sales management

Sales Lessons From The Hot Tub

by Karen Jackson | on Apr 12, 2016 | 12 Comments

Our hot tub died in late February. An untimely death given we were still in the clutches of winter, but my family enjoyed 20 soothing years from it so I couldn’t be terribly annoyed.

“Karen, why are you telling me this story?” you ask. Because of what happened when I went to replace it! There are important sales lessons to be learned. Take a few moments to consider the buyer journey….

I immediately called the store that sold us the tub 20 years ago and that has been servicing it all along. After determining that the repair cost was 50% of the original price, it seemed prudent to purchase a new one, so I asked for a quote to replace it. The sales person emailed me a quote and brochure for the model that was effectively the 20 years later version of the original tub. Then there was silence – no follow up call or email.

Without a conversation or email exchange, he’d left me alone to ruminate…. “Do I really want the same thing? If I’m going to fork out the cash, ought I think a bit grander in terms of features and functions? Yes, this brand was reliable for 20 years. But it was pretty basic in terms of features, with a minimal number of jets and few customizable settings. Surely other options exist.”

But the salesperson hadn’t asked me any questions about my needs or desires, didn’t probe about my priorities or my budget parameters. He already “knew” me and offered a solution based on my need profile of 20 years ago. He also took literally my request for a “replacement” hot tub.

Like a watching a B-quality horror movie, I hope you’re already recognizing the signs of disaster for the salesperson.

Much had changed about me as a buyer in 20 years: My body aches more after skiing – hell, after sitting; I have more discretionary income; I now spend more on services and products that bring me peace, joy or time. Equally important, when I bought my first hot tub, I’d just finished building the house it resides at. I was financially stretched after the investment and went for basic, basic, basic on the hot tub. My needs and desires today are entirely different.

Left alone, I decided to research alternatives, and walked into another local provider. Hot tubs are a luxury item and this salesperson understood that completely. (That’s why 20 years later, they’re referred to as “spas.”) “Tell me about….” He said. And then he began to explore my pain points, desires, ideal outcome. He asked me questions, offered product choices that mapped to what he’d heard from me, and relayed a couple of purchase stories about clients similar to my profile. An hour later I walked out with a purchase order and he held my deposit.

It’s a B2C story but it applies to B2B purchasing decisions. In B2B, while the “B” represents business, business buyers are real people with emotional needs and personal agendas. Did you spot the mistakes made by the sales person? These are the important takeaways for your sales people:

• Beware of making assumptions about current customers, especially when selling products / services that are not high frequency transactions. You may think you know them, but things change and they won’t always share.
• Always probe for what has changed in the buyer’s universe since their last purchase.
• Don’t assume their request is what they really need or want; probe for pain points, desires and ideal outcomes just as one would for a new customer.
• Cost is rarely the leading decision factor, unless one is competing in a hyper commoditized space.
• Use closing questions to clearly understand concerns or objections, potential new competition, and the vision match between your solution and the customer’s desired result.
• Gain commitments for next steps. Always.
• Never leave a customer alone with a proposal for an extended period of time. There’s no firm rule on timeline, as scenarios differ based on complexity of solution, but anything longer than 1 week is a mistake.
• Follow up is an important element of the sales cycle, both to retain control of the process and make the buyer feel cared for. If you don’t pay appropriate attention to the customer, another vendor will.

If this seems basic to you, reevaluate. I witness sales people for multi-million dollar companies make these mistakes regularly. The good news is that there’s a solution. The development of sales process and play-books that leverage best practices, combined with training and coaching of the sales team, ensures that your company won’t lose the next hot tub – sorry, “spa” – sale.

P.S. I love my new spa. 🙂

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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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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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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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