How procurement sees the Sales profession

There is little doubt that over the years procurement people have become more cynical and suspicious of sales people. As procurement matures into a mainstream profession, its practitioners are typically smarter than they used to be. And despite the great strides made by the key (or strategic) account management segment of the Sales profession, the image of the pushy salesman is almost impossible to shake off completely. It’s worth noting that, however strategically-aligned or engaged the Key Account Manager (KAM) is in helping create value with the customer, that customer is still likely to routinely meet with sales people from other less-critical suppliers; suppliers that focus on driving tactically towards hitting sales targets and thresholds that trigger personal bonus payments. This type of behaviour naturally creates an undercurrent of suspicion over the motivations of the sales person. It’s no wonder that sales and procurement types often struggle to get along.

Furthermore, those tactically-driven suppliers are known frequently to indulge in the ‘hurried close’, creating pressure on a customer not ready to seal the deal. Of course we have to be realistic, as this ‘closing’ phenomenon will always be part of the game of buying and selling; it’s just that modern procurement people have a heightened sensitivity to it, and it’s one of the reasons why procurement people are often perceived as ‘difficult’ by those in Sales.

In addition to the ‘hurried close’ there are a number of pet hates procurement associate with sales people. One of the most important, particularly those procurement people charged with managing supplier performance and contract compliance, is that sales people too often seem more interested in ‘new’ customers that existing ones. They’re off working on the next deal, almost before the ink is dry on the current contract. Another buyer complain relates to the supply of some professional services; suppliers notoriously putting forward the ‘A’ team up front, only to replace them with less experienced and/or capable people soon afterwards. Programme managers are changed, often leaving the scope of work to be renegotiated. This leaves procurement questioning the integrity of the supplier and disappointed that they have, once again, been oversold.

The perception that many sales people have that procurement is only interested in price is also misplaced. Procurement’s role is that of an agent, a person acting on behalf of another; in business, typically someone from a product or service user function. It’s not procurement’s money; but the function is obliged to secure those services or products at a level of quality and availability that will satisfy users, on a demonstrably value-for-money basis. There is never any point in buying the cheapest if the supplier is unable to deliver on-time and to specification. Moreover, many procurement people, and certainly those managing strategic spend categories, know only too well that ‘value’ is the name of the game. Indeed, they will be looking at a range of value ‘levers’, features and benefits that enhance the user experience; speed to market and innovation being just two examples.

Sales needs to think much more diligently about the value impact on the customer of the supplier’s offering. There is competitive advantage in defining and quantifying value in the customer terms; and it is the few pioneering KAM suppliers that do this well. It’s also fair to say that too many sales people simply don’t care enough nor invest enough time in understanding procurement, how it operates and sets it priorities, and what its goals are. They’re missing a trick.

Four Pillars’ firmly believe that proactive engagement with procurement is a potential gateway to more sustainable relationships with key customers. Enlightened sales people, including key account managers, have already got this message; it’s time the rest of the sales profession bought a ticket and joined in the game.

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