The Games People Play

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Sourcing/Procurement and sales professionals both want a solution that will fit the end user’s  needs.  Sourcing/Procurement needs to satisfy its internal customers that it is doing the job right and sales wants to get repeat business – which they will only get if their customer’s customer is happy with the buying experience and its results. However, both sides engage in behavior that is dysfunctional and doesn’t achieve what either party is attempting to do. 

Suppliers complain that customers:

  • Can’t articulate what they need
  • Procrastinate (or seem to)
  • Don’t know what they need
  • Don’t give all of the right information 
  • Are unrealistic about the dollars, time and manpower needed to acquire a particular product or service.


When we talk to procurement folks we hear that sales people:

  • Think they know what the customer needs better than they do
  • Make assumptions that don’t reflect reality
  • Don’t listen and understand
  • Try to fit their solution into what they “think” the needs are. 


As a result, if you asked most customers, particularly higher level managers (Directors, VP and the “C” level) what their primary issue is with sales people today, most would argue that it is that they are tired of playing the game of Battleship — “C3!  Did I hit anything??”  And, if you asked most sales and marketing leaders what their primary issue is with sourcing / procurement professionals, most would say they are tired of playing the game of 20 Questions — “Do you know what I know??”

The situation where a sales person shows up for a sales call, knowing little or nothing about the account, the responsibilities of the individual they are calling on, or how to marry up their products and solutions with the client’s needs has become painful for both the seller and the buyer.  Most basic sales courses teach the sales person to come into the buyer’s office and “find their pain”. This usually manifests itself by their looking into the buyer’s eyes with a very earnest expression and asking some variant of, “So, what is your business pain?” or, “What keeps you up at night?” or, “Pick from this list of twenty problems and I’ll sell you my solution” (whether it fits or not).

My personal response, when I was in a “C” level position, (and I have received a lot of chuckles of agreement from colleagues of mine that have been in similar positions), was,  “Well right now, YOU’RE MY PAIN, because you’re the ninety-fifth sales person to come in here and ask me that question. It’s not my job to sit here and answer your questions – it’s your job to find out about my business, understand what my business needs are, and then match my needs up with what you sell to present me with ideas and solutions that can address my needs – I don’t have time to play this game with you”. The sales game of “Battleships” has become old and painful for all of us.   So how do we stop playing this game?

Many sales people will represent that, “Oh, I don’t do that, I research the companies I call on and know everything about them”. Unfortunately, when I have questioned those individuals about companies that they are working on, they have lots of isolated facts about the company (name of the CEO, gross revenues, EBITDA, etc.) but can’t use those facts for anything in particular. This is because they have data – not information. In order to have a meaningful conversation with someone in the enterprise that cares and knows about the business, it’s critical that sales people have some way to take all the facts and put them into a framework that can guide their conversations with enterprise managers and show that they can partner and add value to those conversations from the minute they walk in the door. 

On the other side of the desk, it has been interesting to me how many sourcing, procurement and other professionals cannot articulate this same information for their own company.  Far too many companies rely on their suppliers to come up with the best way to meet their needs.  (After all, they’re the experts in their industry!)  And, while everyone recognizes that needs and requirements are rapidly evolving in virtually every industry, sourcing and procurement people are all to willing to accept outdated specifications, poorly articulated requirements, and a whole host of other poorly defined needs as the basis for their RFQs, RFPs, and virtually every other communication with suppliers.

When the sales people don’t come in with the information, and the people they are talking to don’t know it, it’s no wonder that we have disconnects between sourcing and supply. The dysfunction is on all sides. Businesses need to make sure that the supply chain and sourcing groups understand the business and its needs and can articulate it when they go to market. The sales people and the sourcing / procurement people need to do their homework so that they are up-to-speed as much as possible before they get together. This saves everyone time and makes it more likely that the business will get what it needs from their suppliers.

At a high level, one of the ways to implement this as a solution is for both sides to map out the basics mentioned above. We’ve seen that many managers can do this with some initial assistance.  If sourcing / procurement professionals can visualize what the company is trying to achieve (Competitive Strategy, Business Initiatives), how it intends to achieve it (Operating Initiatives), and can then put it paper, they can more readily inform both themselves and their suppliers as to what the company needs.  Doing so avoids the Twenty Questions approach to securing the goods and services an organization needs.( It also insures that projects and programs within their division or departments are aligned with the corporation’s direction and as a result will be funded and ultimately successful.)

Similarly, if sales people can take the initiative to convert the data they have into information and make some educated guesses about where their customers are headed, they can skip playing Battleship and present some options that are on target from the outset.  (At first glance, many sales people (and sales managers) see this as a daunting task –  but, as it turns out, with templates and some guidance, most salespeople can put this kind of information together into a meaningful business map using publically available information.)

If both sides take the time to create this roadmap, understand it, and communicate relationships will rapidly improve, results will be improved for both sides of the relationship, and the value captured in the relationship will be unleashed.  Not a bad outcome!

If I’ve raised any questions or inspired any thoughts, please share them.  I’d be interested in your take on this topic.

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Anne Kohler
Anne has been leading consulting and financial management organizations for over 25 years. She has extensive expertise in Strategic Sourcing, change management, contracting & contract management (both the buy side and sell side) organizational design and supply chain management. Anne has a passion for collaborating and educating her clients while helping them to uncover hidden value in their organizations. In addition, Anne has been named by Supply & Demand Chain Executive as a “Top 100 Provider Pro to Know” every year since 2007 and a 2013 Top Female Supply Chain executive.

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