Not all sales executives are created equal: how to democratize high-impact selling


Sep 5, 2017

Many, if not most, firms build solutions for the “average” customer. B2B firms ground their marketing in attributes such as account size and product type; B2C firms focus on demographics and psychographics. Both strategies are roadmaps to serve the “average” customer—but innovating toward “average” is doomed to fail.

Instead, firms can personalize their offerings by graduating from such arbitrary classifications and embracing Jobs Theory. In a nutshell, Jobs Theory states that when trying to develop or sell  a product or service, the fundamental unit of analysis should be the progress a customer desires to make in a particular circumstance. This is the “job” for which a customer “hires” a product or service. This is starkly different from the attribute-based unit of analysis widely followed by many firms.

For firms to successfully create and deliver value, they must reinforce and attempt to personalize whatever it is that makes them unique at every interaction (we call this a firm’s value proposition). As the dominant frontline of a firm, sales executives play a key role in this endeavor. Having spent a considerable amount of time in sales and customer-facing roles, I’ve seen firsthand how Jobs Theory holds the potential to ensure that each sales executive is empowered to excel with this goal in mind.

Applying Jobs Theory within the context of sales

Sales messaging in the B2B sector or other technology-driven industries is typically heavily tilted towards product features, benefits, and price, each of which can be measured. Yet anyone who works in sales understands that each sale needs some impetus—a push or desire from the customer to consider the product—in order to close the deal.

In almost all cases, there are intangible elements that play a major role in providing this impetus. In addition to the functional needs of each customer and potential stakeholder, there are also emotional and social needs that must be met. These needs take many forms, such as the need to introduce a new product in order to make one’s mark at work, or the need to be better than one’s peers. When a sales executive embraces Jobs Theory, she is no longer confined to discussing product attributes. Instead, she is empowered to uncover and address the functional, emotional and social needs of key stakeholders, thereby increasing the probability of the sale.

Let me recount my personal experience to elucidate the theory. In 2005, when I was in my second year of college, I visited several retail outlets with the goal of buying my first mobile phone. In a majority of cases, the sales messaging was tilted towards mobile phone features, such as battery life, memory size, ruggedness and price. Yet somehow, the sales pitches did not strike a chord with me.

I decided to visit one last retail outlet before I called it a day. Sensing that product attributes did not appeal to me, the sales executive told me that a particular entry-level mobile phone, though slightly low on product features, was what a large section of college students were selecting because it was cool as well as economical. Eureka! This struck a chord with me. My father was paying for my mobile phone, and I did not want to unnecessarily make a dent in his pocket. I also did not want to look alien in my peer circle due to my mobile phone. Looking at the sales messaging through the lens of Jobs Theory, the sales executive beautifully personalized the mobile phone to fit my circumstance. The sales executive’s messaging connected not only with the functional dimension of my Job to Be Done, but also the emotional and social dimensions.

Consider another scenario. Assume that a sales executive is trying to sell an energy management solution that facilitates reducing energy consumption. What is the job that a plant manager is hiring the solution to do? From a purely functional standpoint, he’s obviously looking to reduce his plant’s energy consumption. What else?

Maybe the plant manager wants to outshine his competitors. Perhaps he wants to share the success of this energy management initiative with a community that really cares for the environment. This holistic understanding of the functional, emotional and social dimensions of his job will change the nature of the dialogue.

Table 1: Functional, emotional and social dimensions of the Jobs to Be Done in each scenario

Product or Service Functional Emotional Social
Mobile phone Give me a phone with adequate features Don’t make a dent in dad’s pocket Help me gain social acceptance from my peers
Energy Management Solution Help me reduce the energy costs in my plant/Business Unit Help me be better than my peers/competitors Enable me to be a part of the green revolution and share the energy savings socially

It’s worthwhile to note that while the marketing team can construct the “value messaging” for the jobs that arise for a customer, it’s the sales executive who knows which dimensions of the Job to Be Done—functional, emotional and social—need to be played up or down based on a deep understanding of his customer, since each customer is unique. This further underscores why sales executives can benefit from an understanding of Jobs Theory.Some high-performing sales executives, by virtue of their experience, may argue that they already have an intuitive understanding of their customers’ jobs. It’s entirely possible. After years of working in sales, why shouldn’t certain individuals develop a holistic understanding of the progress their the customers are trying to make, even without knowing the formal constructs of the theory? Jobs Theory, however, can democratize this ability by reframing the ways in which sales executives think about satisfying their customers. A crystal clear understanding of Jobs Theory will add a potent yet simple tool to the sales executive’s toolkit, thereby facilitating compelling discussions at every interaction and improving opportunity conversions.

As a visiting research fellow at the Institute, Chandrasekar is investigating the future of manufacturing, focusing primarily on automotive, industrial machinery, and aerospace sub-sectors.