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Positioning: The Next Challenge

How the product is described to potential buyers is its position in the market. Positioning is all-important in the sales process. Although many people harbor a negative stereotype of salespeople, that may be in part because they don’t fully appreciate the skill needed to successfully position a product in the mind of the buyer—or the training that lies behind that success.

In the mid-1970s, one of us—fresh out of college—was hired by IBM’s General Systems Division. The assignment: to sell first-time computer users on the benefits of migrating from their manual accounting systems to a computerized setup. Most of us trainees fell into the trap of believing that we were selling hardware and software. It took us a frustrating couple of months to make the leap—to understand that the decision makers we were pitching to had little or no interest in learning about computer hardware and software. In fact, the product approach actually frightened some of them. It reinforced all their worst notions about the complexity and general scariness of computers.

On the other hand, if the business owner could be shown reports generated by our systems, and if these reports could be shown to be useful tools for making real-life business decisions, we were home free. For example, seeing an inventory report with items sorted by date of last usage would enable buyers to visualize reducing inventory. Who cared about CPU processing speeds, disk capacities, and the like? The hardware and software needed to be described only as the means to a desired end. Remember that this was IBM, which at that time was considered to be the gold standard in most aspects of business, the company that all the others were imitating. IBM, with all of its vaunted staff, expertise, and experience, was leading its new hires down the wrong path. It was teaching them to position products as nouns, rather than verbs.

And the positioning problem is not limited to new hires. For companies with multiple offerings selling into multiple vertical industries, the challenge of positioning offerings becomes formidable, even for the most talented and experienced salespeople.

For example, think about the wide range of people with different job functions a salesperson must communicate with in order to get an enterprise productivity-improvement offering sold, funded, and implemented. In the case of some enterprise sales, this cast of characters can range from technical staff within the information technology (IT) department, through middle management and line vice presidents, and all the way up to the chief financial officer and the CEO. Think how different each of these calls should be. Consider, too, how the length of the sell cycle can vary, depending on whether the salesperson’s point of entry into the buyer’s organization is low, middle, or high.

Let’s go back to the less experienced salesperson. Imagine that a new hire has completed his or her company’s 6-month training program, and that you have the distinction of being the first buyer (victim?) that he or she is calling on. Picture where this call is likely to head, right after the introductions. Unless the salesperson has rare innate customer-focused sales talent, he or she is likely to jump right into the pitch, regardless of the interests of the buyer sitting across the desk. Most likely, the salesperson is thinking, “Hey—if my company thought it was so important for me to understand our offerings, then it must be important for the buyer to understand them as well.”

When was the last time a salesperson called on you and took too long before discussing the offerings? Prior to the salesperson’s getting into the sales pitch, did you indicate any need for the offerings or any reason that you would be a potential buyer? When the salesperson was reciting features of the offerings, what percentage of them were you actually interested in, or felt could be useful to you?

The answer in most cases, of course, is “a very low percentage.” So why do traditional salespeople go this route? Talking about their offerings represents their comfort zone, partly because it was what their company trained them to do. It allows them to feel like experts, and to control the meeting. But leading with features is, in most cases, like driving a car off a cliff. Sure, you’re in charge. But do you really want to be in charge of a car crash, or a failed sales effort? Wouldn’t it be better to succeed?

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