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Developers and the enterprise software sales process

Should developers be privy to the ins and outs of software sales? A strong business relationship can be mighty helpful in this expensive and tedious process.

Software doesn't appear by magic. Someone has to make it, and someone has to sell it. Development and sales go hand in hand -- no code means no sales; no sales mean no code.

Yet, the sales department is far removed from the developer in most organizations. Despite sales' importance, few developers that I've met really understand what the enterprise software sales process is about.

In the spirit of curiosity, sharing and learning, I interviewed three seasoned executive sales professionals to get their insights about how to sell software to the enterprise. During this research, I noticed a pattern. Each talked about a set of "lessons learned" that play a major role in this strained relationship. They are:

  • Never forget that sales is a profession.
  • An enterprise sale takes even more time than you expect.
  • At the enterprise level, extreme preparation is key to making the sale.

Never forget that sales is a profession

You must respect that sales is a professional practice. There's an art and a science to it, just like coding. As I think about my own career as a developer, I really didn't respect [sales] as a professional practice until I started running my own company.

-- Chris Cera, CEO, Arcweb Technologies

Not everybody can sell into the enterprise. It requires a blend of technical acumen and industry awareness, coupled with the ability to understand organizational and human behavior. These are rare skills, and professionals have taken years to develop them. Conventional wisdom says that the enterprise software sales process requires nothing more than a list of industry connections and a willingness to spend the day on the phone and attend a few industry events. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

An enterprise sale takes even more time than you expect

You have to go in with the realistic expectation that, when acquiring a new account, you have to give yourself anywhere from 12 to 24 months to make the sale.

-- Eric Mahler, CEO, Fulcrum Consulting

At the low end, the price point for software and services sold in the enterprise starts around $250,000. When you get into higher-end ERP systems, the price tag can easily be well into the millions.

There aren't a lot of companies with the need and capital to make multimillion-dollar software purchases. That makes finding the right contacts a major challenge. Even after a potential buyer has been identified, the enterprise software sales process is only at its beginning.

A sales pitch and the follow-up steps can require numerous meetings with the prospective buyer.

Sales can be a stressful way to make a living, especially if a company underestimates the amount of time and money required to make a sale at the enterprise level. Organizations that understand this concept can make things easier and help expedite the process. Developers within these enlightened companies can help with their understanding of this tedious process. And they should be ready to support the sales staff in these endeavors.

At the enterprise level, extreme preparation is key to making the sale

One of the biggest mistakes I've seen made in enterprise sales is not preparing well enough. You need to understand not only the prospective company's procurement process, but also the psychological, organizational and procedural factors in play among the various stakeholders involved in the buying decision.

-- Rob Gullett, founding partner, CustomerCentric Selling

A successful sale requires countless hours of preparation. Since most companies don't leave the final purchase decision on multimillion-dollar expenditures with just one individual, a salesperson will need to identify and learn as much as possible about the key personnel who will collaborate to make the ultimate yes-or-no decision.

In addition to the buying committee and its purchase process, the experienced salesperson will know why she's in the room in the first place. What is the buyer's problem that opened the door for this meeting and potential sale? Why didn't the buyer go to a competitor instead? Is this interview a sham to meet compliance regulations, or is the potential buyer serious about this purchase? All of these factors matter.

Lastly and most importantly, the salesperson wants to make sure that the company can afford what's being pitched. Enterprise software is expensive, and a purchase may require some type of financing.

None of this happens by itself. The enterprise software sales process requires a lot of preparation for the countless meetings and calls that take place over the course of months -- or even years -- and things can turn on a moment's notice.

Put it all together

When you think about the most successful relationship between software development and sales, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak probably come to mind. Wozniak knew how to put the pieces together to make the first Apple computer, but it was Jobs who knew how to sell it.

To succeed in the software business, you'll need a core group of developers that can create great products and services, and just as importantly, you'll need a professional sales force that can connect your code to the right customers. As Jobs and Wozniak demonstrated, one's success is not possible without the other.

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