George Akerlof is perhaps best known for his article “The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism,” published in 1970 – the paper for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize. In short, it is an article about asymmetric information and the imbalance of negotiation leverage created when one side knows more about something than the other does. Remember subprime mortgages?
An imbalance of information is exactly what characterized the technology industry for most of its recent history. The knowledge and ultimately the negotiation leverage were clearly on the side of the vendor. An IBM mainframe salesperson in the early ’70s described it as “having an 8th-degree black belt in a barroom brawl with a room full of drunks.” Back then, if you wanted to know about speeds and feeds, connectivity, throughput, pricing, integration, compatibility, and support, all roads led back to the vendor sales office. It’s no wonder that caveat emptor – let the buyer beware – became such a useful principle and that the perception of sales was aligned with adjectives such as sleazy, slick, greedy, manipulative, and unscrupulous.
The good news is that the tables have begun to turn in recent years, with buyers having access to more and more information. This certainly applies to the technology industry, but think of all the other aspects of daily life in which information has become more transparent: buying a car, securing a loan, finding an electrician. A few keystrokes on Edmunds, LendingTree, or Angie’s List can take the mystery out of what used to be a cumbersome and intimidating set of activities. In fact, there is so much information available that the watchword is now caveat venditor – let the seller beware.
Some studies indicate that as much as half the traditional selling cycle is complete by the time a salesperson learns of a new opportunity. Today the buyer can easily scope out product information, viable suppliers, sample RFPs, evaluation models, vendor scorecards, checklists, and service-level agreements from the internet with relative ease. Conference calls with colleagues from other companies, user group meetings, and buyer conferences can also be on the menu to the more determined. And all before the sales team is called – if they are called at all. This “new reality,” as one Silicon Valley head of sales terms it, is forcing sales teams around the world to reevaluate how they engage with customers in everything from small-business marketing campaigns to key account sales management. The selling strategies and tactics of just a few years ago are proving to be increasingly out of date.
However, while having access to more information may take away the specter of the lopsided barroom brawl, knowing what to do with that information is where the high-value payback occurs. As one insurance industry executive described the rollout of their vendor management office, “This is where the heavy lifting takes place.”
The goal, however elusive, leads back to a principle that even the theoretical economist George Akerlof would agree has real-world value: “fully informed, rational actors making decisions in their best interest.”