In Conversation With: Michael Ahearne (Part 1)

CSO Insights recently had a chance to speak with Mike Ahearne, Professor of Marketing at the University of Houston and Research Director at the Sales Excellence Institute. He is the co-author of Selling Today: Partnering to Create Value. Mike’s path to academia has been an unusual one: After high school, he became a professional baseball player.

A career-ending injury sent him back to school, where he earned two Masters degrees and a PhD. Mike’s original research explores a range of sales-related subjects, from salesperson appearance (“If Looks Could Sell”) to managing sales teams in a virtual environment.

He and his colleague Tom Steenburgh are currently researching the question: “Why do salespeople have so much trouble selling new and innovative products into the marketplace?” An article reporting on that research will be published in Harvard Business Review this summer. Mike shared some of the high-level findings with us.

First, “Most of the companies out there now are focused on a strategy of organic growth for market entry. It’s not M&A; it’s not efficiency strategies; it’s organic growth strategies. They want to build their own growth internally through their own internal capabilities.” Launching new products is typically part of that strategy.

“There’s a big emphasis on innovation,” Mike says. “But if you look at the data, companies are really bad at selling innovation.” To find out why, they began by looking at the capabilities of salespeople, the organizational constraints, and the way in which buyers buy.

One seller behavior that is not effective when selling new products is devoting every sales call with a customer to a product discussion. Mike sees this as a common pitfall: “A typical salesperson goes out with a feature/benefit presentation that marketing has given them. They give that presentation to the customer, who may then ask for a second meeting. But if the salesperson doesn’t recognize that there are other barriers besides just getting the customer interested in the product, these other barriers stop the sale.”

The most successful sellers move beyond features and benefits to address the things that customers are thinking about at different stages of their buying process. (See the CSO Insights paper, Becoming a Key Customer Resource.)

“Often, the seller has to go deeper into the customer’s organization,” Mike says. “And not only deeper; they have to know the barriers of a larger sub-set of customers within the account. Our research looked at not only what the barriers are but who the people are who tend to get involved in later steps.”

After prospective buyers are familiar with the features of the seller’s product or solution, they typically begin to think more broadly about the possible business implications of the purchase. “They wonder about hidden information issues,” Mike explains. “Is there information the seller isn’t sharing? Are there downsides to buying this product? What are the inhibitors to success? The salesperson has to uncover buyer concerns with the long-term viability of the product. That’s a much more difficult, more complex conversation to have.”

Given the importance of these later, deeper conversations, a sales organization’s support teams must be ready to help sellers through the entire buying process – not just the early stages.

“One of the things companies have to do as a best practice,” Mike says, “is to completely map out the buying process of a typical customer, to look at how this customer moves from considering a product to buying it. And that involves the marketing team and the new-product team staying longer with products. What we find now is that typically, when a new product is launched, marketing and the product team launch the support materials to the sales force, and then they drop off. And that’s the last time they work together with the sales force.

“We recommend the continued involvement of the support team to be able to determine all the information that’s needed to support the sales force through every stage of the customer’s buying process. And not only the support materials, but the training necessary for salespeople to address the customer’s later-stage questions. We find that today, there are only a few salespeople who are capable of going through this process on their own.”

How much time should a salesperson spend with a prospect? Mike answers that question in part 2 of our conversation.

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