JCL Blog

Sales Incentives, Can't Seem to Live With or Without Them

Steve Jobs talked about the balance between product design and sales/marketing (as recounted in the Walter Isaacson biography) where he describes the arc of company evolution from great product creation to an over dependence on sales and marketing.  The latter being the death of great technology companies like IBM and Xerox.  Jeff Bezos is famous for saying that advertising is for companies that don't have good products.  Of course neither sentiment is completely true.  Great products still need sales and marketing and advertising is often a necessary tool employed to drive demand for a great product. 

In my post Market Like an Engineer I proposed that people running marketing departments should encourage the virtues often found in an engineering culture in their marketing departments.  The desire to create something truly new, the open sharing of knowledge, and the pursuit of critical customer feedback is often missing in the sales and marketing culture.  These virtues suffer when the prevailing mindset is that salespeople are coin operated. 

Over compensating on revenue drives out collaboration and the pursuit of the truth.  Executives are forever tweaking compensation models to discourage these behaviors.  Nevertheless, we regularly see glowing departmental revenue reports that merely chronicle a shift in revenue recognition from one department to another, or the quarterly selection of the "good" numbers cherry picked from pools of mediocre performance.  It is just as common for the company to pay big bonuses the next quarter when this phantom revenue shows up in yet another department -- even though overall sales have not increased at all.  It is no wonder leaders like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos want to spend as little as possible on sales and marketing.  Those crazy incentives seem like they always produce unintended consequences, but at the same time seem essential for creating action.

Matchmakers You Can Trust

Just about any 17 year old American male will tell you that finding a date to the prom is a difficult and humbling experience.  Similarly, employers will tell you that finding a good employee is nearly impossible.  Buyers of IT products and services will echo the sentiment:  It is much harder than one would think to find and procure the technology a business needs to remain competitive.  Ironically, if you talk to the other half of each of these matches you will find quite a different perspective.  The Difference is enough to make you wonder if your grasp on reality is starting to slip away. 

Girls start planning on being asked to the prom 6 months before it even enters the consciousness of boys.  Even in this down economy, four million jobs change hand in the US – every month.  And companies spend millions of dollars trying to find their next customer.  For the past fifteen years the most successful companies on the web have aimed to do the matchmaking in these examples.  Online dating sites like match.com, eharmony.com, and some would say the entire porn industry have set out to capitalize on the first matching challenge.  Monster.com was one of the first Internet companies to buy a Superbowl ad, and Google, Bing, eBay, Amazon.com and now Groupon get paid quite well to connect would be buyers with would be sellers right at the very time the buyer wants to buy.

So successful internet business equals:  find an area where matchmaking needs to be done and have at it.  If you think you are late to the game, think again.  This internet thing is just getting started and there are many more untapped opportunities than tapped ones.  Yes indeed, Classmates.com, Facebook, and Yelp have all been invented already.  However, no one has even started to work to match enterprise technology buyers to enterprise technology sellers.  We all have lists of markets we would like to see better matchmaking tools on the internet.  Doctors to patients, kids to educational tools, scientists to research subjects, and even people to movies as the million dollar Netflix challenge demonstrated are all up for grabs.  For now, let’s focus on enterprise IT match making.

There are many things that stand in the way of solving this problem, but none as big as the lack of trust.  Trust has been eroded between the buyers and sellers of enterprise technology through repeated over promising and under delivering of products and services to the point that even the historically accepted measure of ten times better is no longer sufficient to get a business buyer to make a change and buy something new.  In the technology industry this phenomenon is sometimes labeled vaporware – software that has been promised to customers that does not even exist.  The risks for the buyer are quite large and even larger without vendor trust – and this slows down the adoption of new technology significantly.

Adoption of new technology is the key to increases in productivity and increases in productivity drive our economy and increase our standard of living.  Therefore one of the things standing in the way of our economic recovery is trust.

Successful matchmakers employ three simple tactics to get right at the trust issue:

  1. Make money on the success of the match:  A business model built on making the match between technology vendor and technology user, instead of making the sale of technology, aligns the interests of the parties and turns the matchmaker into a trusted advisor.
  2. Be transparent about how money is made:  A matchmaker advocating for a particular solution will always be suspected of doing so selfishly.  Full disclosure of how the matchmaker gets paid will drain away this suspicion.
  3. Demonstrate deep and wide knowledge:  It is natural to sell what you know and stay away from what you do not know.  Demonstrating a detailed understanding of all of the products in the category will validate the trusted advisor status.

The two most trusted matchmakers in business IT are Accenture and Deloitte.   IBM is a giant in the IT matchmaking business, but is also pushing its own technology.  At one time EDS, Perot Systems, and ACS were on this list -- until they were acquired by HP, Dell, and Xerox -- which changed their motivation from matchmaking to selling their own technology solutions. 

This will be a very interesting area to watch in the years ahead as new companies flood in to fill the trusted matchmaker void created by this consolidation.