shift
The role of a seller needs to align with changes in buying behavior. I found the results of a recent Software Advice™ study encouraging (Software Advice™ is a sales software reviews firm). They analyzed job qualifications for Sales Directors. They found that the top 3 undergraduate degrees required for job applicants were:

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

Sales executives with business degrees may start to steer organizations toward making sellers more comfortable discussing business issues with executives. In my mind this is a requirement. It wasn’t always that way. The 90’s provided an incredible business climate. Money flowed freely. There was a fair amount of “order taking” going on for vendors with “hot” offerings.

For the last 15 years companies have pulled the reins in on making expenditures. Whether opportunities begin reactively with inbound inquiries from mid level staff or proactively by targeting prospects, I believe competent sales professionals must have the ability to:

  1. Discuss desired business outcomes with Key Player levels.

  2. Work with buying committees to assess early in buying cycles if there will be enough potential value to offset the cost of offerings.

Reducing the emphasis on product training would allow more time to arm sellers with a better understanding of business issues for verticals they call on. Strong business cases built with the participation of committee members should increase the chances of getting buying decisions made. Failure to do so will often result in losses or “no decisions” outcomes.

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