What Do Salespeople Think of NFV?

If there’s a front line for NFV, that front line is the sales effort.  Since I’ve started to blog about the difficulties associated with making the NFV business case, I’ve gotten a lot of comments from salespeople who are charged with the responsibility of doing that.  I’ve tabulated just shy of 30 of these, and I think it’s interesting to see what they suggest.  Obviously, I’m suppressing anything that would identify salespeople, their companies, or their customers.

Let’s start with the state of the NFV market.  100% of the sales people thought that the NFV market was “developing more slowly than they had expected”, and this same percentage said that they believed their own companies were “unsatisfied” with the level of NFV sales.  93% said that the pace of development was “unsatisfactory for them personally.”  While this sounds dire, it’s wise to remember that salespeople are often unhappy with the pace of market development.  For SDN, for example, 76% say that market development is too slow, 81% that their company is dissatisfied, and 79% that they’re personally unhappy with the pace.  New technology gets a slow start.

Why is NFV developing too slowly?  Remember that buyers are almost unanimous in saying that the problem is that the business case hasn’t been made.  The sellers see it differently.  The reason given by 79% of the sales people is that “buyers are reluctant to take a risk with new technology”.  With multiple answers accepted, 43% say that “too many people have to sign off on NFV” and 29% say that they “have difficulties engaging the decision-makers” on the technology.

Who’s the engagement with?  In 89% of cases, sales engagement is reportedly with the office of the CTO and is linked in some way to lab trials.  In the majority of the rest, engagement is with a team reporting to the CEO.  Only about 4% say they’re engaging a specific CxO outside the CTO group.  This meshes with the question of who the culprit is in slowing NFV sales.  In 89% of the cases, salespeople name the CFO, in 7% the CIO, and in 4% the CTO’s organization.

The number of NFV successes is too small to get much from in a survey sense, but what seems interesting is that for nearly all the successes so far, there’s been no formal PoC or lab trial proving NFV out.  Instead, the sales organization has driven a “virtualization” story or an “agility” story and then linked that story to NFV when the basic benefit thesis is accepted.  In these cases, engagement was not with the CTO or standards people, but with operations or the CIO.

How do salespeople feel about the industry view of NFV?  Here we see a very distinct split.  Exactly half think that the industry view is “pessimistic” and that it creates a “headwind that impacts their sales success.”  Another half say that they believe the view is “optimistic” and that it’s generating unrealistic expectations and failing to cover the issues properly, which then makes the salespeople engage too much in “education”.  Media coverage is “inadequate” in two-thirds of cases, but the company’s own website is considered inadequate by 71% of salespeople and the marketing collateral available to support sales is considered “below par” by 79%.

Will their company stay the course and make NFV a success?  There are a lot of views here.  In all, 75% think their company will stay with NFV and eventually make it a success for them.  But only 29% think that NFV will be a “major revolution in networking” and only 21% think it will be the technology that will dominate their own career.  Those who remember ATM and other network technology waves come down slightly on the side of NFV being another technology that will fall short of its goals (54%).

It sure looks like salespeople are having issues with NFV, and the biggest problem seems to be that selling cycles are incredibly long and there seems no end to the issues that come up.  It’s common for a salesperson to say that every time they prove a point, another question arises.  It’s sales whack-a-mole, in other words.  There’s no consensus on why that is, though you could attribute the problem to a number of points the salesperson makes, including the constituency difficulties and the business case challenge.

It would be lovely if you could simply ask sales people what needs to be done, but not helpful.  A large majority take the position that the buyers just need to suck it up and get to work deploying NFV.  Forget buy-in or a business case.  Obviously that’s not going to happen, and those who have worked with sales organizations for a long time know this is a common reaction.

What do I think this shows?  To me, the sales reaction is a clear symptom of a technology in search of a justification.  When the network operators launched NFV (with the “Call for Action” paper in October 2012) they set a goal, which was their intention.  That goal, like all goals, has to be met through a clear identification of benefits to be reaped and pathways to doing the reaping.  We’ve not done that with NFV, nor did we really do it with SDN or ATM, for that matter.  If a salesperson knows that the buyer wants three things, they know how to approach and control the sale.  If they think the buyer is simply being driven toward a technology change by the relentless progress of technology itself, they get frustrated with those who don’t want to get moving.

What I think is the major disconnect between salespeople and the buyers is the area of operations.  Salespeople didn’t say much about operations issues.  If you ask them what the benefit of NFV would be to buyers, three-quarters say “capex reduction” even though operators have largely determined that benefit won’t be enough to drive massive NFV acceptance.  Only 11% mentioned opex at all, and none of them said that there had to be a better opex strategy.  Operators think that opex is critical in almost 100% of cases, and more than three-quarters recognize that “service agility” is linked to the service lifecycle and service operations.  The disconnect is likely due to the low rate of engagement with the CIOs.

I think this situation is serious for NFV, but I also think it will change in some decisive way by the end of the year.  Buyers going into their fall planning cycle are already starting to make their points more explicitly to sellers, and that’s percolating back to sales management and into the executive suites of vendors.  I also think everyone is realizing that if big bucks are going to be spent on NFV in 2016 we’ll need to get it in the budgets, and that has to happen late this year.  All that focus will either hone an NFV strategy (likely several, in fact) or it will make it clear that NFV will be a feature of the future but not a driver.