Sales leaders are increasingly facing old challenges in the forms of a difficult economic environment which suppresses corporate budgets, increases competition for the same or fewer selling opportunities, and increases demands by executive managers and shareholders to increase top line revenues and outperform the market. However, when enthralled in the day to day trenches, it can be difficult to maintain strategy, focus and forward momentum let alone systemically improve predictable performance and identify new solutions to these perpetual challenges.
When engineering future sales success, it can be difficult to separate the tactical from the strategic, so the following sales strategy steps are a reminder of a best practices approach to achieve long-term sales success, build winning sales teams and satisfy executive stakeholders.
Sustained sales success begins and ends with sales strategy
And sales strategy must first tightly align, and later become symbiotic with corporate strategy. Sales strategy must be directly in tune with corporate stakeholder objectives and show a clear cause and effect relationship in driving the company toward its objectives.
For strategy to live and advance, it must dovetail into the measurable go-to-market initiatives with the precise metrics that are most closely aligned with the company’s strategic endeavors. Strategies must speak directly to end-goals and SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound) objectives.
Codify your sales strategy, measurement and revisions in a Sales Playbook
Sales leaders must act as sales architects and assemble the right mix of the right components in a living blueprint that is often referred to as the Sales Playbook. While Sales Playbooks generally include sales roles, processes and rules for engagement, there is little consistency in Playbooks across organizations. My experience in the software technology industry has clearly shown that the best Playbooks start with a comprehensive customer understanding.
Too many sales leaders think they know their customer intimately and bypass this analysis. In reality, there is no single customer definition and applying a one size fits all sales strategy is ineffective. Customers must be analyzed, profiled and pursued by segments. Understanding customer centricity also identifies which customers are the most profitable and which represent the greatest lifetime value. Customers often follow the Pareto 80/20 principle in which a minority of customers deliver the majority of profits. Accurately defining customer clusters and applying optimized treatments for your highest value customers is critical to maximizing up-sell revenues, operating margins and customer share.
Once customer segments are understood, a sales methodology and supporting multiple-step sales process must be implemented. Which sales methodology, whether Miller Heiman’s Strategic/Solution Selling, Mike Bozworth’s Solution Selling, Jim Holden’s Power Base Selling, or whatever, really doesn’t matter as much as simply choosing a relevant method, implementing it, religiously executing it and adapting it based on your learned experience.
Playbooks should also include sales compensation models. Defining a winning sales compensation plan will deliver countless downstream benefits. Many sales managers try to impose controls, procedures and discipline to get desired behaviors. In reality, this just causes frustration for both the manager and the staff. Crafting the right compensation plans is a much easier, timely and productive method to begin the journey toward sustained sales success.
Sales execution begins and ends with sales people
And good sales people are a result of good recruiting, coaching, management, leadership and retention. Fail in your recruiting and nothing positive can ensue thereafter. Five characteristics consistently found in over achievers include self initiative, ability to execute, leadership and team work, a proven track record and an ability to adapt.
Posing open-ended questions and demanding detailed supporting examples for each of these characteristics is a first step in making smart hiring decisions. Also remember that team members are generally hired for their skills and fired for their behaviors. It's therefore critical to flush out behavioral indicators early in the interview process.
Almost all great sales people can immediately reference their sales mentors. They speak of these sales coaches with the highest regard and admiration, and attribute much of their professional success to their sales manager's consultation. The absence of sales coaching is a common factor in under-performing sales organizations.
Despite the lone wolf image, successful selling is a team sport. Only when sales managers engage with their staff, strategize account opportunities, brainstorm alternative selling strategies and share lessons learned, will sales team performance increase in a predictable and sustained fashion.
Align the Purchase and Sales processes
Very few sales organizations align their messaging with the buyers’ dilemmas. Too many sales people simply describe what the company or products do from an egotistical perspective. What buyers really want is content that first describes the issues and problems they face and then provides the details on how to solve these problems.
Purchase to sales alignment begins with mapping and messaging. Buyers buy along procurement phases. They proceed along a well understood continuum from Awareness (primarily an educational phase) to Consideration (identify the most relevant vendors) to Decision (going through a multiple vendor bake-off). To engage buyers, leaders must map resources and messaging to each buyer phase.
For example, to appeal to buyers in the Awareness phase, a marketing resource is best advised to deliver messaging related to education or problem/solution. Having a sales person engage with a buyer in the Awareness phase with product sales messaging is an internal waste of resourcing and will likely put off the buyer. Particularly in solution selling environments, sales people must be able to help purchasing decision makers visualize how they can achieve their goals and solve their problems.
Integrate sales and marketing
A continuation of the buyer and seller alignment is the improved integration of sales and marketing. For marketers and sales professionals to work as a cohesive group, leaders will need to align compensation metrics and merge departmental business processes.
Paying marketers based on activities (i.e., leads generated) and sales people based on sales transactions (i.e., closed deals) creates a gap in which business processes break down and the company suffers. Like sales people, marketers' behaviors are heavily influenced by their compensation plans. Only when both marketers and sales people share incentives that benefit the entire team will they enthusiastically contribute to integrated and common processes.
As buyers' continue to frequent online communities and social networks as part of their procurement process, marketing staff are charged with leveraging their own social media tools in order to engage, acquire and manage leads until those leads become sales-ready. Marketers who simply acquire leads and throw them over the fence to sales staff are abusing the leads and wasting valuable sales resourcing.
The new norm demands that marketers must use new methods such as content marketing and thought leadership strategies to acquire, track, nurture, score and distribute sales-ready leads to the sales team when those buyers are ready to buy.
Review your sales model
Sales prospects and customers are sick and tired of being bombarded with industry agnostic, position irrelevant, product pitches. To this end, most sales professionals have made the transition from selling products to solutions, however during the course of that transition the buyers requirements have again changed.
Sellers must continue their transformational journey and evolve from pitching solutions to satisfying buyer needs. For example, in the software technology industry I refer to this as transitioning from ‘speeds and feeds’ to ‘needs and deeds’.
To achieve predictable success we would first focus on prospects by vertical market, then company size and finally by buyer role (sometimes called line of business selling). By altering our approach and messaging along these three criteria we connect with the prospect and consistently maximize our sales win rate.
Buyers face very different opportunities and difficulties by industry. Sales people will outflank their competition by taking a consultative approach, speaking directly to their prospects most pressing vertical market challenges and ultimately proposing industry-specific answers.
Similarly, each buyer stakeholder has different personal and professional buy criteria. Top purchase decision making criteria differ among a President, CFO and second line manager. It's critical to recognize that as sellers we are not effectively communicating with buyers until we are speaking the same (industry) language.
We are not maximizing our sales win rate until we are satisfying each buyer committee members self interest. Applying a one-size-fits-all sales strategy to different groups of prospects will sub-optimize your sales pursuits.
Supplement sales success with business processes and technology
Sales and marketing processes must be documented, trained, inspected and continuously revised in order to ensure consistency and quality delivery. Skip any one of these four steps and the process will hold back your success. Daily inspection of prospect counts, pipeline value, forecast movement, sales win rates, quota performance and the like are critical to identifying processes which need improvement.
More so in sales management than any other discipline, I have come to learn that you get what you inspect not what you expect. Sales reps need CRM software to deliver automation and information which is key for sales person productivity. The right customer relationship management (CRM) system, lead management system and sales enablement tools can double sales person productivity within the first 120 days.
Seek daily learning
As said by the wise Jack Welch, "The only sustainable competitive advantage is to learn faster than your competition and to be able to act on that learning." In sales what gets measured gets done. It’s therefore critical to identify the most salient performance metrics and keep them under a microscope.
Learning is most often a result of your performance reporting – by noting what’s working and what's not. Short term performance reporting such as daily dashboards or weekly flash reports should be supplemented with a formal period end process culminating with a reporting package and presentation that delivers the (monthly) analysis, progress measurement, remediation plans and course corrections to all stakeholders.
No day should pass without asking questions, learning something, finding truth and implementing revisions – whether just fine tuning, modifying processes or making course corrections. A day that passes without learning and acting on that learning is a day in which your sales organization did not advance. Further, if your rate of learning isn't faster than your rate of change, you're falling behind.
To begin the process of institutionalizing corporate learning select a closed loop methodology such as PDCA (Plan Do Check Act), ISO or the Baldrige methodology. Learning comes in limitless forms. If sales people are spending their time in the wrong areas, communicating with the wrong customer segments or selling the wrong products, your compensation plans are probably not well aligned and need revision. If your forecast accuracy is off, you probably lack definition in your sales process. If you don't have good forecast visibility, you probably need help with your CRM system.
Introduce change systemically
While process improvements and minor course corrections can be made in real time, changes with involve culture or compensation should be fully thought through and introduced systemically. Sales people are notorious for resisting change and injecting politics, trepidation, fear or red herrings to slow or defeat change.
Therefore, big change initiatives should be introduced as part of a change management program, which includes change sponsors, early adopters and a progressive communication plan that errs on the side of over communication and advances the recipients along a four step continuum from awareness to interest to understanding to engagement. Also, the more you support change with vision, facts and data, the more sound the foundation for change and the faster the change will be accepted.
Collect and act upon customer feedback
Sales leaders which habitually collect and act upon prospect and customer feedback accelerate their learning while simultaneously shortening their accomplishment cycles. Implementing third party surveys immediately after all lost sales prospects will deliver lessons and insight that would otherwise take extended periods to decipher.
Performing a win/loss analysis after each won and lost sale opportunity begins to illustrate clear patterns which can then be used to quantifiably determine and share what's working and what's not. Based on clear experiences, sales managers can modify qualification processes, discovery sessions, sales strategies and sales person behaviors – and more accurately predict future sales wins.
Fix what's broken fast
In growth companies, there is always a crisis and something is always broken. The key is to simultaneously maintain strategy while killing problems fast and not letting them linger. Sometimes you will have to find the problems instead of letting them find you. Always be seeking out the constraints to growth and systemically eliminating them in the shortest time possible.
Also recognize that for every constraint to growth you eliminate, there is another one waiting right behind it. You may also need to apply multi-prong strategies to a single problem. If the sales pipeline is in decline, while fixing new business development challenges, also go deep and immediately mine the existing accounts in order to sell through the customer base with aggressive cross-sell or up-sell campaigns.
If the forecast is a mess, start by gaining sales pipeline visibility and then advance to achieving predictability. If sales people are not spending enough time selling, which is the norm as their selling time is challenged by internal meetings, administrative activities and traveling, consider new business technology solutions such internal social media networks to deliver online reporting and collaboration which reduce physical meetings.
CRM software with its workflow capabilities can automate laborious and routine activities and significantly improve sales force productivity. Even small reductions to non-selling time can have a big impact. For example, by adding 4 hours per week of selling time to a sales team of 20, capacity is increased by 4000 hours, or the equivalent of two additional sales staff.