Welcome to The Pipeline.

3 Must Have Attributes of a Real “NEXT STEP”1

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Definitions are an important factor in sales success, talk to the best sales people, best here being measured in results, not likability, and you will find that they thrive on clear definitions, it is their competitive edge.  To identify weak sales people, look for those with plenty of opinion, but little or no clarity in approach or definitions for core elements of their success.  One common example is “Value”, it is part of almost every sales conversation, yet there are numerous, at times conflicting definitions.  I ask a group of five also rans to define value, and you’ll end up with seven different definitions, because the first two will change their mind based on what the next three say.

Another common element of successful selling that is all too often undefined (and usually unenforced), is the discipline of next steps.  Sure, everyone pays lip service to “next steps” (or advances, or other synonyms), but what they say is not what they mean, and not at all defined, agreed on, or universally supported.

I was brought up in the sales school that held that without a “next step” you are likely working with someone who is fully not engaged, if at all, and therefore not a prospect, but a lead.  This makes a “next step” a crucial delineator between real opportunities, or those pretend opportunities, taking up space in your pipeline or CRM, but lack any empirical evidence to suggest that you are working with a real prospect or an opportunity that will convert in a predictable time frame.

There is not an opportunity review that goes by where a reps is asked:

“Do you have a ‘next step’ with this prospect?”

Rep: “Sure do!”

“What is it?”

“I’m calling him Monday to set a meeting”, or “I told him I would call Monday to see what he thought of the proposal”

“What time is the call scheduled for?”

“I don’t have it formally scheduled, I told him I’d call Monday, and he said fine, I’ll do it after I am back from the Northern demo.”

Sorry, but that’s not a next step.  It’s a plan, may even be a good plan, but at this point it is little more than hope in the form of a thought, and you know what they say about hope, and people addicted to hopium.

For a “next step” to be real and productive it needs to have three attributes, that when combined and successfully executed form a platform for sales success that can use to plan, strategize and execute their sale, usually in a shorter time frame than they had anticipated.

1.   Must Be Agreed On By Both The Buyer And The Seller – by agreed I mean that it is booked and confirmed, not just a “ya OK”, whispered as you are walking out. These days you can have an invite fired from your phone while you are still there.  The physical act of pulling out your phone to put in the time and date will lead them to go to their calendar, if they don’t you may have a problem that you need to address right then and there.  It is not unusual for my prospects to have accepted the next meeting before I leave or by the time I am checking e-mail in the parking lot.

Many will settle for this as a “next step”, but I don’t want you to be one of those.  There are people, even with the demands on time, who will meet with a sales person without a specific reason.  This is why the next attribute is so important, in fact of the three the most important.

2.  Moves The Journey Forward – going back without a clear purpose is a waste of time, you can sit at your desk twiddle your thumbs without adding to you carbon footprint. You want to go back to continue to move the process forward in a way that helps the buyer make the decision that you can help them achieve their objectives.  This can be asking them to do something that will validate their engagement, involvement and commitment to the buy/sale moving forward.

I suggest that you think in advance what that may be, leveraging your personal and organizational experience, map out the journey, understand the critical milestones, and how you have successfully arrived there in the past.  If you know that achieving something opens the door to the next phase of the process, then think of what has to transpire in the meeting to get the buyer to see that as a logical path forward.   This could be any number of things based on what you sell.  One example is to ask for the opportunity to interview other people impacted by the decision, and set a time to comeback, debrief and plan the “next step”.  You’ll often hear me say:

“So we’ve agreed that it would help if I had a chance to get the front line view, if you can give the names of three sales people to interview, I can set that up for next week, and be in a position to come back to review with you by next Wednesday, does 2:00 work for you?”

Now if they do not agree to the action requested, i.e. the team interviews, but do agree to meet next week to hear my recommendations, you have some choices to make.  Does it make sense to have that meeting without the input, can you viably make progress without that.  If not, then you need to understand where you and the buyer parted ways during the meeting, what you may have missed, whether it is an indication that they are not a real buyer, or do you need to retrace and build the value up again.

This is where “next steps” drive success long before the meeting, and how you bring the past to help you now.  Perhaps the most important aspect of “next step”, specifically how they help you plan, strategize and execute.  Since we can only speculate based on experience, it makes sense to visualize the meeting unfolding in a number of ways.  Again, we are not shooting for perfection, but to cover the most likely set of outcomes.  Therefore you need to have multiple “next steps” going into any meeting.  In essence, Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, and more base on your reality.  Based on the above if Plan B is the follow up meeting without prior interviews, fine.  But if your experience shows that second meetings without an interview end in no sales, or lower margin or quality sales that take 50% longer than the average sale; you can comfortably walk away know you did not go into a trap.  Remember you can always revisit the opportunity down the road, rather than wasting time and energy traveling that unproductive road.

3.  Agreed On Timelines – This ties the first two elements together. And while it may seem too obvious, too many sales people have a plan going into a meeting, find areas of agreement and action, but leave the timing open ended.  Don’t believe, lock your office door, and have a true look at the opportunities in your pipeline, and see if you have any with no time lines.

Seems to me that if you are going to propose specific actions you and the prospect will take as a result of today’s meeting, and prospect agrees that it is something worth doing and they take on doing it, why not agree on a deadline or timeline.  Some sales people tell me they don’t want to seem pushy, when I hear that it sounds like “I am afraid of seeming professional”.

By suggesting a specific time you are helping the buyer (and yourself but let’s keep focused on the buyer), people have a lot coming at them, a lot of demand on the time.  Those things with times attached, deadlines, in their calendar, in their face, with purpose, leading to a desired and agreed on outcome, will be the ones that get done.  Those with any elements of looseness, like no specific time, who know, could be today, tomorrow, “hell, I lived with it this long, could be next quarter”.  Solidify you sales success using time.

Above I asked you to look at your pipeline and see how many opportunities are without a time line.  While you are in there, take a look at the 3 attributes highlighted above, and see where some opportunities in your pipeline come up short.  And then go and fix them, set a meeting, execute your plan, and secure the “next step”, as defined.

So if you are not using “next steps” as success driver, not just in the meeting, but long before, then you are probably working harder than you have to.  Further, if you are not clear on what “next steps” really are, and are working with a different definition than above, you are likely not as productive as you could be.

Your next step now, put the above into practice, it is a discipline.  Need help, your next step is call me: +1416 822-7781.

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Tibor Shanto



Un-Complicating Their Buy at #CEBSummit0

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca

Richtung Pfeil

While there are a range of relevant topics relating to sales, selling and marketing presented at the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit, the one recurring theme is the power of simplification.

When you step back and see how selling have unfolded over the last for years, what a neutral observer would see is an exercise in layering. People would see an opportunity or a challenge and they would bolt something on to fix or “enhance” their current state as a means of improvement. This could be to their sales process, or their sales enablement technology or platform; the term “There’s an App for that”, was embraced by sales long before all sellers bought iPhones. This wasn’t lost on marketing, they joined the party and loaded on more. This often led one to wonder whether the sale was complex to begin with, or it was complicated by the participants.

Which brings us to the buyers, they further added to the complications, leading to challenges so well presented in CEB’s current book “The Challenger Customer”. As the authors spell out in detail, the dysfunctional buyers and buying process triggers a reaction in sellers, usually in the form of adding more, and just driving the problem further.

Much of discussion at the Summit, speaks to how simplifying the buying process could lead to a number of benefits for buyers and by extension sellers, and the role sales/marketing organizations can play in helping buyer simplify things and progress as a result. “Empowered Customers are Overwhelmed”, turns out “too much information, too many options, and too many people involved in the decision are grinding things to a halt, with 81% or respondents saying their sales cycles have gotten longer over last five years.

The Ease-O-Meter – So how can you make buying easier? You start by focusing on the buying process. This does not mean the traditional approach of imposing you sales process, your time lines, your market view on the buyer, but truly helping them with their purchase as a means of helping them achieve their business goals and objectives.

This is not easy for sales and marketing types, as evidenced by one exercise that had us focus on the buy side of life. Even with all the great knowledge and experience about, this proved to be a real task. Adding to the challenge are two factors detailed in the Challenger Customer”, the combination of the “5.4” and the “good enough”. 5.4 being the number of people/groups involved in a buy decision, hence the dysfunction; “good enough”, the reality of buyers recognizing your value, but not willing to pay for it when there is a “good enough” lower cost alternative.

Another way to simplify things is to minimize options and choices, as stated above, too much choice is not working, as Barry Schwartz, Ph.D author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, choice is just killing buying, which is killing sales. While this may seem counter intuitive to many in sales, there were numerous example of why and how too much choice can lead to no choice, not what sellers want when they give choices. As Schwartz pointed out “the best way to avoid regretting a decision is not to make one!”

Not to be glib, but the choice is there, you can keep on the path you’re on, or pick up the book, focus on executing the the concepts and implementing elements to make your buyers’ journey easier and simplify your sales success.

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Q&A at Plug and Play #video – Sales eXecution 3130

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca

TV Head

In September I had the opportunity to meet with some up and coming companies at Plug and Play Tech Center in Sunnyvale.  After the meeting, I was asked to share some specifics about selling and our approach to driving value from prospecting call to growing your clients.  Take a look below, and feel free to reach out if anything strikes a chord or close to home.

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Their Only Pain is You6

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Ask a group of sales people what they want to know about their prospect, and the majority respond “I want to know about their pain or needs”. In theory a good concept, in practice highly over rated and ineffective. As discussed before, at any given time, only a small percentage of your total potential market is in play. The various estimates range from as low as 3% to 15%; so if we go with 10% for the sake of this piece, we are likely very generous. Of that 10%, almost all will recognise or admit to a need, and for some that need is in fact driven by or rooted in pain. So even when you perfect uncovering the pain and need, you are playing with a very narrow slice of opportunity. Not to mention a very visible and highly sought after slice, one that every sales person is pursuing, much like a lazy wild cat targets the weak of the herd.

A further 20% or so, don’t have an immediate pain or need, but they recognise that they will need to make a purchase decision 12 – 18 months out. Extremely good sales people, may be able to get a few of these folks to accelerate the need or heighten the pain, and thereby accelerate the purchase decision. But in the vast majority of instances, these people are future business, i.e. not this quota cycle. Having said that they are a good group to work with, as you have lots of runway to build a “relationship” and set yourself up as the obvious favourite when they going into buying mode.

This leaves the 70% plus, of the target market, the status quo, the complacent ones, the ones with no pain, no need, and no desire for a solution. Probing for pains or needs here gets the familiar “all set, we’re good, no need now, not interested” response; sometimes they’ll make you feel good and ask you to send them something. When was the last time you got paid for that?

For many of these buyers, the only immediate pain is the sales person sitting across from them, and the way that many of those sales people sell. While many pride themselves on having “evolved” from asking silly questions like “what keeps you up at night?” From the buyer’s stand point many of the techniques used by many are no better even though they changed the wrapping.

Some fall pray to pundits who will have them go in and try to “create” pain or make the buyer feel inadequate by asking things like “wouldn’t you agree that ….?” or “What would it be like if you could….? But buyers are hip, they see when you snap on the rubber gloves and “probe”.

One pain many buyers complain to me about is the complete unpreparedness they experience when meeting with reps. Rather than truly understanding the buyer, doing a bit of work in advance. Actually research the industry and current and future trends, how those impact the buyer’s company and the buyer, exploring more than just their social stream and LinkedIn profile. Absent pain, you need to look forward, the “value” you bring as a seller is helping the buyer face and win in that future, kicking them in the shin or higher brings a pain that does not lead to sales.

So if you want to use pain to win sales, it needs to be the “pain” of the effort you put into properly engaging a buyer who left to their own devices feels no pain, and is more like in search of something that will help them achieve their objectives, while avoiding the pain that is bad selling.

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Why That Number? – Sales eXecution 3030

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Dollar numberrs

I find it amusing that people still debate whether sales is a numbers game or not. There is just so much wrong with that not the least of which is that sales is not a game. The “sales is not a numbers game” crowd usually revert to the “quality over quantity” argument, valid, but still leads to a point that requires a sales rep to know and deal with how many, the number of, qualified, quality and quintessential opportunities they will need to prospect and close to retire or exceed quota, which by the way is a number.

Most pundits who take the “sales is not a numbers game” usually do so as a means of appeasing those sellers who refuse to take accountability for their numbers. Without accountability everything is OK, without measure there is no accountability, funny how the same pundits will get behind the mantra “if it’s not measured, it doesn’t count”.

So let’s get past the feel good BS that sells books but does not help you sell, and ask the real question about sales numbers:

Why that number? Or in the day to day world of real sales, why those numbers?

For instance, a question I’ll often ask reps, why the number of appointments in your calendar, why not three more, why not two less? Some tell me that it is what they were able to do, all time allowed for. This last one opens up the whole discussion of how they spend their time, and how that impacts their ability to hit their number, sorry, quota. There are any number of variations on this question, why the number of new prospects engaged in a given month, or why the number of opportunities at any given stage of their pipeline. The answer is the same for them all, “that is the number I need to make my quota!”

This will differ from rep to rep, even at the same company sitting side by side. One may be a great prospector, yet be weak at discovery, the other may be average at prospecting, but great at qualifying and moving to close. Each will have a different number at each phase. The key is that successful sales people not only know their numbers, but own them. Most sales people know their favourite ball player’s number, not their own. Why do we not hear about the quality/quantity argument when it come to their favourite athlete? Because in the end it is not how nice the play was, but whether they got the points at the end of the game or not.

Knowing your number at each stage of the sale allows you to plan and execute more directly and efficiently, which in turn drive quality. It is true that it is not about just “more”, but there is an element of needing “at least” at each stage of the sale.

Knowing why “that number”, and having “that number” be directly anchored in your quota drive the quality the pundits and excuse makers talk about. Not owning your number often leads to great quality in insufficient quantities, which means you need to change aspects of your sale. Increase prospect, improve your approach to discovery, uncover value in a more meaningful way, or other elements. All of which the “sales is not a numbers game” are reluctant to do.

“That number” is what you and I are accountable for. If you don’t know and own that number, there is no accountability in sales, no accountability for your actions or outcomes, a reality you need to live with, whether you are a sales rep, a manager, a VP of Sales, or a quality relationship touting pundit. And without accountability, there is no sustainable success in sales, and that is “why that number!”

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Where Have All The Sellers Gone? – Sales eXecution 3013

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Over the last few years there have been numerous articles and commentaries suggesting that the sales population will dramatically dwindle over the next few years. I don’t think there will be less real sellers than now, but the roles will be more clearly and accurately defined.

The reality is that many of those calling themselves sales people, or were hired to fill a role with a job description of sales person are not sales people at all. Many who pretended to be hunters to get the job were not; and many who were hired to manage and grow accounts, were in fact willing or capable of doing either. So if you redefined those to what they really were, rather than what you were hoping or pretending they were, you’d have a thinning of the ranks. In reality there are not as many sales people now as many would pretend.

Further to this point, last week I participated in an event hosted by SMB Acuity, a premier supplier of actionable business insights, where they presented the results of a survey of Small and Medium business in the USA and Canada specifically companies with 100 or less employees, those driving the economy. One interesting result they shared was that a large majority of upsells and cross sells were in fact initiated by the businesses themselves, not the sellers (by title anyway). The numbers were 57.8% of respondents in Canada, and 68.3 in the States. Confirming that many who say they are in sales, are in fact order takers.

What’s worse, is that these numbers clearly indicate that both types of sales people dropped the ball. Account managers should have been involved enough with the accounts to be in tune with potential demand, completely missed the opportunity. Leading to the question of how involved were they really, were they managing them in the real world, in their CRM, on a list, or as I suspect not at all. The other question is where was management? Why did they not have a process and the metrics in place to ensure coverage and get ahead of the opportunity?

One thing is sure, when the buyer initiated the conversation that lead to the upsell with you, they likely did so with your competitors as well. Given the scenario, I bet you don’t even know if and when they decided to buy more or another product, you don’t even know if they bought it from you or your competitor.

And where were the hunters, how did they miss this waiting opportunities?

It is almost an insult to real sellers to call these transactions “upsells” or “cross sells”, when it was buyer initiated. This is why they call people in department stores clerks, not sales people.

So yes, over the years as we fine tune the role, you will find less people classified as sellers, not because there will be less sellers than now, but because there will be a separation of sellers and clerks.

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Summer time and the Selling’s Easy #podcast0

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Radio Renbor the pipe

There are a lot of misconceptions about selling in the summer, but don’t be fooled, there is selling in the summer.  That is the focus of this month’s segment with Michele Price and BREAKTHROUGH radio.  Take a listen and let me know how you’heat you summer sales.

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What Are You Opening – Sales eXecution 2952

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Looking in

Sit in on any weekly sales meeting or pipeline review and you will hear the same question over and over: “What are you closing?” Nothing wrong with that question, especially if everyone is closing the right deals at sufficient levels. But given the fact that less than 60% of B2B reps hit quota, the above is not a safe assumption.

The real focus should be on the open, not the close. While I am not suggesting that the “What are you gonna close?” question should be dropped, I do think that it always needs to have a companion questions: “What are you gonna open?” Add to that if your close ratio is 4 to 1, you should ask the “gonna open” four times for every time you ask “gonna close” question.

While many will attribute their missing to a number of factors, it really comes down to two simple things. They either can’t sell, meaning they have more than enough engaged prospects, they just can’t close them; or they can sell just fine, but do not have enough prospects to take through the process. The former is easy to deal with, fire them, do fast, then hire slow, make sure the next sales person you hire can both sell and prospect.

If the issue is the latter which is more often the case, then the solution is creating a culture of prospecting. I regularly get reps telling “get me in front of the right prospect, and I can close them”, and it is usually the case, meaning they can’t prospect. Fortunately this is something you can fix, and continuously improve.


While many in sales like looking at the close, as we have discussed before, the close itself is a Lagging Indicator. Winning in sales is about managing and improving Leading Indicators, meaning activities that are executed early in the sales that determine the outcome, rather than dealing with the outcome after the fact.

The first step is knowing your conversion rates from one stage of the sale to the next. With that you will not only be in a position to plan and control your selling, but understand how many prospects you need to succeed, with that number in hand you are in control. Let’s look at a simple example, if you have a 4 to 1 handshake to close ratio, and you need 4 sales a month, it is clear that you need 16 prospects a month to interact with. It doesn’t matter how you get them, let’s not get side tracked. You can use referrals, cold calling, social selling, or smoke signals, the fact remains you need to shake 16 hands to meet your quota. If you get 16 or more, you are in control, you have options.

Any less than that, you are in trouble, you either need to instantly improve the way you sell to make your close better than 4 to 1, or begin praying to a better sales god. If you only engage with 12 prospects, you will be reluctant to get rid of prospects who do not qualify, or resort to concessions, or any number of desperate measure to try and scratch out your quota; continuously increasing the pressure on yourself in the process.

While selling and sales tools continue to evolve, the math does not, the choice is yours, while improving selling is a good option, improving how you sell and close as well as how you open will give you more options and more success.

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There Is More To Leadership Than Leading – #SPS15 Special0

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

woman with sketched strong and muscled arms

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.

As a first step, you can join me and my colleagues today for the 2015 Sales Performance Summit, webcast live from Toronto.

Tibor Shanto

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Time Is The Currency Of Sales #BBSradio0

By Tibor Shanto – tibor.shanto@sellbetter.ca 

Radio Renbor the pipe

This month’s piece on Michele Price’s BREAKTHROUGH radio program deals with time, as time runs out on Q1.

To hear my segment from last week, click on the image below.

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I appear every 4th Monday, speaking of course about sales, but there a host of other great content, I encourage you to check Michele’s program out, and learn from a range of contributors.  You can find the program and more information click here.

Tibor Shanto

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