It’s time for another of my quick primers on the enterprise IT business. This one is about sales. First I’ll run through some generalities; then I’ll link you to some previous posts; after that I’ll close with a collection of practical tips.
This is, to put it mildly, an important subject. In particular, there are only two kinds of enterprise IT CEOs:
- Those who need to understand sales because they don’t have anybody else to do it for them.
- Those who need to understand sales because they do have people to do it, who need to be managed and helped.
Every enterprise IT CEO needs to be heavily involved in sales.
Of course, a few tips do not a salesperson make. Selling is a complex process, with many steps. Worse, it’s tough for somebody to explain to you what the process is, in part because there’s a kind of recursion involved — a big part of what you do in the sales process is establish what the process is.
And that’s in both senses of “establish”, namely “figure out” and “bring into being”.
Other inherent difficulties in selling include:
- Selling involves getting money from people. People don’t like to part with money.
- Buying from you often involves a lot more commitment — and foreclosure of other options — than merely writing you a check.
- Usually, a sale involves getting agreement from multiple people. These people often have different views, biases, and motivations.
Of course, I’ve written about sales before, mainly in two areas:
- Advice on persuading people to want your stuff.
- General exhortations to qualify sales prospects as to whether they’re worth the time and expense of a full sales effort.
- There are sales sections in both my strategy and execution worksheets.
- My taxonomy of influencers includes ones encountered in the sales process.
- I did a how-to focused on sales presentations.
- I did a post just on the duality between messaging and sales qualification.
What I’d like to add in this post are more process-oriented observations. At a high level:
- There are many key steps to completing a sale, and …
- … it’s hard to succeed unless you understand what the essential steps are.
- A selling process is also a buying process.
- Thus, if you understand the key steps in the buying process, you’ve probably grasped the essence of:
- What’s required to make a sale.
- Whether you have much chance of getting a sale made.
How do you gain this understanding? Well, if you’re an experienced salesperson, you may already know, or be able to find out easily. If you’re not, you probably have to ask very direct questions, early and often.
The key things you need to learn are:
- Who at the prospect actually has to sign off on a purchase? As a general rule:
- A person or committee is probably doing the basic selection.
- Their superiors likely need to approve.
- There are likely to be one or more people in the role of “Joe who can say no”. This could be a low-title/highly-respected tech guru, it could be another department, etc.
- An official purchasing and/or legal department, likely needs to sign off too. This is often much more than a formality — because you may think the sale and negotiation was already done, only to discover that there’s a whole other negotiation to go through in which the buyer tries to better its deal, and hence worsen yours.
- How do you fit into the prospect’s budget structure? This is of course not just about payments to you, but also about any other project costs associated with the decision to use you.
- Is there already budget to fund your project, or does it have to be created from thin air?
- Are your understandings of the approval and budget processes consistent with each other?
- Money aside, who is likely to be reluctant to buy from you, and why?
- What are the competing uses for the budget that could go to your project?
- Who favors alternative choices, and why? Reasons might include job security, general risk aversion, desire to pad their resume with some other choice, relationships with some other vendors, etc.
- Who generally likes the status quo and dislikes change?
- Who wants to change, but in a different direction than yours?
As a final tip, there’s a great question from my stock analyst days that is useful in almost any kind of interview. The phrasing can vary a little depending on context, and indeed it’s often best repeated in slightly different forms, such as:
- What are the most likely ways things could go wrong?
- What are the most likely ways in which you could turn out to be mistaken?
- What do you most worry about? What keeps you awake at night?
In a sales context, these questions can be used both to better understand the prospect’s needs and also to identify the ways your sales process could regrettably run off its rails. I suggest that you never forget to use them.
- Executive recruiting is an important kind of sales.