Customers Aren’t Widgets


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I’ve always thought sales is more science than art.  I believe selling is a set of disciplined processes, many of which can be “engineered” to optimize our ability to engage the right customers/prospects, with the right conversations, at the right time.

Whether it’s a recruiting/onboarding process, talent management/people development, account/territory management, opportunity/deal management, pipeline/forecasting, prospecting, time management, performance management, defining/communicating/delivering value, and on and on; driving performance and more predictable outcomes is a what all modern sales professionals and leaders can achieve.

We develop these by with strong, purposeful strategies, based on deep understanding of customers and what is most effective in developing and growing relationships with them.  We develop these by identifying those things we must do to consistently produce results for our customers, our organizations, and the people in both the customer and our organizations.

We’ve seen individuals and organizations not doing these things in consistent, systematic, disciplined ways fail.

In recent years we’ve increasingly leveraged technology, both to improve productivity, but to automate as much of these processes as we can.  Even to the point that some commoditized or repeat buys are completely automated on the customer and supplier sides.  We are starting to see the capabilities of AI (I prefer the Augmented Intelligence descriptor to the Artificial Intelligence descriptor) enabling us to do even more in all areas of sales and marketing.

However, we are repeatedly see descriptions of selling becoming more like that of a manufacturing line–input a prospect at the beginning of the process, move them step by step through our sales machine, and at the end we spit out a paying customer.

We’ve developed predictable models of moving these customers through the process in very high volumes/velocity.  Disciplined inbound/outbound programs, SDRs to AE to Demo to someone else to Proposal to Close to Customer Success Teams.  One begins to see images of assembly lines with customers on a conveyor belt moving from station to station.

The problem is, customers are not widgets.

Each individual is different.  While they may hold similar jobs in similar companies, they are individuals with differing dreams, aspirations, fears.  Their companies are different, even though they may be head to head competitors, each company has a different culture, differing strategies, differing priorities.  How things get done in each is different.  Buying groups are different–independent of any vendor interaction, they struggle among themselves and within their own organizations.  Too often their projects or buying journeys end in nothing being done.

For those of you with strong manufacturing/agile backgrounds, we call this variability–and high variability is the killer of efficient and predictable processes.

Perhaps the most subtly arrogant assumption of this assembly line mentality is that we are in control.  The customer is in control, and always has been.  They have their own processes they must undertake.  To be successful, we have to align with their process, not force them through our factory.

For complex B2B customer buying processes, they are, very often, they are ugly and unpredictable.  They often end in failure or abandonment.  Increasingly, more people are involved–according to the CEB, it’s now at 6.8.  In complex B2B buying processes, it’s easy to understand this challenge–they probably don’t buy frequently so they don’t know how to buy, the buying process is a diversion from their day jobs, and there are a lot of people with different priorities/interests.  Even professional buyers struggle with these issues within their own organizations.

Layer on top of this, things change as they go through their buying process, people may change, priorities may change, needs/requirements may change.

And it’s different from customer to customer, situation to situation.

Then finally, these buyers are people, not objects.  They don’t necessarily behave rationally, they have ambitions, fears, ugly unpredictable things called emotions.  They may be concerned with things entirely outside the buying decison (a kid’s soccer game, putting away money for a college fund), but which impact them in the process.  Things like trust, relationships come into play.

All this adds on to the variability–the enemy of this manufacturing line orientation to selling.

Fortunately, our manufacturing colleagues have already seen much of this in dealing with inanimate objects.  They’ve seen in some processes variability can’t be predicted or eliminated.  They’ve developed highly adaptive and agile processes.

Rather than objects going down the assembly line with each station doing it’s function (e.g. get a meeting, do the discovery, do a demo(hopefully related to the discovery), present a proposal, ask for the order….), they look at the process differently.  Things like clustered work cells, where teams work together accomplishing multiple tasks and able to respond to changes/variability in real time–widget by widget.  In manufacturing, they’ve focused on developing workers skills to understand and solve problems, to think critically, to leverage teams to address these challenges.

One of the key things these manufacturers have learned is you have to put the authority to making decisions about how to address problems on the manufacturing floor, with the people dealing with the issues.  Having to always go up the food chain to gain approval destroys productivity, increases expense, increases waste, and decreases quality.

We can learn a lot from these techniques, incorporating concepts of adaptability, agility, collaboration, real time problem solving, and delegating decisionnmaking  into our engagement with customers.

Just as smart manufacturing executives have, done, we can invest in hiring people with these capabilities, providing skills around critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration.  We can trust our people to make the right decisions in real time.

But there will always be that wonderful gap.  The single thing that makes selling the most exciting profession in the world.

Customers aren’t inanimate objects.  They aren’t widgets.  They’re people!

We and they have all the quirks, insecurities, imperfections that make each person unique.  We change our minds, we aren’t logical (as Mr. Spock discovered decades ago).  The more of us that get together on a project, the more challenging it is in managing the various agendas, priorities, and perspectives.

We can systematize many things.  We can become more efficient and more effective.

In the end, the wonderful thing about selling is it’s people dealing with people!  Think of the poor folks in manufacturing that are just dealing with widgets.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


  1. Of course they are widgets. That is what companies think when they assign these widgets to technology. Their hope is that customers will recognise and accept themselves as widgets

  2. In ‘Caddyshack’, after uncouth rich guy,Al Czervik, insults Judge Smalls’ wife, she says to him: “You! You! You’re no gentleman!” Czervik replies: “I’m no doorknob, either.” Czervik represents a truly different kind of individual than most of the snobby and yuppie country club members. His lifestyle and decision-making processes are different, distinctive to him. He has a rainbow-colored sports jacket. He has a radio playing (Journey) in his golf bag. His cabin cruiser is named ‘Seafood’. In a word, Al Czervik is unique.

    Thinking of Czervik as a customer, then, means that he has to be approached as a micro-segment of one, As well-noted in your post, for each customer, “….things change as they go through their buying process, people may change, priorities may change, needs/requirements may change. And it’s different from customer to customer, situation to situation.” Assembly-line selling, or relationship-building, isn’t very effective.


  3. Michael, thanks for your comment. Too often, unfortunately, in our quests for sales productivity, we lose sight of this fundamental truth. We also forget, customers are voting with their wallets, and they want personalization/focus on them and their problems. Those sellers forgetting this will see it reflected in their results.

    Gautam, even if your comment is intended to be irony, I have to admit I don’t understand it. Perhaps you can expand.

  4. My comment was that many companies think that technology will take care of customers (and so they treat customers as widgets), And the companies hope customers will get used to this and accept it as a norm.
    I am complete agreement with you. Customers are people, not widgets, Don’t convert them into widgets

  5. Customers, just as all businesses, are unique. No two alike. We wouldn’t expect each business down the street to operate the same nor should they expect the customer to act or except the same.


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