In our world of enterprise IT, they're an essential part of the chain that delivers value from producers to consumers.
But they get tend to get scant respect from our community. We all know stories about what bad sales types have done, but we rarely hear the stories about what the good ones do -- day in and day out.
I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with hundreds of top-notch sales professionals during my career here at EMC.
I know what they do, and why it's important to both vendor and customer. It's a unique skill set. I don't think I could do it.
And in a world where enterprise IT is learning to sell itself internally, day-in and day-out -- maybe progessive IT leaders should learn what good reps do, and how to apply it in their own IT organizations.
The Stereotype Is Not Flattering
I think many IT types have a poor image of IT sales folks in general: quota-obsessed, not technically deep, poorly informed, fast-and-loose with the truth, poor follow up, political, limited add value, etc.
The good ones I know aren't like that at all -- they're smart and savvy professionals who are adept at that incredibly difficult act of bridging what a customer needs with what their company can provide.
Coming from a technical background, I used to think that products (and companies) essentially sold themselves: here is our new product, here is how it compares to others, here is where it's obviously better, here is where you sign.
How naive I was.
It got worse. In my product marketing roles, I thought all I had to do was arm the reps with a mountain of technical information and comparisons, and they'd be good to go. How little I really understood. Early on, when I got in front of customers, I thought that all they wanted to discuss was the technology -- ours, to be specific -- and nothing else.
What a dummy I was.
Let Me Paint You A Picture
Let's take EMC as a typical example.
We've got many hundreds of sophisticated technology products -- all in a continual state of flux. Add to that a portfolio of literally hundreds of integrated solutions and reference architectures -- also in a state of flux.
And then there's a vast portfolio of services: implementation, consulting, support, etc. We've got an ecosystem of many hundreds of very cool partners, all with their own flavors of secret sauce that we can help bring to the table.
There's more: our company collectively has access to a ton of real-world experiences in every size, shape and geography. No matter what a customer is trying to get done, there's an outstanding chance that EMC has done something similar before, and can make it relevant in the current context.
They key point of engagement with all of this potential value is the account manager -- but it's not an easy role.
For starters, our typical sales professional is unfortunately at the receiving end of multiple fire hoses, one for each function at EMC: all blasted continually in their direction, with precious little thought about making relevant information and consumable in context.
If there's a field request for more information, a new fire hose is created, and aimed at the same audience.
Now let's go to the other side ...
Larger IT organizations are usually not the model of organizational perfection. There are multiple groups and multiple individuals, leading to dozens and dozens of conflicting agendas to sort out. Because the IT landscape moves so fast, it's often the case that the people evaluating solutions aren't exactly 100% up-to-date on what's available, and how it's different. Things change quickly, and not always for the best.
Very often, IT organizations move in the direction of a new technology without really thinking through the people side: skills, organization and motivations.
The sales rep usually receives the blame for the inevitable poor results.
And, let's not forget, many sales situations can devolve from valuable professional consultation to hyper-competitive free-for-alls in the blink of an eye.
There's also a third dimension: everyone with a sales quota also has a manager who is always pushing for more: sell more, sell faster, sell more of this specific product or service, why is the deal delayed, why did you lose this deal, what happened to the margins, etc. If you're in sales, that drumbeat never stops.
Being a IT sales professional is not everyone's cup of tea. But the good ones adapt and thrive, and can be very valuable assets to both customers and vendors alike.
Creating The Big Picture
People tend to work in silos: be they on the customer side or the vendor side. Good sales professionals work across many silos on both sides.
As a result, they usually have a bigger and more interesting picture of what's going on: patterns and trends that you can't easily appreciate if you reside in one of these silos.
On the vendor side, individual product and services functions ideally seek out these sales professionals to get their perspective. But there's a structural problem: the recipients of the feedback tend to focus on the narrow bits under their control; while so many challenges represent cooperation and integration between multiple functions -- and that's much harder to address.
On the customer side, a good account professional can not only inform you on what's going on elsewhere in your company (valuable, as internal communications in most organizations are woefully ineffective), but also what's going on in other companies: those in your industry, and those in different industries.
Finding Answers, Fixing Problems
Most sales engagements don't start with someone wanting to buy something: a customer has a problem, and they're looking for a solution -- hopefully the best one for them.
The really good ones will occasionally conclude that perhaps their company can't do a good job at solving a particular problem, and provide advice on where to look elsewhere.
Most times, you get to the state of a proposal: a defined set of products, services and integrations (coupled with an execution plan) for a customer to consider and evaluate.
Putting together a good, relevant proposal is seriously heavy lifting -- and there's no guarantee you'll be selected.
After the sale, a good account manager can become even more relevant, especially in complex endeavors. While every IT vendor strives to be customer-centric, any quick look will tell you that they're not organized that way -- except for the account team.
So very often it falls on them to track down problems, bring various internal groups together, and generally provide strong cross-functional leadership on behalf of the customer's interests.
When the established processes aren't sufficient -- and that's frequently the case -- it's up to the rep to improvise.
A Customer Champion
You might take a look at an average IT account rep, and come to the conclusion that their only interest is selling what's on their particular truck -- regardless of the outcomes.
Yes, there's plenty of that out there, but it's not universal.
The best reps I've worked with morph into customer champions: they're rooting for their customers to be successful on many levels: not only with the transaction at hand, but all the interactions that lead to a big "win" for their customers at multiple levels -- both organizationally and professionally.
They've learned that becoming 100% committed to your customer's success is not mutually exclusive to selling a bunch of stuff, especially if it's good stuff and helps to solve the problems at hand.
Not A Lot Of Glory
When you look at how a good sales pro spends a lot of their time, you'd be easily dissuaded.
Hours spend being drenched with detailed product and offering details. Meetings with customers that aren't a good use of time, or perhaps the occasional unjustified bitch session. Detailed account reviews by sales management. Chasing people down, and hoping they'll get back to you.
Work-life balance is a struggle: good sales pros have to be accessible virtually around-the-clock: evenings, weekends and holidays included.
But the wins -- when they come -- seem to make up for all of that, and more.
Are all sales reps good? No. But the really good ones can be exceptional assets to both customers and vendors alike. And it's a very hard skill set to come by.
Why IT Leaders Should Care
So, why am I singing the praises -- and the importance -- of a good, professional account manager?
The first reason is simple: if you're heavily committed to a vendor: investment, complexity, breadth -- you deserve a good account manager. There are some real pros out there, and it's worth the time finding them and bringing them into your world.
But I think there's an even more important reason.
Before too long -- I think you'll be looking for that exact same skill set in your own IT organization.
Yes, badged IT employees "selling" your IT services, complete with something that looks like a quota.
The logic is solid: IT organizations are learning to compete for their internal customers. The competition? External IT services: IaaS, PaaS, SaaS, consulting, system integrators, etc. Most progressive business leaders are starting to think of internal IT as just one potential source of IT services.
Ask any CMO, if you doubt me.
Every one of these external entities that you're now competing with has invested in a go-to-market function that inevitably includes some notion of a sales rep or account manager.
They've invested in individuals who have that unique and precious skill set required to bridge the essential gap between what a client wants and what your organization can deliver.
Which is exactly what ITaaS-based organizations are finding they need to learn to do. Things don't sell themselves, do they?
When I make this point, I sometimes hear IT leaders say 'well, we've got something like that already', but -- when I dig deeper, they really don't. And they shouldn't be fooling themselves -- it's all about the right skill set and the right incentives. Someone either fits that quintessential sales/account management profile, or they don't.
True, that particular skill set doesn't usually live in an IT organization these days, but it's not particularly difficult to find -- whether from elsewhere in the organization, or externally.
If you're in IT, the next time you're with a good vendor sales rep, you might study what they do -- and why they do it. Put yourself in the role of a disinterested observer taking notes for a study. You'll inevitably see a lot of complexity and nuance in what they do.
You get far better alignment between the business and IT, simply because it's through a mechanism that everyone already understands -- and with the proper incentives built in.
Controversial? Perhaps. But also inevitable from where I sit.
The Bottom Line
Any time there's a big transaction at hand with risk and complexity written all over it, there's usually a sales professional involved. From automobiles to real estate to IT: they provide an essential bridge between buyer and seller.
For those of us in IT, we're very familiar with IT account reps, and how they function.
And, before long, we'll recognize that we need the exact same skill sets in our own IT organizations -- for the exact same reasons.
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