Growth

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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When Accountability Is Elusive

by Karen Jackson | on Feb 02, 2016 | 5 Comments

Even the most casual sport fan heard about the recent firing of Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach David Blatt. The move was a big surprise given the Cavs’ standing at the top of the Eastern Conference Central Division. In an awkward and rather opaque TV interview the following evening, Cavs general manager David Griffin stated, “We need to be accountable to one another.”

Accountability. Most would agree it’s worth striving for, if not outright demanding it. Yet accountability is elusive in too many organizations, despite the common understanding that it’s a virtue. Why is that so? I can’t speak to professional sports teams, though ego and outsized pay checks are surely factors. But for companies, these are the most frequent reasons I observe that make accountability difficult to master.

  • Accountability is not a core value.  Successful companies articulate their core values in such a way that one can visualize and distinguish precisely what these values look like in the context of their workplace. Values provide guard rails for behavior and a common language to guide internal and external interaction, hiring, firing and rewards. When accountability is not elucidated in a company’s core values, it is no longer obligatory. Rather, it becomes simply an ideal that no one is on the hook for. Integrity is accountability’s close relative: doing what you said you would do, when you said you would do it, to the best of your ability.
  • Too few employees have defined roles, goals, or metrics to measure success.   Accountability is amorphous because we too rarely tell people precisely what is  expected of them and what success looks like. Job descriptions, measurable goals, key performance metrics – these are the constructs for accountability that remove subjectivity. The chasm between many managers and employees is interesting. The former agonize, “I pay them well; they should know what to do” as if their employees read minds. The latter bemoan, “I have no idea what they want from me, what my priorities are, what success looks like.”     When responding to my Organizational Health questionnaire, on a scale of 1 to 5, most companies I begin work with have an average score of under 2.7 on the question, “I understand my accountabilities and have metrics to measure progress.”Sales reps are typically accountable in the form of that thing we call quota, yet a revenue number by itself is insufficient. They are at risk of missing their numbers because they rarely understand the sub-set of accountabilities that, if met, will get them to that goal. As a result, the annual quota is a number they’ve no confidence in attaining, nor can management count on.
  • Top producers are exempt.  Among the rumors surrounding the firing of Cleveland’s coach was that Blatt didn’t hold LeBron James, the team’s #1 player by far, accountable. This exemption for top producers exists in many companies. The thesis that a top producer is too valuable to lose – “We can’t make him; he’ll quit” – causes leaders and managers to look the other way when that individual doesn’t live up to her obligations or selectively follows the rules. This is particularly true when it comes to behavioral accountabilities. Selective exemption is a culture wrecking phenomenon that leads to pernicious results: poorly functioning teams, process breakdowns, low morale, apathy, and a blame vs. solve world view – certainly not the stuff of high functioning organizations.
  • The C-suite doesn’t lead by example.  Modeling accountability is essential if we want our employees to follow suit. We must demonstrate that it’s an organizational covenant, irrespective of one’s place on the org chart. Last week, I facilitated a cross-functional project meeting for a client. Everyone had an assignment to complete in advance. The managing partner arrived – late no less – without having completed his assignment. He had allowed ad hoc work and interruptions to take precedent over his commitment to the team. “Sorry, it was a super busy week” was met by a “you have to be kidding me” look in everyone’s eyes. As if their weeks hadn’t been busy, too. Afterward, people expressed resignation. “Same old story; he says he wants change but it’s BS.” Unspoken, but in the air, was the sentiment that people weren’t going to do the heavy lifting for a boss that wasn’t willing to do it along with them. They are destined to maintain the status quo, instead of realizing growth, if it continues to happen

Accountability is elusive. We all know it’s a good thing, but too often we avoid the hard work required to institutionalize it. It’s simple – not always easy – to solve:

  • Make accountability a core value
  • Qualify and quantify what it looks like
  • Allow for no exemptions
  • Model the behavior

What do you think? What other elements are at play that make accountability elusive? Please share the ways that you’ve successfully institutionalized accountability in your organization. Missteps and blunders are instructive, too.

 

 

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Driving (or Losing) Revenue Through Customer Experience

by Karen Jackson | on Oct 29, 2015 | No Comments

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz famously said the company’s success was not about its coffee, but rather, “It’s about the experience.” These simple words are profound. People (whether in the form of an individual consumer or a business) buy from companies that create a delightful experience. Schultz knew that in any given town or city there was little demand for another coffee shop. But he understood there was a demand for creating a community experience that involved coffee.

The recipe for Starbucks phenomenal growth was in large part due to its focus on the ingredients needed for delight: well-trained and personable staff, wi-fi, music, comfy chairs, attractive display cabinets with fresh food, consistent quality and seasonal menu offerings. Customers came, returned, and increased their spend across product lines – and bought gift cards for friends and family, increasing the number of delighted customers in the most organic way possible.

This experience-centric approach is not exclusive to the B2C world; B2B companies such as Salesforce.com, American Express and Constant Contact leverage customer experience for competitive advantage. They understand that robots aren’t making purchasing decisions in B2B, people are. The context of the company doesn’t eliminate the fact that emotion is a key buying factor.

But too few companies understand the importance of customer experience and its correlation to revenue generation. Companies focus on their sales team’s impact, but not on the myriad of other touch points their firms have with the customer, both pre- and post-sale. And often, when sales people bring back experience issues to operations, they’re met with deaf ears. Ignorance is not bliss, for when the customer experience is ho-hum, difficult, or blatantly negative, there is no incentive for their loyalty, much less to rave to their colleagues or friends about their experience. The door is open to a competitor who offers delight. As Gary Vaynerchuk drives home in his book The Thank You Economy, business leaders better “care – about your customers, about your employees, about your brand – with everything you’ve got.”

A few of my own recent vendor interactions illustrate what goes wrong when leadership forgets (or doesn’t care about) the customer experience:

  • Landscape company’s voice mail greeting: “Your call is very important to us but we’re not in the office right now, so please call back tomorrow.”
  • Empty restaurant at lunch time where the host seated me and my guest at a small table next to the wait staff’s station.
  • Doctor’s office A/R voice mail greeting: “Sorry, the person who takes payment information is out this afternoon; please call back tomorrow.” That was after the invoice instructed me to, “Call the office to pay by credit card” instead of providing an easy mail in form or web payment option.
  • Letter from my credit card company’s fraud department asked me to call but provided the wrong department’s phone number. For good measure, the person I reached gave me the correct number but couldn’t transfer me and said I must re-dial.
  • Countless supplier websites where it’s difficult to find the information I seek.

These experiences send a variety of subliminal messages, among them:

  • “You’re just not that important to us.”
  • “We’re super sloppy about our work.”
  • “Our financials are shaky and we had to cut back on staff.”
  • “We run our business based on our needs not yours.”

A customer who experiences this lack of caring may stay on, but with few recurring transactions and no referrals. At worst, and more often, they run screaming to another provider who understands the power of customer experience.

CEO’s should be up at night with the fear that their customers and prospects are having these experiences. Excluded are companies with rock bottom pricing as their value proposition; the customer consented to give up service in exchange for price performance. But few businesses operate on that model and probably not yours. More likely, you couldn’t afford to sell your product at a price low enough for the customer to forgo the experience. The damage shows up as an inability to convert prospects, low customer retention, inability to upsell and negative reviews. It’s not too hard to find a new landscape company, doctor, restaurant or credit card provider. Or, accountant, cloud services provider, architect, IT consultant, etc. There’s always another game in town.

How do you solve? Begin with an audit of your organization, all departments included, not just those that are customer facing. After all, incorrect invoices reduce the quality of the customer experience. Scrutinize processes and systems to understand their impact on the customer. Review practices and scripts for all customer facing positions. Identify the customer experience you provide before the buyer has even converted from prospect to customer. Ask these questions:

  • In what ways are we hard to do business with?
  • How complicated is it to engage with our people, processes and materials (website, shopping carts, marketing collaterals, forms, etc.)?
  • How closely do we fulfill on our promises? Are we saying we’re one thing but being another?
  • Have we created a culture of caring and are we hiring people with the DNA to act accordingly?
  • Is the customer experience integrated into our values statement?
  • Does everyone in the organization understand their impact on the customer?
  • Have we established and trained everyone in standards of performance?
  • Does everyone that touches the customer have the training and the authority to solve a problem?

Get your entire workforce involved in this inquiry. Empower (and reward) teams to find the issues and solutions. Ask your customers for their perspectives. Make Schultz’s mantra, “It’s about the experience” a core element of your business strategy. You can close the gap between customer fail and customer delight. Revenue growth depends on it.

 

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Start With The End And Work Backward

by Karen Jackson | on Feb 26, 2015 | No Comments

Recently, a small business owner confided to me, “When I started this company I had no idea where I was going with it.” Twenty years later, he’s still trying to figure that out. Yes, his company is still in business, it’s profitable, and it provides him a comfortable income. But what became clear in our conversation was that this business has significant unrealized potential because the CEO never decided where it was going.

continue reading »

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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 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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