Many of you know that I spent much of my career in IBM, starting as a sales person moving into the management ranks. Over that period of time, I think either the teams I led or I collected billions in revenue from the computers and software we shipped to our customers.

In spite of those billions in revenue, I never sold a computer or software system.

What I sold was:

  • The ability to cut years and $10′s of millions in development costs in designing a new airplane or car.
  • The ability to reduce waste and scrap in the foundry process by millions each year.
  • The ability of a tier 1 supplier in the automotive industry to keep a $107 million a year contract with a key customer.
  • The ability for a very senior executive to keep his job.
  • The ability for a group of mid level managers to get their boss off their back, and get home at a reasonable hour.

What I sold varied depending on who the customer was, and what they were trying to achieve.

But 100% of the time, the purchase order I received was for computers, software, and services.

In reality, the customer is never buying what we make and ship. That may be what they pay for, but it’s not what they are buying.

So if we only equip ourselves with our product brochures. If all we can talk about is the wonderful things our products do. If those become the things we “sell,” then it’s pretty hard finding customers that want to buy those things. To be successful selling, we have to equip ourselves with knowledge, skills, capabilities to understand what our customers are buying and an ability to demonstrate that what we sell is aligned with what they want to buy.

We’re only successful selling if we are selling what our customers are buying. During my time at IBM, my customers weren’t buying computers, software, or services. I suspect it’s true of IBM today–as well as all of its competitors.

What are you selling?