How Do You Develop New Solutions When Your Sales Team Won’t Help?


I was wrapping up a recent talk on doing growth programs in larger firms, when during the Q&A session, one of the up-and-coming innovation leaders expressed a common concern:

“We sometimes build some interesting things in our product team, but we can never get our sales team even remotely interested in sharing them with a customer.  How can we get our sales team on board?”

My response probably surprised her.

What I told her, is that it’s actually a good thing that the sales team is resistant to casually sharing new features and product enhancements proposed by the product team.  The relationship that is nurtured and watched over by your account team is built on two big foundations: trust and performance.  The customer needs to know that when they place a purchase order, the full weight of the firm will move heaven and earth to fulfill it.  This kind of trust takes time to earn and is very easily lost.  So it’s with good reason that sales is resistant to having casual feature discussions.

The question that will unlock a mutually beneficial discussion is this:

How do we develop sales team members as an integral part of the growth process?

When we ask the question in this way, we set the stage for a very different alignment. By setting up the activities under a new charter (discovery of the best possible new offering), it allows both you and your development partner to contribute time, energy and resources with your eyes wide open.

How does this help create the most value?

  1. It drives senior-level commitment both within the firm and within the client.  To achieve this mutual commitment, you’ll need the endorsement of the product team lead, production team lead and the sales leadership.  This will assure that everyone is informed and fully behind what is being discussed with the beta client so the account team is able to carefully position this work in a new space: high-value discovery work for mutual value.
  2. It allows the beta client to engage its best and brightest.  These kind of activities need to be well sponsored on the client side, as well. After all, it’s one thing to have an interested member or two on the client side, and quite another to have them bought into some type of joint development.  By raising the stakes, you actually improve the probability of a good outcome.
  3. It allows the account executive the freedom to build value and not degrade their commission metrics.  There is a romantic notion that sales exec’s live on the leading edge.  But the truth is that they live in the growth zone of well-vetted solutions that solve big pains for their clients.  The solutions they bring to these need to be bulletproof so they can do the customer development work and not get involved with inventions.  To shift to new solution development will take valuable on the ground time away from making their numbers, so the sales leadership team needs to comp them for this time.

You may be asking yourself how this really works, because to do a Joint Development Agreement, some informal “dating” needs to be completed first.  How then do you do this without disrupting the sales process?

Using an example from my own work, I can tell you that the best discovery work is done just beyond where your sales team is currently having success.  You can find this space by attending conferences and reading papers written by the leading-edge thinkers that have taken industry leadership roles.  By working with the marketing press, researchers in your field and conference leaders, you will quickly identify the space where solutions are being discussed, but yet to be configured.  This takes some pick and shovel work, but the payoff is well worth it.

In this case, we were looking for leading applications of wireless technologies in transportation.   By using the above techniques of investigating where the growth was, as well as the pressing unsolved problem, we were able to develop a really strong hypothesis for where the intersection of our strengths and the market need landed – all without engaging the sales team.

Once we had the participants in mind, and the outline of a new product, we were able to engage the groups more formally in a discussion that became a joint development agreement.  We were able to work with a leading member of the account team (who is still a friend today) in a win-win structure that got him paid well for his work in client development, and then enterprise a solution that it was able to leverage in lots of applications and locations.

This approach of doing your homework first, and bringing the card-carrying sales team to the table second, may seem like a lot of work.  Truthfully it is, however this method will retain the integrity of your sales and operations teams, while making you a sought after participant in the projects and programs.

If you’d like to go deeper around the tools that underlie the ideas in this post, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

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