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Bill McDermott: Genius Salesman

SAP CEO Bill McDermott never tires telling anecdotes of his successful life as a salesman. And indeed, he has been selling SAP very well over the past couple of years.

However, technological innovation, product development, and relationship management are not Bill McDermott’s cup of tea. He rather lets other executive board members – or even his mentor Hasso Plattner – deal with that.

Bill McDermott loves a grand performance, and he loves his tailor-made suit and cufflinks. He loves his big and international customers. He’s ecstatic about regular meetings and extensive talks with specially selected SAP customers. He’s always prepared and talks eloquently. He doesn’t know much about the technology behind Hana, but he sure can sell it!

This is not surprising, however, if you look at Bill McDermott’s background. He learned being a salesman for 17 years at Xerox. At the time, there was no better place to learn about sales and marketing; or to really focus on customers and users and understand their wishes and needs.


In Chapter 2 of his book “Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office”, titled “Empathy”, Bill McDermott writes, “In the morning, Bob got intel of a potential customer, and the faster we reacted, the bigger our chance was to close the deal.” [Paraphrase]

Bill McDermott’s business world revolves around closing deals based on his empathy for potential and existing customers. There is no plan B. His strategy might come in handy for his company right now, but he never could’ve created and built SAP up with it.

He was at the right place at the right time. SAP’s business was already flourishing, and Bill McDermott simply had to contribute his charm, empathy, and knowledge from his Xerox days.

McDermott is doing surprisingly well, even though his predecessor Léo Apotheker, who also was a genius salesman, spectacularly failed. Granted, he had a different intellectual and family background than McDermott. But revenue growth without in-depth technological know-how and sustainable relationship management is also beneficial right now.

Bill McDermott vs. technology

However, SAP’s success is rooted in something else. SAP didn’t become the leading ERP provider because of genius salesmen, but because of technicians and allies of SAP customers. There’s a big difference in approaching a customer with technological know-how instead of the empathy of a salesman.

SAP was founded by five visionaries who saw the future sustainability and power of software. They left the company they had worked for: IBM, which was very hardware-oriented back then.

Until former CEO Henning Kagermann, SAP’s top management always was technologically skilled. Kagermann even let Hans-Georg Plaut teach him the principle of incremental costs and standard costing. That’s because Henning Kagermann was able to program in Abap and was a passionate mathematician.

Bill McDermott knows less about Abap, NetWeaver, SolMan, and Hana, but he manages to sell them like hotcakes. As genius salesman with a lot of empathy, he also knows in which direction the market will go and what SAP customers want.

However, there are two things that could end Bill McDermott’s success rather quickly: communication and cloud computing.

This is the first article of a series. If you would like to read the next one, click here.

E-3 Magazine February 2019 (German)

About the author

Peter M. Färbinger, Editor-in-Chief

Peter M. Färbinger is Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at E-3 Magazine, AG, Munich, Germany. He can be reached at

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