B2B Sales Strategy

Understanding the Sales Ecosystem, and Why That Matters

by Karen Jackson | on Feb 16, 2016 | 6 Comments

We live within ecosystems, macro and micro, in our private lives and at work. The health of these ecosystems directly correlates to the quality of our experience and opportunity for impact. That’s true at both a personal level (think: relationships, family, community) and at a corporate level (think: people, process & systems.)

When we’re experiencing dysfunction, there’s a tendency to isolate the problem to a single source of culpability. The trouble with that approach is we’re more likely to address a symptom without ever discovering the root cause. While we may alleviate the symptom in the short term, it’s frequently a temporary fix. Instead, if we look at the entire ecosystem wherein the problem exists, we can better identify the multiple adjustments required to return us to high function, and keep us there.

Which brings me to the “sales ecosystem.” It’s comprised of the people, process & systems responsible for revenue generation. When it’s not functioning well – translate: “We have a sales problem” – there’s a strong tendency to blame the sales people and to question their competency and commitment. More often its breakdowns in the sales ecosystem that are causing the sales people to struggle. When that ecosystem is not well understood, we attempt to fix the problem through micro-management, discipline and churning personnel. New team members get hired, but the results don’t change. The only way to a lasting solution is to analyze the ecosystem they work in. It’s there you will find the root causes of dysfunction.

I’m a visual person and prefer to categorize the elements into key “buckets”:

• Target Market Strategy (Customer set, problems they face, how we solve, why they should buy)
• Sales Force Effectiveness (Sales process, playbooks, coaching, messaging, account management, performance management)
• Sales Operations (CRM systems, analytics, tech enablement)
• Talent Management (Comp plans, on-boarding, training, professional development)
• Marketing (Product & pricing, collateral, content marketing, campaigns, lead gen, social media)

Each of these elements is necessary for a sales person’s success, irrespective of the size of the company. The level of sophistication may differ, but the need does not. Once we take this holistic view, we can better interrogate where the breakdowns are occurring. For example, the problem might lay in the lack of sales process, or archaic CRM systems. It could be misaligned marketing, poorly articulated value proposition, lack of training, or comp plans at odds with corporate goals. Most often it’s a combination of issues. Rather than simply hanging poor results on our sales people, we must look at all the elements of the sales ecosystem that are broken and impeding success. If we repair those, we can now fairly assess the competency of individual team members. It’s possible some can’t cut it; they must go. But in my experience, fully 78% of existing sales teams are perfectly capable of achieving quota were the sales ecosystem healthy.

But wait, our micro-ecosystems exist in the context of macro-ecosystems. In other words, there may well be other forces at work causing the “sales problem.” If you’ve dispassionately examined the sales ecosystem and consensus exists that it’s sound, these are the usual culprits:

• Dysfunctional corporate culture
• Lack of vision & values
• Wrong person managing sales
• Sales people performing non-sales related activity
• Breakdowns in hand-offs between sales & operations

If you’re experiencing a sales problem, look to the ecosystem. Start with the premise that it’s not the fault of the team members but the context they are operating within. Shine a bright light on these buckets. It will greatly improve your ability to find solutions to what ails the top line.

Does this ring true in your experience? Weigh in and keep the conversation going.

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Dragging Your Feet on Process Stymies Sales Success

by Karen Jackson | on Nov 12, 2014 | No Comments

I’ve wondered why so many CEO’s of small and lower middle market B2B companies insist on buttoned-down processes throughout their businesses, but not in the sales department. They’d never dream of running finance or operations without process. How would they know if their P&L is accurate, receivables contained, billing error-free, service delivery optimized, or cost of goods under control? But when it comes to sales process, there’s a tendency to abdicate control and allow sales personnel to approach their jobs in an ad hoc way. “Go forth and sell” is the strategy.

So, I decided to ask. Three rationales CEO’s repeatedly shared with me were:

  • “I pay these people lots of money; they should know how to do their job.”
  • “We’re struggling right now so how would we know what process to use?”
  •  “Each sales person has a personal style; I don’t want them to read scripts.”

Let’s debunk these arguments and get clarity around the opportunities presented when sales process is implemented and subscribed to.

Truths

At its most basic level, sales process is a methodology for sales people to organize themselves, manage their prospect & customer pipelines, and follow best practices that take a prospect through the sales cycle to deal close.  The old adage “what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed” also applies. Even the most senior sales person benefits – process streamlines their work, provides a set of best practices to leverage, and ensures they don’t forget any steps known to secure deals. Equally important, it prevents folks from spending their time on the wrong things. The idea that a successful, highly paid sales person can do without process is as erroneous as the idea that a CFO can govern finance on the fly. What’s true is that successful sales people rigorously follow their own process, but it’s a usually a well-kept secret and not capitalized on by the entire organization.

Second, when organizations are struggling to drive revenue, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t know the ingredients for sales success; more often it means there is a highly ad hoc approach to execution. I’ve yet to work with a company where the best practices of how to successfully move through the sales cycle, the “playbook” if you will, don’t already exist. It’s just that they’ve not been identified, articulated, and institutionalized.

The most fruitful approach is to build your sales process internally, with all sales personnel (including sales support & leadership) participating in its development. If you have a marketing department, include them as well. You’ll harness everyone’s knowledge and perspective, gain buy in for execution, and identify what tools are missing for successful implementation. An experienced sales consultant can facilitate, bringing form and efficiency to the process along with insights from how other companies attack the problem. Just beware the consultant who wants to bolt on a process they’ve invented externally. It likely won’t fit your business model and you’ll never get buy in from the team to execute. Wisdom exists on the front line.  It’s just too infrequently tapped.

As for the argument about personal style, process in no way inhibits individuals from showing up as their most authentic selves. Think instead of sales process as a toolkit. It provides a proven methodology for moving through the sales cycle along with the supporting tools needed to make it happen: email templates, case studies, prospect scoring matrices, deal evaluation criteria, etc. Scripts should be included for training purposes, though not to follow word for word when talking with a customer.

Your process shouldn’t be rigid or pedantic, but rather a set of guidelines flexible enough to stray from when a situation warrants. Instead of fumbling around and searching for the way forward with each new prospect, your reps are free to express their personalities, develop relationships, collaborate with customers, and earn trust.

Big Pay-offs

It takes energy and discipline to build, implement and adhere to process. But the pay-offs are many and big. Here are my top 5:

  • Accelerated on-boarding, training and ramping of new sales people
  • Best practices employed by everyone, not just your “A” reps
  • Spotlight shines on where in the sales cycle your reps struggle, making diagnosis and solution possible
  • Individual training needs are identified
  • Improved alignment between sales, support, management and marketing

The sum of these benefits is what every CEO covets: scaled revenue growth.

Top-performing sales organizations utilize well-structured and repeatable sales processes. Not to stifle individualism nor to baby-sit, though it’s true process helps each of us stay focused, disciplined and accountable. Rather, it’s because process identifies, codifies and institutionalizes best practices for sales success, elevating the performance of not just one sales person but the entire sales organization.

What rationales are you falling back on? Take a hard look; they’re standing in the way of scaled revenue growth.

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What Successful Sales Leaders Know To Be True

by Karen Jackson | on Aug 04, 2014 | No Comments

Anyone who’s ever held a sales position can share a horror story, likely 2 or 3, about working for a terrible sales manager.  The bad ones are easy to spot: ego driven, never wrong, hung up on process, excellent at alienating customers.  The successful managers are less obvious, and that’s because the focus is on their team, a team that’s humming, making its numbers and creating life-long customers. And somewhere in between are the mediocre, not necessarily disasters, but certainly not positioning the company for growth. continue reading »

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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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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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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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