A great excuse gets people off your back quickly. A bad excuse just leads to more trouble down the road. This is why “sales execution” is far and away the most common excuse CEOs use when explaining away a bad quarter: it’s technically true (you miss numbers when you don’t sell enough stuff), and it’s perceived to be a readily “fixable” problem, so it gets investors and analysts off their backs.
Which brings me to the topic of Symantec. Last month Symantec’s stock took a beating after its relatively new CEO, Steve Bennett, gave financial guidance that fell short of analyst expectations. Chief among Bennett’s reasons for the gloomy guidance was, you guessed it, poor sales execution. He explained in a Bloomberg article that he was going to fix the sales organization by training employees to be “hunters rather than farmers.”
This was a telling remark – and, in my mind, it guarantees that Symantec’s downward spiral is just beginning. Here’s why: The “hunter/farmer” metaphor is as old as sales itself. In the olden days, when companies held most of the power in the relationship with customers, “hunters” were highly prized. “Just win the deal, baby!” was the battle cry for sales organizations, because high switching costs generally kept customers locked in once the deal was signed, no matter how miserable their future experience.
Today, however, the company/customer relationship has been flipped on its head. Customers now hold all the power. They can leave you for the competition with the click of a mouse. They can badmouth you to millions of other prospects in a matter of seconds through social media (or they can drive new customers to you with positive recommendations). There is proven causality between customer satisfaction rates and financial performance. There’s even a top-performing hedge fund that picks stocks based solely on customer satisfaction.
There’s no doubt about it: customers are King – and the King wants nothing to do with being hunted. The King wants to be cultivated. Customers want vendors who are true partners, who understand their business problems, and who will help them grow and thrive over the long term. That sounds an awful lot like what a farmer does. A farmer understands that cultivating crops is a long-term proposition; that daily nurturing yields future prosperity. Farmers eat well for a lifetime; hunters eat well until there is nothing left to hunt. Then they starve.
Symantec will not solve its problems by finding more hunters. In fact, the outmoded “hunter culture” is exactly why Symantec is in its current predicament. This is borne out if you take a look at the relative financial performance of a company focused on hunting (Symantec) and a company focused on farming (Unitrends). While our company sizes are admittedly quite different, the business trends are telling, because Unitrends has invested heavily in customer service and satisfaction, while Symantec has invested in killing its prey. Farming, it turns out, is the superior approach for generating long-term business results.
The sales execution excuse remains a great way to get investors off your back, so long as you have a viable plan for fixing the problem. In Symantec’s case, I fear it’s a bad excuse because the “fix” is to treat customers as prey, not partners. And we all know what happens with a bad excuse: more trouble down the road.