Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Running and Selling

In many ways, running is similar to selling. Both involve preparation, patience, diligence, sweat and a lot of "failure."

Great coaches tell their athletes to prepare for next year’s race, or the year after. Building the foundation for success takes a long time. You shouldn’t expect to do it in one season or in one quarter. The work you’re doing now will pay off down the road, way down the road.

Yet we expect our sellers to come up to speed quickly….and the quicker the better. We measure “Time to First Revenue” as a key indicator of new hire performance and of onboarding program effectiveness. What we’re probably measuring, instead, is the persistence of a pre-existing deal in the territory, or perhaps a sales manager who’s closing deals for her new reps.

And we expect immediate results each time the organization pivots, whether it’s due to a new product introduction, or a strategic shift in sales priorities, or the sudden WFH status of much of the sales organization and customer base. It’s like telling a mile specialist that next week he’s competing in the marathon, or a marathoner that she’ll be competing in an Iron Man triathlon with its multiple disciplines.

Sometimes those pivots are unavoidable. Reps are now selling 100% by phone or video conference, with no expectation that they will be able to resume face to face selling any time soon.

But here’s the thing. Selling remotely is different than selling face to face. And buying is different today. Buyers are behaving differently. Sure, many still have projects to complete (or to start). They still have project plans and milestones and MBOs. But their reality is quite different today than it was in January of this year.

Their organizational challenges have shifted, perhaps dramatically. Some of their customers, partners and consumers are out of business or out of work. Their personal challenges have increased — remote working and management, loss of traditional support systems and day care, drop in household income, sick family members, the anxiety of the unknown.

So lets take a step back, take this opportunity to pose the question — “what serves our customers, our organization now?” How can we use this time to (re)build a strong foundation — relationships with our customers and prospects, deeper set of selling and relationship management skills.

With no races on the calendar, professional coaches point out that this year presents a unique opportunity for athletes, normally in a pre-race training cycle, to focus on building a strong fitness foundation, one that will serve the athlete for years to come, to improve their results several years out.

Similarly, the enforced WFH and dramatically different selling environment presents a unique opportunity for sales people to focus on relationship development, account research and preparation, and, importantly, their emotional intelligence.

How will you ensure that your sales teams both build a foundation for future success and keep the lights on this quarter?



Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Only Thing in Sales that Matters

I’ve sat through a lot of corporate sales training. I’ve been certified in multiple sales methodologies. I’ve accompanied experienced sales professionals on literally thousands of sales calls. And yea, I’ve carried a bag.

And without specific intervention, the development of conscious intent is never part of the sales training or meeting/call prep process.

We bring our intent to each and every interaction with others. While most of the time we are not conscious of our intent (hope they don’t find out I’m an imposter,  let’s get this over with quickly, I need them to like me), sometimes we are present to our own intent (I need this deal, I have to close this deal, I hope they don’t think I’m stupid, can I get out of here in time to beat rush hour traffic).

And invariably, our intent doesn’t serve us. Conscious or otherwise, our intent drives our thoughts, actions, spoken word. In doing so, our intent limits outcomes to a small subset of possibilities.
Moreover, our intent is quite visible to others. While we may not be present to our self-serving intent – gotta close this deal – it is clear to the prospect on the other side of the table or phone call. And our self-serving intent poisons the process of engagement and discovery.

Who wants to deal with a sales rep who only cares about closing their deal? What about the needs of the prospect, of the organization, what about their strategic business goals, what about their milestones, deadlines, pressures, MBOs, getting home to dinner with their family or making their kid’s soccer game?

I learned the power of intent early in my selling career. After watching my initial interactions with retail customers, my store manager provided this coaching: “You need to ask for the order!” I took that coaching to heart and primed myself…I was ready…nobody was going to escape from the store without being asked if they wanted to buy…My intent was to close everybody!

To this day, I remember the absolute awkwardness of what happened next. A woman and her daughter walked into the store and asked a simple question about one of our products. Almost immediately I went into full closing mode, jumping right from the “hi, thanks for coming in” to “how would you like to pay for that”, (when in fact we hadn’t yet determined what that was!)

The customers, of course, were still in their early information-gathering stage and the jump to being asked about a transaction was cognitively jarring. Needless to say, they did not buy anything from me that day. In fact, they left shortly after this initial exchange.

That day I was clear about my intent – close everybody. It was just as clear to the unfortunate couple who had heard good things about our store and actually wanted to buy something. And they ran. That intent didn’t serve the process of engaging with prospects and creating happy customers.

Years later as part of a marketing consultancy I coached principals at professional services firms. As principals, most had evolved from sole proprietors doing contracting work to heads of good-sized organizations. And as they made this transition, they typically found themselves spending more time selling the capabilities of their firm and less time actually delivering services.

And they were failing.

These principals were uncomfortable “tooting their own horns,” engaging in traditional selling conversations, even setting fair prices for their quality work. To a person, their unconscious intent was “I hate to sell, don’t make me sell, just take a look at the work we’ve done and make your own decision.” They each had a vision in their head of a “typical” sales person and didn’t want to be that person. Their intent was sabotaging their business success.

And their businesses were at risk because the best person in the organization to drive new business was paralyzed with fear about holding a selling conversation.

With two simple words, each of these principals was “cured.” I told them to:

            Be yourself

And in being yourself, feel comfortable in talking about your prior experiences, exploring the needs of this new prospect, and how you’ve helped other customers. Let go of the vision of that “sales person” in your head, the persona that you don’t want to be, that you don’t have to be.

Just be yourself.

You know how to do that!

And I remember the immediate physical reaction from each of my clients. Shoulders relaxed, brows unfurrowed. It looked like a heavy weight had been lifted from their shoulders. They were again ready to be themselves, to bring a conscious intent of helpfulness to their prospect interactions, versus the prior “I really don’t want to have this sales conversation.”

And their improving sales results over the following months highlighted the value of this change in intent.

The Teacher is the Student

Years later, this coaching came back to help me reset a toxic intent. In fact, it came from one of those clients. I had been preparing for an important presentation to several hundred of IDG’s most important advertising clients. I practiced the presentation over and over, and each time it seemed to get worse. As an accomplished presenter, I just didn’t understand why it wasn’t coming together. The simple problem was that I had recently rejoined IDC, hadn’t presented in a while, felt a bit rusty, and was concerned about doing a good job. My subconscious intent got louder and louder – gotta do a good job! Don’t screw it up!

At one point I thought my manager was going to cry (sorry Clare!). Her boss, the CEO of IDC was going to be there. Pat McGovern, founder and CEO of IDG, our parent company, was going to be there. It wasn’t going to be pretty. Potentially career limiting…

In the car, on the way into Boston for the evening presentation, I talked with one of my former professional services clients, who turned my coaching back on me. He said “It’s not about you or the quality of your presentation…it’s about the attendees.”

I was so bound up in worrying about the quality of the presentation that I lost sight of its purpose – to inform the attendees, to help them to improve their business results. And immediately, my intent shifted. My shoulders relaxed. I was ready to deliver useful, helpful information.

Thanks Miles!

And rather than spending my time at the event worrying about my ability to deliver a presentation, I talked with attendees and asked them what would be useful for them to hear. After the presentation, my manager came to me with a happy smile and a question – where did that come from?

The conscious shift in intent from “have to do a good job” to “be helpful” saved my butt!

Over the past two years, I’ve done a lot of onboarding work with new reps, some recent college hires, and the topic of intent is a key part of my conversations with them. I want them to know the importance of intent, and the value of a strong, positive, customer-centric intent. But these conversations are outliers in the sales enablement world.

When sales enablement builds a formal and ongoing focus on the people part of selling – the mindsets, belief systems, the attitudes and skills – we will see a quantum leap in the leverage that enablement provides.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Is Sales Enablement Really Just a Programming Challenge?

A common theme in sales enablement circles revolves around the challenge of displaying specific targeted content to sales people at discrete points in the sales cycle.

The belief is that if we just get the right content in front of the sales person at exactly the right time, it will help him or her to move an opportunity to the next stage.

Do we really think that enterprise selling has become nothing more than a Pavlovian parlor trick? That we can get a rep to literally ring  the bell when he or she consumes the “right” content?

At the risk of upsetting the SE vendors in the room, I’d ask this question — have we actually proven that reps will understand, retain and leverage all that content pushed at them? Do they really consume it, internalize it, make good use of it, retain any knowledge or show ability to reuse? Does it result in higher close rates, increased deal profitability, higher customer satisfaction and retention scores? Or are we simply measuring activity - number of reps “trained”, videos downloaded, micro-courses consumed, evaluations passed?

We know that customers don’t always follow a linear path in their buying process. And the development of their evaluation and selection criteria certainly isn’t linear. Things come up when they come up. While an experienced sales person can help guide some of this, in my experience, the best sales people pivot quickly and competently (and certainly don’t have time to go back to the office, update CRM and consume some more content.)

I want my reps to live in a culture of curiosity — what can they learn from a customer, what can they *find* in our sales enablement library (and elsewhere), what new ways of doing business can they co-create with their customers?

I’m deep into reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown. In it, Brown makes the point that curiosity and intellectual inquiry are at the heart of successful learning. Sitting and passively reading content is not an effective learning strategy.

Look, if we are building sales bots, then perhaps the programming paradigm fits just fine. If we are doing this, though, why bother with the intermediate step of involving people…lets just program the bots and point them directly at customers.

The problem with the content strategy is that it aligns with a popular (but ineffective) market paradigm, that if we just tell customers enough, if we just keep talking at them, eventually they will see the error of their ways, understand that our widget is better than all the other vendors’ widgets, and will put pen to paper.

Customers don't buy this way, even enterprise customers dealing with complex product or service acquisitions or adoptions. They simply aren't competent at objectively evaluating the detailed feature sets of each vendor's offering. Instead, customers buy with their gut, when they believe that one vendor’s team, product and services hold less personal and institutional risk than the other offers, and they justify their decision with a selection of facts, product details and price quotes.

If we are intent on building a sustainable business, one that customers *want* to engage with, then we need to shift our paradigm to creating interesting, and interested selling individuals. We need to focus on helping sales people to develop their social cognition, so that they have greater situational and organizational awareness, as opposed to feeding them yet another script that starts off with “oh yea, our stuff can do that too…and we’re cheaper.”


Monday, February 3, 2020

Be Impeccable With Your Word

If you’ve read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz (available here), you recognize “Be Impeccable With Your Word” as the first agreement. We can learn a lot by applying Ruiz’s teachings to the art of selling.

Ruiz says, in part, that to be impeccable with your word, “you must speak with integrity. Say only what you mean.” And, paraphrasing, do what you say you are going to do.

So…how do we apply this to the art of selling?

It’s simple…do your account planning and pre-call prep so that you are prepared to bring value to the conversation.
  • Be clear on your understanding of the organization’s challenges and opportunities, and on what your contact does each day in support of the organization’s strategic goals 
  • Develop and practice your initial conversation before you pick up the phone to call your prospect. Write it out and tweak it until the customer-centric messaging is clear and your business value proposition is straightforward. Review it with a peer to ensure that you’re delivering it in a conversational style, one that is yours, and is appropriate for your prospect (region, language of value, etc.)
  • Use language that is business-centric, that makes sense for a senior business (non-technical) person. Use language that helps the prospect to feel comfortable with your expertise in the process of diagnosing issues and coming up with recommendations.

And…if you make a commitment, be specific – I’ll call you at 3 pm on Thursday (versus I’ll call later this week). When you make that commitment, put it in your calendar, with a reminder, and make good on the commitment. 

Call promptly at 3 pm!

By being impeccable with your word – being easy to understand, focusing on the prospect’s key issues, using their language of value, and following through on your commitments, you will set yourself apart from most of the other vendors’ salespeople calling on the same accounts.

And, by following through on your commitments, you will lower the prospect’s perceived risk in going with you. Perceived risk is a huge factor in complex business to business sales, and while it’s not objectively measurable, it is one of the most important elements in the decision-making process. Buyers frequently will select a vendor that they believe can be trusted to deliver a solution that works, even if another vendor’s offer may be lower priced.

It’s a relationship-based decision, and we build that relationship by clarity with our words and demonstrating our trustworthiness by crisply following through on our commitments.

So…be clear in what you say, and do what you say you are going to do. While this is not difficult to do, our crazy-busy, interrupt-driven environment can sometimes make it challenging, both in finding the time to prepare and in crisply meeting our commitments.

Awareness is the first step to success.



Saturday, January 25, 2020

Practice, Practice, Practice!

I’m in the middle of rereading Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success (link) and I was surprised at the common themes that help runners, artists, surgeons and sales people all excel at their craft.

If you’re interested in excelling at sales, follow these guidelines:

#1 Context is everything

If your intent is to get through 10 calls so you can check that box and go to lunch, the calls won’t be useful to you or the prospects. On the other hand, if your intent is to solve problems, make sense of the world, talk to interesting people, improve your craft…your calls will be much productive and fun. Your prospects will enjoy talking with you; they’ll share more, they will help you to help them.

Remember, your context (or intent) is obvious to your prospect, like it’s written across your forehead or broadcast in your caller id. You will always broadcast some context, either consciously or not, so ensure that it is a powerful, positive one. (Hmm, perhaps a topic for another posting…)

#2 Practice makes perfect

Athletes and musicians practice to ensure success. And they don’t just practice, they focus on specific skills, one at a time. A pro golfer will spend a week working solely on his putting game (but not from the same spot each time). An ultra-marathoner will focus on building leg speed. A top sales person will focus on practicing the pivot or bridge from one topic to another.

We practice to build “muscle memory.” When a prospect asks us a question out of the blue, because we’ve practiced, because we’ve built that muscle memory, we can pivot to addressing the question in a useful and meaningful way. Or maybe that question doesn’t catch us off guard…because we saw something on the contact’s LinkedIn profile and gave some thought to how that might be relevant…

#3 Learn from doing

Top performers always evaluate their performance. What went well? What could he or she have done differently? What’s the learning? What new muscle memory must be created?

After you talk with a prospect or customer, think about the flow of the conversation. Were you properly prepared? Did the conversation follow the path you expected? (Hint, it never does!) Did you accomplish what you intended? Were you open to solving different problems, uncovering and exploring different issues? Did you position yourself as a resource? Did you make a deposit in the relationship bank account? Did you reach agreement on a specific follow up?

This introspection is the single most powerful thing you can do each day to identify areas for improvement, to build your selling skills. For a deep dive into learning theory, spend some time with Make It Stick by Peter Brown (link). Peter also cites some pretty interesting research on new techniques for skill development (a topic for another post.)

Leverage your resources. Use the industry and persona information provided by your organization or public resources, the treasure trove of prospect information on LinkedIn, the call and conversation planning tools needed for thoughtful preparation. Corporate Visions cites industry knowledge as being critical to successful conversations, more important than company knowledge, and far more important than product knowledge. Prepare for success!

Practice, practice, practice. It might take you 30 minutes to fill out your first call planning template. It will take you 5-10 minutes to complete your 10th. Role play with your peers or your manager. Fine tune your conversational skills in a “safe” environment, make the mistakes in a coaching space where you will get immediate feedback. Practice your opening conversation in front of a mirror until it feels and sounds natural.
And pick up the phone often. You will have far greater success in holding an enrolling conversation with someone if you reach them by phone, versus trying to engage them by email.