I am sure a lot of people know the phenomenon that I have experienced very often in the many years that I have worked in B2B sales. If business is running like clockwork, if annual targets which have been considered completely unrealistic still at the beginning of the year were exceeded, or exorbitant growth rates were achieved in three consecutive years, then all departments within the company have done a fantastic job. If the opposite occurs, then first and foremost the sales department is the culprit. And it is not uncommon that one or more heads need to roll – the much-cited pawn sacrifice, so to speak. Of course, the sales department also contributed its share when things don’t go as planned. But for someone like me who spent most of his career in international sales, this logic is far too simple. Even more when external circumstances significantly contribute to not being able to reach the original targets. The year 2020 proved this quite painfully.
It is everybody’s responsibility
If product development does not deliver innovation or for example buggy software gets released, every sales department has a hard time to find new customers. If the marketing department doesn’t create valuable sales leads, the sales people run their feet and talk their mouths off without really seeing any sale on the horizon. I think every B2B sales person knows the situation, when you get this “very hot lead” and already during the first contact you get the impression that you dialed the wrong number or got the wrong email address. But also if your customer service is poor or your technical support is incompetent, it’s going to be hard for sales to close any follow-up business. And thanks to numerous rating portals, such information gets around in no time, so that it also becomes almost impossible to find any new customers. I could find many more examples for every other department within a company which can negatively influence business success.
The gears of a company
You could compare a company with a mechanical watch. Every component of it has to work so that the watch does what it is supposed to do, means to run accurately. If just one gear is poorly oiled, the watch will run a few minutes late per day. If one or more parts fail completely, the clock will stop. And if you don’t wind up the watch every once in a while, it will stop too. Sales is primarily the department of the company which is visible to the outside world. To stay with the image of the watch, sales (and also parts of marketing) represent the watch hands. Of course, the watch also works without watch hands, but then you don’t get any feedback about whether it works correctly or not, or whether it is still working at all. Conversely, the hands of the watch will not move if the machinery underneath is defective.
Particularly in the B2B sector, sales is or at least should be much more than the annoying salesperson who bothers the customer until the sale is closed. A great B2B salesperson is perceived by the customer as a consultant who helps him or her to close the “gap” between the actual state and the desired goal. The author Keenan describes this very well in his book “Gap Selling“. But this does not only help the customer and improves customer relationship. With gap selling the sales department learns a great deal about the customer’s needs and thus receives invaluable information for the strategy and product development of its own company. This is still used far too little in many companies today, because sales should ultimately be concerned with selling and not with strategy or even less with the product roadmap. How often it happened already that new products or product features were brought to market because a creative developer is convinced that millions of customers are just waiting for it? Probably everyone can immediately think of a few examples of products that were the result of a very creative idea and maybe also technologically quite advanced, but nobody wanted to buy it.
The role of product management
Only when product development and sales work closely together, you have a good chance to really work on the right products and solutions. Certainly, sales also must demonstrate a realistic attitude towards what is feasible at all. You won’t be able to fulfill every customer request, and even if you can, there is still the question of how many customers are really interested in your solution. Here product management needs to come in as the mediator, finding the ideal compromise between feasibility and potential market success. There are still a lot of smaller and even medium-sized companies which treat product management as a stepchild or product management does not even exist at all. Therefore it may happen that the sales department starts to become very “agile” offering a solution that the market needs, but which is not really ready yet. If the customer then suddenly threatens to place an order, product development gets under pressure, which usually leads to heavy turmoil between the departments. But it is not uncommon that something really big emerges from that – because B2B sales is more than just selling.