Top 10 Reasons High-Tech Salespeople Fail & What to do about It

All sales professionals share common problems in their day-to day activities which lead to failure. Sales is a profession not unlike law, medicine, accounting or engineering; it requires continuous training and the refining of skills.  The following is a report based on research and observations of high-tech selling teams and describes the Top-10 problems and their solutions.

Reason #1 Buyers have a system, sales people usually don’t.

It is a battle of the plans, and the person with the stronger plan wins. Buyers have an effective system to deal with salespeople. Many technology buyers are formally trained in dealing with salespeople.

The buyer’s system is designed to get as much information as possible and to remain in control of the situation. Buyers often mislead sales reps about their intentions, how much they will spend, who makes decisions, etc. The prospect’s system is designed to turn high-tech sales people into unpaid consultants, lead them on until they have all of the information they need, and often use their proposals to negotiate better deals with their current supplier or a competitor. Does this make buyers bad people? Of course not; we all use this system for dealing with salespeople. It’s almost second nature.

But still it’s true, in every culture we’ve visited around the world, there is a universal belief that:

You can lie to salespeople and still go to heaven.

Why do buyers do this? First, it works. Also, in order to protect themselves, buyers feel they need a system to deal with salespeople. It is an instinctive reaction to the negative stereotype of a salesperson that causes buyers to put up a defensive wall when dealing with anyone who is selling something.

So how do most sales people deal with the buyer’s system? Most play right in to it. Many don’t use a systematic approach to selling and find themselves winging it. They allow the prospect to take total control of the sales process. They eagerly:

  • Give their information
  • Make commitments without getting any in return
  • Waste resources on pursuing deals that will never close
  • Make unneeded concessions
  • Misinterpret the ubiquitous “I’ll think it over and get back to you” as a future sale
  • Lose deals to competitors with stronger salespeople

What do companies do to contribute to the problem? Most high-tech firms train their reps on the features and benefits of their great technology, even though traditional feature and benefit selling has proven ineffective. This underlying paradigm that drives the buyer/seller dance works to the detriment of the salesperson. But, is it in the best interest of the buyer to make significant technology decisions this way? No, this default mode of operation is in neither the buyer’s nor the seller’s best interest.

FACT: Over 80% of high tech sales people we observe are still using traditional Feature/Benefit selling techniques.

The solution? A non-traditional approach to selling that provides a system that sales managers and reps buy into 100%. The system should balance both the buyer and seller’s best interest – the Art of Mutual Agreement.

Reason #2 Spending too much time with prospects who will never buy. 

A sales manager recently evaluated two of his reps like this: Gary spends too much time with non-buyers, and gets too involved in nonproductive activities. One root cause of this behavior is that he doesn’t ask the tough questions.  Amy is strong with users, but both she and Gary have lost deals because our competition has contact and influence at the CEO and Executive Director level, and they do not. Why is this true?

A) Sales reps won’t ask the hard questions up-front for fear of making their prospects angry.

B) Prospects don’t want to say no. Most sales people think their job is to close everybody, and over the years sales training has taught, “Don’t take NO for an answer.” Reps are taught to be persistent, handle stalls and objections, trial close, and always be closing. No wonder buyers need a system to protect themselves. Buyers realize sales reps don’t want to hear NO. Buyers fear that when a salesperson hears a NO they’ll hang in there and try to turn NO into YES. When the poor buyer really means NO, she/he has found the easiest way to get rid of a sales person is to tell them, “I’ll think it over; I’ll get back to you.” How many think it over’s really turn into business?

C) Salespeople don’t get to decision-makers. Instead, most salespeople spend time with comfort people who are easier to get in front of and with whom the salesperson is more comfortable talking.

FACT: 60% of a salesperson’s time is spent in front of people who will not, or cannot buy their product or service.

The solution? The sales rep needs the tools to separate tire-kickers from buyers and an approach to obtain executive sponsorship early in the sales cycle.  Learn to qualify your prospects out, not qualify them in. The top rep learns to ask the hard questions up-front, to save resources for real opportunities. NO is an acceptable response from a buyer. Going for the NO requires a tremendous paradigm shift for most sales people, but it can take all the pressure off the rep and increase her/his productivity. The prospect is also a beneficiary because it makes the process feel more like buying than being sold.

Reason #3 Sales people talk too much. 

A sales VP recently told us, “My sales reps listening skills aren’t where they need to be – someone says something and they don’t find out the real reason or intent behind the question, which leaves the prospect feeling like my salespeople don’t understand them or their issues.  Of course, when we sent them to the College of Product Knowledge, filling them with features and benefits and then sent them out to make their quotas, we should have expected this result.” The marketing department has given the sales team the company line “extensible, scalable, user-friendly all from an industry leader.” So what’s the problem telling our story?

First, people buy for their reasons, not the sales rep’s reasons. Second, most high-tech companies feature and benefit presentations sound the same to the buyer, and when they sound the same, low price becomes the determining factor in getting the business.

The solution? Asking questions is the answer. Learn to ask questions and stop pitching. Teach your sales people the 70/30 rule; your prospective customer should be talking 70% of the time and the sales rep should be talking 30% OR LESS.

Reason #4 Salespeople focus on price and want discounts for every deal. 

Price is never the real issue! If you don’t believe this yourself, call us so we can show you why it’s true. Salespeople focus on price because it’s often the first thing the buyer asks about. Yet study after study confirms that quality and services are almost always more important than price. Price is never the main reason for getting and keeping business. People buy your products and services to solve a problem they have or to change something.

The solution? If you are effective in asking questions and getting to real issues, price should not be the determining factor in winning and losing, and you can sell at a premium over your competitor’s price.

Reason #5 Product training is over emphasized and product knowledge miss-used, therefore, selling becomes presenting. 

Most sales training focuses on product knowledge. In fact, 80% of training provided for direct sales people and channel partners is product-oriented. Sales people, once filled with product features and benefits, are eager to share this information and become demo Dan or Dolly. The focus then becomes totally on your product or service and not on the buyer and her/his problem, where it belongs.

The solution? Provide a systematic approach to selling so your salespeople can lead the buyer/seller dance; help buyers clearly define their problems and co-build solutions that exactly fit their needs. Product knowledge is important, but how it’s used at each phase of the buying process is key.

Reason #6 Salespeople fail to get prospects to reveal budgets up front. 

Most people are uncomfortable talking about money. Discussing money is sometimes seen as intrusive and is an unpleasant task people avoid. Many high tech sales people avoiding talk of money, fax over a quote to communicate the price to their prospect. Sales people can’t afford this common malady.

The solution? Knowing whether there is money up-front will help the salesperson distinguish between the prospect who is ready to solve a problem from the one who is not committed. Comfortably talking about money is a key to the executive suite, where projects are evaluated based on bottom line impact. You need to find out two things about money:

– How much the problem is costing the buyer?

– How much they would be willing to invest to solve the problem.

Without this information, your price will always be too high.

Reason #7 Salespeople fail to get firm commitments from buyers.

Salespeople are often very willing to jump at the opportunity to do a proposal, presentation, demo, etc. This approach is incredibly time-consuming and resource intensive. How many bids and proposals has your firm sent out over the last twelve months that resulted in nothing? How much does it cost you on an annual basis in misspent sales time, S.E. time, trial software, loaner equipment, bid and proposal efforts, etc.? High-tech sales managers often contribute to the problem by monitoring the wrong statistics – quotes sent, meetings held, and proposals outstanding. They are driving lots of activity, but gaining few results.

The solution? Salespeople must learn what motivates people to buy (we call it pain/gain) and become masters of the skills required to help buyers become comfortable sharing their pain/gain (an example is the pain funnel questioning technique). Other tools, like the Ultimate Contract letter, mini-contracts and post selling, help firm up and lock in your buyer’s commitment making your forecast reliable. Never do anything unless you know why and it’s in your best interest.

Reason #8 Lack of sufficient prospecting.

A quote from a VP of Sales: They don’t do enough prospecting, even when I use a long stick.All professional salespeople will eventually be faced with a bout of call reluctance. You know the story, they have so much paperwork on their desk they can’t possibly find the time to prospect for new business OR they’re so busy calling on existing customers (who incidentally aren’t buying anything) there’s no way they could add any new appointments. Getting ready to get ready. Sound familiar?

FACT: 40% of all veteran sales professionals have experienced bouts of call reluctance severe enough to threaten their career in sales.

FACT: 80% of all new salespeople who fail within their first year do so because of insufficient prospecting activity.

The Solution? A fresh approach to prospecting will increase your sales team’s ability to fill the pipeline with quality opportunities. Greater effectiveness and success leads to even more success.  Nothing motivates professional salespeople like winning.

Reason #9 The salesperson came into sales with the wrong idea of the profession.  It’s an easy and common mistake. I love people, so I’ll be a salesperson. You end up with a salesperson who would rather make friends with their prospects than conduct business. Good sales people help a lot of people, it’s true. But sales is not the place to get your emotional and social needs met. It’s the opposite; it’s a tough and demanding profession full of rejection.

FACT: Sales interactions are fundamentally different than social interactions. Successful professionals understand and accept the bottom line of selling: GOING TO THE BANK.

The solution? Hire strong people using a structured interviewing process and teach them a system that helps them strike the appropriate balance between developing rapport and getting commitment.

Reason #10 Salespeople don’t treat sales as a profession.

Professionals like doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, and CPAs all have one thing in common – they attend continuing education to maintain and increase their proficiency. Yet how many salespeople are continually seeking new ways to increase their skills? Many have the attitude “I’ve been selling for years, what more can I learn?”

The solution? Like many top performers, the top 20% of salespeople look for ways to sharpen their skills to gain the fine edge that leads to consistent success.

What to do about it:

Successful implementation of a common sales process requires the following steps:

Step #1: 100% Management buy-in. No selling system will succeed unless your front-line managers are 100% committed to and able to support and reinforce its implementation. A key to successful Sales Force Transformation is a conceptual shift on the part of first level managers from reactive (“what are you going to close this quarter?”) to proactive coaching in all phases of the process (debriefing sales calls, strategizing deals, making good bid/no bid decisions.)

Step #2: Sales buy-in. Most sales training fails because it’s the corporate flavor of the month and because there is not buy-in at all levels.

Step #3:  Ownership. Even the best selling system delivered by the most entertaining and persuasive trainer will be a distant memory within a few weeks if the effort is not ongoing. It’s fine that your sales people know what to do – but to do it under pressure, in buyer/seller situations requires that reps graduate from knowledge to mastery. Experiential learning is what works for sales people. Your team needs hands-on learning and reinforcement experience in an environment where it’s safe to get out of their comfort zone and try new and more effective behaviors.

By Dave Harman

Dave has nearly 30 years’ experience in sales and sales management with Fortune 500 companies as well as small, family owned organizations.  As a business owner, he fully understands a balance sheet and a P&L and how to make an operation run successfully.  As a sales manager, he takes leadership and profitability seriously.

Contact him at

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