Nothing happens in this world until somebody sells something!

Which makes “selling” the noblest profession of them all !!
It may not officially be the oldest profession, but I doubt that even that could have existed without some sales effort.

I am not talking about the pressure selling of things that people don’t need and can’t really afford such as we have seen in the housing industry in the US most recently and which has brought the world to its economic knees. I am talking about the professional selling of products and services that can add value to people and organisations.

I was surprised when I first joined SAP to find that the Germans generally don’t actually hold any salesmen in high regard. The common term for a salesman is “Klinkenputzer” (door knob polisher), and salesmen are considered to dwell way down the bottom of the social scale with grave diggers and septic tank cleaners, and only just barely rank above serial killers.

In the same way that Ken Olsen, co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), believed that salesmen were really unnecessary, as he believed that they couldn’t do anything significantly more than could be achieved by mailing out the PDP-8 and PDP-11 handbooks, the German culture of engineering excellence tends to believe that “ … if you build it they will come …”. This is based on the fact that if people or organisations need things they will seek them out, and then you just need to demonstrate that you are the best available. It may work well when you are the only game in town, but starts to get shaky when you have serious competition and the market starts to look for more than just product excellence from its suppliers, such as industry knowledge, an understanding of its pain points and how to solve them, and a mutually beneficial business relationship that is based on more than just product price-performance ratios.

DEC, who drove the mini-computer revolution and dominated the market in the 70s and 80s, is no longer with us, and I have no doubt that part of their demise was because they never really overcame this basic lack of belief in the need for a skilled, professional, passionate, capable sales force. It did survive and prosper for a time based on the “let’s change the world” culture, and brilliant engineering, but faltered as competition flourished and the world started to change towards non-proprietary operating systems and networked workstations and PCs. (Building a multi-directional matrix organisation that strangled initiative and killed personal accountability didn’t help either, but that’s another story).

I remember an article in Fortune magazine in 1979 comparing DEC and Data General titled the “The Gentlemen versus the Upstarts”. It was interesting that both companies used this as marketing material, as they were equally proud of their labels. The problem is that gentlemen finish last and upstarts can eventually annoy everyone, so both are now resting with the Dodo.

The one serious survivor in our industry is IBM, who I believe have written the book on professional selling. When I first started playing with computers back in 1965 (See “My son is in typewriters” posted on July 08, 2010), the IT Industry was dominated by IBM and the “BUNCH” being Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell), all no longer with us. IBM, despite a serious hiccup in the 80s is still here and flourishing. Whilst they have always been towards the forefront of most technologies, they have rarely been at the leading edge, having been a fast follower in many instances rather than the initiator, and yet they have remained a force for over 60 years.

I have always believed that one of the major reasons for this has been their sales professionalism. Many companies paid significantly more, many companies had hungrier and more aggressive compensation plans and sales forces, but few have matched the skill and power of the IBM sales machine. I had the opportunity to experience this first hand in my 8 years at International Harvester in NZ and afterwards when competing with them in the late 70s and 80s (IBM was a partner rather than a competitor at SAP), and have always been impressed with their sales excellence, which I believe has been unmatched in the industry.

The major thing that IBM seems to have always understood, beyond the need for serious training programs and the protection of their culture, is that whilst being at the forefront of technology is important, true competitive edge lies in the quality of your people and the right to engage with the customer, elements that IBM have built into their corporate DNA over the last 60 years.

Outside of a small handful of the large global consulting companies IBM more than anyone has earned the right to engage at all the relevant senior levels in major companies around the world. Their sales teams are welcomed in board rooms because they are seen as serious value add and as business advisors, not necessarily because they have the latest “hot” products.

That’s what professional selling is all about.


9 Responses to SELL, SELL, SELL

  1. John Du Bois says:

    NCR is still with us having gone through multiple reiterations of “who it wants to be’. NCR announced its intention to separate into two independent companies by spinning off Teradata to shareholders in the late 90’s. Its true the others in BUNCH are all gone with Univac renamed Unisys after Burroughs acquired it (Sperry Univac in 1986) and also reinvented itself but nowhere near its or Univac’s past glory days. IBM’s weakness is that it is divided internally with fierce competition from its hardware group and services group (IGS). This sometimes see’s conflict inside clients and defeat has been snatched by the jaws of victory exploiting this from a competitive view. It has attempted twice to set up a Consulting arm, the last time with the acquistion of PWC. Its still a force but culturally the acquistions failed. If it could act more often as 1 organisation, there is no better provider, in todays market.

  2. leshayman says:

    Hi Dubious,
    Thanks for the update … I was commenting more on their demise as “a force” within our industry, rather than their total “death”.
    It will also be interesting to see the impact of e-commerce on selling as an art form (is it finally here ?) with the success of companies like Apple with that approach.
    Is “good old fashioned face-to-face selling” like we knew it a dying art ?
    Has Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” become reality ?

    • John Du Bois says:

      Hi Les face to faceselling is redefined and there is a much larger number of IT offerings including software, services and appliances being sold over the net and the inside salesperson. But high value high touch offerings at this stage still are not accepted offerings unless they are profered face to face. My Thoughts. Question on ” their demise as a force”….IBM must reinvent itself again as must the seasoned leaders in the application space as the lines are drawn differently. Some of these companies will be swallowed up forming new entities. The industry is in a new round of change……..

  3. leshayman says:

    Hi JD,
    What are your thoughts on SAP ?

    • John Du Bois says:

      None of this is based on fact. Its my own thoughts. SAP will be acquired. With the recent appointment of Leo to HP its highly probable that HP could be the acquiror. HP needs to compete with Oracle, who now own SUN and IBM and differentiate themselves from Dell. IBM were the most powerful and profitable Software company (they rented their applications) in the 60’s and early 70’s. They also need an application company like SAP but I think HP will bid for it sooner. The only obstruction to SAP being acquired in the past and it might still be in the present is Walldorf because culturally it will be a tough nut for global integration into either a HP or IBM. What are your thoughts?

      • leshayman says:

        Hi JD,
        I agree that SAP will make an attractive acquisition target, depending on the share price.
        I also agree that it would need to be a buyer not currently in “ERP” to keep the major global vendors at 3, so unlikely to be Microsoft as in the past, as I doubt that could now get past SEC and EU Commission.
        I also see HP and IBM as main contenders, so if SAP is bought by a US Company, Walldorf would just need to become a remote development centre rather than a global HQ. Interesting if it would be HP with Leo at the helm, as he would finally have the freedom to do something about Walldorf, which was hard for him in his previous role. I am told that (may be just speculation) he has a mandate to build a global software business at HP, so next 12 months should be interesting.

  4. Stuart says:

    How quickly the world can change! Who ever thought that SAP would finally get a couple of acquisitions that worked (BO and Sybase) after years of smothering them! When these were combined wit some very clever engineering, definitely still a core competency with Hasso around, you have a company that could be on the verge of a step change in an industry full of dinosaurs being danced by fleas!

  5. Stuart says:

    Les – I think the Ariba logic is a return to the Commerce One situation. No matter what SAP do in the procurement space they are not perceived as being a leader. Answer – buy one!

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