Death of a technology seller

Old ways of selling enterprise technology should and will die. So, what about the seller?

I am definitely not a car guy. For me, a car should be safe, comfortable and quiet enough for listening to podcasts and conference calls. So, naturally, I’m uneasy when it comes to the process of buying cars and dealing with car salespeople and dealers. That’s probably why I love the TRUECar commercial about their new app. Just point the app at any car in the lot, and it will tell you all you want to know about the car specifications and what people are paying for such a vehicle.

Technology is impacting everything around us. So doesn’t it make sense that the process of selling and buying technology should change as well?

The process of selling enterprise technology has remained unchanged for years. Engineering builds products based upon Product Management input, and sales people are trained to “sell what’s on the truck”. A good seller is both indoctrinated with the official messaging and sticks to it whether positioning, objection handling or negotiating. This is not unlike a good politician sticking to the party’s message and winning an election.

There are three problems with this antiquated approach:

1. Information Access: Customers no longer depend upon regular seller visits to learn about her latest offerings. They can instead quickly research product information through the manufacturer’s (and competitors’) web sites, through social media and via blog sites covering the product value proposition and its challenges. They can even quickly gage how favorably customers are reviewing it.

2. The market and competitive landscape are changing too quickly: In years past, a manufacturer could enable and arm its sellers during its annual sales kick-off, and the sales team would be prepared for the next 12 months of action. The industry is so dynamic today that within a month following the kick-off, everything the salespeople learned could be rendered less effective and sometimes even completely useless.

3. Public Cloud: Public cloud vendors like AWS (Amazon Web Services) have, in some cases, changed the model of enterprise sales by bypassing the sellers and going directly to IT consumers with fixed pricing. This practice takes away yet another area where conventional sellers are good at; the pricing/negotiation dance that happens between procurement teams and vendor representatives.

So, will enterprise sellers face the same fate as that of taxi dispatchers following Uber’s transportation disruption? Probably not, but I do think that how enterprise technology sellers are hired and trained today will have to change.

The Modern Seller

A modern seller needs to think, act and feel differently. To understand this better, let’s go into the brain of a modern seller one hemisphere at a time.

Left-brain

There is a really cool Ted Talk by Judson Brewer on how mindfulness can be a good tool to break addiction to bad habits. Mr. Brewer talks about the famous habit loop.

A Habit loop is a relatively simple concept — a continuous loop between trigger->behavior->reward. For example, a habit loop feels hunger, sees a brownie, eats it and is now happy. It files under the loop as trigger (hunger), behavior (eating), reward (happiness).

But a problem with the habit loop is that our brains also like shortcuts. Our brain sees a new task and immediately looks for a shortcut. For example, the next time the person is sad for whatever reason, the emotion launches the habit loop filed under “happiness” and invokes the loop by replacing the trigger. This time, instead of hunger, the habit loop uses sadness as the trigger and compels the eating of a brownie to be happy. Different trigger, same result.

As I was watching this Ted Talk, it became clear to me how the habit-loop plays a big part in an enterprise seller’s work-day as well. It’s very easy for her to fall into automatic habit loops many times in a single day. For example, let’s say the customer tells the salesperson that her competitor dropped the price of its solutions. There could be multiple habit-loop trigger options to kick in:

1. Freak out and drop her price too

2. Freak out and start saying negative things about the competitor

3. Just freak out and do nothing else

All three behaviors are guaranteed to deliver bad outcomes. But if our brains are conditioned to go into this loop, we need to find a way to break them out of the cycle. We need to provide the brain with an equally powerful replacement trigger.

Curiosity is one such trigger. As Mr. Brewer points out, curiosity is a naturally rewarding trigger. (This is why I turn that bottle cap over and read the trivia with a stupid grin on my face before I take a sip from the Snapple bottle)

Modern sellers will work hard to be always curious and to use curiosity to break the bad habit-loops that drive them to bad outcomes. In the aforementioned situation, for example, the seller may be mindful to recognize that her brain is going into the loop and step in and actively break the cycle by using curiosity to learn more about the real driving factor behind the customer’s sudden interest in a lower cost solution from the competitor. A set of new questions may unveil that customer’s business outcome requirements may have changed, and this information may enable her to take a deviation from the normal path. There is a good chance that she will arrive at a better outcome.

Curiosity, like a candle, can go out in a routine environment. But just as with a candle, it can be re-lit with practice. Modern sellers need to be curious about not just the fast-changing technology landscape, but also about the buying behaviors, business challenges of the buyer, changing methodologies and consumption models and everything else around the transaction.

A modern seller needs to be the most curious person in any room she walks into. Even if everything is changing around her, unlike those who are unable to learn and evolve, she is not threatened. I think a modern enterprise sales person who is not curious is going to have limited success in today’s IT industry.

Right brain

When we pitch the Nutanix value proposition, more often than not, the potential customer has already completely bought into the technology, speeds & feeds and every other quantifiable thing around the product and the company. He is usually stuck around his unquantifiable feelings; feelings about having to tell his long-term vendor that he is going the Nutanix way or feelings around what would transpire if something bad happens with the Nutanix project and Nutanix wasn’t there to help his team through the mishap. No amount of TCO analysis or pricing concessions will be enough to help him get past these fears. The customer isn’t basing his feelings on data or fact, it’s more of a “gut feeling”, mostly driven by the right brain. In other words, left-brain can’t scratch the itch of the right-brain

To deal with right brain concerns and assuage the customer feelings of uncertainty and fear around the unknown, the modern seller needs to have a highly evolved emotional quotient to understand those feelings and empathize with them. Yes, a modern seller should be able to feel and react to the emotions of a potential buyer.

One of the most advanced parts of the human brain is called Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for understanding and making complex decisions and assessing consequences of those decisions. It tells you what’s between black and white; it’s the part that helps you make decisions that are morally complex. It’s not uncommon for a human being to continue growing this part of her brain until she is well into her mid-20s. (Hence teenagers sometime have a hard time understanding the consequences of their actions no matter how many times their parents tell them).

While PFC indeed is highly evolved, it does gets shut down under 2 scenarios:

1. Repetitive tasks: When the brain is doing things that are totally routine, it makes a judgment call and says, “I don’t need any advanced functions here, so I am just not going to bother waking up the PFC for this.”

In sports and in some police and military roles, you don’t want people to execute a lot of independent thinking. It is more expedient to just have the orders followed as given. (After all, you don’t want a 185lb wide-receiver thinking too much about brain-damage and concussions when running against a 280lb tackle for a head-on collision). In such cases, repeatedly practicing same task is very useful. It will put the PFC to sleep and the less-evolved parts of the brain will take over.

Traditional sales training is designed to deemphasize independent thinking. We hire people, train them in a boiler-room and send them out with a cheat-sheet from which to operate out of; a sheet consisting of questions, answers, tasks and canned responses. Between the cheat sheet and the very repetitive nature of most sales calls, we end up doing a good job of turning the PFC part of a seller to sleep.

2. Stress: Shutting down the brain due to stress was undoubtedly of big benefit during the caveman days. If a tiger is about to eat you, it’s not the time to analyze if it might be morally better to stay and feed the tiger because the cubs may need food. It’s time to shut down the evolved part of the brain and go back to the reptilian side to invoke the “fight or flight” response. This is not a complex process, and it’s not something that can be controlled or tamed. If the brain senses that it’s under duress, it will go into a predetermined auto-pilot mode as this short paper from Harvard Health explains.

While it makes sense for a caveman to stop thinking too much and run away from a man-eating tiger, a modern salesperson is never in real danger in his or her daily life. But, the reptilian brain can’t process the difference between a tiger chasing you and your boss chasing you because you dropped a previously committed deal from the forecast.

A modern sales person’s work-day is filled with stress-inducing situations. It’s an eminently quantifiable job where your paycheck is directly tied to your ability to convince your customers to spend money on your products while simultaneously fighting against ten other sellers going after the same pot of money. There’s always one winner and a series of losers on every single deal. Sometimes you are the winner and sometimes you aren’t.

What can the seller do to help herself? Stress management will come down to two basic things, mindfulness and physical activity.

1. Mindfulness: Teach yourself to identify and build routines around your own relaxation responses. Mindfulness is a practice that will allow you to increase your awareness when the brain is going into unnecessary stress response and start firing cortisol into your body. Meditation, visualization, Yoga, Tai-Chi and other Eastern practices are proven to be good tools to increase one’s ability to be more mindful.

2. Physical activity: As the Harvard Health paper says, physical activity is a simple yet reliable method to deepen the breath and put the brain back into a calm state of mind and thus break the automatic stress-response loop.

The Modern Sales Organization

Here is how the sales organization and leadership can help the sellers:

1. Sales hiring

A modern sales team should be built around sellers who exhibit the traits required for the new world of enterprise IT such as independent thinking, empathy, collaboration and an exceptional curiosity.

2. Sales team environment

The team leadership should work with the sellers to help design an environment that allows them to operate with less stress.

3. Sales enablement

Sales training can’t be a way to bring a group of people into a room and tell them exactly what to do and “sell what’s on the truck”. It shouldn’t just be a series of repetitive tasks and evaluation of their ability to do an “elevator pitch”. It should be a way to light the flame of their curiosity and make them empathetic to genuinely care about the customers’ needs and find honest answers to their problems.
Customers are looking for sellers who are with them on their journey; they are looking for missionaries, not mere mercenaries. Mercenaries are trained, missionaries are created and honed.

4. Seller compensation

Human beings are social animals. One of the most important ways we produce more, increase happiness and reduce stress is by interacting socially with like-minded people. Unfortunately, sales compensation models are created to turn one seller on the same team against each other.

Compensation and rewards are given for individual accomplishments, making it hard to find a lot of genuine mentoring and knowledge-sharing in traditional sales teams. It’s not uncommon to see sellers unwilling to share their best customer references with other sales team members. They may even fight against doing the right thing for their customers for fear of having to split commissions with another salesperson within the same company.

A modern sales team needs to design not only compensation models, but also sustainable recognition and appreciation programs within the company that will foster teamwork and reward selfless behaviors. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is very much a necessary thing.

Summary

Enterprise sales is probably one of the most underestimated and under-appreciated jobs in a technology company. It’s easy to take sales for granted and not understand the commitment required to be really good at it. Those who are really good at it, as the saying goes, will make it all look easy.

A modern salesperson:

1. Is exceptionally curious

2. Is acutely empathetic

3. Strives to think outside the box

4. Attempts to be mindful

5. Tries hard to meditate

6. Finds a way to fit in some exercise in her daily routine

7. Gets paid to share knowledge and help others within the team

The technology world is rapidly changing, and the old ways of selling need to evolve as well. After all, we are all one step away from being Appified out of jobs by some startup company >:-)


<A quick note of Thanks to @mikedrobbins, @m_lau, and Steve Kaplan for inspiring me to get this post out. It was stuck in my head since the August Sales kick-off presentation>

Other posts by @sudheenair