Never assume

My first ever job was with Burroughs Corporation – of blessed memory (the company merged with Sperry in 1986 to create Unisys) – as a sales rep for major accounts, targeting mainframe sales in financial institutions, manufacturers, government organizations and so on. I underwent a number of months of intensive training – not only on the products (a challenge to a guy who’d graduated in English Literature, and who only had the faintest notion what a computer was, let alone what it did or how it worked) but on sales skills such as demonstrations.

The deal was that, in our early days, we were teamed up with a senior account manager in order to learn the ropes. It so happened that I’d just come back from my training class on Burroughs’ range of display terminals – and, if I say so myself, there wasn’t too much I didn’t know about them.

New-found knowledge

My boss decided to leverage my new-found knowledge in a forthcoming demonstration to a prospect – a manufacturer of corrugated packaging. Bless him, he let me have my head – and I showed the prospect everything I knew about the TD830. The demo went pretty well.

We ended up winning the deal. As was standard Burroughs’ practice, we performed a post mortem not only when we lost a deal in order to understand why we lost it, and to uncover any lessons  - but also when we won a deal, for the same reasons.

On this occasion, we went back to the customer and asked him why he’d chosen Burroughs.

His response? “In all honesty, there was very little to choose between your offering and that of your competitors,” he said. “What swung it in your direction was that your TD830 could scroll information on the screen, and we could see how that would be very useful in our environment. “

We thanked him, and went on our way – absolutely stunned. We knew for a fact that our competitors’ screens did indeed scroll, just like ours did. How had that proved to be a winning differentiator?

Wet behind the ears

And then we realised: it was almost certainly the case that, whoever did the demonstration for our competitors had been around a while and assumed that everyone knew that screens scrolled. As such – why bother to demonstrate it? We, on the other hand, had fielded a wet behind the ears trainee anxious to show off everything he knew – unencumbered by preconceptions about what everyone ‘should’ know.

There is – finally – a point to this story. If you’ve read my previous Connected Battlefield posts on the arcane arts of salesmanship, you’ll know that I believe that a good demonstration will always be a deal winner – while a bad one can see you lose business very fast.  The moral of this particular tale is to point out how easy it is to assume knowledge on the part of the person you’re demonstrating to. Something that’s obvious to you may not be obvious to him/her. If you don’t demonstrate (or at least discuss) a feature or capability – who can blame your prospect if he/she infers that that means you don’t have it? Or for choosing the competing alternative that clearly does have it?

When it comes to assuming knowledge on the part of your prospect, recall that horrible (and somewhat inaccurate) old cliché: “Never assume - - because when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me”. 

Ian McMurray's picture

Ian McMurray

Ian McMurray started his 40-year career in the technology industry back when 4K wasn’t the latest TV resolution — it was as much memory as you needed to write a complete, integrated accounting system for a computer. He started life as a mainframe salesman but eventually succumbed to the lure of marketing, and has since held a variety of European and worldwide marketing management positions, as well as occasional forays into sales training and development. He’s now the PR guy for Abaco Systems, and is based in Towcester, England.

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