Beware, the Technology Sales Death Spiral

Learning people’s needs is how I earn my bread and butter, it is how I build products they want and creating brands they can connect with. But in my travels, I’ve worked with a lot of sales people. Heck, I’ve done sales, having to sell what I, and my agency, can do for customers.

There is one pattern I’ve witnessed that all technology sales people should be aware of and beware. Let me explain by telling a little tale.

It all starts out well enough. Our intrepid salesperson is on a call talking about the latest offering from their company. Getting the meeting was a challenge, but now they are in, this is their chance. The sales person gets about halfway through their presentation when they notice they are starting to lose their audience.

Wanting to pull this out of a nosedive, the sales person mentions that new thing, that thing their CTO night have mentioned in passing in a sales meeting earlier this week. Eyes brighten up, and the sales person starts going way off script, describing the new wonder technology. When they try to bring things back to the tech they have now, their prospect shakes their head, no they want the new tech, when will it be ready. Our hero tells them three months; that seems reasonable, right?

Back at the office, our salesperson is informed, “no,” the scheduled release is six months away. Undeterred they book a meeting in three months with plans to talk about what is ready so far. At the meeting, our sales person is meet a few new faces all eager for the new product, but it is not done yet. Our sales person talks about the new product but reveals it won’t be available for another three months, delays you know. Then tries to steer back to the current offering. People are a little annoyed.

Three months later, our sales person returns again. This time, there are still more new faces at the meeting, the demo goes well, they want the new tech, but then one person says, hey two competitors came in with similar technology last week, and another asks if the sales person has metrics from other clients that prove performance. At this point, there are of course no metric since the product is new and may not even be in the hands of customers. The prospects now tell the sales person to return when they have metrics to share.

Getting a good story takes time, so while marketing would love to help our sales person, they can’t simply magic up some metrics. Everyone has to wait for a sale, for data to be collected, analyzed and permission obtained to share this data. By now, another three months has passed, our sales person is now on “the plan” since they told many of their prospects about the new technology nine months ago since that seems to get them into meetings with an attentive and excited audience. Our sales person is now on the edge; they need to close this deal.

On their next return the turnout for the meeting is back to their original contact, the lowest level person they have met at the company. This person’s job is just to get the metrics, but they have heard about this product so many times it is hard for them to focus and tell what’s new inform as it all sounds like something they heard before. In fact, it is relayed that by now, all of the salespeople from competing companies are claiming to have similar, if not superior, technology. Crestfallen and a little desperate, our hero mentions something new they just heard about—which peeks some curiosity and starts the whole process again.

Sadly, our hero does not get to stick around long enough to come back in three to six months to demo the new technology. Instead, their replacement gets to do that after showing first to demo the current offering is told no, come back with the new stuff. But we know how that meeting ends, with the inevitable request for metrics from another client.

The above describes what I call the sales death spiral.

The death spiral can be avoided by selling what is available, not what might be, even if it is soon. It is the old saying, “one in the hand is worth more than two in the bush, personified in the modern sales world.

“But wait,” you say, “what about all that Lean Startup and Customer Development talk?” you ask. While I believe fully in both Lean Startup and Customer Development, these are tools that should be used for validation, not for saving a pitch gone wrong. In the above story, had the company of our sales person used the Lean Startup or Customer Development methodologies, leadership would have sold the product to a customer as part of a beta or a launch partner. A savvy company would include the opportunity to use success metrics to build case study, positioning the early adopter as a leader in their field for taking the plunge with this new technology. An example of a company using Lean Startup is how Optimizely initially sold vaporware to validate their assumptions.

Photo credit: Bill Benzon via photopin (license)