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February 26, 2010

Balancing Act

Last week I was conducting a sales best practices audit with a client. This is a fairly common exercise for us these days where we evaluate the sales function against 20 proven sales best practices (which are grouped into five categories we refer to as Capabilities). In the middle of the workshop where all of this was being conducted one of the participants, a veteran regional manager, asked me directly which of the 5 capabilities I believed were most important.

Now, I have to disclose that I have been doing work sessions like this for a quarter century and I can smell when a question of this variety is really a set up. These questions are usually a front for the individual to declare what she or he believes is all important, and he or she is most likely testing whether I agree (which typically also means they are testing whether I am as smart as they are). For this particular individual, the capability that we have titled Opportunity Management was in fact his favorite. For him everything revolved around the ability to manage deals through the pipeline successfully – the mark of a master sales person.

I probably should pause to mention that the five sales capabilities being referenced include:
- Sales Force Leadership
- Territory Management
- Relationship Management
- Opportunity Management
- Sales Force Measurement
Over the years I have noticed somewhat of a pattern with the companies I have engaged. Some like to focus on account planning (a Territory Management best practice); some like to focus on forecasting (a Sales Force Measurement best practice); some like to focus on coaching (a Sales Force Leadership best practice); and some organizations informally put their effort into call planning (a Relationship Management best practice). The individual from my workshop believed it was all about the pipeline, a normal focus for those who have a centrism toward Opportunity Management. It now seems normal in my experience that sales functions naturally gravitate toward a centrism of one capability or another.

OK, so you are being patient with me but you are asking yourself, why could this possibly matter? And my response is that this centrism thing is both good and bad, and anything that is good and bad simultaneously matters to people who write blogs.

Centrism toward something like an emphasis on the sales pipeline is good because it causes focus. Everybody on the sales team knows what is important – moving deals toward the close. It makes measurement easy and it makes learning the process easy – everybody knows what to do. Focus truly drives results. But there is a downside in this situation. Focus on one of only five capabilities can also mean that four important categories of sales effectiveness are being under attended – and this is a bad thing. If everything is about the deal that means you may not have much focus on accounts that don’t have a deal going, but should. If you were focusing on account planning (a Territory Management capability) you might also be attending to accounts that should have deals being worked but don’t. This more balanced focus will drive new business better than a focus on existing deals alone, which ultimately translates into even more revenue. Being balanced with a focus on all the capabilities is what drives bigger success versus a narrow focus.

This is a lot like skiing at a large resort that offers multiple peaks and bowls but you choose to only ski the runs serviced by one chair lift (even though there are 19 others to choose from). The variety of the terrain and the experience of the different mountain views are a part of the experience (and the $90 lift ticket). Why limit yourself to just one small portion of the experience? The answer is simple – it is because you like the runs from that chair. That is your preferred focus, but you limit what you get from the mountain. And most importantly, you are likely missing out on something else that you would truly enjoy – maybe even more.

Heaven's Gate

The analogy is not perfect, but to be successful with your sales function you do need to truly attend to all five of the sales force capabilities. You cannot run your team just on the forecast. Without coaching you will get nowhere. You cannot build a great territory plan but ignore actions needed during the actual sales visit. Setting goals without measuring your progress toward them is pretty much meaningless. Each of the five capability areas needs your love and attention.

Just in case you were wondering what my answer was to the gentlemen from the workshop, I am willing to share it. Once he disclosed that his preferred capability was Opportunity Management I wholly agreed that this was a great one to choose. It is quite possible given their sales culture that a focus on the pipeline was a great focus for them to drive results. He beamed with pride that his was the right answer. But then he sulked when I went on to state that if they were nigligent in the other four capabilities (they were actually weak in three of the four) that this was putting them at risk, which we went on to identify with specific examples provided by his peers. We did eventually build a great plan to help them achieve more balance and with that more success.

Good luck with your balancing act!

February 19, 2010

A Reminder of the Basics

Much of my focus lately has been on helping organizations develop their capabilities for attracting customers through improved marketing processes and the automation of those processes through state of the art technology. Without question pretty much all companies that I have encountered find themselves with opportunities to raise their ability to increase revenue through better utilization of marketing best practices. This is a part of the organization where most can find gains.

However, this week I had an experience that reminded me that all of the most effective marketing automation in the world cannot replace the need for positive human contact when it comes to winning over a new customer. There are some elements in the rainmaking equation that simply come down to good people skills. If you are uncomfortable with the person or people you are dealing with it can really get in the way of the purchase.

I enjoyed the role of the customer this week, for a change. We were investigating two prospective vendors that we believed had similar products to offer, but needed to dig a bit deeper to understand which of the two would be the better fit. One simply outshined the other and it was totally because of the people we encountered as we were performing our comparative shopping. We focused on these two vendors as a result of excellent marketing that each performed well. But one of them dropped the ball when the true selling started. But, this left me a bit dissatisfied – I was worried that we would fall into the position to make our decision without fully understanding the pros and cons of each of the two offerings. The selling process was so poor due to the people from one of the vendors that they literally short-changed themselves. We did not get a full appreciation for the product and its virtues.

So, I reflected on this a bit. Buried deep within the proprietary framework we utilize to assist clients with Sales Force Effectiveness is the recognition that a successful selling process requires strong fundamental people skills. Reflecting on this a bit more, I now believe this gets overlooked too often. We get so focused on process and technology we forget that good selling is very much centered upon the ability to develop rapport and trust.

I ran across a study a while back that identified those behavioral skills that help to delineate effective sales reps from those that are less effective. Some of these skills are to be expected, such as the ability to develop comfort with the prospect and possess the competence to explain how the product satisfies the prospective customers’ specific needs. Others that were identified might not be as expected, such as honoring the buyer’s purchasing process (instead of the seller’s process), helping to address problems for the buyer (outside of the sale), and not being perceived as aggressive in pushing for the close.

Interestingly, we encountered negative examples of these skills with the vendor who performed poorly. They did not take the time to understand our needs; they followed a standard process rather than working within our buying approach; and they totally failed at developing rapport or demonstrating competence with the product. Ironically, the vendor who bombed with the human contact was actually best with the marketing.

If I were to use my experience this week to sum up these behavioral sales competencies from the study, I would conclude that it is all about confidence – confidence in the individual as representing the capability of the vendor and its products. You have to feel confident that the individual will help you be successful as a result of the sale. Anything that erodes this confidence reduces the likelihood of the sale. While this probably all seems pretty obvious to everyone, I believe we don’t give enough attention to this foundational component of sales force effectiveness. In my line of business there is an underlying assumption that someone else is attending to this necessary capability, such as the training function or the sales coaching process. However, a solid focus on SFE needs to have a focus on sales competencies, especially as they pertain to human relations.

So, the question is whether anyone is keeping an eye on this within your company. Does the training function know what skills are needed to be successful and do they have programs that really assist the individual develop them? Do your sales managers have the ability to assess individual strengths and do they have the tools for proper coaching? If not, these fundamental skills may be getting in the way of your further success.

Rent a Wreck

February 12, 2010

Getting Schooled in CRM

This week we are heading to the higher side of the continent, just along the divide, to check out some schools. My son is shopping and the subject of his prospective purchase is four years at an institution that will mould him into an environmental scientist. I have been assisting him with his shopping and I am impressed with the process.

Back in 1977 I went on a buying spree for the same thing. It was a lot of fun and I ended up picking Tulane, but at the last minute I changed my mind and fell into a school at the other end of the Mississippi. As I think back on that period I am finding some things to be quite interesting now, 33 years later.

Last week as we were making our final preparations for our trip that will span Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and a brief spell in Idaho, we were contacted by the schools. They wanted to make sure that everything was on track and we were ready. Prior to that point there were e-mails with interesting stories, maps and brochures that came via postman, and just a lot of contact. We were being courted just like any prospective buyer of a big purchase.

That summer so long ago when I changed my mind and backed out of a trip down to New Orleans, I had never once been contacted except to learn of my acceptance. I never got pictures of the campus or an offer to come and visit for a day to sit in on some classes. They never sent a decal for my parents’ car. They assumed that I was going to buy and they spent their attention on shoppers who were perhaps more elusive. As a result the good folks in the admissions office lost a customer.

Things are pretty different today, at least with some of the schools we are looking into. For example, in Montana we registered for our visit on line. Since that time we have been in contact via newsletter with regularity. We were reminded of our logistics as we approached our visit date and the whole process has been surprisingly easy. They are using CRM (or at least a college recruiting version of the software) along with modern marketing techniques to nurture their buyers. The nice thing about these software packages is that they tie into other university systems just like any other good CRM platform is integrated to ERP or MRP. Ironically, a recent customer of mine just happens to be in the business of selling this nifty software.

I think there is a very good chance that I would have not ended up at Valparaiso if my original selection had been using this same CRM orientation. They did not have the software back then, but they could have been more focused on me as a prospective buyer. They could have communicated much better. They could have kept me interested. This vicarious college shopping has been a learning for me in that I have been reeducated about the pervasive value of CRM beyond its core application. Managing customers correctly is fundamental. If you know who your customers are, you can improve your success with them. Tulane did not view me as a customer or if they did they were not very customer focused.

Naturally, I want my son to pick the school that is right for him but I secretly want him to choose Montana State. Not just because it is strategically positioned between world class skiing resorts, but also because it has demonstrated the best CRM on our list.

Go Bobcats!


February 05, 2010

Still Harvesting Stories

I had dinner with a battle scarred sales veteran last week. It was an introduction set up by a colleague and I did not really know what to expect from the engagement. This gentleman, as it turns out, had been around the block a few times, carrying the bag to literally all corners of the globe and back. If he couldn’t sell his products in some location or country, he established someone who could and he made them successful in the process. The stories flowed all night, along with a lot of wine, and the more I listened the more I saw a pattern, or more specifically, I detected a pattern and a theme.

The pattern within his stories was all about integrity selling. Building relationships with trust and doing what it takes to satisfy the customers’ needs – nothing was fast, nothing was manipulative. The customer never lost in the end or was a conquest. This was about being successful by being in for the long haul and as a true partner.

At no time did I detect that he was trying to make a point to me with his lore – he was just sharing his experiences and they got more interesting as the bottles got emptier. His success was measured in interesting ways too, like the time one of his distribution partners named his new yacht after the old man. I can only hope somebody names a dinghy after me some day.

This was all quite captivating and I wished for the dinner and the evening to just go on. I was in the presence of a master and truly wanted to absorb from this unique exchange, although the second bottle of wine was starting to catch up with me. Perhaps I was absorbing too much.

On the drive back to my hotel I reflected on what I had heard. Yes, the pattern was about selling through integrity, but the theme of the evening was that there was always yet another story. We did not talk about things that happened back in the olden days. Rather, these anecdotes mostly included events that had just taken place. This spry old salt did not simply have a few successes decades back and then slump into a coast, repeating stories over and over from yesteryear. He kept going! He went after new opportunities and expanded into new ventures, gaining the ability to tell more stories.

It occurred to me that this practice was also a component of integrity selling. It is not just being honest and trustful, it is also being fresh. To be really successful you have to adapt, be flexible, expand, whatever. You don’t just do things the way you did it in the past just because you had some success. You have to keep having the ability to tell new stories.

Yes, in case you were wondering, this has a connection to CRM – two actually.

First, I truly believe that CRM and the technology that enables the benefits of CRM can assist with selling in a way that is moral and ethical. Gaining trust requires being authentic, which software cannot mimic. However, gaining trust can be more steadfastly earned when you can keep up on all the details of the relationships you form. It can help you identify the connections in your network. It can remind you when you need to take an action to maintain confidence. It can alert you when an expected result is due and might require attention on your behalf. And as you become more senior in your tenure, it can help to prop up the memory that might not always be reliable when counting on grey matter alone.

On the other hand, I have to disclose that I am not enthralled with the integrity of the selling that happens within my own industry. It seems, in contrast, that selling software requires one to exclude honesty and authenticity from the selling process. Unnecessary pressuring for a signed contract before the end of a quarter, deceptively exaggerating the capabilities of the functionality, throwing the services partners under the bus to salvage a deal, the atrocities are endless and I prefer not to elaborate. Sorry if I offend anyone, but I don’t feel I work within an industry that exudes integrity selling; this is a travesty because many of the client industries we support hold this as a seriously high ideal.


When I operate within the role of sales person, it makes my job significantly harder because I have to overcome high barriers that have been erected due mostly from all the duplicity conducted before my arrival.

Getting back to my recent dinner partner, in conclusion, I sincerely wish more of my colleagues could listen to someone who can achieve honest-to-God success without stooping to tactics that ultimately degrade our value. And that brings up a thought. There is a special organization founded back in the 60’s, VISTA, initially a volunteer corps of those who have been successful in their careers turned to service those who need help to rise out of poverty. I wish we could establish a corollary organization that matches volunteers, who have been successful with their professional morals, together with those who need help to rise out of the poverty of their professional souls.