Don’t ‘Sell’ to your customers. Innovate with them instead.

A topic that I’ve been focusing on as of late is the shift in behavior of enterprise buyers. It all started from a conversation I had with Greg Ferro where he brought up the notion that we now transact in a “post information scarcity” business environment. Buyers today have access to a multitude of data, analysis, and feedback regarding the solution they are investigating. Today’s buyers often know a heck of a lot more about the vendor and competitive offerings than the vendor’s own sales organization. In the post information scarcity world, it is increasingly challenging for enterprise sales reps to get time with their buyers. Why would prospects meet with you if they can learn everything about you and your competitors on their own?  This has led me to give a few talks to sales reps on selling differently. In fact, the operative word should be “innovating”, rather than “selling”.

The approach I recommend consists of three core concepts which I’ll describe below.

Understand how your customers/prospects are measured

Many years ago at an executive briefing I posed the following question to a VP of IT for a Fortune 500 company, “How are you measured?”. I could see that he was taken aback by the boldness of question, paused, responded with “You know, that’s the best question I’ve been asked all day” and proceeded to share what his chain of command expected of him and how he intended to prioritize various IT projects based on those expectations. We learned more about his organization and key initiatives in the 10 minutes that followed than the 1/2 day we just spent briefing him about our capabilities and discussing industry trends relevant to his company.

I find that, as vendors, we forget that the buyers we target are themselves employees of corporations with performance management metrics and ladders being climbed. By understanding how the prospective buyers are measured and focusing on their successes, we will naturally identify synergies and properly align selling motion to relevant customer initiatives. Deal slippages are often the result in misalignment in selling motion and customer priority.

Today I open every executive meeting with “How are you measured?” and you should too.

Assess how they adopt new technologies and their appetite for risk.

Adoption of a new technology or innovation does not happen simultaneously across a buying population. Instead, there is a process where buyers are more apt to adopt new technology than others. This process is described in the theory of Diffusion of Innovations which describes five categories of how population adopts new “things”:

  1. Innovators (2.5% of population) – These are people who want to be the first to try the innovation. They are venturesome and interested in new ideas. These people are very willing to take risks, and are often the first to develop new ideas.
  2. Early Adopters (13.5% of population) – These are people who represent opinion leaders. They enjoy leadership roles, and embrace change opportunities. They are already aware of the need to change and so are very comfortable adopting new ideas.
  3. Early Majority (34% of population) – These people are rarely leaders, but they do adopt new ideas before the average person. They typically need to see evidence that the innovation works before they are willing to adopt it.
  4. Late Majority (34% of population) – These people are skeptical of change, and will only adopt an innovation after it has been tried by the majority.
  5. Laggards (16% of population) – These people are bound by tradition and very conservative. They are very skeptical of change and are the hardest group to bring on board.


The “chasm” described by Geoffrey Moore is the transition when a technology goes from appealing to early adopters (pre-chasm) to appealing to early majorities (post-chasm). Those that fail to cross the chasm end up in the “valley of death”, which I’ll save for another time. As a technology vendor, it’s important to recognize the categories the prospective buyers falls into, and employ the appropriate strategy based on product maturity and market penetration. When taking new innovations to market, focus on identifying and winning the early adopters first. Then leverage their successes to build proof points and shepherd in the early majority.

What this also means is that sales teams must learn to walk away from prospects that fall into adopter categories that are mismatched with the maturity of the innovation/product. A successful sale team understands the category of adopters their product appeals to and become laser-focused in their pursuit of those prospects.

Offer informed insights and problem-solve with them. Become a maven.

This last point is particularly relevant in a post information scarcity world. Prospective buyers will engage with vendor sales reps only when they perceive that there is value to be derived from the interaction. Back when information was scarce, vendor sales reps offered value by being the conduit to data sheets, case studies, reference architectures and engineers. That’s not case anymore. Today a buyer or influencer can become very knowledgeable on a product or solution without ever engaging with the vendor. This is achieved through search queries and engaging with their industry peers through social media. Many view the role of sales as purely transactional: quote-maker and PO-taker.

The question you’re probably asking, is, what’s considered valuable to today’s buyers?

We all know that rarely do organizations purchase or adopt a new technology for technology’s sake. Instead, technology buyers are tasked with helping the business overcome challenges and meet stated goals. Therefore it is incumbent upon the vendor reps to become knowledgeable in the prospects’ business and offer informed insights in how the vendor’s offering can deliver meaningful impact to their business. In The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell describes mavens, or “information brokers”, as people that accumulate knowledge about the marketplace, know how to share it, and help solve other people’s problems.

In a post information scarcity world, I believe the role of sales will evolve to that of a maven. Problem-solve and innovate with prospective buyers and become part of their brain trust – this is the value provided by vendors that are truly strategic to their customers.