Buyer Empowerment: Redefine Selling to Help Customers Achieve Their Goals


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In the last twenty years, revolutionary shifts in buying behavior have occurred. Vendors have responded at a leisurely pace with what I believe have been tepid evolutionary changes. The gap between how buyers want to buy and their buying experiences appears to be a widening chasm.

B2B selling today has roots in an approach created over a century ago. John Patterson founded National Cash Register in 1884. He hired salespeople, assigned territories and quotas, paid commissions, created sales scripts and trained sellers on objection handling. He pioneered the concept of doing demos at offsite locations to minimize the noise and distractions for store owners.

Patterson brilliantly designed NCR’s selling approach around a business outcome rather than a product. The value cash registers provided to owners was the ability to virtually eliminate theft by employees handling cash. Tom Watson was a sales manager for Patterson prior to founding IBM where he adopted a similar selling approach.

The fuel driving the recent changes in buyer behavior has been a nearly universal distrust of sellers thought to be guilty of sins of hype, omission or outright lying. That is the prevalent stereotype of salespeople. Until the late 1990’s, when new offerings were announced interested buyers had little choice but to contact sellers that parsed out product information as they saw fit.

Buyers Don’t Want to Be Sold

Most everyone has made purchase decisions that left them feeling they had been taken advantage of, manipulated, over-sold or pressured into buying. Today buyers want to establish their requirements without the influence or persuasion of salespeople. Buyers have been able to level the playing field with sellers by using technology.

It took a decade for vendors to make a response to how buyers were leveraging the Internet and social networking. To quote Alyssa Drury of Seismic Software: “Sales Enablement seemed to appear out of midair sometime in the middle of the last decade. When you consider selling has been around almost as long as humanity, it’s a wonder “sales enablement” is so new to us.”

The announcement of Sales Enablement (SE) initiatives used a tried and true strategy vendors have employed when revenue growth for an offering wanes. They simply add functionality and change the name of the offering. For example, MRP became MRP II prior to becoming ERP. And, SFA became CRM.

It’s incredible that vendors believed a name change was an appropriate response to the changes in buying behavior made by their customers and prospects. It seemed to demonstrate how far out of touch vendors are with buyers. Even the words chosen to create the new moniker seem inappropriate and potentially offensive to the buying community:

  • Sales – The primary takeaway from the last 20 years is that buyers don’t want to be sold. They want to buy. The choice of the word sales shows vendors continue looking inward rather than outward. My suggestion is that the word sales be replaced with Buyer. It would at least show vendors were looking in the right direction, and it should be more about buying rather than selling.

  • Enablement – This ultimately infers that SE will provide sellers the means to sell. This flies in the face of my comments above. I suggest replacing enablement with Empowerment.

When asked to define selling, buyers and sellers use words like convincing, persuading and overcoming objections. Buyer Empowerment can be a foundation to redefine selling.

Empower Buyers to Achieve Their Goals

Selling seems to be something done to buyers rather than for or with them. As an alternative, selling can be redefined: Asking questions to empower buyers to achieve goals or solve problems through the use of a seller’s offering. This definition establishes that buying cycles begin when buyers share goals or problems they’re willing to spend money to achieve or address.

I believe vendors could be more successful if their focus was more on customer business outcomes and less on products. Rather than starting with product pitches most executives won’t tolerate, why not identify the Key Player titles that sellers must call on to sell, fund and implement offerings? Then for each title create a menu of goals (desired business outcomes) that can be achieved through the use of a vendor’s offering. At high levels there is no demand for offerings. Sellers can create demand by helping to uncover latent buyer goals that can be achieved with their offerings. Desired business outcomes are the reasons buyers will spend money.

Once buyers share goals many sellers feel that gives them permission to jump into product pitches. This is at least partly due to the amount of noun-based product training that is pounded into their brains. The reality is executive buyers are most interested in learning about how offerings can be used to achieve their goals. They want a high level understanding of the capabilities needed. They have neither the time nor desire to be “educated.”

Use Verbs to Focus on Usage, Not Products

A few years ago I introduced myself to a salesperson attending one of my workshops. Bill was a chemical engineer working for a company I was unfamiliar with. When asked what he sold he answered industrial adhesives. I asked if he was selling glue. He looked a little put off, so we settled on expensive glue. I then asked him to tell me more. In retrospect it was a mistake to ask a chemical engineer to describe a chemical compound. Bill launched into a product pitch that took about a minute (but seemed much longer than that). I only remember 5 words he uttered: polymers, elasticity, viscosity and molecular bonding.

When he mercifully came up for air, I shared with him that he had described his offering as though it were a noun and I wasn’t sure what a polymer was. I then asked if he could describe his expensive glue as though it were a verb (i.e. talk about the gluing). He took a few seconds to gather himself before telling me aerospace was their biggest vertical. In building planes first the frames were manufactured and then aluminum skins had to be affixed. Most aerospace companies used rivets, but they were bad. When asked why he said that rivets:

  1. Put holes in the frame and therefore weakened the structure
  2. Added weight to the aircraft
  3. Were more expensive than glue (labor and materials)
  4. Increased drag that reduced fuel economy

He summarized that his expensive glue allowed manufacturers to make airplanes that were stronger, lighter, lower cost, and more fuel efficient. When Bill described his offering as a noun I remembered (and didn’t fully understand) five words. When he described his offering as a verb I remembered almost word for word what was said. I later imagined how ineffective his pitch would have been for a CFO and how interested he or she could have been if Bill could focus on usage.

Next Steps

Adopting the term Buyer Empowerment would be a modest, symbolic step in trying to redefine selling. Vendors that learn how to focus on outcomes, usage and empowering people to buy can make the way their sellers sell a competitive differentiator. Having the silos of Product Development, Product Marketing, Marketing and Sales view offerings as verbs rather than nouns would help keep the focus on usage rather than offerings.


  1. Hi John: I agree that when it comes to adapting to buyer needs, many companies are slow on the uptake, sales-wise. There are many – too many – people who take a pejorative view of selling and salespeople in general. This is unfortunate. As your historical thumbnail of the sales profession represents, salespeople behave according to how they are managed, coached, and paid. And for a long time, the result has been less than positive for customers. But as I have commented elsewhere, it’s more appropriate for buyers to direct vitriol at management, and not at sales reps. Most reps I know act in direct accordance with their pay incentives and commission plan.

    But I disagree that changes in today’s buying process are largely attributable to antipathy toward salespeople. As you’ve described it, “The fuel driving the recent changes in buyer behavior has been a nearly universal distrust of sellers thought to be guilty of sins of hype, omission or outright lying.” Legacy sales practices have done little to elevate the reputation of the selling profession, but I think it’s more complicated than that. Technology certainly plays a role as does shifting supply chain power.

    I also see the evolution of sales enablement differently. MRP and MRP II systems are about as similar to ERP as a tricycle is to an automobile. Vendors didn’t simply bolt on functionality and re-alphabet because their cash cows lost their mojo, but rather they re-architected in response to market demand for enterprise-wide planning systems and the cost efficiencies provided by unified database architecture.

    Buyer empowerment has received a lot of attention lately, and the focus can be beneficial to companies that for too long have gotten by with a product-centric sales focus. Which, as you point out, has led to high pressure and manipulative tactics. But the fundamental purpose of a sales organization is persuasion. “Sellers can create demand by helping to uncover latent buyer goals that can be achieved with their offerings.” I fully agree. But I believe that customers want to be sold. There should be no shame in that, and no redefinition is needed. The don’t want to be sold expression has stuck because sold and its derivatives have become so badly stained. The bigger issue is how they want to be sold. The companies that have achieved revenue success don’t eschew the word sold. Instead, they’ve concentrated on how to do it the right way, developed the right strategy, and mastered the tactics.

    Selling is selling. What’s needed is not re-definition, but a fresh look on how to do it the best way.

  2. Thanks for your comments. The majority of Sales Enablement initiatives seem to me to be rearranging furniture rather than remodeling. MRP, MRP II and ERP are different but instances where name changes were used. SFA in the mid 90’s was floundering badly. CRM (an audacious name) added functionality but SaaS was probably the largest factor in CRM’s ultimate acceptance and success.

    In my mind the negative stereotype of sellers is formed early in our lives by B2C transactions with sellers we’ll never see again (car salesmen being the worst offenders). Buyers fail to realize B2C sellers have vested interests in delivering results and growing wallet share with customers. The “stain” around being sold/selling is pervasive.

    The difference between buying and selling is who’s in control. After air, water, food and shelter Maslow said that people crave control. When entering an electronics store to buy a home theater system and asked “May I help you?” most people respond: “No, I’m just looking.” They are concerned sellers will try to persuade/convince them to buy more than they need. If a buyer first read a copy of Consumer Reports, understood her needs, had specific models recommended, went into the store and was asked “May I help you?” The response would be some thing like; “Yes. I want a Sonos sound bar with 3 remote speakers.

    A large part of the problem is the product focus companies have and the amount of product training they pound into sellers. Executive buyers don’t have the bandwidth to learn all about complex B2B offerings. Only about 10% of sellers can convert that product training into a coherent conversation about desired outcomes and how his/her offering can be used to empower buyers to achieve the desired business results.


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