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The Market Will Tell You, So Why Aren’t You Asking?

by Karen Jackson | on May 16, 2014 | 2 Comments

The success of a B2B company’s revenue engine, its ability to reliably drive the top line, is determined by a host of factors, including target market strategy, sales personnel/process/operations, marketing, pricing, compensation plans, channel and strategic partners, etc. When sales begin to slump, CEO’s rightly go looking in these areas to uncover what’s not working.

There’s another place we should be looking but too often don’t: the market. You see, we get enamored with our businesses, our products and services, our perception of our value. Our passion for our business, our certainty that we are “the best,” can obscure the fact that the market isn’t as passionate about our offerings as we. Quietly, the market’s needs and demands are shifting and we’re missing the cues. But the evidence is there in the form of depressed sales.

Why are we missing the cues? Quite often, certain aspects of the buyers’ shift are under our very noses. The sales teams are coming back from the field and providing input like, “We’re too expensive.” Or, “Our competitors have a better solution.” Or, “The customer says our service is unreliable.” In our frustration with the poor performance, we begin to blame the sales team, doubting their skills and work ethic. But this response lacks objectivity and does nothing to solve the problem. In fact, it creates a chasm between the sales force and management.

It’s easy to find out what’s changing, because the market will tell us. But we have to go out and ask. This inquiry will uncover opportunities not to be found by looking inward, such as what:

  • problems need solving
  • voids they see from their current vendor set
  • value proposition they’ll respond to
  • buying processes have shifted
  • services they don’t value

Who’s “the market?” Prospects, current and former customers, lost prospects, strategic and channel partners, even competitors. Their feedback will likely surprise you and provide fresh and important perspectives on changes necessary to improve product and service offerings, impacting revenue growth. Listen carefully for feedback that challenges internal assumptions and beliefs. The market will help you get a handle on such things as:

  • where innovation is required
  • whether products need bundling
  • what add on services enhance value
  • if pricing needs restructuring
  • whether service levels need to be raised, or perhaps lowered to bring pricing down

This market research can be done internally, though it’s best not performed by your sales team, primarily because customers and prospects may find honest feedback difficult with an “invested” party. Instead have a senior officer of the company make the calls, better still, a 3rd party. You’ll be amazed at how willing folks are to participate in these conversations. Stepping back it’s easy to see why: customers are rarely asked what problems they need solved and instead are “sold” to. If only someone would care enough to ask.

Steve Jobs famously said (though I paraphrase) he didn’t believe in asking the customer what they want because the customer doesn’t know the answer. Well, most of us aren’t Steve Jobs and most of our companies aren’t Apple. In reality, our clients may not know the solution they’re looking for, but they certainly know what problems they need to solve. If revenues are in a slump, it may well mean we’re no longer solving customer problems in a way that makes our company a necessary component of their success.

Go ask the market – it will tell you! Your top line will be better for it.

 

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6 Keys to Retaining Top Salespeople

by Karen Jackson | on Mar 31, 2014 | 2 Comments

Last week, I met a salesperson who told me she’d just turned down a new employment offer that would have increased her total comp by 35% – guaranteed. Wow. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table and I needed to know how she came to the decision to stay put. If it’s not just about the money, what else really matters? What other factors might cause a salesperson to say, “Thanks, but no thanks” to highly enticing offers? It’s important for CEO’s and sales leaders to know, because replacing a salesperson is expensive, time consuming, and creates vulnerability to competition in that territory.

Here’s what her current company provides that she values more deeply than the huge monetary increase, and against which she didn’t trust the new company to measure up.

Clear Strategy. The company knows and well-articulates for its employees:

  • Business goals
  • Market strategy
  • Ideal customers
  • Value proposition to those customers

There is no confusion, no mixed messages, no “stabbing in the dark.” The same clarity is found in their marketing messages to the customer.

Support Systems. She has a sales manager who coaches her to success and sales support personnel that allow her more time for selling and less time for administrative & operational chores. There is also a proven sales process in place plus a CRM that’s easy to use and kept her organized.

Highly Functioning Culture. The CEO truly cares about communication, integrity, teamwork and trust. Gossip and back-whispering are not tolerated. Poor performers, in any department, are removed instead of being allowed to stick around and bring down the team. They celebrate success and when there is failure, they learn and solve vs. blame.

Autonomy. Her bar is set high and she knows exactly what’s expected of her. It frees her to manage her accounts and make decisions without constantly having to ask permission. She meets regularly with her manager to strategize and problem-solve, but she never feels like he’s micro-managing.

Excellent Customer Care. She never worries if the company will let her customer down after she made a sale. Their processes are so tight that she has total confidence in service delivery. If there’s a screw up, it will be fixed immediately, sometimes before the customer even knows about it, and she won’t find herself the last to know.

Respect & Recognition. The sales team is regarded highly throughout the organization. The CEO knows that without customers there is no company and recognizes the sales rep position as one of the hardest in the firm. Reps that make outstanding contributions are publicly thanked and often rewarded with a token of appreciation beyond their commission.

Each of these seems so obvious. Yet for too many companies, the opposite conditions are more likely true. It’s worth an honest step back to examine one’s organization through this salesperson’s lens and ask, “If she worked for me, would she have stayed or taken the new job? Could we retain our top performers in the face of a 35% pay increase?”

Yes, my interview is a sample of one. But I’ll bet it’s a darn good one. These are six keys to salesperson retention that aren’t found in the paycheck. And the exciting part is that these six keys make for an overall healthy company.

As always, please post a comment, thought or suggestion so we all can learn.

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The Power of the Handwritten Note

by Karen Jackson | on Feb 05, 2014 | 7 Comments

One of the least expensive, most powerful tools in a sales person’s toolbox is a note card. Add a pen, 10 minutes and a modicum of thoughtfulness; presto – you have a thank you note.

Yet so few bother. And that’s just plain crazy. Because everyone knows it’s much more expensive to find a new customer than to keep an old one.

It’s hard to defend any rationale behind why the majority fail on this most basic of social interactions. Too hectic? Too lazy? Too convinced that an email is good enough? Worse yet, are we really just too self-absorbed?

Whatever the reason, if this shoe fits, wear it. Customers deserve better. It’s not to suggest that they aren’t receiving whatever goods or services they paid for. It IS to suggest that they don’t receive enough appreciation for choosing us, collaborating with us, risking for us, and forgiving us when we screw up.

I’m not talking about a perfunctory, “thank you for your business” note. Those can be churned out by anyone. I’m talking about taking the time to say “thank you for trusting me / collaborating with me / making this project such a success” – whatever ought be said that makes it personal, meaningful and specific. A message that conveys you value them enough to bother – via a notecard, in ink, by your hand. Believe me, it’s powerful. And, when your competition tries to knock you out of the incumbent’s box, your customer will think, “I care too much about my relationship with ____ to make a move.”

Who deserves your thank you note today? Get cracking. Mine are waiting for tomorrow’s mail. Yes, you need a postage stamp.

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Who’s Your True Buyer?

by Karen Jackson | on Dec 30, 2013 | No Comments

There’s a big push on sales teams to sell to the “C-suite.” But, for purchases that aren’t strategic to the very mission of the company, the C-suite is rarely the buyer. The seller wants to sell “top down” but the C-suite can’t be bothered considering the seller’s solutions. The result is wasted months on sales campaigns that fall on deaf ears.

In B2B sales, the buyer is typically at least one level below the C-suite, a lieutenant charged with executing on C-suite directives. In larger companies, the true buyer may be several layers below. Perhaps more importantly, the buyer is actually multiple people. They express a common need but that need is filtered through differing, often personal, agendas.

Without identifying, and then satisfying, those agendas it’s common for sellers to make it through to the proposal stage of their sales cycle and then find it tough to close. A telling symptom of this problem is a prospect that goes silent after receiving a proposal. Or, a deal is lost for reasons never stated as key to the decision process. Everything seems to be going well; the buyer appears enthusiastic. Lots of energy and hours are invested by the seller, and then, nothing.

Frustrated CEO’s will tell me that their sales people lack closing skills and ask for sales training recommendations. In my experience, poor closing technique is least often the problem. Rather it’s the failure to identify and satisfy these multiple buyers and their respective agendas. Equally often, the sales person identifies as their buyer someone who is functionally a project manager. That person appears as a buyer since they behave like one; they write the RFP, meet with vendors and actively evaluate solutions. But the functional project manager typically lacks buying authority or political clout. It’s certainly necessary to work closely with these individuals throughout the sales cycle, but treating them as the sole buyer puts a seller at peril.

The solution is to build into the sales process steps for identifying, connecting with, and meeting the agendas of the true buyers. Among the questions to answer:

  • Who are the collective buyers, both decision makers and influencers?
  • What are the differing agendas that will need to be satisfied?
  • Who needs the solution and who will campaign for the status quo?
  • What are their relationships to one another, both in terms of hierarchy and function?
  • How do their needs change based on their roles?
  • What risks will they face in championing a change?

Because that information is rarely available until the seller has earned the customer’s trust, creating buyer personas based on one’s target markets allows the seller to identify all the buyers and their likely agendas, and then craft a value proposition to satisfy those agendas. Fanning out to all these potential buyers with compelling messaging is now possible.

It’s important not to end run or treat the “project manager” as insignificant. They may not be the true buyer but they can keep you in the dark. Instead, work with that individual to build a business case that meets the needs of all the influencers and decision makers. If the project manager is enthusiastic about a vendor’s solution, it’s in their best interests to help them understand the landscape and gain access.  If they are gate-keeping, that’s a signal that the value proposition isn’t compelling enough for them to satisfy their own agenda. The agenda for a person at this level often includes avoiding any recommendation that would put her job at risk.

A final tip: Calling into the C-suite seeking direction can yield terrific results. Instead of asking for a meeting, the seller asks, “Who in the company should I call to discuss this offering?” While not the buyer, the C-suite has every interest that quality vendors are engaging with their organization. The seller will often get one or more names, and then be able to call with permission and authority, saying, “The CXO asked that I call you to discuss……”

 

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The Simplest Way to a Forecast You Can Trust

by Karen Jackson | on Feb 19, 2013 | 8 Comments

When I work with B2B sales teams struggling with profitable revenue growth, there’s always one person seemingly outside the biz dev process who wants in on the conversation: the CFO. Inevitably I get asked for a few minutes in private, and when the door is closed, s/he’ll plead, “what can you do to get me a forecast I can trust?”

Great question, particularly for companies with complex products / services and long sales cycles. In small to mid-size B2B companies, so much gets done on an ad hoc basis within the sales organization that forecasting deal closure is way less about reality and way more about emotion, ego, politics and culture. For example, in some companies it’s better for a sales rep to project they’ll close a deal than to admit its improbability; in others, it’s better to sandbag and then have pleasant surprises.  Under either scenario, missed forecasts wreak havoc on a company’s health and future.

There is a simple way to creating a forecast you can trust. Follow these four key steps:

1)      Identify each stage of your sales process and the milestones completing each stage that tell you when you’ve moved to the next

2)      Estimate the average length (in days) of each stage of the process

3)      Approximate the average percent of deals that close at each stage of your process (i.e, deals that make it to Stage 3 have a 60% likelihood of closure)

4)      Hang every deal in your pipeline on a weighted forecast spreadsheet that maps the dollar value of the opportunity to its stage, and therefore to its probability of, and date until, close.

The results will be eye-popping. And that’s a good thing, even if what you learn about your pipeline isn’t. Because that’s when the fixing can begin.

Many resist the exercise because they lack data to tackle these steps with precision. Many resist for fear of what they’ll learn. Don’t let either stop you. Yes, I’d prefer you have a CRM. Yes, I’d prefer you have hard, accurate data. Yes, I understand you haven’t yet created a culture of accountability around these metrics. Like many things in life, it can be hard to pick a place to start. But, the truth is, there is plenty of anecdotal, historical information in the organization that will get you close enough to create your first forecast based on reality vs. a crystal ball. I’m not suggesting there isn’t both art and science to sales, but the more we avoid the science, the harder it is to do good art.

Ultimately, the true value is in identifying the underlying problems in your revenue engine. You’ll begin figuring out answers to the thorny problems like:

  • Where in the process do we fail most often? (Failing early vs. failing late helps diagnose what we need to repair.)
  • Where are the opportunities to increase our sales velocity?
  • What accountability metrics directly impact accomplishing our goals?
  • How might we better qualify opportunities throughout the sales cycle to increase close ratios?

Tackling those questions leads to refining your process which leads to a tightened forecast. Your best sales reps will be elated; they’ll see clearly where / how they should spend their time, and they’ll get straight to the fix. Your mediocre reps will squirm, a solid indicator that it’s time for them to seek other employment. Your head of sales can shift from task management to coaching. And, your CFO will actually crack a smile.

If you need some help thinking about how to apply this to your business, please ping me at karen@jacksonsolutions.com.  As always, I appreciate any additions to this conversation with your comments, insights, suggestions.

Here’s to a forecast you can trust.

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Scoring From The Red Zone (Or, Why Can’t We Close?)

by Karen Jackson | on Nov 15, 2012 | 6 Comments

I’m hearing a persistent lament from B2B CEO’s. Their sales reps aren’t closing deals. They’re not talking about a lack of deals in the pipeline; they’re talking about the deals they’d forecast to close, but then died. Often they lost to the competition; just as often they lost to the status quo, that all-too-common state where the prospect decides to stick with their current situation and not purchase at all. Like an NFL football team that can’t score from the red zone, the rep couldn’t close the deal.

The CEO’s frustration is palpable and rightly so. Naturally the finger-pointing is squarely aimed at the reps. “Do they have the skills to close? Are they working hard enough? Do we have the right people on this team?” The answers are unknowable – equally important, unsolvable –because the root causes of the problem are hidden from view.

Thanks to years of conducting deal post-mortems, I’ve discovered common mistakes that impact a rep’s ability to close deals from the red zone. Yes, sometimes it is lack of effort, skill, or the inability to “wear well” with their prospects. (The latter point is not to be underestimated; many customers say their experience with the sales person was as important to their decision as the product or service.) More often, the deal didn’t close because it was never going to close. Its forecast was wishful thinking; the deal was lost long before the actual purchase decision. Here are the most common reasons why I see get reps blindsided:

  • It was never an opportunity in the first place – it was merely a lead
  • The rep failed to continuously qualify & gain commitment at each step of the sales cycle
  • The prospect didn’t trust the rep’s ability to deliver on the promised outcome
  • Engagement and commitment from the true buyer(s) was never gained
  • The rep didn’t understand the buyer’s perception of risk
  • The prospect’s real needs were never uncovered or resolved

The common denominator for companies that experience these problems regularly?  Lack of sales process. CEO’s would never consider running their operations and financials without process, but astonishingly few establish process for their sales reps. Sales process makes it possible to identify a check list of strategies, tasks and milestones that, when accomplished, significantly reduce these common mistakes. Process creates a series of interim “closes” such that when the client is actually at the final decision point it’s a natural conclusion to say “yes.”

With process in place, there are far fewer:

  • poor leads chased & wrongly forecast to close
  • assumptions left un- validated
  • risks misunderstood and unmitigated
  • ghost stakeholders with unmet needs
  • last minute selection criteria to sabotage the deal

Do a post-mortem on your deals that died in the red zone. Did your team make any of these common mistakes? If so, get serious about implementing sales process. It will allow you to diagnose your deals throughout the cycle, make the necessary adjustments and increase your close ratio. You won’t win them all, but you’ll win a lot more. And with solid data in hand, you can now answer the original questions about the skills and commitment of your reps.

What other mistakes do you see that sabotage the close? Have you implemented sales process? Did your close ratio go up? Please share your experiences for others to learn from.

If you found this post helpful, read my previous blog post “Surprising Reasons Why Sales Process Matters” for other ways that sales process can positively impact your sales results.

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When Do You Let Your New Rep Go?

by Karen Jackson | on Oct 08, 2012 | 4 Comments

Raise your hand if you’ve ever kept an underperforming salesperson for too long. Someone you hired that joined the company with all the promise in the world, whose resume was first rate, track-record verifiable, references stellar. Their attitude was excellent, they showed up on time, appeared loyal, and were enjoyable to have around. But then they didn’t perform, and the months turned to quarters. And you kept hoping and wringing your hands simultaneously. There was gnashing of the teeth; passive-aggressive behavior kicked-in as you got angry, but none of that improved performance. Yet you kept them nonetheless, waiting for the proverbial corner to be turned, believing it would happen soon. And the sales person assured you it would, but it didn’t. Yet, there they were, still on the payroll.

If you’re in the majority who has experienced this debacle (or witnessed it in your organization) see if you can answer this question: “Why did I wait so long to let them go?”

The three answers I hear most frequently from sales managers are:

  • They always seemed to have a deal on the table so I just had to give them a little more time to close
  • The idea of starting the hiring process over again was exhausting
  • I couldn’t afford to have their territory uncovered

Pushed to think about it more deeply, most managers agree that the true reason they hung on so long was they didn’t really know how to measure the salesperson’s success. Were they really making progress? Did their promises hold water? Was the deal really imminent? And in the absence of good measurements, the decision became subjective instead of objective, dangerous ground for making hiring and firing decisions. So the rep stayed in the seat, and it cost the company. Not just in rep compensation (please don’t tell me you reduced comp as a solution), but in opportunity cost, wasted resources throughout the organization and less obvious, but equally damaging, team morale. (I’ll say more in a future post on the team impact when others see you keeping an underperformer. Hint: reduced morale and respect for the leader.)

With short, transactional sales cycles it’s easy to measure rep performance based on revenue. But in the B2B space, particularly in complex, enterprise environments, the sales cycle can take 18 months or more before booking revenue. Using revenue as the sole measure in that scenario is foolish. There must be a way to determine within 60 – 90 days of hire whether a rep can be successful in your company or not.

So, what’s the solution? It’s not magic; it’s process and metrics. It’s creating certainty instead of wishful thinking. Here’s where to start:

  • Identify your sales process, creating quantifiable milestones for each stage
  • Create measurable productivity goals, tied to your process, for the first 90 days of employment
  • Create a coaching program for the new rep with measurable activities each week

Note that each item has a measurement in it. The first, identifying sales process, ensures you know the KPI’s of your sales cycle. The second ties the rep directly to those KPI’s. The third identifies specific weekly activity metrics, but just as important, ensures you are training and having what I like to refer to as “sales conversations,” meaning conversations around strategies and tactics that advance the sale.

These are not babysitting techniques, and they’re not just for newbie sales reps, though obviously the complexity of the metrics will adjust to the experience of the rep.  These are realistic, quantifiable activities that you know, if followed, will result in closing a sale. By identifying the appropriate measurements, you can define an accountability framework for the new salesperson. Once established, you create certainty both for the rep and for yourself. It will become easy to identify whether the individual is doing what they said they would do, where they need support, what problems they are experiencing, what obstacles block their path, what training they require. Whether they’ll make it.

Follow this strategy and you’ll never again retain an underperforming salesperson.

Please weigh in. Have you ever kept a salesperson on board too long? What lessons did you learn? What measures did you install to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

 

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