Out of B-School and Into the Sales Call: The Case for Business Cases


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Some sales VP’s anoint their salespeople with the title Trusted Advisor, and crow about how their teams have consultative selling skills. Part hope, part wishful thinking, part bluster. But like your scratchy Peter Frampton LP from college, it’s an old soundtrack that’s largely delusional. “Do you feeeeeeeeel like we do?”

All that trusty-consulty stuff becomes less genuine when you add quotas, commissions, and bonuses—much of which are opaque to buyers. And win-win karma gets undermined when tactics from unrepentant up-selling, to time pressure, to assumptive closes contaminate customer conversations. Trust, shmust.

But let’s table the debate about whether current sales culture and customer centricity can co-exist without rancor and friction. We can save that for when we’re retired, and have time for philosophical discussions, like whether access to education is a fundamental human right. For now, can we at least agree that salespeople can be nudged toward behaving more objectively with prospects? I believe they can, even under the prevailing go-make-your-number! culture. But it takes a management ethos that includes setting an example worth emulating, and offering salespeople compatible incentives. And to be fair, sales VP’s have the right intent with the Trusted Advisor ideal, but they often don’t support it. Business case analysis can help.

Business case studies closely parallel conditions we encounter in B2B selling. But oddly, few sales organizations regularly use them for staff development. Cases present a soup of facts that often obscure large, murky issues. They don’t serve up formulaic, ordained solution roadmaps. Choices are unclear, and there are many to consider. Some cases don’t include a single question for readers to solve, so questions have to be invented. Consequential information isn’t neatly and precisely culled out, and some is missing altogether. Assumptions must be made. There are underlying personal agendas and power struggles—some documented, some not. Finally, there’s little situational or content consistency from one case to another.

Sound familiar? It should. Case studies depict real-world situations, with a couple of notable differences: someone else has compiled and written the facts, and the information arrives at one time. Still, case analysis provides a valuable set of skills. When a salesperson steps back from a sell-them-my-product-or-service agenda, a more objective set of questions emerges. A salesperson can then apply analytical rigor with the same unfettered objectivity he or she needs when working with prospective clients.

When I taught college courses in Strategic Uses of IT and Enterprise Resource Planning Systems, we used many types of business cases. All were drawn from real-world scenarios. Some included exhaustive financial reports and tables of operations statistics. Others had no quantitative information at all. Not surprisingly, the analyses I received varied wildly in quality. Some were on target, but many were muddled and confused. To help students focus on the central task of making strategic and tactical recommendations, I provided a set of core questions for all case analyses:

1. What is the situation now?
2. Which events or conditions led up to or created the situation?
3. What are the known objectives?
4. In your opinion, are they the right objectives? Why, or why not?
5. What is/are the key issues?
6. Which options exist?
7. What is/are your recommendation(s), and what conditions are required for it/them to succeed?
8. Which risks, opportunities, and trade-offs are inherent in each recommendation?
9. What is/are the reasons for your recommendation(s)?
10. What possibly consequential information is missing from the case, and what are your caveats?
11. What are your key assumptions?
12. If you were a senior executive in the company, which questions are of greatest importance for you to answer?

In addition, I asked that every analysis include descriptions of:

1. The company’s customers, along with their needs in terms of outcomes (not features/capabilities/benefits)
2. Internal competencies/capabilities the organization has that can enable those outcomes
3. Needed competencies the organization lacks
4. Financial resources available
5. Financial targets the organization must achieve
6. How success should be measured

Case analysis opens minds. It provides salespeople an empathetic view into issues prospects face, and the mélange of alternatives for solving them. Not every salesperson can adapt. As “solution providers,” we’re accustomed to working with limited choices and clear alternatives. We promote what we want prospects to do, sacrificing best practices that include objectively defining core problems for our prospects and customers.

Any case analysis solution requires aligning a recommended strategy to a business challenge. That’s familiar turf for sales professionals. But salespeople can learn that having a well-formulated set of questions, and an objective lens through which to view the answers, will yield the best outcomes for customers and vendors alike.

Further reading:

Two excellent cases for salespeople to analyze

1. Harley Davidson Enterprise Software Selection

2. Cathay Pacific Outsourcing

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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