I Don’t Understand, We Won the Argument, Why Didn’t We Win The Sale?

It’s Rare That You Are Actually Bringing Fire To The Savages

If you think you are so much smarter than your customers that you are “bringing fire to the savages” you will find it hard to learn from them and hard to actually close deals. What follows are three true stories.

We Won The Argument, Why Didn’t We Win The Sale?

We were driving back from a sales call and the CTO said “I don’t understand. We won the argument. Why didn’t we win the sale?” He was very disappointed at their stupidity and stubbornness.

The Customer is Always The Smartest Person In The Room

Different startup, I had been recruited by a new CEO as a part of a turnaround. A team had gone off to meet with a new prospect and I asked the sales rep how the meeting had gone. He said “It was one of those meetings where the actual purpose of the meeting became figuring out who the smartest person in the room was: one of our guys or one of theirs. After a while it was time to leave.”

Without Us You Are Nothing

In 2002 I worked at Cisco and was invited to a large meeting with an outside vendor. Cisco had two software vendors providing similar but incompatible tools that solved the same problem in different ways. Times were tight:  folks were being laid off and projects were getting canceled. Our inability to be able to share scripts and models between these two tools meant that management had decided we needed to standardize on one.

This was a meeting for all of the supporters of tool A to compare notes and develop a common set of reasons why it should be the standard. The vendor sent a large contingent and there were perhaps two dozen engineers from different groups who were concerned. What a disaster. The vendor essentially started off by implying that the users had done a poor job of educating management as to the value of the tool and listed a number of improvements and techniques that they had “taught” us.

After perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, someone spoke up and said, “Hey, wait a minute, that was an idea that we gave you! You incorporated into version 7, but we had that first.” The meeting degenerated into an angry shouting match and the default plan became engineers would refuse to switch to the other tool. Not a winning strategy in a downturn as it turned out.

Diagnosis: Each Startup Didn’t View The Customer As A Partner

Diagnosis: in each case the startup didn’t view the customer as a partner, and somehow believed that they would succeed by convincing them that they were smarter. This is called the “bringing fire to the savages” sales and marketing model. Variants include viewing your product as a luxury good “not everyone can own our product” or an IQ test (“not everyone is smart enough to be able to use our product”). None of them are particularly effective in generating revenue or reference customers but they do preserve the world view of the founders that they are all a bunch of really smart people.

Three Specific Antidotes

  1. Focus on understanding the customer’s problem. Make sure you can describe their problem before you start to describe your solution. Test for other symptoms that they have not mentioned that you have heard from other customers. Do all of this before you mention any features or benefits of your offering.
  2. Understand specifically what steps they have already taken to address the problem and what constitutes their perception of the status quo.
  3. When you propose your solution, make it as compatible with their current work process and practices as you can. Incorporate any of their ideas into your product roadmap that you believe may benefit other customers or prospects. This reduces the number of changes you have to convince them to make, minimizes their transition cost, and makes it less likely they worry about losing a current capability.

We help software firms explain their new product to the right prospects in ways that convince them to become reference customers.  If you have a new product and are having difficulty getting people to understand what it can do, please give us a call: we can help.

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