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IBM’s Keys for Unlocking Sales Success

Mary Tafuri

Mary Tafuri

Vice President of Global Sales Enablement and Skills Activation at IBM

Mary Tafuri, IBM VP of Global Sales Enablement and Skills Activation

Quartz Network Executive Correspondent Britt Erler sat down with Mary Tafuri, Vice President of Global Sales Enablement and Skills Activation at IBM, to discuss how one of the most iconic technology brands drives sales success. 

Mary shares her thoughts on the following topics and the vital roles they play: 

  • Innovation
  • Client Engagement
  • Partnerships  

Quartz Network: Can you tell us about your role with IBM and a little bit about your background? 

Mary Tafuri: Sure. I’m a mother of two boys, three if I’m counting my husband. But seriously, he is a great partner, and we share a lot, including being Italian. I moved to the U.S. 13 years ago.  

Professionally, I spent the first year after graduating from university at a research company, and then 24 years at IBM where I had many different roles. I spent a good seven years going deep in technology and every year spending time somewhere else because I was very curious. I’m still very curious and just diversified my curiosity over time. Then I started my managerial career. 

I gravitated to the customer journey, from supporting customers when they are having problems to helping them build solutions to selling them on the vision of what we could do together to creating an offering strategy. I think one of the biggest benefits of being in a company like IBM is to really experience a lot of different roles and learn a lot without leaving the company. I’m very happy I had the opportunity to stretch myself and travel around the world.  

One of the most engaging, interesting, and fun assignments I had was a few years ago when I was running the 43 innovation centers. I was working a lot with different developers from startups, universities, business partners, and enterprises. This allowed me to learn a lot of different ways to do innovation. I think innovation is the most important driving force on the planet. It’s fascinating to see how many people of different backgrounds can tackle innovation in different ways.  

Recently I ran sales enablement for IBM global sales. So, a very large community of thousands of sellers—any kind of seller you can think of.  

I’m also very, very committed to diversity and inclusion. I’m very active in internal and external communities. From engaging girls in middle school at a young age and inspiring them about technology to helping women at a company like IBM see the power they can bring.  

Another area where I spend a lot of time is practicing mindfulness. I learned about mindfulness a few years ago, and I’m a big advocate. Mindfulness helps us be happier, engage better with all the people we have around us, and ultimately perform better.  

Quartz Network: Talk to us about some of the most pressing areas in customer experience and innovation, and the challenges clients are seeing right now. 

Mary Tafuri: Absolutely. Innovation has been at the forefront for years. It’s not that it’s a new thing. The pandemic accelerated some trends, especially in the technology world. Businesses are looking for new ways to serve their end customers, new routes to market, to diversify what they do. And to do that, when the economy is very challenging, like we experienced with the pandemic, you need to find ways to be more efficient in what you deliver.  

So, if you ask me, one of the most dominant trends I’ve seen to drive innovation is business automation. And I’m not the only one to say that. If you look at the IDC for example, they predict that by 2025, enterprises will see a major increase in customer satisfaction, efficiency, and employee happiness by using AI-powered automation. There is a lot of discussion about AI cutting jobs and people are afraid of losing their job. That seems to be an easier path to go down than thinking about the opportunities that AI and automation bring to low profile, time-consuming, repetitive tasks that can be automated and performed by machines and computers.  

I think employees and employers that have embraced AI automation are seeing its benefits. Depending on which type of company you are talking about, this can span multiple solutions, and touch business, IT, or the technology world. So, it’s in that intersection of the business and the IT operation that the magic happens. This is obviously something that we’re aware of at IBM with our own solutions. But many other companies are investing in this space because it’s very hot. When doing so, you want to know who in your industry already embraces automation. Listen to how they went through this journey, because it is a journey at the end of the day, and it is important to connect with, and learn from others.  

Quartz Network: Is there a certain way you’re measuring or ensuring that you’re constantly staying up to date on your clients’ ever-evolving needs? 

Mary Tafuri: When we are helping clients, it starts with the initial stages of the engagement. I was previously discussing selling the vision. Selling the vision is done in a very different way today than it was for many years. The role of the seller has really changed. When I’m talking to my sellers in our sales kickoff at the beginning of the year, I ask them, “How many of you think of yourself as innovators?” Not that many people raise their hand. 

Each time they’re engaging the client, the client is looking for a trusted innovation advisor. So, the seller has to do a lot of homework to learn about the industry challenges the client is facing and who are the clients that are more aggressive with innovation. The amount of preparation the seller has to do today to bring real value to the client is important.  

The other aspect is the methodology. How do you engage the client? To me, design thinking is a very powerful way to engage with clients and focus on their challenges and needs. It’s important not to focus on what you have to sell, but to focus on what the client’s needs are. Design thinking is a fascinating methodology. People always think that design thinking is just for a company creating products, but I think it can be applied to everything.  

A friend of mine sent me a book called Naked Sales. This is a fantastic book that reveals how a seller should basically pretend to be their customer’s customers to experience what the seller’s customers are delivering. This allows them to spotlight challenges, speak with empathy, and connect deeply with their clients. I know it sounds a little complicated, but it really isn’t.  

Think about Starbucks, for example. If you are a seller and you have to engage Starbucks, look at what they do from the eyes of their customers and how you can deliver a better service. So, when you talk to the buyer or the decision maker, connect with that level of empathy. The engagement, the experience is what we call a “client centricity” and it allows you to connect very deeply with them.  

The design thinking—and the garage methodology we use as a continuation of the design thinking to do rapid prototyping—is a fantastic way to co-create with the client. This allows you to more quickly deliver an experience that is tailored to their needs and leaves them with something that is not a generic demo, but a minimum viable product that works in their environment and helps satisfy a need they declare when you start the conversation.  

But to return to your question on how we measure innovation. We measure when we deliver something that works, and we continue the engagement with the client. We want to see the benefits they are experiencing, and if they didn’t see benefits, they don’t adopt that solution. If it doesn’t work, a customer will walk away and go to the next solution. Therefore, measuring the impact you are creating, or not creating, is something we do every single way. 

Quartz Network: Can you talk about the overall ecosystem in this arena and how you view it? 

Mary Tafuri: I believe that the ecosystem, when you partner and find the formula for complementary perfection, can do magic. IBM has 110 plus years as a company, and we have a portfolio that’s very large. But, no matter how big the company is, it’s never able to satisfy every client need. So, it’s important to engage in the ecosystem and fill a gap we may have. Sometimes it’s a presence that we don’t have in a specific market, or an add-on solution that we don’t have in a specific market.  

Having a trusted partner that can fill needs and bring you into the conversation when solutioning for a client is where the magic can happen, the innovation can happen, and it can happen at speed.  

For me, the partners are a central element of delivering augmented value to your customers. We nurture them, we help them with their skills, and we stay engaged. Personally, from an enablement standpoint, since I joined in this role, I’ve been inviting partners to any kind of learning experience that we delivered—just like I invite “IBM-ers.” I give them access to any content that we create anytime, because they are essential for our success. 

Quartz Network: You talk about partnerships, innovation, and client engagement as really being key areas to create value. What do you believe are some of the other core capabilities to ensure that the ecosystem is constantly providing value? 

Mary Tafuri: Fostering a culture where people enjoy learning rather than mandating learning. Mandated learning is killing learning. You want people to stay curious, to invest in learning and learning can happen in many ways. I’m a big fan of experiential learning. Learning from the experiences we are having is so powerful. There are statistics that say it’s 10 times more powerful than traditional learning.  

Invest in your skills because that way you can be more innovative, you can be more creative, you can be more confident, and your value in the market is higher. But for me, the most important thing is that you feel better, because you feel more confident. 

Quartz Network: What are some final key takeaways and lessons learned when it comes to the entire acquisition and growth process? 

Mary Tafuri: I think I’d go back to mindfulness. The pandemic taught us that we need to focus on what really matters. And sometimes being more focused on the business pressure, the line, the task, the workload, is like being driven by other things, rather than us being in the driver’s seat. Practicing mindfulness is a way of living. It’s a way of living that allows us to engage in a different way, in any moment, with anybody, and live our lives with a more positive spirit.  

Sometimes people look at the glass and they say, if you’re an optimist, you see the glass as half full. If you’re a pessimist, you see the glass as half empty. I say, if you’re mindful, you see the glass as full. The air is as important as the fluid. If I can give a takeaway, it would be to give mindfulness a try. It’s not just meditation, it’s much more than that. It’s being present and leading life. Truly lead life and you will be a happier person, a better employee, a better wife, husband, son, daughter, friend, and so on.  

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