Nothing is more offensive than seeing an enterprise sales team grovel with their customers. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of “grovel” is:

  • To kneel, lie, or crawl on the ground
  • To treat someone with too much respect or fear in a way that shows weakness in order to be forgiven or to gain approval or favor

The irony is that this sales approach almost universally fails because it is the antithesis of what the customer wants.  Anecdotally and empirically speaking, F1000 customers want the vendor sales team to come in with a perspective on the best way to solve their business problem or need.   In fact, the higher up the executive food chain you are engaged with in your selling process, the more important that becomes.

F1000 C-level execs are looking for strategic business partners with insight and value add.  The cliché term in technology sales we often bandy about is that we all want to become a trusted advisor.  Trusted advisors are inherently not afraid to express a strong opinion backed by their domain experience.  They are not afraid to challenge a F1000 C-level exec, when they know from their experience that the customer is making a risky mistake or not considering something very important as part of their decision process.  Paradoxically, that is precisely why the C-level exec values them and considers then a trusted advisor.  Because they challenge them when they should be challenged.

I’ve been selling to Fortune 1000 companies for 25 years, and mostly with no name start-up technology companies.  My entire sales career has required that my sales teams take a challenger perspective with the customer to get noticed and even allowed to participate in the technology evaluation against the safer, well known technology providers.  The deals that have been won were hard fought and have been based on being professionally disruptive.  Innovators are not afraid of risk, rather they embrace it.

With all due respect to the smart folks at The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) and their seminal research resulting in the Challenger Sale book and model (, there are many of us that have been practicing these principles in our selling for decades.  My mother would tell you that I was a “Challenger” right out of the womb:-)  So thanks to CEB for validating what many of sales leaders and us enterprise sales teams have been doing instinctually for years.

Here is some simple advice on how to avoid groveling with your customers and why it matters as enterprise sales teams:

  • Engage your customers with conviction:  That conviction needs to be based on real domain expertise from your sales team and company.  Customers can smell a fake from a mile away.  How do you do this?  The best way to do this is through your customer case stories.  Other companies that have similar business problems or needs that you have helped solve.  The closer the fit with your customer case story and a particular customer the better.  The more similarities in things such as industry, project scale, major risk points, and incumbent technology used, the stronger your conviction should be.
  • Don’t be afraid to challenge:  There are inflection points in every enterprise sales cycle where an opportunity presents itself to the sales team.  The great sales teams recognize those opportunities and seize them by challenging the customer when they should be challenged.  A great example of this in practice is during your sales discovery phase, you point out important things that the customer is not considering as part of their evaluation and decision that they should be.  Be prepared to back up the challenge and assertion with facts and evidence to prove your point.
  • Inspire with insight:  Great sales teams pride themselves on being the best prepared in terms of the research they have done and the domain expertise they bring to the table. Customers want insight and knowledge that they don’t possess themselves.  That is your value add as a great sales team and how you earn the right to be considered as a strategic business partner (aka- trusted advisor) versus just another vendor.  You’ll know if you’ve accomplished this by being invited to planning and strategy meetings, the customer will share early stage documents and plans and ask for your feedback.
  • Incremental commitment:  As a long time start-up VP of Sales, my mantra to my sales teams has always been every negotiation in the sales cycle must include incremental commitment.  If the customer asks for something, what do we need in return as we are making an investment of our companies precious resources too.  It’s also important to establish early in the relationship that there are two parties involved and both parties have rules, processes and management to satisfy.
  • Mutual respect:  Particularly as a start-up company, you have to insist on mutual respect when selling to the F1000.  Many F1000 companies will attempt to bully you and dictate everything in an entirely one-sided relationship.  They are notorious for trying to suck your IP out and get you to do everything for free under the banner of “proving out your solution” and mitigating the risk since you may not have any F1000 customers yet.  How do you avoid getting in this highly dysfunctional relationship with a F1000 customer?  It starts by saying the word “no”.  And you have to back it up by being prepared to walk away.  I’m found of using the word “no” early and often with a F1000 company, as it establishes a level of respect and lets the customer know that you won’t allow yourself to be pushed around and have the terms of your relationship unilaterally dictated to you.

Good selling to you and your sales team and May you never grovel again with your customers!