Sales Process – Help or Hindrance?

Far too frequently, competent salespeople are expected to channel their own activities into the areas that will produce the quickest wins. Unfortunately, left to their own devices, they don’t develop and pursue a formal strategy for moving a sale tangibly forward during each prospect interaction, neither do they have a clearly defined set of goals against which to measure the progress they are making. Typically, their judgment is based on gut reaction and is purely subjective i.e. “Oh yes, I’ll get that order, he likes me” because salespeople have to be optimistic by nature. They end up dancing around with prospects, in the hope that eventually they will get to their chosen point on the dance-floor i.e. -the sale. In this scenario, the prospect has complete control.

This lack of a plan is often fatal, because, as recent research from The Results Corporation PLC shows,

60% of clients buy after five “No’s” and yet …

44% of salespeople give up after the first “No”

22% after the second “No” and

14% after a third “No”

A well-known oil company discovered that it took their best salespeople an average of three visits and five follow-up calls to convert a prospect into a client. Yet, their average sales performers only visited prospects twice and then gave up, costing the company millions of dollars in wasted sales effort and even more in lost potential sales opportunities.

When their efforts don’t pay off immediately, even experienced salespeople tend to become discouraged. They spend more and more time struggling to meet their sales quotas and working less and less efficiently.

Feeling increasingly powerless to influence prospects, they may also begin to press for a sale in ineffective ways – for instance, by arranging full-dress product presentations to prospects that they have not even qualified or who haven’t yet agreed that they need the solution being presented. They allow prospects to milk them for information without getting a commensurate commitment first, and even worse they fail to defend margin and make unprofitable sales in order to achieve quotas.

The details of what goes wrong differs for each individual salesperson, but the net result is always the same, a discouraged sales force, diminished sales efficiency (i.e. wasted investment of sales time and resources that fail to produce high quality sales) and, consequently, increased cost of sales which inevitably drastically reduces net profit.

What’s the bottom line? Sales never result efficiently and with maximum revenue unless the sales process is continually and closely managed. But before the sales process can be managed, it must be manageable.

However, a word of caution …

But, and this is a very big BUT, it is not uncommon for an organization’s sales process to restrict and even stifle success by being far too rigid. In many scenarios, creativity is discouraged, and the rules are very black or white.

I have encountered many companies who insist that the sales team must achieve certain goals on a daily/weekly/monthly basis: They place great emphasis on quantity rather than quality, and as a consequence, they typically attract lower margin business.

In my opinion, a sales process should act as a “guide” particularly where activity is concerned, and always be flexible enough to accommodate individuals who sometimes need to work outside of the “boundaries”

Have You Spotted the Golden Egg(s) Nestling in Your Basket?

From quite early on in our sales careers, we are encouraged to explore every sale opportunity that presents itself. In fact, in some companies, the sales teams are “brainwashed” into believing that “all business is good business.” And of course, we do not challenge this fallacy, simply because we don’t know any better – we are on the first rung of the ladder…

We are anxious to make our mark, get “runs on the board” and impress our manager – even our colleagues. At this point in our careers, naivety sustains us, and in some perverse way, insulates us from the harsh realities of the sales environment – but only momentarily.

Maybe all new sales professionals should memorize this statement: “Selling is the most exciting, the most invigorating and the most rewarding career in the world – if you are selling well”

Gradually, as we ascend that sales success ladder, we experience a life-changing epiphany – well those of us that become successful do – and it dawns on us that actually, it takes just as long to progress an opportunity that has no chance of closing through the various funnels and pipelines, as it does a profitable and closeable one. We even manage to work out that, whilst we are spending so much time on unwinnable business, we are letting winnable business slip through our fingers, due to a lack of time and attention.

It isn’t rocket science, but our ability to determine which is which, early in the sales/buying cycle, could ultimately decide just how far we progress up that aforementioned sales ladder. Because, be assured, the very best frontline sales professionals (the top 5%) always position themselves with the real decision-makers, and avoid those without “approval power.” They are able to first identify, and then access, the formal decision making unit(s).

They are also able to readily identify, and know how to deal with, the four different buying influencers present in every sale, and they understand how to prevent sales from being sabotaged by an internal enemy. They insulate themselves by developing strong allies within.

Finally, they are able to recognize fail-safe signals that indicate when a sale is in jeopardy. This comes from experience, but also information supplied by their “allies”.

But most important of all, they are rigorous in tracking account progress and are able to accurately forecast future sales, because they use a proven methodology which allows them to realistically weight every opportunity in the pipeline.

So do you think, if you re-examined your pipeline today and had to wager your house on those opportunities that will really happen, you could do so? Or are you happy to continue playing the numbers game?

Do try to spot the “golden eggs” in your basket, and encourage them to hatch – it will be worth it, I promise you!

What a great exercise to kick-off 2015?

Schhh! Can You Hear the Silence?

Yes, me too. Nobody – well hardly anybody – is talking about “Sales 2.0″ anymore, and yet less than twelve months ago you couldn’t hear yourself speak above the incredibly loud din that rose to a deafening crescendo.

So what happened? Has it gone away? Have we moved on to “Sales 3.0″ and everyone forgot to tell me? Was it all a figment of my imagination?

It is now more than eight years since Nigel Edelshain first coined the term, on a balmy Sunday afternoon way back in 2006, and perhaps we all now accept that actually, it was just the next phase in a continuous cycle of change in the way we all sell.

But the silence we are witnessing now is almost as loud as the silence I experienced when I posed the question – frequently.

I didn’t just ask the question here on my blog: I asked during keynotes that I was delivering; I asked during training workshops that I was leading; I asked all my learned chums … and still no definitive answer or explanation.

However, let me be very clear here, the “sales space” has witnessed the birth of some superb new solutions; highly successful conferences; a plethora of books/articles/webinars etc. over the past eight years, and if that was Sales 2.0, then bravo.

But did it need to be called anything? Wasn’t it simply a natural evolvement? Is it still with us?

Maybe it was like “Web 2.0?”

I remember a few years back, a very good chum writing a recommendation on LinkedIn, praised me for “fully embracing Web 2.0 tools” I didn’t really understand the significance of her compliment, but again, I do hope someone will alert me when and if I fully embrace Web 3.0

And what about our customers – the buyers – do you think they noticed the arrival of Sales 2.0? Mine didn’t, and to this day my perception is that they remain blissfully unaware.

My conclusion is that it is our secret – us sellers – and probably best to keep it that way.

These are just a few of the questions that keep me awake at night – or not!

Leader, My Leader, Do You Inspire “Willing Action?”

Leadership has been defined as “the ability to inspire willing action”

Emphasis is placed on the “willing.” But to understand leadership, we need to delve a little deeper than that.

One thing which experience has proven over and over again down through the ages is that when any group of people are thrown together for any length of time or for any project, a leader will emerge from the group – one to whom they will listen and give their confidence and support.

Their position on the organization chart or their title alone cannot make a person a genuine leader. They must have certain traits and skills, or they will surely fail. In business it has been shown again and again that these skills can be learned and the traits can be developed in any individual who is willing to exert an effort based on strong desire and a true hunger for success.

Generally, a leader or teacher does not actually “develop” another person. They encourage and inspire that person to develop themselves from within. Thus, leadership is, in a large sense, self-initiated.

Once we understand and identify the methods and characteristics of admired leaders, we can take steps to develop these skills and traits ourselves. We can analyze ourselves — honestly, ruthlessly, objectively – and identify which skills we need to acquire or improve (and those which we need to play down).

However, it is my view that the “perfect leader” has yet to be born. We all have room for self-improvement. If we can agree upon what it takes to be a good leader – what are the traits of leadership, what are the skills – we will at least have made a good start. We should analyze every genuine leader we know and try to learn which qualities influenced us to consider them a good leader.

And that is what I have done: My first experience of leading was thrust upon me at the tender age of eight years old, when I captained my soccer team – since then I have always been the captain – it is as well, because I am not a very good follower however hard I have tried.

Does your leader inspire you into willing action … or un-inspire you into unwilling action?

Final question: Are great leaders born or made? It seems that everyone has a view on that – every man, his dog, and most of his dog’s best friends: I’ll share my views shortly…. watch this space.

The Power of Responsibility

Together, involvement and empowerment create an environment in which sales people can have responsibility for their own actions. Responsibility cannot be given – it can only be taken; therefore a Sales Leader can only give sales people the opportunity to take responsibility for their work demands.

High performing sales teams require clear objectives so they know exactly what they must do and why, good communication and trust so that having created such a situation, a Sales Leader will let sales people get on with things. These elements build higher motivation because sales teams enjoy having the authority to make decisions and get the job done.

A sales person’s willingness to participate collaboratively as a team member does not guarantee that the team will create their desired outcome. If sales people are thrown into a collaborative situation and simply told to work as a team, they will lack the structure to make this happen. After all, why should a sales person care about their sales team?

Promoting understanding of why sales people need to be a team is vital. The team needs to understand its shared goals and what each team member brings to the team that is relevant and crucial to its overall successes. Therefore, to optimize the talent capability within a sales team it’s important to identify what each sales person’s unique ability is, and how their unique ability can be shared for the betterment of the team.

Maximizing a sales team around one common goal that creates value for the customer, the organization, and the individual sales person is the only way to focus the activities of a sales team.

Activity Based Planning Leads to More Consistent Results – Fact!

Although the debate has been raging since someone first sold something to someone else, it is my personal belief that selling is both an art and a science.

To put it another way, a salesperson’s skills determine their level of artistry at selling and their strategic planning provides a scientific platform for their sales activities.

One of the characteristics that make a salesperson successful is careful use of their selling time: Time is something that doesn’t stop, yet how it’s used affects performance that can leverage the impact of sales activities.

To influence sales results you need to work on your sales activities. For example, all the sales activities you have undertaken in the past have produced your current results. So then logically, the sales activities you perform today will create your future results. Therefore, there is always a time delay between activities and results. Focusing on activities in a well-planned way naturally increases results.

The Sales Platform concept is a sophisticated process for analysing, planning, directing and monitoring the activities of sales people.

The Sales Platform features three main elements:

  1. Buying Platform – This comprises of existing customers who are purchasing from you on a one-off basis or a regular basis. This segment of the platform requires two strategic sales approaches:
    • Sales actions that reduce the risk of losing customers (a proportion of customers are lost over time due to a variety of reasons)
    • Sales actions that can generate incremental business from existing customers (it’s easier to get new business from existing customers compared to prospects)
  2. The Working Platform – This comprises of prospects that have been visited, yet aren’t currently buying. This segment of the platform is extremely time intensive, yet is a crucial part of the development of an ideal customer base. The sales approach in this segment is to accelerate prospects through the pipeline until they become a customer.
  3. The Market Platform – This comprises of leads that have not yet been qualified as prospects that have the potential to become customers. This segment of the platform is the vital preparation phase to replace lost customers and grow existing business in the longer term. The sales approach in this segment is to select the right type of opportunities that have the potential to become prospects. Banks of qualified prospects can be built up if appropriate – ready for a concerted attack on a targeted part of the market place.

In an ideal situation and based on the market conditions there should be a good balance between all three platforms.

Excess Buying Platform activity will constrain the growth of the business into those areas that are identified as the opportunities of the future. It is also a symptom that the organization has got itself into a rut or a ‘comfort zone’ that the communication of policy is poor, that management is not controlling the work, or that people lack the confidence to tackle new areas (or a combination of all of them).

Too much emphasis on the Market and Working Platforms is inefficient and will increase the cost of sales unnecessarily. Without a strong base of long-term customers, this will dramatically reduce the potential for growth, and could well lower the reputation of the organization.

In my experience, the quality of the planning phase significantly affects the quality of the final result …

Is Inspiration an Overrated Leadership Quality?

In a survey of more than one and a half thousand managers, people were asked what they would most like to see in their leaders. The most popular answer, mentioned by 55% of people, was ‘inspiration.’ Yet when asked if they would describe their current leader as ‘inspiring’ only 11% said yes.

The two attributes that people actually mentioned most often when describing their leaders were ‘knowledgeable’ and ‘ambitious.’ As well as this thirst for inspiring leadership, there’s also evidence to support the idea that companies with inspiring leaders perform better.

The Sunday Times publishes an annual survey of the ‘Best Companies to Work For’ which is compiled from the opinions of the companies’ own employees. One interesting fact is that those ‘Best Companies’ that are publicly quoted consistently outperform the FTSE All-Share Index. Five-year compound returns show a 5.7% negative return for FTSE All-Share companies against a 13.6% gain for the “Best Companies.” Over three years, the returns were -11.3% and 6.7% respectively while, in the last twelve months, they were 23.1% and 44%.

The ‘Best Companies to Work For’ have also performed impressively on staff turnover, sickness rates, absenteeism, and the ability to recruit good quality people.

The stereotype of the inspirational leader as someone extrovert and charismatic is the exception rather than the rule. Looking at best practice across business, though some inspirational leaders certainly do fit this mould, a large number do not. Many are quiet, almost introverted.

My personal view is that the best leaders promote a culture where their people value themselves, each other, the company and the customers. Everyone understands how their work makes a difference. This helps to build a commitment to higher standards where everybody is always looking to do things better.

It’s “Time to Get Close To Your Pipeline” Season – And Stay Close!

We are already well into the final “selling phase” of 2014 and, at this time of the year, I always urge a total focus on “closable opportunities” for a really big finish.

It takes courage, and a real sense of realism to focus in on what is probable – not just possible. This is not a time to be optimistic. We need realistic.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure, and if you can’t measure your pipeline, then you can’t improve your productivity. There are a number of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) that can be measured, monitored and managed to ensure achievement of sales targets:

KPI     

  • Pipeline Opportunities – These should be measured in value and the number of opportunities in the pipeline.
  • Opportunities by Milestone – Once these milestones and their different probabilities of closing have been calculated, these figures ensure greater accuracy of forecasting.
  • Average Deal Size – This ensures better focus on larger deals and ideally will increase steadily each year.
  • Sales Cycle Time – Shortening this can have a huge impact because of the cumulative ‘saved time’ available for prospecting.
  • Profitability – Margins can be tracked to ensure that there is sufficient contribution to enable ongoing account handling.
  • Conversion Ratio – The number of opportunities won and the % of pipeline potential converted.

Finally, do remember that there are no prizes for having a pregnant pipeline – the prizes are reserved for closed business.

The reality is that, for a number of reasons, 30% of the opportunities currently residing in your pipeline will not happen – do you know which ones they are?

If you weed them out early, you will give yourself so much more time to work on those that will happen.

It takes just as long to work an un-winnable opportunity through the pipeline as it does a winnable one!

Last big push please!

Do We Really Need Marketing?

I have a very long commercial memory, and I remember with considerable clarity that in days long ago, the “marketing function” was a sideshow, almost an after-thought, or an add-on to the real engine room within most companies – the sales force.

Typically, the inhabitants of the marketing department – yes, that was way before they became divisions, or even functions – were either failed salesmen or women, who had lost the appetite for full on daily competitive skirmishes, or they were returning mothers looking for some part-time income.

Their days typically began at 8.55 am on the dot, and ended at 5.01pm. They closed down typewriters/word processors (yes, I am really talking about that long ago) at 1.00 pm, to unpack their lunches, and then religiously packed all the Tupperware and flasks away again at 1.59 pm.

They did not so much enter rooms, but rather shuffle in nervously – almost apologetically – as if in fear of being asked if they could possibly justify their existence.

They may have thought that they were responsible for promoting – and occasionally defending – the company’s image, but in reality, they were at the beckoning of anyone in the boardroom/C-Suite. Come to think about it, they were also at the beckoning of anyone in sales too.

My goodness, how times have changed. Marketing heads now stride across the sales floor; they look the sales team in the eyes; they have become an important and integral part of the “offense unit” …. In fact, marketing teams who know what they are doing are as valuable as high-achieving sales professionals.

Why? The advancement in very high quality and efficient sales/marketing alignment tools, have propelled the marketing function into a formidable front-line function, producing a constant stream of high quality leads and opportunities. In many organizations, they have replaced cold calling and established themselves as the “new business creation stars”

So why still the stand-off? Why still no legal wedding with sales? Why an uneasy truce – a kind of “marriage of convenience?” I think I have the answers, but I’ll save them for another post.

They Are Still Marching – But Not to Our Drum!

Yes, it is true, customers and prospects are still marching, but they are no longer marching to our drum – by “our” I mean us sellers. They have wrestled the drum away from us and they are now organizing their own marches. They decide if, and when, we are invited to join them – except at the very top end of selling, where it is a very different scenario altogether. The elite top 20% actually help plan the march, whilst the other 80% are lucky if they manage to squeeze into a place along the route.

How often have you read that prospects and customers are coming into the traditional buying cycle, as much as 70% up the curve? It has almost become a “cliché”, hasn’t it? But did you ever read that it was 20% or 40% or 60%? Neither did I. It is almost as if everything changed overnight – like some sales tsunami – but actually, it didn’t, it couldn’t have. We should rather think “gradual coastal erosion” if we want to stay with a meteorological or even a geological metaphor.

I find all of this quite curious: Why didn’t anyone notice until it reached 70%? Were we caught napping, taken completely by surprise? Or more likely, were we so focused on ourselves, our products/solutions, company, industry sectors, that we failed to take notice of what our customers were up to?

Myopia: Lack of discernment or long-range perspective in thinking or planning – and that is being kind!

What I am wondering now, is will anyone alert us when we move from 70% to 75% and then 80% and then…. Or will we all wake up one sunny morning and be informed that we are no longer needed at all, and that buyers everywhere have decided that we are totally surplus to requirements, we have become obsolete?

The answer to that question is, the more anyone remains wedded to a transactional selling style – either because their market expects that, or they are unwilling or unable to change – and the more “commoditized” their solutions and services become, they could be on their way to extinction.