Tom Steenburgh on Selling New Products, Part 1

Tom Steenburgh, the Richard S. Reynolds Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Development at the Darden School of Business, and Mike Ahearne, Professor of Marketing at the University of Houston and Research Director at the Sales Excellence Institute, are sales researchers and co-founders of the Thought Leadership on the Sales Profession conference. They share recent research findings on “How to Sell New Products” in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. CSO Insights caught up with Tom Steenburgh to learn more. This is Part 1 of a two-part interview.

Q: The article title is: “How to Sell New Products.” What makes new products a different kind of sale?

TS: The biggest difference is the amount of change that’s required at the customer site. Introducing a new product usually means that things are going to change for the customer, in one way or another. It could be just in the buying process; like the types of people who are included for their buy-in on the product. It could be bigger things, like roles in the organization that will change if they adopt this product. That degree of change sets up a different dynamic in the sale. There’s a lot more resistance to the sale overall, and you can see that in the numbers – in terms of the time and effort the salesperson has to put into the process. [The article states that on average, salespeople spend 35% more time meeting with customers in a new product sales cycle than they do when selling an established product.]

Q: We’re all talking about AI and machine learning now. Is there a wave of new product innovation? Are new technologies increasing the number of new products coming to market?

TS: I certainly think the level of innovation over the last 20 years has increased dramatically. And even without AI, we’ll get a lot more innovation coming in. Part of it is the ability of computers to help us think more clearly about problems, and explore areas where we didn’t have the potential to work before, and some of it has to do with globalization, where you have higher education levels and more companies able to get market in ways they haven’t been able to before. I don’t see that slowing down at all; if anything, it’s picking up.

Q: Can we expect more urgency around the new product sale?

TS: I hope so, because it’s a very different type of sale and companies aren’t making much of a distinction between the two. When I ask at conferences, “How many of your companies have a different process for new product sales?” one person out of a hundred will raise their hand and say they’re trying something new. But I hope more companies will try something new and think more clearly about their new product sales process.

Q: You’ve written that “organizations don’t do enough to help salespeople navigate this [new product sale] complex process” and that sales training for new products is often a “product showcase in disguise.” What needs to change in training, and who, or which roles, should lead that change?  

TS: I think the problem may actually be worse than it appears. As we wrote in the article, what most companies do when they have a new product is to create a product showcase, and what that does is encourage the salesperson to focus on product features. Let’s say you’re a rep and you’re visiting an account where you haven’t had anything new to say in a long time. And finally you have this new product with all these bells and whistles, and the marketing team has told you that they’re awesome bells and whistles and you need to get out and talk about them to the client. And in the beginning the client might be interested in talking about the new product, so at first it seems like you’ve got this great conversation going, and it’s all about product features. Then nothing happens after that, because you’re not transitioning to the real issue the client has, which is, how does this product change the way the buying organization does business? And you’re not setting up the sale to deal with all the real problems that are going to arise later in the process. The product showcase is detrimental to getting this product sold in the long run.

Q: Would the change in training that you’re recommending be to shift from product features to problems the product can solve?

TS: It’s a shift to problems the product solves in the buying organization, how it’s going to change the power dynamics in the buying organization, how people are going to react and relate to each other in different ways, how the buying organization is going to have to come up with a different set of criteria to evaluate the product – it’s things that won’t come up in the first stage of the sale, but will come up in stages three, four and five – after the sale has progressed for a while. You want to be figuring out exactly who in the buying organization is going to be affected, and what their motivations are and how to help them with these things early in the process. It should be much more focused on sales process and change at the buyer’s site than on the product features.

Q: And some salespeople are better at this than others…

TS: It’s a really interesting change in the data, how average performing salespeople and top performing salespeople thought about the problem. The low performers thought the barriers to the sale would be things like, the customer having the right knowledge of the product and understanding the features – product-centric types of issues. Top sellers worried about a different set of things. They worried about, does the buyer have a set of evaluation criteria to even think about the product the right way, how the power dynamics are going to change in the buying organization; they were anticipating those problems arising later on. Training should be geared helping your core salespeople – the performers in the middle – to anticipate those problems and figure out how to overcome them.


Read “How to Sell New Products” in the Harvard Business Review here.

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