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.
People love to complain about micromanagement, even when at times they are just being actively managed , which is a perfectly good and welcome practice for front line management. While I agree that true micromanagement is neither effective nor desired, at times it is easy to understand why some managers turn to it. I also find that many who feel they are being micromanaged, are in fact just being managed, and can actually prevent the negative aspects of it if they were willing to take on a couple of core requirements for sales success. The biggest way to avoid being micromanaged is to embrace the other side of the coin – Accountability.
That’s right, if sellers were willing to be more accountable for their actions and outcomes, they would find that their managers would (or at least seem to) “micro manage” them less. I know that accountability is one of those “feel good” words in sales and business. Leaders talk about it, they want, even when they themselves are reluctant to be accountable to the team. Sales people love talk accountability, just rolls off the tongue, and talking heads like me, well what’s a good rant without accountability being bounced about. So let’s put a little teeth and definition into it.
One thing that continues to fascinate me even after all my years in sales is how many sales people know their own metrics. Let’s make it simple, let’s look at a few leading indicators, that when focused on, can have tremendously positive impact on sales success, and when ignored, well the opposite. Let’s take three simple examples, number of potential prospects you need to engage one “real” prospect; how many “real” prospects you need in order to generate one quality viable proposal; finally how many viable proposals lead to won deal. There are others I know, but for the sake of this discussion these will do. I am going to start by asking you to write down your own three metrics for the above, if you are a manger or higher, what is the average for your team?
Sales professionals need to “own” these numbers, and those who understand the importance of accountability for success do. One reason some feel they are being micromanaged is because their manager is asking for these numbers, (sorry, I forgot, sales is not a numbers game), metrics. Many managers are asking because they want to develop an improvement plan for the rep in question, i.e. taking accountability for their rep’s success. If they come with the number in hand and present it to the rep, it will be fuel for micromanagement fire, it is much better if the rep knows and owns the number and is an equal partner in the development plan, but without an agreed on starting point and end point it is hard to move forward.
The challenge for sales managers and organizations is commonly called the Accountability Paradox: the harder you try to create accountability, the less accountable people actual become. Many believe their only option is to try harder, which again just sends a different message than intended. While the goal may be coaching to success, the interpretation by some is that they are being micromanaged. This where frequent and consistent coaching comes in.
In many organizations there are regular meetings with reps, but it is often data processing not coaching. What coaching may take place seems skewed to the managers’ requirements, not as a means of helping the rep improve. The easiest way to encourage accountability, is to demonstrate it. As a manager, you should have a coaching plan for your team as a whole, and for each individual on the team. Coaching sessions should be frequent, at least weekly, more often where needed. In case you believe that this may not be a good use of time, some indicate that ten minutes of contextual coaching can lead to reps increasing revenues by up to 17%.
If coaching is not a regular expectation, it becomes an event, usually an event centered on a short coming. As someone once said, “you only get coached when you’re not doing as well as they want”. One way managers can drive accountability is to be accountable for the success of their people, not just the numbers, after all, if their people are successful and improving, the numbers will follow.
Micromanagement sucks for all involved, why not commit to the antidote, and commit to mutual accountability.
So it is a holiday up here in Canada, Thanksgiving, we do ours early so we get all the good turkeys, and it is a holiday in the States as well, Columbus Day, a day to celebrate a guy who gets credit for discovering something long after it was discovered, and not what he set out to do to begin with. Sounds like sales already. But with the holiday mode, I thought it is a good day to ponder those things we may not have the luxury to think about when we are not luxuriating.
Here is one, I was recently interviewed for a B2B sales podcast. The host, a nice fellow, asked me a series of questions he said are put to all who appear on the podcast. “Go for it” I said; “Who is the best sales person you have ever known?” I gave him the name of two active sales people working for large sales organizations, and what I thought made one of them great. What he said next got me wondering. “Of all the times we asked this question, you are the only one who actually named real sales people”. Really, “What did the others say?” I asked.
“Some said Jesus, others Obama, or Steve Jobs”.
So I am not here to argue about these as being sales people, although if you’re gonna go biblical, isn’t the serpent a better choice, I mean did he not sell Eve like big time.
What really got me wondering is why the other pundits couldn’t name real sales people. We all put ourselves out there as making a difference for sales people and sales organizations. You would think in the course of that you may have met some great sales people, or better yet, been a significant factor is creating at least one great sales person. Why would they have to go for feel good bullshit choices like those?
Most of them I am willing to bet have not met Obama or Jobs, and certainly have not worked with them close enough to assess their selling skills. I mean what criteria would they have used? I am not even going to bring JC into this, I am sure that many pundits will have felt that they have met the son of God, but again, was he selling at the time? Looking at some of the sales people who have come out of that school, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart or Ernest Angley, you gotta wonder.
Hmm, what’s the deal then, are they working with sales people, are they selling? Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being a learned observer, the theoretical side of sales is important in ensuring improved execution. But there is a difference between talking about and talking to, between talking about and doing. I mean when someone asks who the best boxer was, you’re more likely to say Muhammad Ali than Howard Cosell; just wondering.
Risk is a big factor is sales success and sales failure. Being that people most people are risk averse, the traditional approach in sales has been to try to minimize risk associated with one’s product, the risk of change, and risk of the unknown inherent in a new vendor or product. But as with many things the internet and social media have brought some balance and greater ability for buyers to better gauge and measure risk of vendors, product and switching.
But for those reps willing to do a bit of work, you can leverage risk in a slightly different way that will lead to action, rather than the usual inaction.
There are times when we have to stop and make sure that our actions or words have not caused the pendulum to swing too far. Too much of anything can take away from or completely defeat what we are trying to achieve. And so it is with execution, one of my favourite words, and the core success factor in sales. Many who execute imperfectly have greater success than those who wait for the perfect moment and ways of doing something.
Nike was right when they said just do it! But you should do it for a reason and you should do it with purpose and in a deliberate way.
Acting for the sake of acting is not the goal, making busy work for appearance sake is just that, not effective selling. It reminds of a T-shirt I saw in Florida, it read, “Quick, look busy, Jesus is coming.” Breaking a sweat trying to look busy just because your VP is in town is not what we’re talking about. Acting deliberately means knowing why you would do something, and as importantly, why you shouldn’t do something just because you can.
Here are a couple of examples. One company which sells a fairly straightforward product, all over the phone. 65% of the sales are closed on the second call, another 20% on the third call, a further 10% on the fourth call, and the remaining close on fifth call or beyond. Very diligently this team would make multiple calls to prospects; six, seven, sometimes eight calls, all encouraged by senior management, we’ve all heard the various clichés that drive this kind of behavior. Rather than being encouraged to move on after the fourth call, they were challenged not to give up.
Another company, selling a more upscale consulting service, was slightly ahead, they had actually validated that their sale are routinely about 60 days, and on average happen in four meetings. What they were not good at is a) understanding if four was the right number of meetings; b) the critical milestones that have to be achieved in each meeting to achieve those milestones. When I interviewed their “best” rep, he agreed that the 60 day four meeting sale was correct; when I asked “What are you looking to do in your first meeting?” He replied “close the deal”. “OK, so why go back four times, why not just close the deal the first time, do they have great coffee?” He pointed out the obvious, there had to be certain things in place before the deal could be won. No doubt, but what were these things, what was the sequence that these things had to take place in, were there some that were pre-requisites to others, were some gateways, others roadblocks, etc. These things were not mapped out.
I guess it is more accurate to say that their buyers tend to buy after 60 days of meeting after having vetted the rep four times, because based on the above it did not sound that there was much selling going on, more like waiting for orders.
This is not as uncommon as you think; people have a general idea, but not specific steps and measures. Beyond revenue, the biggest cost to this half blind approach, is time, the non-renewable resource. Oddly enough when I ask why they don’t map things in greater detail, I am told it takes time. The very thing they are wasting in not knowing why they do it that way.
People are creatures of habit, and while we do change over time, most often these are gradual and incremental evolutions, only occasionally radical and sudden change. There are several way this can help sellers perform better, not only in terms of quota, but helping clients achieve their objectives, leading to more business as a result.
The goal in this piece is not to compare one type of buyer to another, but to help you adjust your approach to better align with the buyer, their habits, and expectations to help you be more effective with the type of buyer at hand.
While there may be other reasons, here are three in no particular order, that if you incorporate into your sale, will help you achieve better results for all involved.
Propensity to change
Why they buy
How they buy/make decisions
Propensity – In the past we have spoken about the market breaking down to three general groups, buyers who are Actively looking, Passively looking, Not looking (status quo). No matter which group they are in, there will be different levels of willingness to change. Even in the Actively looking group there will be those who are looking because there are external factors forcing them in to the market, without those external factors they would be status quo. Others are always looking to be leading edge and are looking on their own volition. Clearly the latter have a greater propensity to change and act, while the former will require more reassurance, more motivation, and at times more work. Again more work is not a bad thing, it’s just good to know up front. Don’t forget, that some will never change and take pride on going down with the ship, which means it is OK to disqualify and move on.
Why – Once they do make the decision to act, you need to understand why they chose the product or supplier they chose having decided to act. This will give you a lot of insight not only about the individual but the organization. Was there decision tied to a specific set of objectives, and is that consistent across a number of decision, or was it a result of “Me Too” at play. If we extrapolate out from the technology adoption lifecycle, how we sell to buyers at the left end of the curve will tangibly differ from those on the right end. It doesn’t matter which methodology you use, knowing why the buyer has made the selections they have in the past will give you clear guidance as to how to align with their current purchase decision.
How – This should be the most straight forward, once they have decided to make a change, and are comfortable with the reasons as to why, how they go about things will help you maximize the current purchase. You will understand who is involved in decisions; here you want to look for names that may have popped up in the “WHY” discussion. How those same people relate, influence or ignore the individual you are working. It will also give you a clear picture as to how (sometimes if) the organization makes decisions. If in exploring the last three or four purchase decision they made involved specific steps, inputs, and people, you can bet that these will be present and required to get the decision you are looking for.
The key in all this is to do this sort of questioning early, when it can seem informal, not central or pertinent to anything specific at the time. The close you get to the decision point, the more layers there are and some buyers will not share as freely. Everyone’s posture changes, and the information that flows, and how it flows changes. It is never too early to gather the above, but there could be a point where it may be a bit too late.
Sales people are always looking for “the pain” or “pain point”, I get it, not sure it’s always the right thing, but it is what it is. One I am often given for the search for pain is the response they anticipate. Many tell me, supported by a string of pundits, is that people will do more to avoid pain, than the steps or actions they will take to achieve pleasure. Theory being, if one can touch a nerve, a painful nerve, the Buyer is more likely to act, and therefore potentially buy the “fix” for that pain from the seller. On the other hand, potential pleasure is not as likely to drive action, therefore lead to less engagements and sales. Given the choice, they believe that focusing on pain yields better results than focusing on pleasure.
This piece is not meant to debate that, but rather explore how it plays out with sales people when the theory is applied to their own reality, specifically their own success.
I work with a lot of sales people, and have seen how willing or unwilling they are to take on new skills and practice’s. I know that when I carried a quota, the biggest pain I was trying to avoid, was the pain of not making quota. I did so by focusing on the pleasures my successes and resulting commissions would allow me to experience (vacations, good food, and more). Always seemed a better alternative to not making quota and having to tell the kids they can’t eat this quarter. But let’s pander to the masses and go to the pain side for a minute.
Given that less than 60% of B2B reps make quota, you have to wonder why those suffering the reality of not making quota don’t do much if anything to avoid that pain. They are ready to prescribe that very thing to their prospects, but refuse to apply it to their own success. Just the incongruity of that must be a daily challenge, adding more pressure to the pain point of not making your number.
Forget the financial reality, there is the tribal reality of being more of a burden than contributor. The percentage of companies achieving their financial goals is greater than the number of reps doing the same, meaning, if you are part of the 40% or so already suffering the pain of not making goal, there is the added pain of being a burden on those who driving their numbers and making up for yours. How does one live with the pain?
So with all that pain, why is it that a seller would not take steps to improve the outcome, take steps to change what they are doing. What they are doing is clearly not working, but a large number continue to choose to do nothing different.
OK, so the pleasure of making more money, achieving Presidents Club and the perks it brings, the pleasure of being able to hold your head high as a contributor, are not enough to encourage change. But what about the pain of having to come up with new excuses, having to settle in so many ways, and just not being able to say you are a successful sales professional. Why does that not motivate these sales people to change? And then they wonder why their lame attempt at pain is not working on their prospects either.
I was recently invited to sit in on a presentation by a world famous (in Toronto anyways) sales speaker. After the big intro by the host, building anticipation just to the right boil, the keynote started off with a profound statement. I know it was profound, because the speaker told us he was going to share some profound observations with us, in fact he started by saying “here is what you need to understand”, I’m ready; “things have changed”; oh goodie, some new insights coming at me now; “and what we have to live with moving forward is that change is constant”.
I am always surprised by how people in and around sales react to change. Sales and change are synonymous, yet I continuously encounter people who seem bamboozled if not paralyzed by it, as though it was something new or unexpected. You can tell a lot about a seller by how they embrace or avoid change. For those who spend the majority of their time minding the base or taking order, change can seem risky and daunting, the last thing they want is for customers to change.
On the other hand, I find that outstanding sellers, those focused on growing their base, and expanding their presence in their existing accounts, embrace and evangelize change. The best sales people are harbingers of change, they not only continuously change the way they sell, but encourage change in their customers and prospects, because they understand that change is good for their customers, and as a result for themselves.
While he went on to tell the sales team that the velocity of change continues to increase, he offered little in the way of how to embrace and lead change. He reminded me of a helicopter, lots of noise, stirring up a lot of dust, but no sooner than it’s gone, things settle back to being the same as before.
The challenge is that many equate continuous change with continuous improvement. While it may be true that most improvement requires some degree of change, not all change leads directly to improvement. Change for the sake of change is not good either, some change their approach to sales as a means of hiding their inabilities, inability to improve, or their inability to commit to a plan, and then execute that plan.
Knowing that change is constant should actually be comforting to sales professionals. It provides an opportunity and a means to experiment and grow. I liken it to physical exercise, if you keep doing the same routines, you quickly plateau, and while you continue to work hard, the benefits continue to diminish. Introducing variety and new practices not only challenges your muscles, but your buyers as well, leading to improved results all around. As discussed here in the past, you can’t expect your buyers to change when you are not willing to.
Look for ways to add to your selling approach, building sales muscle, avoid the temptation to choose one approach over the other, instead look for ways you can blend and combine the best of many schools. Just when you think you have it down, start again by asking how you can view where you are as a starting point rather than a destination.
The profound thing is not that change is constant, we’ve know that for 2000 years if not more. If you are looking to be profound, be the change. Buyers are used to the same old same old, their world is changing as fast as yours, if you can lead that process rather than follow or be run over by it, you’ll bring value to both you and the customers.
A recurring and ongoing discussion is sales revolves around the role of numbers in sales. You have the soft, relationship, Quality crown chanting their sacred mantra: “Sales Is Not Numbers Game!” “Quality over Quantity” or is it “Quality über alles”. So it came as some surprise when I was talking to a Ms. Not Numbers Game, and she started talking about the role and importance of metrics is sales success. OK, what are metrics? Further, she started talking about an HBR piece called “The Twelve Sales Metrics that Matter Most”.
Read the piece but the 12 boil down to:
1. Percent of Organization Achieving Quota
2. Quota Attainment Average
3. Average Annual Quota for Field Salesperson
4. Average Annual Quota for Inside Salesperson
5. Average Annual On Target Earnings
6. Average New Deal Size
7. Sales Cycle Length
8. Vertical Sales Adoption
9. SMB Specialization
10. Field Sales Revenue Trends
11. Inside Sales Roles
12. Sales Preparedness
Looks like most revolve around numbers.
The other thing that most of the above have in common are the fact that they are mid-cycle or lagging indicators. This does not make them inferior or useless, it is just that they are no things that will help change the outcome of the current cycle, if changes are not made they may not change the matric after the next sale.
I guess I struck a nerve when I said that I think the most important metric are those based on activity. Before I can explain, Ms. Not Numbers Game, came undone. “That’s just so old school, do a hundred calls, talk to 10, and get one sales, it doesn’t work like that today Tibor”. That wasn’t my point, but if you look at most of the metrics on the list above, ONE of the KEY elements to improving them, is changing both the quality and quantity of activity.
While I am not a fan of 100-10-1 number, I do believe that one should know the numbers it takes to get to quota (which BTW is a number). If you have $100,000 monthly quota, and the average deal is $25,000, you’re going to need 4 sales a month. Now you could put a plan into effect that will allow you to increase the average deal size to $30K – $35K, and that would involve a change in activity and execution. How many proposals will you need to present to get those 4 deals? How many prospects will have to go through the discovery process to generate sufficient proposals? How many prospect will you need to engage in order to have enough go through to discovery? How many people will you need to prospect in order to engage with enough? All these are leading indicators, all based on activities, all open to improved quality to positively change the quantity required.
From an organization perspective, the HBR list is fine, but from a front line perspective, the metrics that count are all activity related, as all activity is related to working with buyers. Without that none of the other dials will move much, but focus on activity related metrics, and you can move the dial to reduce quantity and improve quality.
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.