Apple’s emergence as one of the world’s most powerful and valuable companies is generally attributed to its incredible feats of design and engineering. While these feats are undoubtedly praiseworthy, and many lessons can be gleaned from them, there is one department of Apple that rarely gets attention, but has been equally as innovative and impactful -- sales and sales operations.
I spent almost five years at Apple, where I was responsible for helping to build out and expand iAd. In this role, I learned invaluable lessons about growing a business that have shaped the way I think about sales culture. When I left Apple, these pillars of good business stayed with me, and now as the COO at a company offering a digital identity solution for enterprises, I follow them to guide our growth.
Consumer-facing companies like Apple might not seem like the logical role model for a growing B2B organization, but it is. No matter your vertical, the refined processes and beautiful products of a B2C company is what you are striving for. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not computers or devices you are selling to -- it’s people.
The divide between the consumer and the enterprise space is rapidly shrinking, and the most successful enterprise companies will be those that learn a thing or two from their B2C colleagues. While there are many factors that contribute to running a successful B2B business, these are five traits I observed at Apple that every good business shares.
1. Focus on the things that matter.
How did the iPhone become the name brand of smartphones? Because Apple single mindedly focused on the product and tirelessly strove to perfect it. Every Samsung, HTC and iPhone has the same basic format: touch screen, email service, music, camera, app store. The difference is Apple’s rigorous focus and attention to detail. The company’s leadership knows how to prioritize and knows what it does best and it leads the market.
The lesson here is that it’s better to do a few things well than many things middlingly. No company can do everything, especially in the early days when resources are thin. It’s easy to get distracted by ancillary actions and one-off products, but when your team can remain dedicated to a single goal, you distinguish yourself from competitors and gain an edge.
In addition to zoning in on your product, focus is also important because it enables your employees to do their best work. As a manager, encourage your employees to play to their strengths and work on as few things as possible. This will give them the time and mental space to accomplish those things extremely well. Success comes when your company and your team focus on mastering one to two critical things.
2. Customer experience is king.
The second lesson I took away from Apple is that it is much easier to increase the value of an existing customer than it is to find a new one. Apple’s success relies on its ability to grow revenue-per-customer. For example, once a customer purchases an iPhone, they love it so much that they go on to buy an iPad, Mac and Apple TV. This loyalty emerges when the customer experience is perfect and exceeds users’ expectations.
B2B companies can learn a lot from this strategy. Like Apple, we benefit by giving customers a reason to love us. This means developing products that are easy to use, delivering meaningful value to customers, building sales teams that are enjoyable to work with, and of course, crafting marketing campaigns that resonate. When you make your customer experience king, you create a happy, loyal user who is more likely to consider expanding their purchase.
3. Excellence in execution.
Part of the Steve Jobs dogma is that every user interaction matters, no matter how small or seemingly trivial. Would you still love your MacBook if it was filled with bugs or constantly crashed? Would you love your iPhone as much if the user experience was clunky or the icons outdated? Of course not. Apple strives to create products that are excellent inside and out. It doesn’t cut corners and emphasizes the details and the things that are unseen as much as those that are patently visible.
Moreover, Apple recognized that every consumer touchpoint in the real world and the digital world, needs to be seamless. Brick-and-mortar Apple stores turned traditional notions about retail on their head and created a new kind of shopping experience that is more efficient and enjoyable.
This lesson is just as relevant for B2B companies. The website landing page, the “Contact Us” form, the initial sales overture -- every aspect of the sales process needs to be 100% on brand and flawless. Anything short of that undermines credibility and trust. This also means that your back-end needs to be as powerful, beautiful, and well-organized as your front-end, because even if the customer can’t see when your data center is malfunctioning, they will still feel the downstream effects. The most successful companies do not cut corners.
4. Only those things that can scale matter.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. And if it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing at massive scale. There is a reason Apple is closing in on a billion customers -- its products are built to satisfy as many users as possible. Apple has always been a pioneer in terms of making digital technology accessible to everyone and in doing so, broke open its market.
Unless you’re in the business of selling Ferraris, your product needs to be built for high adoption. This means your sales and product strategies also need to scale. The challenge here is to balance scale with quality and precision. Quality and precision are important, but not if/when they come at the expense of widespread appeal and growth. Every new product and feature should be carefully reviewed for scalability.
5. Build a data-driven sales team.
Apple has always let its products do the talking. The valuable lesson here for B2B companies is that with a great product behind you, you don’t need expensive suits and three-martini lunches to woo customers. Those days of selling are over. B2B and B2C customers alike do far more research on their own and are not interested in being sold to. Instead, they prefer to gather information and make decisions independently based on what they’ve learned.
Instead of investing in schmoozing, B2B companies will get more bang for the buck by investing in product development and a data-driven approach to sales. Use data to find potential leads and understand what they are looking for; track everything, from lead generation through the sales pipeline, to get smarter over time and make informed decisions.
The emphasis on data has to be woven throughout the sales team’s culture, starting from hiring and training. You should be able to pull a report at a moment’s notice to see exactly how each team and member is doing, by the numbers. This emphasis cultivates transparency and enables managers to have honest conversations about progress, and about what is working and what is not.
The fact is that there are no “secrets” to success in business or in sales. At Apple, I experienced first hand the way the lessons outlined above contributed to building a business that delights people around the world. Those same lessons are equally as applicable to tiny B2B startups as they are to massive consumer-facing corporations. Good business is ultimately good business.