Arrowhead – The Role of Sales Leadership in Today’s Client Environment

Andrew Phillips, Sales Leadership, blog 1 arrowhead

This is the first of a series of articles on sales leadership, follow me on LinkedIn to receive the latest updates. 

IT is an ever-changing, fast moving industry, an exciting place to work because there’s always something new.

Except in the sales process.

Why is it that in this dynamic industry, there are so many sellers doing the same things they did 20 years ago? I’ve come across many people who don’t so much have 20 years’ experience as 1 year’s experience 20 times over.

As a sales leader in IT, it’s a topic that I’m passionate about, have explored in depth, with the aim of developing some approaches to bring selling in our industry into today’s world.

The very first thing to say is that sales is not just the people with the word ‘sales’ in their job title. Yes, the people making calls and engaging with the customer are the front line of a sales team, but an effective sales process is one that is endemic throughout the organisation. It encompasses everyone from the CEO to the dispatchers in the warehouse. It includes the staff in the store, the designers, the lawyers, the installation engineers. Every person in an organisation is aligned with sales, whatever their job title or department. 

An effective sales organisation is one where sales is ingrained in the leadership at the very highest level. 

A sales team is like an arrowhead - making an incision, creating an opening that allows the shaft of the arrow, the organisation, to enter. Lack of effective sales leadership is like having a blunt arrowhead – it can’t do its job of penetrating the target.

So let’s take a look in more depth at how the IT client landscape has changed and what that means for our approach to sales.

The biggest change is in the way that clients see and articulate the problems they are trying to solve. This changes their expectations and the demands they place on IT companies and the way that they expect to buy.

The way that clients see their requirements and the way they buy IT solutions has moved through three stages over the last 20 years.

Clients initially saw IT providers in terms of purely solving technical issues, and those suppliers engaged pretty much exclusively with the IT department. Then as IT and the business became more closely aligned, clients realised that IT providers could help them with business solutions. More recently, there has been a further evolution from addressing individual business initiatives to seeing technology solutions as an essential foundation for meeting the client’s overarching strategic imperatives.

1.      Technical requirements

Many clients and sellers of 20 years ago simply saw the world as a series of tactical technical problems. Problems such as ‘more processing power’ or ‘the latest version of the operating system’, or ‘24/7 maintenance service’. The clients specified the technology they needed to solve the problem and asked suppliers to bid to provide it. If a seller could solve the tactical problem at the right price, the client would sign off on the purchase of equipment, software or services. The clients usually then simply purchased the equipment and did the implementation themselves. Each technical problem tended to be seen in isolation and was dealt with as a stand-alone project. Once one problem was solved, they moved on to the next. Often the key to winning was simply to be the cheapest – there is little recognition of value at this end of the spectrum. There are still many sellers who sell in this way – what I call the ‘Transactional Sellers’.  

2.      Business Issues

Then clients started to focus on business issues, rather than simply technical problems They wanted to deal with sellers who understood those issues and could provide solutions to them. Selling moved to a new level as suppliers became more aware of their clients’ requirements in a business, rather than purely technical context. Under this model, sellers addressed business issues, but only a small subset of them. Those they could not solve, they simply ignored – leaving money on the table and problems unsolved.

Many sellers evolved to this model, and many have stayed there – these are the ‘Traditional Sellers’.

3.      Strategic Imperatives

In the current sales climate, clients are taking a bigger picture view, focussing on their strategic imperatives; their overarching goals and aspirations. Strategic Imperatives are often achieved by addressing a range of business issues, but the point here is that the seller, like the customer, takes a holistic view. They see the big picture. They know that unless they can articulate how their solution directly contributes to the achievement of the Strategic Imperative, they will not get the green flag. There may well still be technical issues that need to be resolved, but the point is that they are seen in the context of the strategic imperative, not as goals in their own right.

When clients work towards Strategic Imperatives, they want to deal with partners rather than suppliers, partners who understand and will help them achieve their goals. To be this kind of partner means having a detailed knowledge of the client and their industry. lt means understanding the local, regional and global trends affecting the client and how the proposed solutions assist in solving those challenges. If the seller can solve some, but not all of the business issues that are inhibiting a client from achieving a Strategic Imperative, they will build partnerships with other suppliers who can help put together a complete solution. They may also work across organisations, with the clients supply chain and co-operating organisations to drive even further value. The rare beasts who truly work in this way are the ‘Partnership Sellers’.

They understand that the client’s success is their success. When the client sees that you put their success first, you build advocates within the organisation – insiders who will help to sell your solution from within. It’s a highly collaborative approach.

At this end of the client buying behaviour spectrum, you are addressing issues, truly adding value with outcomes for the client’s success and have a far greater opportunity for differentiation. 

To illustrate, suppose I am the account manager for a large Government Department. They might articulate their Strategic Imperative as ‘Double our market penetration in the next two years’. There may be tens, or even hundreds, of business issues and many hundreds of technical issues in addition to resolve before they can achieve that imperative.

Whilst it’s impossible to have a single product or solution in my kit bag that will, on its own, address their core issues, the crucial thing is that the client can see is:

a)      that I understand one of their Strategic Imperatives

b)     that I can articulate the business issues my offer resolves and how it forms a part of the overall solution and

c)      that I collaborate with partners who can complement my offer and address other business issues to build the total solution

Again, to be clear, my solution on its own is not going to achieve the Strategic Imperative, but it is essential that I can SELL it as a step towards that imperative. It is also essential that I spread my message as broadly in the client as possible. It is essential because it is this insight that builds credibility. More on credibility in a moment.

Cynics sometimes say ‘The more people you have involved in a sale, the longer it takes. I don’t want to slow down my sales cycle’.

Nothing could be further from the truth – in fact the higher up the Strategic Imperative value chain you go, the faster the decision is made. The client who sees that his/her Strategic Imperative is going to be met can justify a solution much more easily.

The importance of Reputation and Client Experience

Our client organisations (in fact all organisations) have to protect two things;

  • Reputation
  • Client experience

Reputation is both internal (culture and EVP) and external (value proposition to the market), and is how an organisation is judged before the client engages. Reputation is important to help attract new clients.

Client Experience is the reality once the engagement starts and is essential if those new clients are going to stay. 

Both have to be positive and consistent.

If a restaurant is recommended to me, I will give it a try based on its reputation (i.e. the fact that other people like it enough to recommend it). When I actually go there, my own client experience   will determine whether I go back. 

If nobody recommends it, and it has a bad reputation, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll even try it.

This is very important in a mature market, such as the IT market in Australia, because there is only a finite-sized customer community. This means that the primary way for organisation A to grow is to take market share/clients from organisation B.

To bring this back to Strategic Imperatives, winning new clients in order to drive profitable growth is almost always going to be a goal for most commercial organisations. An effective seller will therefore always be able to link his proposed solution to Reputation, Customer Experience and profitable growth.

Once we understand the way in which the client decision making landscape has changed, we can see that our selling style has to change in line, and so does our sales leadership. We can see that the old style of sales leadership, which is aggressively pushing sales people, is no longer appropriate in the world of the Partnership Seller.

We can see that many of the traditional sales behaviours, such as individual sales quotas, cold be revisited, and can see why approaches such as a quota per client, or quotas of behaviours are gaining favour.

We can see that in this new world, sales leadership needs to take a much more holistic approach, of supporting and enabling. That sales leaders really do need to be that arrowhead, with the sole aim of driving the way forward in support of their sales teams. That sales leaders need to set the example when it comes to truly understanding the client’s Strategic Imperatives and building partnership solutions to help achieve them. 

My mission is to improve the sales culture in Australia and I value your feedback.

Regards Andrew