Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Leading Sales Indicators

Selling a complex solution is a lot like running a marathon. To be successful, you can’t just walk up to the starting line and start running. Success in the marathon takes months of preparation. For each mile of the marathon, a runner might run 20-30 miles in direct preparation. Similarly, a good enterprise sales person will dedicate 10-20 hours of preparation (research, discovery, planning) for each hour of face to face with the prospect or customer.

The successful marathoner will have a comprehensive race plan, mapping out the goal pace for each mile. Many apply these plans as temporary “race tats” on their arms, so that they can keep track of their plan while on the road. Similarly, good enterprise sales people develop detailed opportunity or pursuit plans that include both their actions and those of their teammates (other sales people on the account, sales engineers, etc.).

Marathoners carefully watch the leading indicators that help them to determine whether the individual race will be worthy of a Personal Record (PR) or perhaps just a long, slow run. For the runner, some of these leading indicators include their Heart Rate Variance (HRV) and sleep patterns in the days leading up to the race, the temperature and humidity on race day, how they feel at the start line and more.

If the racer sticks to their race plan (slower pace in the first half of the race, faster in the second), a good day is possible. Toss that race plan, run too fast in the first half of the race, and all the prep in the world won’t save you. Trust me…I know!

Similar dynamics exist in the complex enterprise sales environment. While sales management typically watches portfolio coverage as a primary indicator, it is not a leading indicator. Pipeline coverage will tell you that you are in trouble. It won’t tell you why you are in trouble…and it doesn’t give sufficient warning for early correction.

The Acelera Group Sales Productivity Framework incorporates ten rep-focused leading indicators, along with a single first line sales manager (FLSM) indicator. These indicators provide the early warning signs for a decline in sales performance, at the rep, group and region level, and point strongly to specific actions to be taken for course correction.

The ratio of prep time versus face time, as mentioned earlier, is one of these leading indicators. Depending on the specific business problem, level of prior customer intimacy and complexity of the environment, the sweet spot may be 5 or 10 to 1. When reps (or teams) diverge from the sweet spot, we can expect a looming drop in sales results.

A second leading indicator – whether a business value analysis (BVA) has been conducted – holds a similar power of predictability. Curiously, despite its significant positive impact on customer intimacy and satisfaction, deal profitability and overall sales results, the BVA is not widely used.

Complex enterprise selling should not be an ad hoc series of unrelated activities. Good preparation and effective plan execution will help the runner to complete the race and the sales rep to drive great sales results.

What are your leading indicators telling you?


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Got a Plan?

How Are You Treating Your Largest Accounts?

Strategic accounts warrant investment and relationship rigor. They spend more, have been customers longer, and have made specific long-lasting platform, technology and relationship commitments. A company’s top five customers alone may account for 22% of all revenues and 21% of  annual profits! (Source: Sales Executive Council).

Most large companies have a strategic account strategy, providing additional technical, business, product resources, and occasionally targeted investments in those accounts. Some provide “concierge” access to technical or development resources. Executive sponsors are assigned to these accounts.

Yet day to day management of the relationship is largely left to chance. Few companies hire true strategic account managers (SAMs), choosing instead to promote their “best” individual reps into a role that requires significant team and process management skills.

While SAMs may be compensated on multi-year revenue attainment, share of wallet gains and occasionally customer satisfaction scores, the other sales people on the account, called specialist, pillar, or portfolio sales people, typically retain their quarterly and annual quota targets, and frequently are re-assigned year to year.  These portfolio sales people don’t typically report to the SAM, usually have competing business imperatives for their own product sets and may even compete with one another, as multiple products from the vendor may solve individual business or technical problems.

In short, a primary driver of disappointment in strategic account programs is that the planning process typically focuses on sales planning rather than relationship planning. 

Developing a Plan Isn’t Sufficient

SAMs are typically expected to develop an annual account plan, and some collaborate with their portfolio sales people to do so. Others just wing it. In most cases, the output is indeed a plan…a written document that is revisited annually…an artifact that provides no guidance for the day-to-day governance of the account. It is a sales plan with detailed lists of potential opportunities, alignment of products to perceived business or technical problems. The plan typically lacks a thorough analysis of the influence map within the account or any plans to bolster relationships with important internal and external (partner) stakeholders.

A recent survey conducted by the Strategic Account Management Association (SAMA) found that, even within their membership, a mere 11% of account plans are “effectively executed.” That’s a pretty dismal adherence rate, given that these plans should be the primary pathway to better customer relationships and higher revenue generation! 

What to Do?

If your organization is serious about strategic accounts, the first step is to ensure corporate support for a multiyear investment in the process of account planning, management and governance. While results will appear almost immediately, the full impact of an effective strategic account program will not be seen until the second or third year of the program. If the program is maintained, those results should be long-lasting!

The next step is to set up a framework for success, including:
  • Hiring SAMs with strong team management skills
  • Developing programmatic analysis of customer financials, industry growth trends, key stakeholder profiles, installed base, competitive SOW and more…
  • Enrolling management of each portfolio sales organization in the process and creating a consistent set of rules of engagement
  • Developing a process for thoughtfully identifying the strategic opportunities and challenges within the customer organization
  • Installing a team governance process to ensure success on an ongoing basis

Team Governance?

In my experience…and I’ve driven strategic planning for more than $2B in revenues…the last item in the framework is the real challenge. Teams gather to conduct the planning process…and then scatter to the wind. Individual reps receive conflicting directives from their management, sometimes in conflict with the team. Occasionally they go “rogue” in an effort to land revenue this quarter or fiscal year, upsetting a much larger, more strategic deal.

To address this issue with one very large software company, we established the concept of sales team “program management” for their Account Team Unit (ATU). Initially, the function of program management was handled by an existing team member, with the goal of providing dedicated headcount to take on that function as necessary. As we developed the strategic account program at another company, one core team member owned team facilitation and took on governance as necessary to support the strengths (and challenges) of the strategic account manager. 

Thing One – Visibility

The SAM must have visibility on the activities of each portfolio rep (and their sales consultants), ensuring consistent team/account messaging across all initiatives and engagement; and whether individual reps are engaged. That visibility would also help the SAM to know where a rep needs help with access or organizational support. Reps gravitate to where they see opportunity, leaving broken promises of supporting the SAM and the strategic account. “If it’s not closing this quarter, I’m not wasting my time pursuing it.” 

Thing Two – Customer Participation

However, even if your organization successfully designs and implements a strong planning and governance framework, this only provides the “inside-out” view. It’s a series of hypotheses around “what we think the customer might be interested in…” And here’s where most companies fail in their strategic account planning process. They neglect to include the single most important stakeholder in the process — the customer.

Sure…it can be challenging to include the customer in the process, and sometimes the customer’s strategic focus doesn’t align with what we want to sell. Go figure! Yet, deep engagement with the customer in the planning process leads to more involvement by the customer, better “time and access” for discovery and relationship building, faster decision cycles, larger, more profitable deals, and higher customer satisfaction. That planning process, by the way, is a cycle rather than an event…a series of regular engagements with relevant resources, and commitment to action and investment on an ongoing basis.

Many companies leave the participation of the customer to be handled by the SAM. A few formally drive a “co-creation” process with the customer, ensuring that the customer has a seat at the table in the planning process. I’ve facilitated strategic account planning in F100 customers’ boardrooms, with active participation of key customer stakeholders throughout the process. Their participation provided valuable direction for our sales investments and led to the identification of significant new opportunities. Once a good context is established for the joint team, everyone looks forward to the regular discussions. We’re helping our strategic stakeholders to address significant business challenges and they have a sense that we’re “in the boat” with them, that we are truly committed to their success. 

Strategic Account Planning and Governance as Competitive Advantage — Actions to Take

If you believe that your strategic account program could drive more value for your organization (and for your customer), a key area of focus is individual sales rep activity, messaging and governance. We are exploring a new approach to better manage this area and am interested in partnering with a couple of organizations to pilot that approach.

And the second key area is customer involvement. If you’re not actively, routinely involving your customer in the strategic planning process, you’re leaving significant money on the table and wasting valuable time and resources on unqualified opportunities.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Are Your Numbers Down?

Our numbers are down, can you help?

Many conversations with new clients typically start with this statement. Those numbers may include close rates, pipeline coverage, quota attainment, deal size, deal profitability, share of wallet, renewal rates, customer satisfaction, even sales rep retention rates.

In my experience, the problem is rarely sales skills or fundamental product issues. Almost always, the decline in sales results is driven by one of two critical issues:
  • Sales people do not align with critical business issues when they first engage with their prospects. Instead, they are unconsciously positioning for a features & benefits slugfest with their competition. These top of funnel activities drive mediocre conversion rates (second meeting, third meeting, etc.), limit access to other key stakeholders and ultimately leads to the downward spiral of “who’s willing to sell more cheaply.”
  • Sales people do not have the resources to be successful, including alignment with the buyer’s journey created/curated by marketing, business value analysis resources, detailed customer implementation stories, or the training & background to effectively engage in business value discussions. Sometimes they simply need more time to prepare (less administrative load) or more/better/targeted sales coaching from their manager.
In conducting root cause analysis to identify the source(s) of the problem, we work closely with the sales operations team. Sales operations has access to all of the data necessary — extensive sales metrics, personnel information, customer demographics/firmagraphics — that tell the story of success versus failure. This analysis helps to build a map of effective pursuit strategies and detailed profiles of “good” versus “bad” prospects & customers.

With the results of the data analysis, we then take a look at sales enablement practices. Typically we find gaps where the data shows weak or declining conversion rates. Occasionally this is driven by external market forces — new competitors coming into the market, customers shifting internal strategies or structural (economic) factors.

More often, we simply find a disconnect between need and investment, as many (perhaps most) sales enablement investments are focused on addressing symptoms rather than root cause.

Fixing the Symptoms

I recently spoke with executives at a fast-growing midmarket cloud security company. In a quest for continued growth, they initiated a focus on enterprise accounts…and ran into a more mature, educated, complex set of buyers. As a result, their enterprise deal close rates are lower and less profitable than midmarket. Their initial response was to seek help with negotiating skills. But lack of good negotiating skills isn’t their primary problem…they weren’t establishing business value with the right set of stake holders in the early stages of conversation.

And their sales metrics reflect the difference:
  • Higher conversion rates and velocity at top of funnel for midmarket versus enterprise
  • Lower connection with C-level enterprise executives
  • Lower access to VPs, directors, perhaps even managers for mid-pursuit discovery in enterprise accounts
Improved negotiating skills won’t fix their weak value foundation. They must address the fundamental problem — modifying their engagement approach for enterprise customers. And when they do so, they will also see an uptick in results for an increasing portion of their midmarket customers as the market matures.

Fixing the Problem

We’re in the early stages of a sales productivity project for a large technology vendor. Analysis of their quarterly earnings reports provides early indicators of the problem:
  • Declining product revenue
  • Declining service renewal rates
  • Fundamental changes in their market (which they’ve helped to drive)
When we dig into their SFA data, I expect to find declining engagement and conversion rates at the top of the funnel. I also expect to find higher levels of success with certain types of customers — those who purchase “as a service” more frequently. This analysis will help to identify the specific changes needed in their existing sales enablement processes.

Win/Loss Analysis…Why Bother?

Interestingly, few companies leverage win/loss analysis to help identify the problem(s). It seems there’s little appetite for understanding why a specific company said “no.” Yet an understanding of what went wrong during the engagement can provide tremendous insight into how to fix the problem!

And if done properly, the information has the weight of statistics to help ensure appropriate investment to solve the problem.

The issue of sales productivity has many levers…and knowing which levers to push is not easy. It takes both a strategic approach and good pattern matching abilities.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Why Johnny Can't Sell

We’ve Got Sales Enablement All Wrong!
When I first saw Nancy Nardin’s 2017 map of the Sales Technology Landscape, I was surprised at both the scope and sheer number of applications.

These applications cover a broad range of use cases, including:
  • Who to sell to and why
  • How to engage and win
  • Why they should buy & from you
  • How to up/cross sell & renew
Nancy’s map helped to clarify a long-standing concern I’ve had about sales enablement. What happened to “People, process, then technology”? With all of these technology platforms, we are choreographing all of the steps for sales people to take in their engagement with customers, without leaving room for flexibility or inquisitiveness.

While many think that’s a good thing, it’s not!

The goal of sales enablement is not the efficient delivery of content assets to sales people; it’s about changing seller behavior to drive deeper, more productive customer engagement!

We are taking some of the most creative thinkers in the company (if you don’t agree, take a look at some of their expense statements) and stuffing scripts down their throats. We’re forcing them to solve difficult and complex problems, with lots of uncertainty, through prescribed processes rather than critical thinking and co-creation.

And this isn’t just a problem for inside sales or commercial account reps. I’ve seen this problem in enterprise and key accounts. Organizations find it more efficient — and predictable — to develop “the approach” and then staff to that approach. And then they hang on to that approach long after market dynamics have changed.

Thought leaders (good sales people) are more difficult to manage. They don’t always follow the prescribed path, they push back on the corporate product marketing message, they like to do things their way. It gets messy. Yet thought leaders, trusted advisors, good sales people can be dramatically more effective when engaging with executives and stakeholders in customers’ organizations. And in my conversations with C level management and stakeholders, it’s the problem solving qualities and inquisitive nature of the trusted advisor that are top-rated.

Why do we throw out everything we know about cognitive development and experiential learning when it comes to sales?

Think about how you learned to ride a bike, drive a car, play soccer or train a puppy. Lots of modeling, immediate feedback and small, timely corrections. Exactly the opposite of how we “enable” sales people.

When we seek to develop and reinforce repeatable skills in other areas, our approach is dramatically different. We don’t onboard, certify, set free, monitor from afar, wait three months to evaluate, and then provide remedial counseling. Can you imagine coaching a U12 soccer team that way?

Cognitive development focuses on thinking and problem solving. New knowledge is built on the foundation of prior knowledge.The learner must actively process the prior knowledge to improve.

Experiential learning theory suggests that without observation and reflection, people will continue to repeat their mistakes!

And the theory works whether we’re talking about learning to ride a bike for the first time or flying a jumbo jet. Airlines are now providing immediate feedback to pilots in these new aircraft. Within minutes of take-off, the pilot gets a report on his departure, immediate feedback and coaching — angle, speed, etc., with the goal of reducing the risk of dragging that extra long tail during take-off. New environment, change in behavior needed, high cost of failure — feedback delivered at the most useful time.

Programmed sales plays and generic sales enablement assets do exactly the opposite…they lead the rep down a path where the steps are pre-planned and thinking is largely optional. No immediate feedback on the action just taken. No foundation for learning from prior experience, no real opportunity to modify the approach for the next conversation. We drill a specific approach in training and reinforce that approach with preprogrammed assets in sales enablement. We’re building muscle memory without regard to whether those individual activities, the day to day activities of pipeline and opportunity development, are generating the desired results.We are building bad habits. We are building them very efficiently…but they are still bad habits that do not deliver the desired results.

We are setting our sales people up for failure!

Outside of sales, good coaching practices are well known. After establishing the basics, setting goals, and creating a “coaching environment,” a coach employs a time-tested three step process:

Coach Yekaterina Kryuchkova working with a group of young tennis players

  • Demonstrate what good looks like
  • Watch the player practice the motion or process and provide immediate, positive feedback, and focus on one thing to change the very next time the motion (golf swing, parallel parking) is undertaken
  • Leverage the learning in that feedback process with other players or participants, so that all team members learn from the experience
Why do we shortchange our sales professionals? Why don’t we evaluate their day to day activities — each call to a prospect, each email to a new contact, each conversation with a key stakeholder? Why don’t we suggest minor, immediate changes to their approach, as they move on to the next conversation, so that they will have greater likelihood of success right away…rather than reinforcing the muscle memory of an imperfect approach?

How about we create an environment in which they can self-evaluate? If I’m about to send a set of discussion notes to a prospect, I can run a quick evaluation of the document to determine whether it’s inwardly focused (about me) or customer-focused (about them). After running that evaluation a handful of times, my writing will become more customer focused. Simple, yet nobody helps reps to help themselves. We’re too interested in simple click metrics…rather than the contents of the message and improving the process with each swing of the bat (so to speak).

Why don’t we leverage the learning of what worked this afternoon…on a call with a CFO…for the next call to a different CFO…by a different rep. Instead, we choose not to gather that feedback and improve the skills of all the team members.

The resistance to effective coaching is based on the following:
  • Organizational hubris — our company builds a better product or service. We can win on the merits of the product itself and the sales person really isn’t that important. If we didn’t really believe our product was better, we’d be working somewhere else.
  • Developing “soft skills” is hard — we’re not sure how to instantiate the role of coach and focus on those small, incremental improvements that prove so critical in other areas. We don’t understand how that might scale. We’re not sure where the low hanging fruit is. Why can’t we just hire the right people and hope for the best?
  • How do we monitor all of our sales people and provide timely feedback? Isn’t that kind of creepy, big brotherish?
With regard to the first, customers just don’t care! If you pay close attention, you’ll see prospects dozing off each and every time you bring out the corporate “brag” deck, list the wonderful new features of your upcoming release, and reiterate why you’re the only game to consider. It is of ZERO value to them.

What customers do care about is organizational and personal risk. If they’re considering anything beyond a simple (commodity) replacement purchase, each and every member of the buying team is evaluating the potential supplier with two primary criteria:
  • What’s the level of organizational risk if we choose to go with this vendor, versus the other, or versus doing nothing? What could go wrong? What might the impact be on our organization? Few people get fired for choosing BAU; many get fired for failed ERP implementations or SFA delays.
  • What’s the level of personal/career risk if we choose to go with this vendor? If this choice keeps me from delivering on my organizational commitments, I can kiss my MBO goodbye, and maybe my future in this organization.
Sales people can mitigate that risk, both perceived and actual, by being inquisitive, personable and focused on problem solving and co-creation. Literally, they must move to the same side of the table or “get in the boat” with the customer. I’ve worked with teams that have accomplished this transformation; the results are nothing short of magical. I’ve facilitated strategic account planning for some of those teams in their customer’s executive boardroom, with the active participation of the customer.

With regard to the second and third concerns…it’s time to think outside the box. How about we gamify sales skill development? How about we build the “cooking” into the process for the rep, so that while they are doing their job (no stepping outside day to day activities for coaching/reinforcement), they receive positive reinforcement for doing something well?

What added confidence would you have in your pipeline if your customer helped to identify the strategic, funded projects and then guaranteed time and access discovery?

I am calling for a different approach to sales enablement, one that leverages the science of learning rather than the efficiency of automation.

I am calling for a new conversation with prospects and clients, focusing on their language of value and their strategic business problems. The sales rep needs to leave the organizational hubris in the lobby; it doesn’t serve the customer any good. Instead, the sales rep must be inquisitive about their customer’s business, good “behaviors” reinforced, and individual learnings shared with other team members.

I know sales people are capable of this approach and more. I’ve worked with many who do this every day. I’ve also seen organizations beat the creativity out of those people, put them in boxes, and force them to recite the corporate mantra.

If any of this strikes a chord with you, call me, email me. We have work to do. Lets focus on changing behavior at the top of the funnel, where value is established and relationships are built (or not).

If your organization is open to trying something different, in four weeks you will know whether this approach to enablement is effective. The metrics will not be subtle — early stage conversion, influence map level, access to stakeholders, customer responsiveness (open rates, next meeting rates, etc.)

Looking forward to the conversation..


Monday, April 24, 2017

Will AI Boost Our Sales Numbers?

There's an increasing amount of noise in the market about how AI will either replace sales people or dramatically improve their productivity.

I'm not so bullish. In talking with a wide range of companies about their marketing and sales technologies, I identified a couple of common themes:

Life is Complicated Enough

Companies are finding it quite difficult to get value from their existing core marketing automation, sales automation and CRM platforms. Additional capabilities complicate existing processes, stretch already thin data, and don't necessarily improve marketing or sales productivity.

They've invested millions into these core systems, worked to build new processes and workflows to leverage the new capabilities, and have found that lack of expertise, process skills, data quality, organizational alignment and simple patience all stand in the way of success.

CMOs, VP of Marketing or Demand Gen and others need to get value from the systems they already have, and they are stretched pretty thin. Frankly, many of their people (and organizations) are struggling to keep up with the demands of the existing core systems.

While AI is being offered as a silver bullet to their problems, most are simply saying "no thanks."

Pockets of Success Do Exist

Predictive analytics for sales and marketing has been in use in a handful of  large companies for more than 10 years. And the key to success for those companies has been extremely knowledgeable, inquisitive people running the systems in centralized service bureaus. I've worked with some of those people. They are wicked smart.

Artwork source: Christian Pearce Blog
Sales for Dummies...or by Dummies?

One challenge is that the promise of sales "AI" reduces the perceived need to hire smart sales people. This is a Very Bad Idea. Right now customers are clamoring for just the opposite...they demand more consultative sales people who can help them to evaluate and reduce organizational (and personal) risk.

Sales bots won't do that. Ever have the experience of shopping for something on Amazon, and then seeing banner ads for those or similar items on many websites for days or weeks? Sales bots may well spew similar outbound digital effluvia, much to the dismay of prospective customers.

In survey after survey, enterprise customers are clear about their needs and expectations. What they want is smarter sales people...those who understand their business and are curious about how to engage effectively and to co-create to drive business value.

Or maybe I'm wrong. But I've seen this story play out more than a few times before...



Monday, April 10, 2017

Lack of Planning Results in the Bread of Affliction

By YoninahOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
When the Jewish people were forced out of Egypt several thousand years ago, they did not have time to prepare for their exodus. They packed what they could and left town. As fast-food had not yet been invented, they carried their food for the journey. With the short travel notice, their bread did not have time to rise and they were stuck with flat crackerlike sheets that crumble and have little taste. Properly called "matzoh," we also refer to it as the "bread of affliction."

In my travels, I've seen sales reps and account teams handle account or call planning much the same way -- leaving little or no time for the preparation that ensures good results. A senior exec at one enterprise software company half-jokingly stated that the best call planning at his company takes place in New York. Why? The elevator rides are longer in New York, giving teams more time for their planning.

So we'll keep this Passover message short and sweet. If you want to avoid flat, crumbly revenue opportunities, take time in advance to conduct your account and call planning.

Relatively small improvements in planning, such as customer participation and ensuring that planning is a process rather than a document, will drive significant uplift in revenue, share of wallet, deal profitability, customer satisfaction, NPS and more.



Friday, March 31, 2017

If the Purpose of Sales Enablement is to Improve Seller Behavior...

If the goal of sales enablement is to improve the behavior of sales people (and drive increased sales productivity), how should we observe or measure rep skills and success? How do we improve behavior?

Some managers accompany their reps on calls to observe the rep in action. However, these "ride-alongs" fail for two reasons:
  • Most managers cannot avoid "rescuing" their rep when they get into trouble
  • More importantly, the presence of the manager causes the rep to behave differently and the observation yields inaccurate or misleading feedback
Kitchen Stories
Image by Erik Aavatsmark via New York Magazine
To avoid manager interference, perhaps we should try the approach of putting the manager on a tall chair in the corner (watch the cult movie Kitchen Stories to judge for yourself how well this observation approach might work!)

More importantly, how...and when...should we focus on improving behavior?

Current approaches to both measuring and improving behavior are inadequate

Typical measurements provide a "look-back" at what happened, with no direct connection between measurement and improvement techniques. Even with good performance and success metrics that accurately measure sales effectiveness, efficiency, pipeline coverage and velocity, close rates, customer satisfaction and retention, we are largely collecting trailing indicators.

Today we act on those trailing indicators. We build hypotheses of why things happened the way they did, modify the environment in some way (different content, better coaching, etc.) and wait for new trailing metrics to reflect changes in performance.

Unfortunately, this process spans multiple sales quarters and opportunities. There's no immediate feedback loop between action, result, correction, new action, new result...and without that immediate feedback, the repeated behavior is reinforced rather than corrected.

The best time to make a course correction is before you're seriously off course

When sailing a boat or riding a bike, the best time to make a correction is before you run ashore or fall over. Sailors and cyclists make dozens of tiny, imperceptible corrections --  small movement of the tiller or angle of the front wheel -- all the time, without conscious thought.

For sales enablement to be effective, we need to be able to measure the success (or performance) of the rep as he or she is engaging with a prospect or client and act on that information in realtime, with corresponding small, timely course corrections.

What we need is "in situ" measurement and sales enablement -- delivered in place, at time of action. Perhaps a "sales Fitbit" that provides realtime feedback and guidance. Measurement, feedback and course correction as the rep is doing his or her job.

Garmin Running Watch
Image by DC Rainmaker (Link)
When I'm training for an upcoming race, I don't wait to see my elapsed time for the race before I choose to modify my training activities. I periodically check my running watch as I'm running in training, in realtime. How's my pace? Am I in heart-rate zone 2 or 3? During recovery between Yasso 800 sprints, does my heart-rate return to a reasonable level?  With these realtime metrics, I can choose to make an immediate modification to my next training sprint rather than wait to see how I eventually perform in the race and choose to run faster sprints before the next race.

Similarly, we need to be able to measure the effectiveness of a rep as he or she is engaging with a customer. The following are some of the "realtime" measurements we need to monitor:
  • Is the rep following a thought-out path of engagement?
  • Is the communication in line with the customer's business needs, language of value, results expected?
  • Is the rep connecting at the right level in the organization?
  • How responsive is the customer?
  • How timely is the rep in following up?
  • Is the engagement moving along an expected path, at an appropriate pace?
And given this in-process measurement, we need to provide a learning environment that doesn't require the rep to step out of their existing work flow (day-to-day selling processes). The rep needs constant, ongoing feedback and course correction that guides the improvement of their messaging, timeliness, targeting, listening, etc., while they are undertaking the activities of connecting with prospects and customers.

Some Good News

Companies that implement a "sales Fitbit" approach of monitoring & improving sales activity see immediate, substantial and persistent improvement in customer engagement, revenue and other results. Conversation conversions double or triple. Outbound contacts double. One company saw margins increase by 25% in four months.

This in situ approach doesn't work for all companies. It requires sales organizations to revisit their messaging and to trust their sellers to learn as they go. For companies that are interested, a proof of concept will give quick feedback on whether the approach has broad applicability.



Monday, March 6, 2017

What Do Buyers Really Want?

In most early and even in mid-stage discussions, solutions are the opposite of what enterprise buyers value.
When I talk with senior level technology buyers, many react quite negatively to the word “solution’, with several stating that the word, suggesting preconfigured package of software and services, conjures up the image of a McDonald’s Happy Meal, with bundled burger, fries and a toy.

Most sales teams believe that buyers want solutions to their technical, or in some cases, business problems.

In an HBR article entitled The End of Solution Selling (August 2012) , the authors describe solution selling as searching for a “hook” on which the rep can “attach her company’s solution to that problem.” An off-the-shelf solution in search of an off-the-shelf problem. That’s not solution selling, that’s fishing.

In early and mid-stage discussions customers want something very different. They want to be heard. They want to be listened to. They want to be understood.  They want their prospective vendor to understand the risks faced in taking action, both personal and organizational. They need insights based on their specific business environment.

The help buyers want is elusive. Most sellers are too busy, or too solution-focused, to be helpful. They’re too busy talking to listen. If they’re not talking, they’re still not listening…they’re merely waiting to talk.

While sales people are presenting qualifications, citing case studies, doing product demos, the buyer across the table is calculating risk. What are the risks in going with this vendor? Can they make good on their promises? Do they really understand what we are trying to accomplish? Do they have the resources to fix things when something goes south? Who will be doing the implementation? If it’s a different team than the one in front of me, will they understand our problem? Do they really understand what I need to accomplish?

Study after study from IDC, Forrester and others find that 24% or fewer sales people understand the customers’ business issues (as judged by the buyers surveyed). Is it any wonder that a third or more of all buying teams end their process with a BAU or No Action decision? The risk in BAU/No Action is relatively well understood; choosing to invest millions of dollars with a third party who doesn’t show much interest or understanding of the business challenges holds significant risk!

And so, buyers make smart choices. They avoid sellers’ calls at all costs.

Sales teams must break away from the “show up/throw up” approach of presentation. They must come prepared with a solid understanding of the customer’s business strategy, challenges, biases, internal politics and more. They must understand the market and context in which the customer manages their business, who they sell to, the channels used, competitive pressures and more. They must come well prepared and ready to listen.

Reading the last 4 earnings calls transcripts on seekingalpha.com is a start. Developing a series of business hypotheses — business problem, financial impact, stakeholder, and more — is a good first step. The next step is to prepare to listen, to actively seek out the input and concerns of the members of the buying team, with the goal of understanding their perceived risk and concerns.

And continue to listen. And begin to share results from similar companies — not the how (the mechanics), but the what (the business results or KPIs). Eventually, the sales team and the customer find themselves on the same side of the table, co-creating new ways of addressing the business challenges.

Making this pivot in approach is hard. Most tech companies thrive on technical superiority — our bits are better than your bits — so to speak. Conversely, most customers will gladly select a mediocre product, well positioned and implemented, over a technically superior product with a poor fit or implementation.

Being genuinely helpful to buyers is often easier said than done. But it’s lucrative.  One large company that successfully made this shift achieved a 24.8% lift in margins. In four months. With no turnover on the team. And no changes to its offerings.



Monday, January 30, 2017

Did You Get Your Q4 Bonus?

A good friend just called to report that he had received a healthy year-end bonus. As a member of the management team, the payout was based on his company's performance against quota for both Q4 and the second half of the year. Nicely enough, Q4 performance was sufficient to trigger the second half bonus. Talk about a hockey stick!

So I asked my friend what his company is doing to ensure quota attainment for this year...what the management team is doing to ensure Q4 and second half bonus payouts this year. His response reflected the challenge faced by many growing companies:

We just got back from Sales Kick Off...we're not thinking about Q3 or Q4. Ask me again in September!

His response is symptomatic of many tech companies, large and small. Q1 holds lots of activity -- territory reshuffling, new product launches, training, unfocused optimism. The team is tired from the hard push in Q4, closing deals, pulling in business, and it wants a break from the focus on sales development.

Unfortunately, September will be too late to affect Q3 or even Q4 results. Companies need to plant the seeds now to ensure a good harvest later. If a typical pursuit takes 6 months, waiting until April or May to identify likely suspects and to start those engagements will ensure that many will not end well.

Savvy companies start early in the year with their account development...engaging with prospects early on, understanding the buying process and getting into sync. You just can't rush this process...seldom will a prospect adopt the seller's compelling event (quarter or year end) as their own. While discounting practices  move some buyers to act, this tactic destroys profitability and the vendor's credibility as anything but a price discounter.

A few sophisticated companies don't get caught in the quarterly and annual sales cycle. These are artificial constructs, applied by Wall Street and traditional sales management. These sales cycles don't match their buyers' business cycles, timing, sometimes even fiscal year budget cycles. Those companies that can match their selling cadence to their customer's buying cadence and timelines are far more likely to be considered trusted advisors rather than vendors.

But most companies are still getting the basics wrong. The sales funnel looks like a martini glass, with a lot of activity at the top. There's a lot of wasted effort here, chasing bubbles.

A small percentage increase in identifying and moving qualified opportunities from the top of the funnel holds tremendous impact on top line revenue. Most companies are pretty good at managing opportunities through the mid-part of the process; the key is to getting good qualified opportunities started.

What steps are you taking now to ensure your year-end bonus?



Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Welcome to Q1!

It’s All About Pipeline

For many companies, it is early in Q1. At the end of last year, deals were closed, opportunities were pulled forward, the pipeline was emptied. Everyone took a breather.

So now we’re in Q1. Kick-off is over, sales people have been reinvigorated, tans are fading, and it’s time to get back to work.

Territories have been assigned, accounts have been allocated, SCs are chomping at the bit.

So…in most sales organizations, reps are conducting the traditional process of separating their accounts into three groups – “A”s, “B”s and “C”s. A accounts hold the most opportunity or promise, B accounts have some promise, and typically, C accounts aren’t well known or understood.

In my experience, most of the segmentation is based on simple (yet flawed) criteria:
  • Prior engagement
  • Good set of contacts
  • Existing install base
  • Strong revenue growth
  • Easy commute from rep’s house or office
Occasionally a long targeted account will be classified as an “A” because “this year we just have to capture that logo!”

Despite the availability of extensive firmagraphic and intent data, few accounts are appropriately targeted based on their business requirements. Targeting is still an inside-out activity, started from scratch annually or when reps turn over.

So…it’s too late to fix that problem this quarter. Lets assume that we have a defined set of accounts and sales people with time, interest and energy. Now is the time to make the investments that ensure strong customer engagement and a healthy, active pipeline later in the year.

Building A Strong Pipeline

 If you don’t know where you’re going, any old path will do…
A good house requires a strong foundation…
A quality paint job is 90% preparation…

And in the same theme, a strong pipeline consists of individual pursuits based on the identification of real business requirements and engagement with stakeholders. It simply isn’t built on hope!

Many sales organizations count on marketing to deliver sufficient numbers of SQLs for follow up…even though somewhere between one and two thirds of there leads are self-generated.

Building that robust pipeline requires an iterative process for reps and managers – researching accounts, building hypotheses about business value and stakeholders, testing those hypotheses, creating access points, delivering value to the participants so that they stay engaged and supportive. While this process is effective, we have seen it implemented in few organizations.

Selling does not have to be adversarial. With good knowledge of the customer’s business goals, needs and challenges, a sales team can build value-based relationships and help their customer to achieve those goals more quickly and efficiently. In turn, the sales team will shorten sales cycles and improve deal profitability.

Building robust pipe requires executive commitment, experienced guidance, engaged sales management and a bit of patience. So, if the path is understood and the challenges are known, why aren’t more organizations making these investments?



Monday, January 16, 2017

The One Metric That Accurately Predicts Sales Performance

Some may remember the promise of computers in the 1980s. “They will make us more productive.”

Yea right…

What they have done is to bury us in data, so much data that it is not only unusable, it’s so overwhelming that we spend much of our time managing it, moving it, cleaning it, deduping it, merging it with other data, buying more storage to hold it, buying more computing power to process it, only to get completely lost in it.

Here you go…

While working with a key account team focused on one of the company’s largest pharmaceutical clients, I asked the field marketing manager for the recent history from the marketing automation platform. I was expecting to be able to identify the digital footprints of visitors from the pharma client. As they navigated the company website, their path and points of engagement would highlight their building (or waning) interest in specific products and services.

The field marketing manager ran a report and sent me the results. “Here you go, let me know if you have any questions.” And it was glorious…thirty thousand records in an Excel file.  Clearly there was a lot of activity going on. However, we had no way to build an actionable story from that data, no way to tell who was visiting or what they were interested in.

I asked a couple of other key account teams whether they were leveraging the marketing automation platform to guide their account planning.  Nope…those that had tried were overwhelmed with the data and lack of insight.

(I’ll acknowledge that this experience does not represent what’s possible in the world of marketing automation.  I would suggest that it is typical.)

Similarly, sales managers…and their managers…pore over reports hourly to learn how the business is going. Is the team making enough sales calls? Are we touching our accounts enough? How’s our pipeline velocity? How many new opportunities are being logged? Are we getting enough meetings? How’s the T&E budget?

Sales people are inspected. How’d you do? How many did you do? When is it going to close? When are you going to call back? How many more can you do?

In my experience, all this data fits into the “MIPs” category – meaningless indicators of performance. Easily gathered, easily compared, but of little value. Any one metric, on a standalone basis, gives zero visibility into the health of the business. And many of them, when combined, do no more than suggest whether the team is meeting the subjective expectations of management, around activity rather than results.

Now, don’t get me wrong…when we work with sales managers to improve group performance, we start with basics. It worked for Vince Lombardi in 1961 – at spring training that year (after a disastrous previous season), he started off the first day of training with the absolute basics: “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

We start with similar basics. Activity drives results. Without activity, there will be no results. Now…activity isn’t nearly sufficient, but if reps aren’t meeting with prospects, that’s a problem.

So lets get back to the initial premise – one metric will accurately predict sales performance.

And that metric is the percentage of time spent by first line sales managers on coaching their sales people.  Multiple studies by Gartner, IDC, Objective Management Group, CSO Insights, Sirius Decisions and many others suggest the following:
  • Most managers spend less than 25% of their time coaching sales people
  • Many managers spend less than 10% of their time coaching
  • Most organizations have no formal sales manager profile, onboarding or training strategy
  • Most organizations have no formal coaching methodology in place (managers do whatever they did at their last organization)
  • Many, perhaps most sales managers are promoted out of direct sales roles because of their success sales rather than their training and skills in coaching
So…if we need to make our Q1 numbers, management just needs to send out a note dictating that all first line managers spend 35% of their time on coaching, right?

Not so fast…as we know in sales…time spent does not equal results realized. Creating a coaching culture takes time, executive commitment, formal processes, process evaluation and improvement. If you wander through a typical sales organization you will find pockets of good coaching practice, where managers have indeed brought skills from previous companies and are typically generating better results than their peers. But to broaden coaching to the organization, a top down approach is strongly preferred, and will probably require some personnel changes.

And organizations that measure the time spent by their first line managers in coaching, and actively improve both the quality and quantity of that time, will drive significant improvements in their sales performance.

So...if you want 2017 to be your best year, stop beating your sales people. Instead, give your managers a football.



Thursday, January 12, 2017

Will AI Replace Sales People?

With the surging popularity of AI as a method for leveraging vast amounts of data and providing recommendations, it’s only a matter of time before the sales function in most organizations is completely automated


And of course, who needs buyers, with their imperfect knowledge and flawed processes? It’s only a matter of time before the buying function is automated.


And as long as we’re improving corporate functions, why does the CFO have to come to work in her autonomous vehicle? Sure, she’s getting a lot of work done on the way, reading email, catching up on the latest issues in The CFO Daily News. But why don’t we automate the CFO process too. Wouldn’t that be more efficient? Our AI CFO, with instant access to all internal company and external market information, will be able to make far better decisions than its predecessor.

So what’s left for us meatheads? Customer Support? Nope. Marketing? Already covered? Manufacturing? Robots are doing it. Delivery? Drones are in the air.

Here’s the thing…computers and machines have taken on some of these functions, typically where repetitive tasks (both physical and computational) can be (should be?) automated. AI, or more precisely expert systems, can give us better (higher confidence) recommendations on what to do in a given situation.

None of this is new. AI technologies have been around for a long time. For example, I prototyped an expert system to diagnose manufacturing problems for Mead Paper in the mid 1980s. Since then, these technologies have been implemented mostly as helper or advisor tools.


Either you believe that computers (and robots) are going to take over the world, allowing humans to focus on leisure, or you reject that dystopian view, believing that we will continue to employ technology as enablers and boosters rather than replacers.

And buyers need sales people. Good sales people. Corporate buyers find significant value in those sales people who play the role of trusted advisor.

Companies that equip and position their sales people to play this role receive multiple benefits – higher average deal size, higher deal profitability, better customer retention, more repeat business, lower sales turnover, higher lifetime customer value and more.

So…what are you going to do? Replace your sales people with software? Or enable your sales people to do the job your prospects and customers need?