Selling Ice to Eskimos

The sales process – particularly for Enterprise Software – is a challenging combination of art, science, personality, empathy and luck.  It’s interesting to see all the dynamics around sales and the need or the lack thereof with new business strategies.  When open source first took off, I recall reading that one of the benefits was that the technical folks could write really great code and no longer need sales guys to pester all their developer friends to purchase anything.  Many open source companies created Inside Sales forces only – selling software over the phone to developers who apparently didn’t want to talk to any type of sales person in the first place.

So, why (or is) sales important?  I’ve been told I have a unique view on this since I was a software developer for 7 years after college before moving into sales.  While most people would never want me writing code for anything “real” these days, I can still modify my website, write a really bad perl script, or at least understand what a Java program is doing if I look at it hard enough.  But my focus over the past 15 years or so has been to work with customers to use the software that my company produced rather than producing it myself.

Going back to my first job when I was coding, I had an opportunity to work closely with our sales team who was selling an enterprise backup/archival system in the early 90’s.  Our star salesman had a framed print of him next to an Igloo above his desk, with the caption “can sell ICE to ESKIMOS!!”  When I first saw that, I was a big put off – my initial thought was that this guy would sell something that somebody else did not need just because he could – and he had the savvy, personality and charm to do exactly that.  It gave me a negative view of salespeople, and was an initial roadblock in my move to sales, as I could never see myself in that way.

When I really started thinking about moving into sales, I finally reconciled it with myself and my wife that it was ok because I wasn’t a car salesman, I was selling technology – and that took a special level of knowledge that a “typical” salesperson wouldn’t have.

So, fast forward to my latest roles, where I am now known as the guy who can sell ice to Eskimos… how in earth did that happen, and was it a good thing?  (and no, I don’t have a print of me next to Eskimos in my office J)

First, let’s take a look at the Enterprise software lifecycle.  I had a conversation with a colleague who has started his own consulting company.  His goal is to build the “best” applications – using the smartest people and the latest technology.  I’ve heard that in pretty much every startup (software and/or services) that I’ve come across.  What’s interesting is that every time I talk to a customer that is looking for a new application they are typically rebuilding something they had already purchased or built in house and wasn’t working as expected?  If all these companies are building great software with really smart people, shouldn’t it sell itself and last a long time?

Recently, a VC was telling a story about when he was a CEO and they went out to interview their customers to see how they were using their product.  He noted it wasn’t the technical details of the product they spoke of, it was the problem that it solved.  They quickly realized that they should talk less about their technical excellence and more about how people could solve real business problems with their product.

So, what then really “sells” an enterprise software product?  I would suggest that it is three major things:

(1)    Understanding the customers problem

(2)    Showing them how your product has value in solving the problem

(3)    Helping them understand that you’ll be there with them throughout the journey and partner in their success

Notice that none of these have to do with the product itself – obviously the product must work as advertised, but having a sustainable and repeatable relationship with a customer requires empathy, a service ethic and a desire to solve problems.  If you can effectively manage these skills (and the best sales people can), then you can indeed sell ice to Eskimos.  My technical knowledge is certainly helpful in achieving these goals, but not a driver in delivering these three core values.  The insight that I had truly become a sales person was when I realized I could sell cars, or anything else, as long as I knew what the value was in that product.

Bottom line – it’s awfully rare for any product to be able to sell itself – because products don’t tend to deliver the selling points above on their own, people do.  Find people that can do that for your product and you’ll have a winning combination.