A few weeks back I wrote a post Just Wondering… about a question I was asked during a podcast about who I felt were the best sales people I ever worked with.
Below, in its entirety, for your listening and dining pleasure, is the whole podcast. We explored other topics including how some of the concepts in the award winning book I coauthored may be out of date, how my thinking has evolved, and a host of other sales subject. Take a listen, share with friends, hold some town halls, hell, ask Trump to comment on it, he can tell us how it might play in China, cause Trump knows China. Whatever you do with it, enjoy, and leave us your thoughts.
Often the best sales books are not about sales or by sales experts. Case in point Dorothy Leeds’, the The 7 Powers of Questions: Secrets to Successful Communication in Life and at Work. If you haven’t read this and you’re in sales, you are at a disadvantage to any rep that has. While the importance of questions has been explored by many, I keep coming back to this because she does not limit questions to being a sales tactic, but as a means of facilitating real communication and opportunities.
A key point in the book is that questions make one think. So true, yet so underutilized in sales. Rather than using where the buyer is as a starting point, and using question to go beyond, sellers use questions to bring the buyer to a space where the seller needs them, where their value proposition resides. Salespeople use question to box people into a space where they feel they can demonstrate their product and their perspective of value. You can hear it when they “wouldn’t you agree that if….., then you would be able to ….. better (faster, cheaper, etc.)…. Odd how the biggest proponents of Open Ended questioning, end up using questions to create a Closed Ended buying environment. The result is that these questions lead the prospect to in the opposite direction, leaving sellers to wonder why their great questions fail to inspire the buyer.
Want to inspire buyers, get them to think, to engage in a way that they don’t with sales people who use question to coral them? Get them to think. Not about their situation, their hip to that, they live it. Get them to think of their objectives, about the path forward, and the possibilities those objectives Open Up. To do that you need to demonstrate being a subject matter expert, and brave enough to explore the unknown, using question to find possibilities not limit them.
Being a subject matter expert does not mean being a “know it all”. But having enough knowledge, confidence and curiosity to help your buyer navigate uncharted territories to get to their objectives.
All those probing questions fall on deaf ears, they have heard it all before, the have been disappointed before. What they are looking for is a trusted advisor, again, that is not an oracle all knowing all saying, but someone with the skills and expertise to help them figure out how to bridge the gap between where they are now, and where they want their business to be.
Now when I say trusted advisor, I don’t mean their friend, or a relationship type, but someone who demonstrates enough expertise in the areas the buyer is trying to understand that they are willing to trust them enough to first take input then advice. You do not need to have a relationship to do that, you need to have and demonstrate expertise. You can do that and establish yourself as the go to source, as the one who can cut through the noise out there trying to bring them into a closed ended discussion, and you can become the supplier of choice long before the relationship that will evolve after.
I love reading articles, books, and all things sales. Some I read to learn, others for pleasure – some people just write well; and then there are those that I read just to see how badly I disagree with the writer and their views. Among these my favourite by far, the ones I read for a laugh, a good deep belly laugh, are the articles that usually have headlines such as “The Secret to…”, where the author wants readers to believe that they have discovered or uncovered THE SECRET element that will forever demystify sales and selling; along the lines of Edison’s light bulb. As though before reading the piece we were stuck in the dark ages, having to make wick and gather wax to make candles, then rub sticks together making fire to light our candles. But now, thanks to this immensely generous pundit, finding prospects and closing sales will be as easy as switching on the light. I know that when they wrote the thing they did not intend for me to giggle, but making the reader laugh is usually their only redeeming value.
Pieces that read “Cracking The XYZ Code”. Every time I see a headline like that, I get out my life size cut out of Benedict Cumberbatch from The Imitation Game, and an
autographed photo of Dan Brown, eagerly anticipating a life changing experience. After all, I can picture the author, having made great sacrifices, suffered through the process of cracking the “whatever” code, now sharing it and liberating mere mortal sellers from their toil.
Over the years pundits have offered secrets, incantations, amulets and more, yet the output seems to be steady, with no significant improvement in the pace of revenue growth, margins growth, and the number of reps attaining or exceeding quota.
Now you can’t blame the pundits, they are in the business of selling books, and as long as there are buyers, there’ll be someone cranking it out. I remember one of the big disagreements my co-author and I had was over unnecessary, stupid, misleading and not factual statement on the cover: “There is a sliver bullet in Sales”, no there isn’t, and anyways, what hunting, werewolves or revenue?
Add to the above the magic of technology, and you have “stupid” automated. This not a comment on the quality or worth of the technologies, but the stories spewed by some who will lead you to believe the technology will change and improve your selling and sales results. It is a lot like fitness fads and ab machines peddled by former athletes or fitness wannabes. You still need to eat wisely, commit to a program and find the discipline and accountability to execute an ongoing and evolving plan.
The pattern is familiar, sellers jump on a trend, acquire the related consumable, but don’t change the way they execute in the field. After a few weeks of effort, and only minor uptick in results, the ab machine or sales tool or methodology ends up in the closet or under the desk, and it’s back to how we sold all along.
Change, long term sustainable and ongoing change, takes effort, and commitment. Often a greater level of effort than many have had to commit to in the past. The other element required that many don’t want or have access to, is support, just as with fitness programs, people who commit to a health plan and engage a professional trainer or fitness pro are more likely to not only succeed, but maintain the new discipline, than those who go it alone.
It is also important to remember that improving your selling is best achieved by building and adding to your skills and tools, not by narrowing, restricting or limiting your tools and techniques. The problem with SECRETS and CRACKED CODES, is they seem to need to displace or “kill” other methodologies that came before it. Witness the need by “Social Sellers” to start all discussion by saying “cold calling is dead”. The best sellers I know take from all methodologies and piece them together in a way that enhances and expands their skills, opportunities and sales.
So here is the last SECRET in Sales: There Are No More Secrets!
It’s all out there, all that is left is to execute. Some find it easier to blame the last fad, the latest technology, the new app, anything but the fact that we don’t do, or want to do certain things that have to be done in the course of a sale. This is no secret, but success in sales is less about methodology or tools, or attitude; success in sales is about execution – everything else is just talk.
A question I regularly ask when working with a group of reps on prospecting, is “who do you call on?” or “who do you want to call on?” The answer I get is “the decision maker”. Now I have used a lot of different directories and databases, and they all give a title, not role in decision. But let’s say they did, the real question is what happens when you speak to that decision maker. Unfortunately often this opportunity does not go as well as hoped, for the sales person, and the decision maker.
It has been shown in a number of studies that many decision makers are disappointed with many of their meetings with sales people, often seeing it as a waste of their time. Reps come in unprepared in so many ways. Despite all the information out there, all the research sales people supposedly do in advance of their meetings, they seem to bring little knowledge or real valuable or actionable insight to these meetings.
While there are more, I will look at two that if addressed and improved will dramatically improve your success. First is the focus of all the research and information reps do going into the meeting. When I ask, I still get the same old same old. It is all very product and sales centric. Mercifully you hear less and less of “what keeps you awake at night?” But while the words have changed, the posture and the way it rubs the executive has not. The reality is that much of what many sales people “probe for”, are things many senior executives and decision makers have delegated to others in the organization.
Instead they are focused on their objectives 12 – 18 months forward, they are consumed by those outcomes, and their impact on their company, be that profits, market share, Wall Street reaction, and more. It is not about “the” enterprise software, but the impact as they view it. Talk about that and they will engage, and exchange information with you, but with all due deference, the SPIN stuff makes their head spin. Show them that you can help them achieve their objectives, and you’re on.
The second common obstacle is the general demeanour of many reps. There is a difference between respecting someone and their position, and putting them on a pedestal. This needs to be a conversation of peers; not equals, but peers. Why would I open up to someone whose words, gestures and posture suggest that they have not faced the type of scenarios and objectives I deal with every day? Many sales people, especially the relationship types or the social types, are reluctant to ask the direct and difficult questions that not only demonstrates that you understand the day to day world of the person you are with, much less help them resolve the gaps that stand between them and their objectives. You can talk probing, but doing it right, is another story. Executives I have spoken to tell straight out that they don’t have time to educate reps on the types of things they are trying to achieve or resolve. “I can tell from the questions they ask, and the way they ask them if they really get, are faking it, or just scared shitless because they know they are in over their heads when it comes to my world and day to day”.
The reason some reps never get the appointment is not because the executive or decision maker is not open to input, but they want that from a peer, who understands what they are dealing with, and can demonstrate that they have fought the battle and won. Not with a glossy case study but how they conduct themselves. In short, Decision makers want to deal with decisive people, people who can lead them to success, not just follow hoping for relationship.
People often confuse training for a bunch of things that may or may not need to be present to achieve what they really want to achieve which is usually, change, and more specifically a change for the better, improvement. But improving, especially in sales, take a whole lot more than just training, and certainly more time than most people consider when it comes to training.
Training is an easy check mark on the KPI card, but improvement requires, planning, effort, and patience. All too many leaders “just train”, and often simply train their sales people to do the same thing, some times better, sometimes not, but “we trained them”. Sort of like an annual tune up on your car.
Training is part of the process, but it starts with planning. What are trying to change, and more importantly to what end. There are some who will do assessments, but then fail to set specific targets or outcomes for the training. “As a result of the assessment and interviews with Trainer X, the goal for this program is to increase pipeline value by X%; or to improve the conversion rates from stage X to stage Y of the process; or to reduce the sales cycle from an average X weeks to, X minus weeks” Or any other objective. To achieve improvement, you not only need to set goals, but benchmarks so you can measure progress, and metrics so you can manage progress.
Speaking of manage, why bother training the front line if you don’t train the managers. Or let’s be more accurate, train those leading your front line to really lead. But training is not enough, as Steve Rosen always reminds me, coaching and leadership is an ongoing process, as is development and lasting improvement for the front line.
As with any other improvement process your company takes on, it need to be planned, “sold” to participants, delivered, and then driven, not just left to “happen”. Sounds simple, I’ll bet a bunch of you reading this are saying, “Of course, why is this guy stating the obvious?” Sure, it’s obvious, but think back to your last training, sales or otherwise.
Unless it is an iterative process with specific goals, it is just a feel good KPI exercise. And don’t be fooled by assessments that capture your unfounded subjective observation that will seem to improve if for no other reason than the fact that you paid attention to it, ticked off on your list, and feel good about the fact that you rep is “now also responding”. The only thing that changes is the reps ability to give the right answer the second time around. Objective measures that lead to improvement, feeling better is not improvement.
There is an old joke in the training business, ask a leader “if you had a 14 year old daughter, would you rather she had sexual education at school, or sexual training.” And everyone feels good about choosing education over training. Go for improvement, the means is secondary.
There is a lot written about leadership in general, and more specifically sales leadership, I have contributed my share to the din. This is a clear indication that no one has really figured it out, if they had the book will have been written, millions of copies sold, and people move past the debate, and focus on the next thing.
One common theme in pieces about leadership is how the leader needs to be involved and leading the process. And while that is true, the nature of that involvement differs based on who you read. I have always been an advocate of “leading from the front, not behind a desk”, and the assumption many take is that this literally means out in front of the troops Napoleon style. But I truly think that the best form of leadership, and means of driving change, the right change, not just change for change sake, anyone can rearrange the furniture and replace the curtains, is to not be part of the action. The best leadership, and I see things through the sales filter, is change that comes about in what appears to be in an organic way, initiated and completed by the sales rep/team, with only partial prints from the leader.
Managing/Coaching sales people, is really an exercise in selling. In a conventional sale we are trying to get the buyer to purchase our “stuff”, as a means of helping them achieve their objectives. Well as a coach, you are trying to get the sales person to integrate and take on your view alongside or instead of their current view or means of executing. That being the case, it really is best approached as a sale itself. As such, you not only have the opportunity to get the rep to buy into the change, but the means by which you do that could itself be a model or at a minimum, reinforce the process.
Everyone buys into the notion that “people don’t want to be sold”, and so you need to create a buying environment. The flaw with that in coaching is twofold. First While people may not want “to be sold”, they often need to be, that’s why we hire sales people. And the fact that the rep took on the job of selling, they have de facto declared that they want to buy, or buying to your process, otherwise, why are they working for you.
So how do we pull this together, simple, much like buyers like to hear things come out their mouth more than the sales reps, even when it was the sales person who choreographed the moment, sales people, especially established, good sales people who need to be taken to the next level, respond to ideas and actions that are their idea, not the managers. Meaning the best thing a manager can do lay down the bread crumbs, and let the rep discover things on their own, and when they do, you can become a resource in their journey to success.
How do you do that, I am old school, put the focus on your sales process. You have one right? Clear stages, specific activities in each stage, objectives, desired outcomes, tools, contingencies, and most importantly, clear reasons to disqualify. Each stage supported by an evolving playbook, and a clear next step go-no go, criteria. If you have this, you’re set to help the rep discover what you want them to, without directly leading them. If you don’t, you can call me and we can get you started.
There is much discussion about leadership, or more accurately, a lot of talk, some of it actionable, some of it not. The less actionable it is, the less interesting, and as a result ending up more talk than action. Many of those who like to talk about leadership, often include a blurb on accountability. At times a practical add on, but more often than not, it is more like a required a condiment, like ketchup on fries, rather than a substantial value add to the topic at hand, i.e. leadership.
One of the challenges of these two related subjects is that it is demonstrating versus talking about them. This is why some of the better piece don’t pretend to want to explain this complicated but important aspect of tribal life, be that a sales tribe, regional tribe, or any other collection of beings needing to coexist and interact for a common purpose.
While I don’t want to get into the discussion as to whether relationship selling is dead, limping or doing just fine, there some aspects of relationship selling that need to be rethought. Specifically the kind of sales managers that relationship sellers end up being. If you are a reader of this blog over the years you know that while I think relationships and the ability to foster and maintain relationships are very important traits of a successful seller, I have always taken issue with the sequence of things.
There too many sellers who give a disproportionate, if not too much, of their focus and energy for gaining a relationship, rather than getting the sale, which what they are paid to do. As is clearly articulated in: “The Hard Truth About Soft-Selling: Restoring Pride and Purpose to the Sales Profession”, sales people get paid commissions for closing sales, not relationships. There are too many sales people try to secure the relationship first, then worry about the sale, rather than the other way around. The best way to build and grow a real and solid relationship is to deliver value, and keep delivering it. You can argue, but there are too many examples of people sellers thought they had a relationship with who ended up buying from someone else, despite that relationship.
Most sales people mistake the need for loyalty with relationship. Consider that “75% of customers who leave or switch vendors for a competitor, when asked, say they were ‘satisfied or completely satisfied’ with the vendor they left, at the time they switched.” Customer Loyalty Guaranteed’ Bell & Patterson. I’ll bet you every one of those sales people would tell you they had a good relationship with their buyer, but they still lost the revenue. Like it or not, The Challenger crowd raises some interesting questions about relationship sellers.
So what happens when a relationship seller gets promoted to a manager? They have spent their careers nurturing relationships as a means of achieving revenue, wanting more to be the customer’s friend and advisor, rather than a subject matter expert fit to challenge convention, willing to shake it up a bit and get the buyer to buy what’s right, leading the process instead of trailing behind or just being a passenger.
Well they continue being that same way when it comes to managing. They don’t so much lead from the front, but more manage from behind a desk. They present expectations rather than set them. But mostly they fail to help their reps because they would rather have a relationship above all else.
I see too many sales managers (former relationship sellers), who dance around expectations, who don’t inforce and reinforce things, who see metrics as a nice to have not as a means of driving change and improvement, as something that needs to be inspected, and no it is not OK if it is missed. Managers’ goal should be to lead sales people out of their comfort zones, build calluses and develop their skills and talents. Sometimes getting them to stretch requires more than a smile and suggestions, it requires challenging the rep, setting some nonnegotiables, and following through with the consequences. Hard to do when you are fixated on relationships above all, some of your best sales people will not always be your best friends.
Speak to most people who were in the service, and one of the people they speak most highly of after the fact, the ones they have the most lasting and genuine relationships with, and they’ll point to their first drill sergeant, the one who helped them most to make the transition from civilian life to military success. And believe me, it wasn’t based on relationship first. It was success first, and relationship on that foundation.
While this long entrenched ritual has some utility, it more often than not ends up being a painful and torturous waste of time. Reps are rarely truly prepared and while this is not excusable, it is usually because they feel that regularly these are a CYA exercise their managers go through. Numerous times I have seen mangers schedule their pipeline reviews just in advance of their review with their higher ups in the hierarchy, not much in that for the rep but the stress.
The whole concept of a pipeline “review” is flawed and a practice that should be a relic of the past, a past where CRM’s did not exist, and managers had to submit everyone to the grind, be that one-on-one or a group agony. Some still tell me that a pipeline review meeting is conducted to confirm and validate the information in the pipeline on each deal, be that end date, deal size, weighted likelihood of closing, and other data are all accurate. Why? Their answer “Managers need to ensure that their sales forecast is accurate, questionable opportunities that could impact accuracy, need to be identified, flagged and or removed.” CYA, fun with numbers, the manager brings his/her subjective bias to things, the Director adds his/hers, and by the time it makes it “upstairs” the plot and theme of the story has little to do with the rep.
The other subtexts is about coaching “Great coaching opportunity”, but is it. I find most use it to talk deal and tactical strategies to closing the deal now, a good thing, but not coaching. In fact when I ask most front-line managers if they have an annual coaching plan for individual reps, the answer is no, which is why the coaching is tactical and situation, all of which would improve if they were aligned to an ongoing development plan.
Others will point to the need for data quality, but I have always wondered why focus on the quality of the data rather than the quality of execution, if you had that, the data would be much better to start with.
So what is the alternative?
Switch gears, go from reverse to forward, from Reviews to Previews. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against reviewing deals, why we win, lose or get no decision at all, and there are many lessons to be gained. But if you want to help reps with their pipeline, and change ongoing performance, close more and beat quota, you need to look forward. Do pipeline Previews. Look at active opportunities they will be interacting with in the coming week, a better focus. Who are they going to see, why that person, what are they looking to specifically accomplish that will move the opportunity forward or allow them to disqualify it, yes take it out of the mix, what are the potential roadblocks, resources they may require achieve things. Examine how many new (real) opportunities are in the pipeline this week over last. These are not only more forward looking, more telling about the quality of execution but an opportunity to coach in the present, when it can make an immediate and long term impact, rather than review the past. Question of Leading vs. Lagging indicators and related actions. Do this regularly, weekly, rather than monthly, do it as a team, great learning by osmosis opportunity. Do not do this at the same time as a coaching meeting, schedule those individually, and another day of the week; yes formal coaching every week, over and above the situational daily coaching.
As I said above, want to increase quality of data, focus on improving the quality of execution. If they were allowed and instructed to take trash out of the pipeline, and coached on how to get real opportunities in, and then how to usher them through to close, the data would not only be impeccable, as well as the results.
About a month ago I had the privilege to be part of a great panel exploring key issues sales leaders need to not just think about, but act on in preparing for a successfully 2015.
The panel included:
Lori Richardson – Score More Sales
Lee Salz – Sales Architects
Steven Rosen – STAR Results
Dan Enthoven – Enkata
Miles Austin – Fill the Funnel
As the next instalment in this week’s posts dealing with kicking the New Year off right, meaning in a way that will help sales organisations and teams exceed quota in 2015. Below is an expert from that discussion, but I encourage you to take in the full discussion by clicking here. It is a lively and insightful discussion that will provide a number of ideas for helping your team crush their number.