Is it your market that's soft? Or you?

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

In a meeting yesterday with the Director of Sales at a big technology hardware company I asked him how his market was.  “Soft,” he replied.  “Really soft.”

“What do you put that softness down to?” I asked him.

“The punters just don’t get it,” he answered.  “They just don’t understand the difference between our infrared germanium laser technology and the tired old stuff our competitors are still putting out.”

“An answer to a big business problem; or more technology?”

In this simple conversation, which we find repeating itself in just about every organisation we go into, lies a big part of the problem with sales and marketing today.  It’s particularly prevalent in technology and software companies, but no industry is immune.  Why are buyers suddenly no longer interested in the latest version of the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator?

As sellers, we’re like Marvin the Martian.  We’re very focused on what we do and on what we’re good at (or think we’re good at!).  Customers don’t give a toss what we’re good at, unless it can help them solve a problem they have.  That problem may be something bad that’s happening to them that they want to stop, or something good that’s not happening to them that they want to start.  Either way, if what we’re selling doesn’t contribute to one of those scenarios they seriously don’t care who we are, what we do or how good we are at it.  Which means they’re not going to buy from us.

The Sales Director’s company in actual fact have a very clever and innovative way of driving increased sales force productivity while at the same time reducing cost.  It is in fact potentially a source of substantial competitive advantage – and revenue, for them.  The problem is their customers don’t understand that because the company’s marketing and sales messages are all about how clever and new their technology is – not what it can really do for a customer’s business; or more importantly, for them personally.

It’s the old story of the guy who walks into the hardware store and asks for a 10mm drill bit.  Think about what problem he’s trying to solve.   The most obvious one is he doesn’t have a 10mm drill bit, but that doesn’t help much.  What does he want the drill bit for?  He needs to drill a hole.  Why does he need to drill a hole?  Get the idea???

This sort of thinking isn’t new.  Good sales people have been having these sorts of conversations for a long time.  Management consultants are usually very good at it partly because it’s the way they get trained to think.

For the most part, our sales organisations remain very poor at it.  It takes time and effort to dig into what really matters for our customers.  We have to listen and stop talking.  It’s hard and it’s often uncomfortable.

But we have to – because if we don’t, and if we keep blathering on about ourselves we’ll continue to find that nobody’s listening, that our markets are “soft” and that our pipelines are anaemic.