“What are you trying to sell me?” has become code for: I don’t trust you, and when Nixon was forced out of office people carried signs around with his face next to “Would you buy a used car from this man?” It’s hard to think of any profession that has sunk to lower levels of esteem in the public eye, than that of the salesman.

In his 1995 business classic SPIN selling, Neil Rackham comes to the rescue. In it he concludes twelve years of research where he and his team looked at 35 000 recorded sales calls spanning 35 industries, ranking each on more than a hundred different parameters.

The emergent patterns are surprising, to the author as well as to at least this reader.

Because it turns out that people who are effective at sales, are actually nothing like the popular idea of the sales person. They don’t rely on their charm and they don’t try hard to close deals. Instead they work methodically to help potential customers uncover their needs, and then spend a tiny fraction of their efforts (if at all!) mapping those needs to the product or service that they’re effectively there to sell.

Rackham himself explains how he was initially surprised to see effective sales people spend so little time in “sales mode”, but then gradually came to understand that how we do sales have changed because of how the type of problems our solutions intend to solve has changed.

Business life has become increasingly complex and what used to work in simpler times — such as focusing intensely on closing deals — has become counterproductive. Sales these days is all about creating an unbiased understanding of the complex reality of a potential customer. A reality where your product might just be a part of a larger puzzle.

This explains why founders aren’t always best suited for sales; obsessed with their own value proposition they tend to come off as pushy to customers who are rarely looking for a one size fits all kind of solution. 

Especially in enterprise software–which is where I come from–decision makers have long ago accepted that they’re bound to a sprawling patchwork of products and services that they need to make the best of in order to support their business. There are always going to be an infinite number of technical problems, but only some of them makes economic sense to address. Uncovering where these leverage points are requires both business savvy and technical know-how. 

This ought to be what’s driving the constant reshuffling of any company’s backlog. It’s also very much what sales has come to be about.

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