The Container Function of Sales


Tim J. Smith, PhD
Founder and CEO, Wiglaf Pricing

Published December 1, 2007

A wise salesperson once mentioned to me that sales is a container function.  It contains the relationship between the customer, partners, and the company in order to facilitate a decision that results in a transaction.  Though far from perfect, sales as a container isn’t a bad analogy.  It also bespeaks of the precarious nature of sales.

In complex sales, the value proposition itself is being designed through the sales process.  This requires working across multiple organizations while never loosing sight of the one organization a salesperson will seek to help win.

Within the customer organization, salespeople must gather requirements, stroke the purchasing vision, and uncover the personal desires that individual members of the decision making body seek to fulfill through the purchase.  Concurrently, salespeople must work within their company to define solutions to the customer’s needs as well as coach their co-workers on how to position the solutions so as to stroke the individual goals of the customer decision makers.  And, when partner companies are required to join in to deliver the solution, salespeople will contribute to defining their roles and the method by which they can contribute.

In managing the goals and desires of multiple organizations and individuals, salespeople are the conduit for multidirectional communication.  They bind together the forums for needed conversation, work to align individual goals with the overall goal, and continually generate requirements while pushing a point of view.

They are also multilevel communication containers.  They manage the economic value proposition for the financial level of the customer as well as the revenue and cost management function of the company.  They clarify the needs of the customer while sharing requirements with the company.  And, in the final stages, they manage the tendering and proposal writing process.

When organizations or individuals initially make the transition from transactional selling to complex selling, they often fail to understand this new role.  As a result, some organizations will destroy the very container they sought to develop.

To start with, a company with a history of dealing with transactional salespeople will fail to understand why the salesperson engaged in a complex sale keeps coming to them with new requirements.  In the past, that company would have told the salesperson what they can sell and then wait for the salesperson to deliver a purchase order for those items. When the salesperson instead comes to the company with a new set of requirements, they see that salesperson as a troublemaker rather than helping them with a revenue problem.  After all, who is a salesperson to tell an engineer how to make the product?

Clearly, the realignment of this organization from internal elegance to market performance will be rough.  In a complex sales process, the very position of the salesperson is to uncover customer requirements and feed them to the company for their consideration on means to fulfill the goals.  Only by gathering customer requirements can a company make the transition to developing new solutions that are market relevant.

In the first iteration of solving the problem of having new requirements come through the sales process, organizations may seek to supplant the salesperson with a project manager, by either making that salesperson a project manager or worse, replacing them with one.  In either case, the results are the same.  The very value of a salesperson as a container for managing multiple organization and individual goals towards a single common goal will be collapsed into the management of an internal project.  Relationships with customers and partners will be strained as the company comes to force a singular drive with incomplete and evolving information about the needs of the customer.  Again, a rough ride.

For the salesperson going through this process, they will consistently be challenged, undermined, and outright placed on the sidelines.  Their role as a container for relationships is rarely valued by the organization.  It is as if the container is invisible.

For the company making the transition towards complex selling, the salesperson will be a continual irritant.  They consistently will point out new requirements, which in turn imply deficiencies with respect to past accomplishments and organizational capabilities.

For complex selling, the analogy of sales as a container for relationships and goals is quite valid yet incomplete.  It fails to highlight the action orientation of sales as well as the many steps and process which salespeople must manage, yet it indicates the need to bind together multiple visions into a single goal.  It also points out a two key challenges of successfully driving forward complex sales for the first time:  (1) The container is can be invisible.  (2) Jars can break.

The above challenges to realigning the sales function can be overcome with strong CEO and MD level support.  Valuing the sales function in complex sales as a container for relationships and a means to gather market requirements requires direct executive level support.  When that support is provided, the salespeople are encouraged to lead the charge into the market and the customer’s organization while the engineering, product management, and project management functions are charged with developing solutions that incorporate new customer requirements and can be profitably sold.  Creating solutions that the market values is the function of a business.  It is the proven path to profits.

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About The Author

Tim J. Smith, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Wiglaf Pricing, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Economics at DePaul University, and the author of Pricing Done Right (Wiley 2016) and Pricing Strategy (Cengage 2012). At Wiglaf Pricing, Tim leads client engagements. Smith’s popular business book, Pricing Done Right: The Pricing Framework Proven Successful by the World’s Most Profitable Companies, was noted by Dennis Stone, CEO of Overhead Door Corp, as "Essential reading… While many books cover the concepts of pricing, Pricing Done Right goes the additional step of applying the concepts in the real world." Tim’s textbook, Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures, has been described by independent reviewers as “the most comprehensive pricing strategy book” on the market. As well as serving as the Academic Advisor to the Professional Pricing Society’s Certified Pricing Professional program, Tim is a member of the American Marketing Association and American Physical Society. He holds a BS in Physics and Chemistry from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University, a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, and an MBA with high honors in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago GSB.