Sell a Purpose, Not Just a Product

Brandon Metcalf   February 06, 2017  

In July 2016, Talent Rover signed a global deal to power The Adecco Group’s front-office recruitment software. We, a five-year-old company with 110 employees, suddenly became responsible for the largest staffing firm in the world with roughly 5,100 branch offices in 60 countries. The partnership is exciting and changed the dynamic, as well as the future, of my company.

When good things happen, we like to find causes that reinforce our sense of specialness. If you sell technology and close a deal, it’s tempting to credit your “unique value propositions” (often, capabilities of your product). The assumption is comforting but probably false.

At a certain caliber, technology buyers struggle to distinguish between two products. What’s the difference between Zendesk and Freshdesk? MailChimp and Constant Contact? GoToMeeting and WebEx? I know salespeople from each company could answer that question – but I bet the answer doesn’t matter to 99 percent of buyers.

Among top vendors, the differentiator is the relationship. Companies filter their choices based on capabilities, but ultimately they choose technology providers based on intangible factors.

Today, I’d like to explore those factors because they are the principles of great relationships. As I will show, they’re interrelated and come down to one concept: purpose. Read on, and I think you’ll reconsider why you buy certain products, and why people buy yours.

1. Software Choices Reflect Judgment  

When a stock trader buys low and sells high, we judge it a good trade. If she consistently makes such trades, we consider her a “good trader.” Businesses work the same way. When a colleague consistently makes good choices, we form the opinion that he or she is a good manager, a good executive, or a good recruiter. Yet few vendors recognize that software purchases reflect leadership and decision-making ability. The buyer is making choices that will influence the company’s success for years to come. Therefore…

2. Software Relationships Require Trust

Business software never works perfectly. Something will go wrong during implementation. Something will need attention or improvement after the platform goes live. If the vendor doesn’t fix the problem, the vendor isn’t the bad guy – the person who chose to buy the software is. Thus, a buyer choosing among comparable products will select the provider who instills the most trust. To earn this trust…  

3. You Have to Show Up

Let’s say you sell a web-based product. If your client is 8,400 miles away, you can run a demo without leaving your desk. But you will struggle to establish rapport, a precondition for trust.

In 2015, Spring Professional, an Adecco subsidiary, was searching for recruitment software and felt pressure to pick an established vendor. They took a risk on Talent Rover. Why? In part because I flew from San Francisco to their offices in Singapore three times in two weeks. It was a big risk for a small startup with little cash. But presence is powerful. Human beings didn’t evolve with telephones and video chat. We’re wired to develop rapport in person.

Trust, however, is like the engine on an eighteen wheeler. It guzzles fuel, and the only way to keep the tank full is by…

4. Being Your Word

To many companies, an on-time software implementation is like a low-fat cheeseburger. It could exist, but they haven’t had one. That’s why most software relationships suffer from the start. The vendor puts deadlines in the rearview mirror and treats the budget like a suggestion.

In my experience, on-time, under-budget implementations can and do happen (sorry, no sign of the low-fat cheeseburgers yet). But they require…

5. Vulnerable Honesty      

Before an implementation, software vendors are afraid to mention everything that could go wrong. However, a vendor and client can only hit deadlines if they practice vulnerable honesty – disclosure that creates exposure. Challenging a customer’s preference or opinion is a vulnerable position, so rarely do vendors say things like:

  • “I strongly recommend against modifying the platform that way. Here’s why…”
  • “Rearranging this workflow will actually slow down your team. I’ll illustrate why…”
  • “We could do what you request, but it will extend the implementation by two months.”

Those statements seem risky, but they aren’t if you…

6. Sell Only to Industries You Understand

Vulnerable honesty backfires if you don’t know what you’re talking about. How could I advise, and challenge, staffing and recruitment firms on configuring their recruitment software if I hadn’t worked in their business for over a decade? They’d have no reason to take me seriously.

Without hands-on experience, the other principles of the relationship break down. Expertise is a prerequisite to honesty, integrity, trust, rapport, and confidence in the purchase.

Industry knowledge is also a prerequisite to what Alexandre Lapeyre, Adecco’s Global Head of Solution Delivery, calls “intimacy with the customer”: a deep understanding what the customer needs to succeed. The vendor must see how the firm will adapt to the software, and how the software will adapt to the firm. Nothing demonstrates such understanding better than the most important principle of a software relationship:

7. Sell a Purpose, Not a Product

Throughout the relationship, purpose trumps product. Most vendors promise to address an unmet need or fix a problem. But a ‘remedial’ software vendor is like a doctor who puts your arm in a cast; he set the broken bone but doesn’t care how you use it afterward. An ‘aspirational’ software vendor is like the physical therapist who spends four months helping you become even stronger than you were before the injury. We build stronger relationships with physical therapists because, although they fix problems too, they focus on purpose.

To sell a purpose, you have to answer a series of questions: 

  • Who am I selling to?
  • What do they do and why?
  • What are their goals, and can I further them?

If Talent Rover can’t help a firm achieve its purpose, then Talent Rover is not the right fit. I have to walk away from the sale.

On It Goes

An improbable deal, like Talent Rover’s partnership with Adecco, comes together because these seven principles of relationships link together (and not necessarily in chronological order):

  • Leaders need to demonstrate good judgment, so they seek trustworthy vendors.
  • Trust requires rapport, which forms during face-to-face conversations.
  • Meeting commitments sustains trust and rapport.
  • Vulnerable honesty protects commitments by solving problems before or as they arise.
  • Expertise empowers you to exercise vulnerable honestly.
  • The process of identifying and serving a purpose requires and demonstrates expertise.
  • When you fulfill the purpose you sold, you validate the buyer’s decision.

And on goes a solid relationship.