How To Sell To Customers Who Are Being Disrupted

This is a Chapter from my book, Mindshare to Marketshare.

The Internet fundamentally erodes the competitive advantage that large companies built during the 20th Century and also creates massive new digital-first opportunities.

The globalization wave is hitting at the same time as the digitization wave and they are connected because “bits don’t stop at borders”. The “rise of the Rest” means that we can no longer assume that, if it works in America or Europe, then the rest of the world will fall into place. Big western firms now have massive new markets to move into, but they also have to worry that some previously unknown competitor from the Rest will invade their home market (like Amazon meets Alibaba, Cisco meets Huawei and Apple meets Xiaomi).

These two tsunamis of change are crashing down on the companies that you are selling to. You do not want to be the waiter at the hotel asking the guest if she wants another cocktail just when the tsunami is hitting the beach. You must be relevant to what the CXO level guys are thinking:


  • You do not want to be selling systems to make bank tellers more productive to a Bank that is trying to decide how many branches to close and how to sell to the 70% of the world that is unbanked by using mobile money services.


  • You do not want to be selling a new enrollment system to a college that is trying to decide out how to cut costs radically in order to prosper in a world where most people get educated through online classes.


  • You do not want to be selling retail Point of Sales systems to a Retailer while their Board is figuring how to not be “showroomed” to death by customers who look offline but buy online.


It is not easy to figure out “where the puck is moving to[2]” in your market. It is hard, but if you do not know this, then you are flying blind in a hurricane.

This disruption creates a new challenge for your sales team. The CXO level executives at your prospects know very well that their world is changing and that they cannot simply keep doing what worked so well in the past. At the same time they have to keep the current numbers looking good, so they present a public face of “it’s business as usual”. That message is meant for investors, customers and partners.


The “it’s business as usual” message is also meant for their own middle management. The CXO level executives need middle managers to “keep their eye on the ball”, so that they keep making the quarterly numbers with the same products and services that worked in the past.


This is what creates the problem for your sales guys. They will be in mid sales campaign, working with middle management executives at the customer that are quite sincerely interested in the solution presented by your sales team. In the version of reality that your customers publicly proclaim, your solution is perfectly aligned to their needs. Publicly, “it’s business as usual” and so you sell “as usual”. Your team is doing all the right qualification process steps, such as checking budgets and timescales.


Then suddenly, your sales guy wakes up and sees an announcement. The business unit that she is selling to has been sold, declared non-core or some other message that says that it is “game over”. Your sales person calls the customer and basically asks:




The customer, who is in the dark, says something like:


“I really don’t know. There is an internal announcement in 10 minutes, I should know more then”.

30 minutes later, the manager at your prospective customer calls your sales person and asks for a job. Your sales person knows that her own quarter is blown and will have guessed that, if this customer is taking this strategy, then other customers will soon follow suit; so she is nervous about her own job. So the soon to be ex customer and worried sales person arrange to meet for a drink or coffee to commiserate.


To avoid this fate, you need to act both strategically as well as tactically:


  • Tactical response – sell high and make your existing proposition more aggressive. Your sales people must be able to interact credibly with top management. If they are only product-centric sales people, the CXO level guys won’t want to meet them. Lets say you have those two products, Retail Branch Automation and Mobile-banking, but Retail Branch Automation still accounts for 90% of revenue. You need to keep that engine firing on all cylinders. So you have to quickly find out which Banks are doubling down on their physical branches; these are the ones that will invest big in the latest Retail Branch Automation technology. The managers in charge of physical branches will say that the Bank is totally committed to physical branches; this will echo the public message in the media. The CXO folks will also keep to this message with a sales guy who they don’t trust; but they might reveal something in conversation with a CXO credible sales guy who they trust and have genuine conversations with.


  • Strategic response – align your company to the emerging reality. You need to “skate to where the puck is heading” and become a genuine partner for your customers. This is the subject of the next chapter.


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