“The past year was marked by changes to the business environment, as customers adapted to a new market reality. Customer buying behavior shifted to an emphasis on smaller transactions and projects with immediate return; decision making moved increasingly to line of business executives and away from the traditional IT power base of the CIO; and there were increased requirements for solutions to help CEOs, COOs, and CFOs manage performance, compliance, and gain more business insight for faster decision making.”
SAP’s powerful admission that customer [executive] buying behaviors had changed set the stage for an ambitious transformation to bring them closer to customer executives and to increase speed to value.
The most successful companies (and sales professionals) deal with reality and adapt to changing customer buying behaviors. John Chambers from Cisco Systems provides the best advice. “Deal with the world the way it is, not the way you wish it was.”
Are You Dealing With Changing Customer Buying Behavior?
Are you dealing with the new market reality of technology decision making moving increasingly to line of business executives and away from the traditional IT power base of the CIO? Actually, this shift has been underway for years now but the recent financial crisis has accelerated its impact.
Obviously, CIOs are still very important buy-side executive targets for technology sales professionals seeking sponsorship. Today, the CIO must have strong business acumen to collaborate with executive management across the organization. Don’t fall into the trap (advocated by some “sales gurus”) of diminishing the importance of the CIO.
Nonetheless, the reality is that most of today’s major technology decisions are being made by the executive team, including representation from operations, sales and marketing, and finance. CIO decisions are increasingly influenced (and sometimes overruled) by line of business and corporate executives.
This new customer buying behavior, prompted by the financial crisis, creates enormous implications to you, the sales professional.
First, it broadens the scope of target executives for your relationship-building efforts. Next, it lengthens sales cycles as you devise strategies to work with existing IT contacts to reach line of business executives. And third, and perhaps most importantly, it requires you to think like an executive and add business value to gain relevance with customer executives in multi-function disciplines.
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
In my experience as a buy-side executive and sales training industry professional, I’ve found many sales professionals are completely outside their comfort zone and lacking in confidence when it comes to articulating the business and financial value they can bring to customer relationships. If you’re in this category, the shift in customer buying behavior is enormous and should be a “wake up” call as you begin to execute your sales plans in 2011.
As a technology sales professional, you have two choices: Take John Chamber’s advice and deal with the world the way it is and adjust your selling strategies; or continue to do business as usual and hope this customer buying paradigm change is just temporary and will go away when the economic growth rate gets back to “normal”. If you chose the latter approach, good luck!
For those of you embracing the new reality of selling the business and financial value of technology to a broad base of business executives, welcome to the club. Your decision to expand your comfort zone is step number one in your personal sales transformation and you are to be congratulated. But the reality is your competition may be years ahead of you in this journey.
So what can you do to catch up? Here are four specific recommendations to adapt to the new market realities.
- Assess Your Executive Engagement Competencies – The starting point for any serious self-improvement effort is to gain conscious insight into the competencies required for successfully selling at the executive level. If available, ask your learning and development support contact person for a recommendation of how to accomplish this baseline assessment. Strive to receive multiple assessments across a broad base of skills and behaviors.
- Work on Improving Your Business and Financial Acumen – Nothing builds confidence more than making the investment of time to learn the language of business. You don’t need to be an expert, but you do have to get better (perhaps much better) to sustain relationships with business-based executives. Again, ask your learning and development support contact person for assistance.
- Seek to Understand the Buy-Side Executive Mindset – Successful current and former sales professionals can provide only so many insights as to the thinking of a buy-side executive. The best way to accelerate your learning is to get it straight “from the horse’s mouth”. Seek out safe buy-side executive acquaintances both inside your company and in your personal life. Ask them direct questions and start cataloguing their responses. Perhaps consider joining a LinkedIn group which I moderate called ‘Selling to Executives’. This unique group provides a forum for serious-minded sales professionals to interact with a large and growing panel of buy-side executives in a conversation devoid of risk and selling pressures. If you have interest, follow this link to join: http://www.linkedin.com/groupRegistration?gid=3214899).
- Use Social Media to Gain Relevance with Buy-Side Executives – Use LinkedIn, Twitter, company websites, and the blogosphere to uncover current trends, current thinking, and business priorities in the today’s world of buy-side executives. (My recent blog posting, Five Ideas to Improve Your Customer Executive Relevancy in 2011, might be a good starting point.) Join groups, virtual and real, to practice interacting with these decision-makers. And read the books, periodicals, and websites that they read to gain further insights into their areas of interest and perspective.
The pundits believe 2011 will be a better year for technology investments with spending returning to more traditional levels. But, as SAP points out, the decision-making process around these investments is anything but traditional. Make an investment in yourself in 2011 and work on the skills that will give you more confidence to articulate the business and financial value of your solutions with a broader range of buy-side executives. It’s a wise allocation of time given the new market reality.