By Harry Chopra and Jeff Thull
Let’s say you are a newly minted graduate from a prestigious MBA program, and “sales” is not your most preferred route to professional success. Our position is – if you want to be prepared to survive the disruption that every business will go through in the next 25 years, becoming a sales professional is absolutely the best place to start your career. The sales function will allow you to leverage every facet of knowledge you are acquiring for real-world success.
We can honestly say that over the past 50 years, the profession of selling has evolved dramatically from the Era 1 approach, focused on products, presenting and persuading; through Era 2, focused on problem solving and consulting; to today’s Era 3, where the sales professional is a multi-faceted individual who drives a client’s business by becoming their source of competitive advantage and, in turn, drives their own success by elevating their role to that of a valued business advisor.
So let us take an inventory of the knowledge and skills you need to become a successful sales professional, or valued business advisor, and a senior executive in today’s hyper-competitive environment. Consider that for any relevant solution in a continuously evolving and complex marketplace, there are three or four competitors that have similar products, services or highly complex solutions. In this environment, differentiating the solution you represent and winning your customer’s confidence takes considerable effort and skill.
"Our position is – if you want to be prepared to survive the disruption that every business will go through in the next 25 years, becoming a sales professional is absolutely the best place to start your career.”
Your graduate level course in business, with the case study based method, prepares you to delve into various types of industries in order to understand the business dynamics that drive profitability for your future company. However, understanding how the customer’s business works, how they make money, will allow you to tap into the most lucrative opportunities for both your business and your customer’s. If you don’t understand how your customer makes money, attempting to connect your solution to their business initiative or problem will fall short of highly profitable results.
Yes, we all aspire to get that top job. The most important skill in climbing that ladder is how to influence people two steps higher in the organization. Acquiring the ability to create successful customers is the perfect way to enhance your communication and influencing skills. Orchestrating a series of interactions to influence the customer’s decision-making team into making decisions that enhance their personal and business performance, and results in selecting your solution as the vehicle that will accomplish that task, is a valuable skill that will continue to make a significant impact on your future success.
Successful sales professionals continually rise to meet the challenge of the changing landscape of their customers’ businesses and are always building their sphere of influence through great customer service and referrals. Conversely, a salesperson can be the boundary where internally held beliefs meet with client reality. How well a salesperson connects their ideas on behalf of their customer is also a measure of their influence in their own corporation. We contend that there is no MBA class better than bringing the customer and your solution together, while developing and honing your influencing skills – both with external and internal constituents.
Return on Investment
Selling is not all about “soft skills.” In a world where three to four competitors can appear to be very similar on the surface, selling is about making a tangible connection, in financial terms, to how your product or service will impact the performance of your customer’s business.
We believe that the classical “return on investment” calculations, ROI, are inadequate in today’s complex decision networks. It is important to understand that ROI calculations should also provide customers the following perspectives: Does this investment enhance my competitive position? Does this investment create a disruptive process or technology within my firm – and if so, how? What is the value that can be ascribed to this investment once my organization traverses the learning curve and can fully realize the benefits of this approach? What are the risks to my business of not making a decision from this perspective or ignoring this trend altogether? What would it take for my organization to adopt this new process, concept or technology, and is that factored in?
Now, how else but through the broad business knowledge of an MBA can we develop a more compelling value proposition for your customers that is unique, takes into account several facets of benefits, and goes beyond the usual concept of reducing costs or increasing revenues? It is important to leverage not only your past experiences, but incorporate the views of sales leaders and mentors in your firm to develop a broader ROI calculation that takes into account the customer’s performance and their investment decision. Consider that the solution you develop for your customers, from your MBA perspective, will be vetted, tested and questioned in a real world setting.
English law, which pervades all of our business dealings, mandates that if one party makes an offer to provide products and/or services and the other party accepts, we then have a contract. Today’s business environment is not as simple as when this was established a few centuries ago. Terms, liabilities, indemnifications, warranties, termination and a potpourri of legal terms are the basis upon which business is conducted today.
Being in a sales position gives you the inside view of the risks your firm and your customers’ firms undertake when consummating a transaction. While we don’t suggest taking a crash course in business law, professional selling, from a business advisor stance, is the best foundation for anyone to understand the limitations under which their enterprise operates – and at the same time develop an appreciation for the obligations expected by a customer and their express rights to take legal action if those obligations are not met. This is yet another stepping stone for reaching higher echelon positions.
In every organization there is a value placed on a given product or service. Of course, this is typically based on what customers are willing to pay and takes into account a variety of factors including margin and competition. Somehow, the pricing of a product or service is never quite perfect when it arrives at a customer’s doorstep. The critical components of selling are connecting and quantifying the value impact that supports the pricing logic and managing customer expectations. If professional services are also involved in a particular delivery or implementation, this is even more important, as conversations will also involve the risk the customer will be taking with you in order to advance their agenda within their organization.
Senior roles in just about any functional area of business – Finance, Marketing, Product Management, Product Development or Human Resources – are about managing expectations. Most people can do this reasonably well with resources that are controlled by them. However, a sales professional’s job is even more difficult, as the resources for delivering on those expectations are dependent on factors outside of the sales organizations. Managing expectations is yet another great skill to acquire during your career as you advance up through the ranks in the organization.
Successful sales professionals, in general, view leadership from a unique perspective. If they think you, as an executive, can make a difference in their lives, or more importantly their customers’ lives, you will be leveraged into every critical meeting. On the other hand, if they believe you are not a credible resource and could put their sale at risk, it will be difficult for them to invite you into the sales process.
The customer-facing function is a great incubator for leadership. Developing a solid business case that compels customers to select you and your solution requires you to be uniquely creative ALL THE TIME, as every customer has a unique situation, every solution proposed must be thought through from the customer’s perspective, and you will likely need to gather support within your own organization to follow your course of action, all the while knowing that you can’t impose your will on any of the participants in this drama.
Some of the best moments of your career will be when you deliver on a difficult transaction both internally with people you count on and externally with your valuable customers. Such experiences mold a leader.
So, if you want to try your hand at understanding how companies work, influencing people and organizations, developing new business propositions, understanding the risks that are inherent in a business, learning how to under-promise and over-deliver, and leading a team of uniquely talented people, there is a career for you in professional sales and senior roles in your not-too-distant future.
Achieving profitable sales results while learning how to manage ambiguity and uncertainty in a highly complex and evolving marketplace, builds successful, solid, and highly sought-after leaders, those with not only a strong MBA but also with an extraordinary ability to bring high value customers and solutions together.
Harry Chopra leads the global sales and client services function for S&P Capital IQ and he brings 28 years of sales, marketing and client services experience to the role. Over his career, Harry has had the opportunity to work in multiple industries, including Telecommunications, Technology, Payment and Billing Systems, Asset Management and Financial Technology. Besides experience in the North American marketplaces, Harry spent 8 years in a sales capacity in the Asia Pacific region. His current role at S&P Capital IQ entails the delivery of financial markets and customer intelligence to Financial Institutions, Investment Management organizations, Investment Banking organizations, Private Equity organizations and Corporations. Harry has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Delhi and an MBA in marketing from the Ross School of Business, at The University of Michigan. Most recently, Harry was sponsored by S&P to be a part of the Columbia Business School’s Executive Education program designed around the challenges of leading large organizations.
Jeff Thull is a leading-edge strategist and valued advisor for executive teams of major companies worldwide. As President and CEO of Prime Resource Group, he has designed and implemented business transformation and professional development programs for companies such as Shell, 3M, Microsoft, Siemens, Boston Scientific, IBM, Boeing, Compuware and Georgia-Pacific, as well as many fast track, start-up companies. He has gained the reputation for being a thought leader in the arena of sales and marketing strategies for companies involved in complex sales.
Jeff is a compelling, entertaining and thought-provoking keynote speaker with a track record of delivering over 3,500 speeches and seminars to corporations and professional associations worldwide. His work is published in hundreds of business and trade publications.
Jeff is the author of the best-selling books Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High, Second Edition; The Prime Solution: Close the Value Gap, Increase Margins, and Win the Complex Sale; and Exceptional Selling: How the Best Connect and Win in High Stakes Sales.