My very first sales job was during the summer between my first and second year of university. My dad had a close friend who owned his own company, and because his friend was a decent guy, he took me on as his paid intern for the summer.
The company was an industrial parts supplier, selling things like chemical solvents and manufacturing parts. It didn’t really matter to me – I was young and university-poor, and needed the job experience – I was happy to have any job that paid during the summer time off.
On my first day, after getting through all the paperwork and getting a tour of the place, my dad’s friend/my boss showed me to my desk. He put a stack of product brochures down and said, “Read through these so you can learn about the products we sell.”
I thought: Yay! I’m learning stuff! Real job stuff! Working world stuff!
Then he slapped a very large phone book on the desk next to the brochures. For those of you too young to remember what a phone book is: It’s about 8 ½ by 11 inches in size, and about 4 inches in depth of paper, bound together, with alphabetically listed names and phone numbers. It looks like a physical manifestation of the Contacts icon on your mobile device.
He said, “This is the national manufacturers list. Call through this book and try to sell them one of our products based on the type of manufacturer they are. When you get a hot lead, record it on these slips of pink paper and give it to the appropriate salesperson in the office.”
And then he left to do a call.
I sat staring at the office wall. How was I to get some random person whose number I found in a phone book to buy a random product that they may or may not need? Weren’t my odds better if I played a lotto ticket and made the company money that way?
Although I was an entirely clueless summer intern, I did have the presence of mind to stall in creative ways while I figured out how to not cold-call through a phone book of industrial manufacturers. I asked my dad’s friend/my boss if he could take me on some of his customer visits so I could understand how the products got used. He was very willing to share his vast knowledge of the industry (*always* cater to a person’s ego, it’s much easier than doing stuff) so I tagged along with him during the first few weeks on the job.
One site visit was to an automotive assembly line. The part we sold fit at the section where paint would get sprayed onto the bumper of the car being assembled. I asked my dad’s friend/my boss what made our part so special?
He said, “It blows at a pressure that is perfect for the application of this paint on that part.”
But, why OUR part and not another supplier? Why did they choose us?
He said, “We have a great relationship, better than the other guys in the market. He trusts me, so he buys from me.”
But, how did you get into that relationship? Are your dads friends? Do you have compromising pictures of him?
He said, “I knew he was using an inferior part, so I called him up one day and introduced myself. I told him that by using his current part, it was costing him over $500 in wasted paint per bumper. If he switched over to our part, he’d save that, plus more in the efficiency gain. He invited me into his office the next day and we struck a deal that has lasted for the past four years.”
But, how did you KNOW that would work?
That’s when he looked me with dead seriousness in his eyes and said: “I didn’t.”
I must have looked like one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons when the bottom of the toon’s mouth hits the floor with a loud CLANG!
He said, “I made an educated guess based on what I know about similar manufacturing processes and the efficiency of the competitive parts. In Sales, you need to learn everything about the challenges customers have and how they can solve those challenges with what you’re selling. And you have to be incredibly confident that what you are selling solves that problem better than anyone else, and that the customer would be crazy to not buy you because of all the value they’d get. Basically, you need to put yourself out there and sell that you are confident no one else solves the problem like you do.”
I put those ideas into practice as I started calling through that phone book. I heard, “No thanks” and “not interested” and click! a lot.
Do you know what it feels like to have multiple people tell you in a given day that they are not interested in anything you have to say? It’s like arriving at a party, introducing yourself, and after you answer the question, “what do you do?” having every person turn their back and walk away from you. I’d like to say it builds character, but I think it more likely builds an anxiety complex that takes years of therapy to work through.
But I did manage to convince a few folks that summer to talk to one of our salespeople. And my dad’s friend/my boss’s words continued to resonate with me throughout my career.
Sales Enablement and the Context of Messaging
The obvious answer to “what am I selling” is that it’s the product/service/widget that a customer can purchase from your company for a negotiated price. If you were a farmer, it would be the produce you have available on your truck to sell at the local market to families, hipsters and de rigueur vegans.
It is vital that a salesperson understand what is on the produce truck. They should know every vegetable, fruit and legume in stock on that truck and the important details about said stock. They should also know what isn’t on the truck, and when it isn’t available, so they don’t accidentally sell oranges when they’re out of season.
Product teams, whether they are product management or product marketers, are typically best equipped to provide the detailed information on what it is the salesperson has available on the truck to sell. Traditionally, the product team dumps that detailed information on the seller, assuming the seller will figure out the best way to sell the stock on the truck.
The interesting nuance is that in most complex selling environments, the potential customer isn’t interested in the orange that is on the truck; they’re interested in all the ways that orange will help solve a problem they have; for example, scurvy.
As I learned during my summer internship, it’s not enough to know the product I’m selling; I need to know everything about the challenges customers have and how they can solve those challenges with what I’m selling. I need to provide context to the customer, so they can easily understand how my product fits in their business.
What I am selling is the solution to a business challenge a customer has; the solution being something I have in stock on my truck.
One of the functions of Sales Enablement must be to translate what the product teams provide on the truck – the orange – into context and language the seller can use to effectively engage the customer – dear Customer, did you know you have the symptoms of scurvy?
The fastest way for Sales Enablement to determine how to put the product into context for the seller is to go out and talk to actual customers.
Wait, you’re thinking, shouldn’t Sales Enablement train the sales team on the product itself first? You may think that and be right. In the same way lemmings think they are right by following other lemmings.
Without customers, a product has no context. Customers have problems that the product you are selling solves. Until a salesperson understands what those problems are, the product can’t be put into context. It’s like being given a screwdriver and told to enter a room. I know how to use a screwdriver; but unless I know what needs to happen in that room, giving me a screwdriver won’t help anyone. It may even hurt a few people, depending on who I find in the room.
When you get the customer on the phone, there is only one question you need to ask: “Why did you buy our software?”
In addition to speaking to customers, you may have access to customer usage data of your product. If your customer logs into your platform, or you are using a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system to track customer activity, you have a tremendous amount of information at your fingertips that can tell you why a customer uses you. That information can articulate what it is you are selling to customers.
I have definitely skirted around the term up until now, because it is so overused in the business world, but essentially what you are trying to uncover is the value your customers get from using your product. I’m not a fan of telling Enablers to articulate the value of their product because it is too ambiguous; what is valuable to one customer may not be valuable to another. Instead, if you understand why a customer uses the product, it provides the context in which you can express the value. It’s the reason why a customer would buy from you and no one else; the business problem you solve in a manner that no one else satisfies. Perhaps you are the only farmer that has all-organic produce at the market, which would be highly valuable to those vegans and any obsessive new parents not wanting to pollute little Aiden’s body with non-organic produce.
Armed with context, an Enabler has the answer to the question, “what am I selling?”. In the absence of product training materials, or user guides, or even a product manual, if you know why your customers are logging into your platform, you can train your sellers on what it is they are selling. Context is everything.