How Sales Really Work Part I: Competence

Sandra Serkes, an entrepreneur with over twenty years of experience, shares how enterprise sales really work.

Photo by Tamanna Rumee on Unsplash

Sales gets a bad rap. Its practitioners, salespeople, are either depicted as slimy, snake-oil, used-car types, or hard-partying, free-wheeling, flirts. Neither could be farther from the truth and I’m here to tell you how Sales really works, having learned the hard way — from the ground up.

My experience stems from 20 years as an entrepreneur, selling Business-to-Business (B2B) products and services to a sophisticated Legal, Records and IT marketplace. The solutions I sell are 6 or 7-figure deals, and take between 6–18 months to close. Personally, I’m happily married for 27 years, with 2 kids. I live in a nice quiet house in the ‘burbs with 2 cats and a dog. I’m smart, and I run a tight ship. I’m neither a slimeball, nor a flirt. I’m the real deal, and that is part 1 of how you sell: Competence.

Competence: Competence means knowing what you sell, why you sell it (really, why anyone would want to buy it), what its value is, and what the alternatives are for the buyer. Below are the key elements of Competence that you must master.

  1. Understand who you are talking to: What is their role in the organization on paper? How long have they been in that role and what are they actually responsible for? Will they make the buying decision, and if not, who will? What’s their professional/personal personality? Will they go to bat for you? Who is aligned with them in their organization? Who is against them? For example, is the person you are speaking to a user of the product or service, a yes/no decision-maker, an important influencer in their organization, maybe all 3? If not, who are those people? You’ll need them sooner or later in the discussion. Often in B2B sales, there is an inside champion — someone who understands your product and value proposition and who wants the solution for their organization. But that’s only half the battle. You must move from a single champion to a broad consensus of agreement.
  2. Know your products & services cold. Quick, name the top 3 features that blow away the competition (and don’t say price!). If you can’t, you need to go back and either learn them or figure them out. Can you give your demo or presentation without looking? I once had to talk a client through ours while I was in a taxi and they were looking at the slides. What’s the maximum load your solution can handle? What applications or systems are not supported? Do you offer support on weekends, holidays, natural disasters? You have to absolutely know your product and service specs, as well as all the “edge cases.” What are 3 things in the development pipeline that will roll out within 12 months? Why don’t you have them already? What’s driving their event horizon?

3. Be ready with exemplars, case studies, typical cost estimates, implementation timelines, ROI calculations, and anything else any serious potential customer would reasonably expect. The more you can speak to prior work, gotchas and suggestions, and your experience working with your installed base, the stronger your credibility. For example, here is a case study that clearly demonstrates what my company, Valora, does. What problem we solve, the kind of company we solve it for, and an example of the results. If you are just starting out and don’t have case studies of your own, point to others’ work that is similar. What was done well? What should have been handled differently or better?

4. Always follow up. After every call, demo and meeting, always send a follow-up email recapping the discussion. Use bullet points to keep it short & to the point. List action items and to do’s, with the name of who’s to do it listed alongside. Don’t be afraid to assign tasks to your potential client, such as, “send sample data to me by June 3rd.”

At the end of the day, you must have raw competence in your field and in your products and services to be able to carry a sale through to the finish line. You cannot fake competence, but you can build it slowly and steadily by researching, preparing and practicing your craft over time.

Competence is critically important, but it has a twin sister, Integrity, that together make the winning combination to closing sales. Read on for Part 2 of How Sales Really Work, for a deep dive on Integrity.

Sandra E. Serkes is President & CEO of Valora Technologies, with an extensive background spanning over 20 years in entrepreneurship, software marketing, product management and corporate strategy, particularly in information governance, predictive analytics, document data mining and processing, computer telephony and speech recognition.

A graduate of Harvard Business School and MIT, Ms. Serkes is a frequent industry speaker and panelist. Ms. Serkes serves on the boards of several technology and analytics start-ups and was named a 2006 “Woman to Watch” by Womens’ Business magazine.

Since the fall of 2015, Ms. Serkes has served as Adjunct Professor to the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, Information & Knowledge Strategy Program, where she lectures on “Solving Information Governance & Knowledge Management Problems with Pattern-Recognition Technologies & Predictive Analytics.”

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