Retail Reflections

Learning To Speak Retail – What Every Sales Exec Needs To Know

Learning To Speak Retail – What Every Sales Exec Needs To Know

Some advice for those in the technology sector who are working with retailers and finding that selling into retail is not necessarily a walk in the park.

OK, so if you know your gondola ends from your planograms from your drop shipping to your endless aisle, I’ll give you back three minutes of your life, because you probably don’t need to continue reading. If however, you’ve always confused your showrooming with your clienteling, and are curious to know what a SKU actually is, I hope what follows might be of (some) use.

In my twenty plus years in retail, I’ve come across some very good sales people. But they also appear to be something of a rarity, and I think I know the reason why. And that observation comes from both sides of the relationship – as both responsible for IT Operations at Kingfisher / Superdrug and then in numerous business development roles delivering both software and services solutions to retailers.

And it occurred to me that someone can be a good sales person without necessarily being a good retail sales person. Something which allows the good to have the conversations which others can only aspire to. But we’ll return to that in a moment.

What Are You Selling?

Now, I could have taken a leaf out of Simon Sinek’s book and started with why? But for the purposes of this, let’s start with what? What are you selling?

The obvious answer might be cloud services, or security, or infrastructure services; in other words, I would venture that the majority when asked that question would provide a neat, polished description of the technology they’re selling – together with the elevator pitch.

And on the face of it, when the audience was almost exclusively the CIO or his / her team, that might have been a very plausible response. Not any longer. Because as I’m sure you will have realised some time ago, that audience has grown and that there are now multiple stakeholders (many from outside the IT domain) who are involved in the decision making process.

And that means that selling the technology to them is about as worthwhile as trying to teach your granny how the metaverse works.

Because to them, what you’re selling are outcomes, so be prepared to constantly answer the why? question or answer the so what? Imagine you have a five year old in front of you, and for anyone who’s had one, you’ll know that they don’t give up.

Business outcomes are what you are selling first and last; the technology is merely an enabler to reach that destination.

Think Like A Retailer

Countless times a sales proposition has been put to a retail CIO which the sales exec has thought they’ve qualified the life out of and stuck it in Salesforce as an ‘80% this quarter opportunity’, only to learn that they were desperately over optimistic (which, as we know, is never a great tactic in managing your bosses expectations).

And not only that, they are left wondering why this fantastic bid which was going to save the client millions per annum with an ROI within year one, could possibly have failed?

The answer lies in the very essence of why I decided to write this article.

Never forget that if you lose the deal, you might not make quota for that quarter; if your customer, the CIO, makes a bad technology decision on behalf of their business, they could very likely lose their job.

So the answer is to think like a retailer.

In my days at Kingfisher and Superdrug, we weren’t paid handsomely by comparison with the constant stream of sales execs who came to visit us. But more than that, embedded within our culture was the feeling that every pound which we spent was ours as much as the organisations. This informed our negotiating tactics deeply. And those who understood this had a far better chance of success.

So let’s return to our example for a moment and answer the question as to why pen wasn’t put to paper on such a fantastic offer?

What the sales exec didn’t realise (or hadn’t bothered to find out) was that there were three other competing projects which all had an ROI within the year, saved millions and yet (and this is the crucial part) had a much lower risk of failure attached to them. Which brings me to another example of thinking like a retailer.

The Two Killer Questions

When I arrived at Superdrug, coming from a Barclays IT background, security and risk management were ingrained in me so it came as a surprise to learn that there were no effective change management processes or controls in place. It needed a small investment, I seem to recall a capital expenditure of £25k, and so I was required to present the case to the Board.

After finishing my pitch and feeling decidedly pleased with myself, Liz, the then managing director, peered over her glasses at me and asked what I have always recalled as the two killer questions; “how does this lower my costs and / or how does this add to the bottom line?”

Suffice to say that I went back to the drawing board.

Now, you might be thinking, well, that was an internal scenario so I’m unlikely to encounter that (believe me, you will!) but how about the other two killer questions which you most certainly will be asked (I have been many times). And they are:

What problem(s) of mine can you solve and where have you done it before? That’s why I learnt to always insist on a customer reference when negotiating the contract because they are like gold dust.

Who You Gonna Call?

Is retail (and retailers for that matter) any different from other sectors? The answer is kind of immaterial because retailers believe they are. And in addition to being risk averse (some would say too risk averse) they are incredibly parochial about their industry and their business. In other words, in this context, incredibly focused.

And they expect you to be too.

Which is the second fundamental reason for me sharing these thoughts. And in that respect we return to our sales people, the one who has the conversations and the one who aspires to them. In other words, if you’re selling into retail, don’t just learn the sector, live and breathe it. And make sure that applies to your client or prospect’s business.

But be careful, as retail can be a bit of an illusion. Because we’re all shoppers, it would be too easy to convince ourselves that we understand and are knowledgeable about the industry. And that would be perhaps the biggest mistake of all to make because you will be found out within five minutes of sitting in front of any retailer worth their salt.

However, the good news is that retail (unlike for example, the utility or energy sectors) is easily accessible. All you have to do is walk down any high street, round any shopping mall or spend some time online. And if it’s a particular retailer, no amount of desktop research will uncover the nuggets of gold which spending fifteen minutes with a store manager will produce.

Do that before every client or prospect meeting, believe me, you will have a head start on everyone else around the table.


In many respects, learning to speak retail is just like learning any other language; the only effective way to do so is to just get stuck in.

And just like learning a foreign language, once you show willing and make the effort, it will be appreciated many times over and you will begin to reap the rewards. And that’s when it begins to get fun and exciting.

I’ve often described retail and in particular, working in retail, as like marmite, you either love it or loathe it. I happen to love it and I hope that you do too.

Oh, and that SKU? It’s a stock-keeping unit. But you knew that already.

Good luck selling!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *