Reality Check: Sales reps matter more than product

Published on July 14, 2008 by John Ragsdale

I haven’t posted for so long, butI felt like I had to give Mr. Analyst of the Year a break and actually write something.

Over the last year I have become increasingly aware of something and wanted to share it with a larger audience. When I have conversations with companies about a pending software purchase (usually CRM or eService), they tell me the core business problems they are trying to solve, then give me the list of vendors they are considering. And almost every time, I hear a little jingle from Sesame Street in my head:

One of these things is not like the other
One of these things just doesn’t belong
Can you guess which thing is not like the other
By the time I finish this song?

Why? Because the obvious vendor(s) who are specialists in their problem are not on the list, and they are selecting from a group of vendors who all do something else. So I ask, “Um, why isn’t Vendor X on the list?” And here is the universal reply. “Oh, we started with them, but their sales rep was an asshole.”

I don’t think developers and marketers at high tech companies have any idea how many deals they are losing based on the personality of the sales rep. What is really shocking is how many times the obvious ‘best fit’ vendor is dismissed from a deal because:

  • The sales rep was arrogant (I’ve heard this a dozen times about 1 vendor in particular)
  • The sales rep was late to multiple meetings and conference calls and the company felt the vendor didn’t want the business
  • The sales rep didn’t know bumpkis about the product functionality and tried to BS their way through–always a big turnoff

Maybe I’m a troublemaker (OK, I admit it, I am) but sometimes I contact the vendor who lost a particular deal and asked them about it. So far, not a single time has the ‘win/loss’ report had anything about the sales rep or the sales process. Usually it is a useless excuse like, “they weren’t ready to make a decision,” when that obviously wasn’t the case. Or, “we couldn’t meet their price,” when I knew the discussions never even got that far.

This is all very frustrating for me, because I want to see companies buy the right product to fix the right problem, and when there is a mis-match from day 1, it isn’t good for any of us. The customer ultimately doesn’t receive the ROI they expect. The vendor never has a referenceable customer. And I have far fewer success stories to write about than I should.

There is so much pressure in my industry (service and support) on after call satisfaction surveys, I wonder why companies aren’t doing a better job of understanding the impression their sales staff is making on customers? Why doesn’t the VP of sales follow up with prospects after the initial sales visit and ask how it went? Why doesn’t someone other than sales create the win/loss reports so at least companies know how much business they are losing because of sales rep hubris?

So all you Software Insiders who read this blog, ask yourself, “when was the last time I did a ‘ride along’ on a sales call?” Regardless of what your role is (engineering, support, marketing, etc.), maybe you should start making your presence known in more customer facing sales situations. From what I’m hearing, you may be shocked at what you see.

Thanks for reading!

John Ragsdale

Ragsdale’s Eye On Service

  • Software sales reps, like people in general, are extremely diverse with regard to personality and communication style with clients. Those with integrity and a long-term viewpoint are the ones who will retain accounts. At the same time, my sense is that customer-side negotiators come in all flavors as well. Those I’ve worked worked with that I admire the most are those who maintain some professional emotional distance from the proceedings and treat their opponents with respect and civility at all times, even when they are being completely unreasonable ;-)

    -br

  • I have been a sales representative for software companies for nearly 20 years – In that time, I have been asked off an account exactly once. Circumstances aside, my manager assigned the account to another representative. (That unfortunate rep still feels that he drew the short straw due to the horrible way in which the account interacts with vendors.)

    There is no doubt that you separate yourself from the competition by the way you conduct yourself, however I don’t believe in the adage that the “customer is always right”. If the customer/vendor relationship is not considered by both sides to be a partnership, then a relationship is difficult to establish and probably doomed. There is just as much onus on the customer to conduct themselves in a professional and respectful manner. Just because I am a vendor and supplying something that you can get somewhere else, does not give the client the right to be less than civil – regardless of the economy. Mutual respect and conduct is necessary for any relationship to work.

  • I referred one of our SMB members to one of our software vendor partners recently. The guy had budget and wanted to kick off a project. The sales rep he reached immediately said, “Whoa–you are too small for me. I don’t want any deal under $100,000.” I contacted the sales and marketing management of the company multiple times and they have not replied. Do you think I’ll ever refer members to that partner again?

  • Guys,

    I can provide two things to this:

    1) an Amen to John’s post. So many times I run into this before, I can second the feelings and emotions on all he says! (I also second his opinion on letting the analyst of the year rest a little bit this week :)).

    2) my take on this from seven years as an analyst. I often encountered this situation where I asked the question about Vendor X and was told they had a(n) arrogant/SOB/bad/ignorant/choose-your-adjective salesperson. I always, always offered to get them someone else to talk to. I would then write to the appropriate people at the vendor (smaller vendors it would be the CEO, bigger vendors could be either someone in Product Management or Sales – usually in higher positions). These problems were quickly solved.

    Just as my mom told me in the fourth grade – you cannot let people do what they want to you, you have to stand up for yourself (it did backfired though, as I was suspended for “standing up for myself” with a fist to someone’s face – then the lesson about not hitting came around).

    I digress, I did not encounter a single instance when the client was not happy, or the vendor thankful. Vendors don’t appreciate that behavior any more than you do – and you just have to let them know. If you don’t know how, reach out to Ray or your favorite analyst (that would also be Ray, btw) and ask for help.

    That is one of the reasons we are (were) there for our clients.

    Thanks for letting me vent… feel better now.

    Esteban

  • I agree – The attitudes of sales and service staff constitute the face of the company. Smart companies do an enormous amount of listening to customers (and that means monitoring call centers,immersing executives in customer facing situations, implementing VOC programmes and a host of other activities) and empowering their front-line employees to have the “right stuff”.
    Although the VP of Sales ought to be working on this with his sales people I think it’s actually not right for him to try to own this problem. I think it takes direction from the CEO to ensure that customer-centric attitudes pervade across the whole organization. What the customer sees is the rep’s attitude – but that attitude is the product of everything behind the rep.
    For case studies of B2C and B2B companies that are making strides towards customer-centric transformations, I recommend “The Chief Customer Officer” by Jeanne Bliss:
    http://www.amazon.com/Chief-Customer-Officer-Getting-Passionate/dp/0787980943/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1233888980&sr=8-1

  • Dear Anonymous, had that problem in the past with 1.) an SAP relationship manager and 2.) a PPM too, vendor. Don’t wait for the vendor to replace the sales rep, be the squeaky wheel and let the arrogant SOB’s VP know how you feel. Make a stink. In most cases the old saying goes, “the customer is always right,” and in these economic conditions, vendors should be bending over (backwards or otherwise) to please their customers. So, if you don’t speak up, and you’re waiting for the vendor to magically replace the sales rep, you may be waiting a long time.

  • John, we have this problem with our Oracle rep in China. They think they own the database market and treat us so poorly. On the other hand, our Microsoft and IBM reps are much nicer to us and we tend to go with their products b/c of the relationship.

  • John, this is so true. We actually stopped talking to Vendor X even though we know the product is better. The problem, the guy is an arrogant SOB and we just can’t have a real conversation with him. We’re waiting till the replace the sales rep

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