Sunday, September 14, 2003

The case against case studies

Among software sales reps, it's common wisdom that case studies are an essential part of the sales pitch, with few drawbacks. Buyers like them because hearing about another company gives them something they can identify with. The sales executive likes them because he can highlight the strong points of his package in the form of a story. Case studies are key to the sale, right?

After listening in on a software sales presentation last week, I'm not so sure. This well-known vendor used a case-study as the focus of a two hour meeting and failed miserably. The basic problem was that the prospect couldn't identify with the company in the case study. For example, the prospect sells direct to consumers, but the case study was from a wholesale distributor. The prospect does all drop shipments from suppliers to customers, but the case study involved shipment from inventory. So, from the get go, the prospect did not identify with the case study, which raised questions in the prospect’s mind about package functionality.

Then, instead of directly answering these questions, the vendor suggested that the prospect continue listening to the whole case study and implied that perhaps the prospect might consider changing the way they do business. Needless to say, this did not go over well.

In a debrief later with the CFO and Controller, I suggested that this vendor needed more time to learn about the prospect's business. But the Controller told me that the salesperson had spent several hours interviewing her and the IT director. Therefore, there can only be two explanations. Either the sales team was incredibly dumb, or they thought that using a case study would relieve them of the need to address feature/functions point by point. I suspect the latter.

Ironically, I have evaluated this package in the past, and I suspect that this vendor has good functionality in those areas where the buyer has concerns. Unfortunately, the buyer didn't get to hear about it because the vendor was so intent on presenting his case study.

So, here's some free advice to those laboring to sell software in this difficult economy:
  • Force yourself to identify the top 3-5 characteristics of the prospect's business that either are unique or that the prospect thinks are unique. Verify with the prospect before the meeting that you are on the money. Prospects love to talk about their business, and you'll score points by showing an interest.

  • In the sales presentation, demonstrate that you understand these 3-5 characteristics and focus on how your solution meets the client's needs in these areas. Give the prospect something substantial to chew on.
What about case studies? By all means, use them, as long as they are relevant to the prospect's business. And please, offer them as a side dish, not as the main course.

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