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Book Review: The Ultimate Showdown Sales vs. Procurement
“The only time they don’t say ‘Drop your pants’ now is at the Christmas party.” (p. 10, Epstein on sales' common interations with procurement))
The Ultimate Showdown Sales vs Procurement: The Secrets Unveiled at the Negotiation Table by Elliot Epstein and Paul Rogers (2018) is an absolutely fantastic book. In addition to getting two open and unapologetic perspectives on business, I was also left with the feeling that I had made two new friends.
The format of this book is unique, written entirely like a play (one paragraph at a time with the ‘speaker’ identified in the left margin), but it is fitting for the message and experience the authors want to deliver. We don’t need another buttoned-up, polite analysis of how sales and procurement have different approaches, challenges, and incentives – and the authors haven’t given us that. Instead, we get sales (represented by Epstein) and procurement (Rogers) having a debate. If the angel on your shoulder could have a sarcastic exchange with the devil on your other, I imagine it would read much like this. I won’t suggest which function (sales or procurement) is on which shoulder.
At times I found myself siding with each, even sales. We all have to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses after all, and the authors (who are clearly friends) expect no less of themselves.
The Procurement Process
Rogers makes a critical point early on about the cumbersome timelines associated with the traditional procurement process. In doing so, he not only offers Epstein and sales an olive branch, I think he earns a lot of credibility. Paul: “The reality is that the procurement time scale has become elongated…” (p. 18). Not only is this frustrating for internal stakeholders, it is crippling for suppliers – especially services suppliers who are trying to offer up specific individuals for prospective client consideration.
While the procurement process takes forever and a day, sales professionals know that if they reach the negotiating table there is a very good chance they are walking away with a deal. It is just too painful for procurement to go back without one. If they can just hold out and not cave on terms, they’ll take a step towards their targets. Elliot: “You’ll [procurement] use whatever tactics you can to get this down, but you won’t necessarily be willing to walk away.” (p. 49).
I think this is the best contrast in the book: “process jockeys” or “Peter Price” vs. “market players” or “Valerie Value”. Rogers is the one that makes the point that some of his fellow procurement pros are overly tactical, and potentially even scared of their own shadow. They are limited in their range of strategies and therefore in their results. [Here I must take an aside and defend cardigans. Paul describes dull procurement pros as the “cardigan brigade”. I love a good cardigan – especially in the fall, worn with jeans and riding boots.] We all know procurement pros that are overly focused on process and price, and here Epstein chimes in with a great litmus test.
A sales person and a procurement person are walking towards a conference room together. The sales person notes having seen the CEO of the procurement person’s company on a business show or in the news paper and makes a comment about what he or she had to say. Does the procurement person view it as a threat or an invitation to engage on a higher level? The question procurement is left with here is whether we are business people addressing procurement objectives or procurement people serving business needs. To me the choice is clear, and it emphasizes the importance of being well steeped in the external perspectives that matter to our company, whether they are expressed by our executives or by suppliers/customers/commentators about us.
I will say that there seems to be a double image of procurement running through the book. Are we the ones making suppliers drop their pants (except at the Christmas party) or are we the dorky ‘cardigan brigade’? At times, and in different instances, we are probably both, and there is no question that it creates a challenge for sales to figure out – quickly – which they are facing.
Paul raises the issue of how fast procurement is expected to work (despite the slowness of our processes – another interesting conflicting image), and how that holds us back from a market intelligence perspective. Paul: “If you think about what that means, when the bid comes back, they’re often ill-prepared to evaluate the offers.” (p. 103). So our process is slow, but we don’t have the time to educate ourselves? It seems to me that the answer is simplicity and automation; we are spending too much time on non value-added work. There is no excuse for this, and we can not hope to build influence internally if we put all of our energy into turning a crank and then abdicate the leadership position the moment it is time to apply our brains.
In this same vein, I like Elliot’s description of “scarcity” and the role it plays in competition. The old apples to apples procurement methodology drives out all of the scarcity, because scarcity sounds expensive. But it is also unique and innovative and does a lot more for customer value creation and competitive advantage than an apple. It may be messy, and require a rethink of how we will evaluate and select proposals, but I tend to think that in strategic spend categories we shouldn’t consider suppliers that don’t offer scarcity rather than the other way around.
Some books go well with wine and others with coffee or tea. This book is best paired with a cold beer – and an equal sparring partner.