For most of my life, I’ve worked in engineering. I worked as a programmer during my university studies. Built my own compilers while conducting my PhD research as I looked into alternative object-oriented programming languages. Worked in industry as a vice president on the engineering side and, of course, I published hundreds of papers on technical topics ranging from software architecture to platforms and from data pipelines to federated learning.
Over the last decade, however, I’ve increasingly started to realize the importance of sales. For many people, this is a slightly dirty word. Images come to mind of sleazy used-car salesmen and annoying people ringing the doorbell or phone at the most inopportune times to try to sell you stuff you don’t need.
In practice, however, we’re all salespeople in the work we do. Whether you’re trying to convince your colleagues to change a process or ways of working or submitting a research proposal at a funding agency, you’re doing sales and it helps to think of it that way. Sales is about building empathy with customers, deeply understanding what drives and is important for them and then formulating an offering that meets that need.
Since all startups that I’ve been involved in and that didn’t succeed failed due to lack of sales, I’m highly interested in and aware of the importance of sales. And even if we may all be selling in one way or another, it’s the dedicated sales professionals who convert meeting customer needs with your offering into cold, hard cash.
The challenge for sales as a company digitalizes is that the value offering changes from a transactional one-off sale to selling an offering that’s continuously monetized. There are at least three main changes that sales needs to go through for the company to succeed. First, the customer relationship moves from a transactional to a continuous one. So, rather than getting the customer to sign at the dotted line and moving on to the next target, sales is now about building, maintaining and growing the relationship with the customer.
Second, in my experience, many salespeople are very competitive and get a kick out of closing deals, getting their bonus and seeing it accumulate over the quarter. In a continuous model with the customer, the benefit tends to be shaped very differently as the initial revenue for the company is much lower and the associated bonus is different as well. In my work with a variety of companies, I’ve experienced quite a few cases where engineering was able to build the innovative offering, customers wanted the offering, but sales failed to sell it and hence the innovation failed. One of the key factors is that the incentive system for sales staff needs to change for it to make sense for them to spend time on selling services.
Third, for some reason, I meet quite a few people who believe that simply because the offering is more digital and continuous the sales process will magically become inbound and all driven through digital means as well. In my experience, that only happens, if at all, once you’ve built up a brand and scale that result in a very high degree of awareness in the market. Instead, the continuous relationship with the customer requires even more human interaction as the level of trust required is higher. It’s no longer a date, but you’re actually going steady! Consequently, the focus should be on a land-and-expand strategy rather than trying to achieve the highest value in the first sale.
Digitalization touches all functions in the company, but the business dimension is one of the most important ones. With the business model being reinvented, sales also needs to reinvent itself. This requires changing the way we build, maintain and evolve relationships with customers, adjusting the incentive system for salespeople to ensure that they benefit from selling the new digital offerings and adopting a land-and-expand strategy. Cross-sell and up-sell become much more important in a digital transformation. For many salespeople, this is quite a shift from how they’ve operated in the past, but as Ginny Rometti, the CEO of IBM, at some point quipped: growth and comfort don’t coexist.