Since launching The Motum Group last December I have become increasingly aware and frankly a bit stunned by the lack of understanding and respect certain industry segments have for the profession of sales. Most firms in these particular industries are so dismissive of the profession that they, as a matter of practice, relegate the job of sales as an additional duty to their ‘primary’ profession. And if they do have dedicated sales or business development folks they are tasked with the role of meeting and event planners or asked to stand at show booths.
Want proof? Simply go to the “About Us” page of some of the biggest players in these industries (construction, architect, engineering, law, accounting, etc...) and look for someone in their leadership circle with the title of Vice President of Sales or Business Development. You will rarely find them.
When asked about this, the most common response I receive is a defensive, “Well Mike, you don’t understand. Our industry is different.”
Further research revealed some interesting findings. Firms in these industries, though highly qualified, fail to understand what really sets them apart from their equally qualified competitors. As a result, they resign themselves to believe, even at the highest levels of their company, that relationships and price will be the ultimate driving force behind how the customer selects one highly qualified company over another - regardless of the size of the opportunity.
They are partly right. When nothing distinguishes one company from another price usually determines the winner. Congratulations. You’ve entered a race to the bottom.
I found some equally toxic thinking at the other end of the spectrum. Some firms in these industries are so impressed with their own products and services that they are convinced they sell themselves; that proactive sales interaction with the customer added no additional value. This hubris reflected not so much a lack of regard for the role of sales or sales people, if they had any, but more a fundamental disrespect for their customers.
Interestingly, firms at either end of the spectrum also embraced the “funnel” mentality meaning, if they responded to “enough” RFPs, or schmoozed with “enough” prospects they would win “their fair share” of business. In other words, sales for these companies simply means “make certain we are invited to compete” in hopes that some mysterious version of gravity will pull opportunities through the mystical “funnel” and business will magically appear as backlog.
It is no wonder then these companies are comfortable expecting their professional associates to, as one put it, allocate 80% of time to their given field of expertise and the remaining 20% to sales or some variation thereof. Put another way, they spend the bulk of their time on their own business and what’s left exploring their customers’ problems. Our experience says this is a prescription for a mediocre win-rate or outright failure.
I am not suggesting that the role of sales deserve more respect in these firms or in their industries. Respect must be earned, and simply adding a professional sales force will not change the win-rate. What I am advocating is that the customer deserves more respect, that it takes more than occasional visits, dinners and/or golf outings to fundamentally understand a customer’s problems and become a valued resource for helping them in a manner that is consistent with their internal decision making processes. Solving customer’s problems deserves more than 20% of your company's attention. It deserves all of it. We get paid to care about customers, not the other way around.
If you believe as we do that selling success depends on caring more about customers’ priorities than our own then you will quickly see why this cannot be accomplished as an additional duty. That there is not enough time in the day or week to be a great corporate lawyer or accountant and also concentrate sufficient attention to consistently earn the business of new corporate clients, be a successful construction account/project manager while at the same time running the complex capture effort needed to win a new stadium construction project, or be the world’s foremost architect or engineer while leading the win strategy for a new municipal museum, or a tunnel or power plant project.
As this understanding sinks in our clients most often respond first by saying, “But we don’t have the time or money to dig as deeply into our customer’s world as you are suggesting.” Put another way, we can’t continue to invest most of our resources in ourselves and still have enough left over to invest in understanding our customers. We agree.
My business partner shared with me a story that reinforces this lesson with some strong words from the customer’s side. An account manager for a Fortune 500 network systems supplier was making one of his occasional visits to his Fortune 100 customer. After enduring a detailed review of the products and services the supplier planned to introduce in the coming months the CEO (customer) interrupted him with this stern message, “I don’t want to hear from your team about how passionate they are about your products. I want to hear how passionate they are about solving my problems.”