In the ever-evolving landscape of sales, one thing remains constant: the importance of a robust sales pipeline. It’s the lifeline of any successful sales professional, a conduit through which potential clients become valued customers. But how do you create and nurture a pipeline that consistently delivers results? The answer lies in skill development.
Kerri Pottharst and I met on Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia in 1992. And 8 years after that friendship began, she won the Olympic Gold medal in Beach Volleyball on that same sand, on her “home court” at the pinnacle of her career.
She made the transition to the beach in ‘92 following a damn near career-ending knee injury playing indoor volleyball. And 4 short years later she won the Bronze medal in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympics. Then Bondi Beach GOLD happened in 2000. I will never forget watching her win from a hotel in Vancouver, Canada. Unbelievable, seeing that trajectory, defeating teams that had played beach their entire careers where Kerri was the “older” player out there at the age of 35. What a STORY!
How did she do it? Hard work, skill development, Coaching and a fierce discipline to succeed. It’s all well-documented and has become Kerri’s passion in her post-playing days. In addition to being a volleyball commentator, Coach, Professional Speaker, Businesswoman and Mom to her son Tyson, she is also helping other athletes to tell their stories, and how to transition athletic success into other parts of life.
We had dinner in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles last week, and Kerri spoke about her journey, ups and downs and the grit to keep moving. A few years ago, she told me that she believes she won the gold medal so that she could help others, and she is doing just that. To learn more about Kerri and her offering, go to www.theathletestory.com.au
People are most convinced by ideas they themselves discover, so getting your prospects to define their own objectives and challenges is critical to getting their buy in throughout the sales process.
The following are three types of questions designed to get your prospects talking about their challenges.
Open Questions. Your prospect has discussed his primary business objective – now how do you get him talking about why he’s not able to accomplish that objective. These questions are designed to do just that. They uncover the tip of the iceberg, and are the first step in the discovery process.
- “What are the main concerns you’re having with respect to…..?”
- “Usually people come to us for help in one or more of the following areas (list 2-3 problems you solve for people); are any of these issues for you?”
- “Tell me more…” or “Tell me why…”
When you ask questions like this, look for the prospect to make statements like:
- “My sales are not where I want them to be.”
- “We’re spending too much on…..”
- “We’re not happy with…..”
Cause Questions. Now that you have the problem defined, the next step is to look for what’s causing the disparity. Typically, there are several causes. Pay close attention as these are the issues you will ultimately try to resolve. This information leads you to your presentation.
- “What are the reasons this is going on?”
- “Why do you suppose this is happening?”
- “Do you know what’s causing these problems?”
It’s vital for you to understand – even better than the prospect – what’s causing their challenges. You’ll hear things like:
- “Our current supplier is having quality and delivery problems.”
- We don’t have the right software and our people need training.”
Keep Them Talking. Learn to direct the conversation and keep your prospects talking. When they are talking, they are giving you valuable information. When you’re monopolizing the conversation, you’re losing an opportunity to discover what will motivate them to take action. Add these types of questions to your repertoire and you’ll gain a deeper understanding of the issues.
- “Tell me more about that.”
- “What else is there?”
- ”Is there anything else?”
- “Could you be a little more specific?”
With these three types of questions, your sales reps should be able to encourage prospects to fully define their key challenges, which is a critical first step in the qualifying process.
This is a question I often ask Sales Managers.
Many of them respond that they do on the grounds of fairness. They try to distribute their time evenly between all team members and provide similar opportunities for coaching and development.
While I appreciate the intent, I disagree with the practice. At the end of the day, being a great sales manager doesn’t lie in giving your reps a similar dose of the same medicine, but rather in tailoring your prescription to each individual, even though it will likely result in a disproportionate amount of your time and energy spent with some reps and not with others.
Here’s what I recommend:
First, divide your team into thirds in order of performance – top 10%, middle 60% and bottom 30%. Many managers find this exercise difficult, as they’re reluctant to label certain reps as bottom performers. But it’s a critical first step in optimizing your coaching time.
Next, allocate your time with each rep according to his or her grouping.
Contrary to popular opinion, the bulk of your time should not be spent with the top performers (because they’re the most valuable), nor should it be spent with the bottom performers (because they have the most room for improvement). It should actually be spent with the middle 60%. The middle performers are the group that has the most to gain from focused skills coaching, and statistically speaking it’s with this group that you will see the biggest performance lift.
Of course, you should still allocate time for your top performers. But your time with this group should be spent focused on retention rather than skills coaching – are they happy in their current positions? Is there anything you can do to make their jobs better? Where do they see themselves three years from now?
Very little time should be spent with bottom performers. These sales reps can be an extreme “time suck” with very little payoff, and allocating the bulk of your time to coach the bottom tier very seldom translates into sales results.
So, is this a fair management strategy? Maybe not. But it is effective. It allows you to align your time and talents with the sales reps that stand to make the biggest gains, thus improving your ability to impact overall team performance and revenue generation. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what you were hired to do?
This guest article was written by Chris Bullick. Chris is a Principal Consultant who is the Creator of the Sales Diagnostic Questionnaire (“SDQ”), he provides analysis and strategy for go to market strategies, corporate messaging, pipeline metrics, relationship building and winning presentations.
I was speaking with a wildly successful colleague recently and she relayed the story of her latest accomplishment. The company she was selling to was not necessarily in buying mode. They reached out to a few vendors to conduct general capabilities presentations. She had never met the buyer.
My friend’s presentation blew the doors off the buyer. The buyer immediately put the wheels in motion to contract with my friend’s company to provide services to his and they never talked price until the actual closing.
When I asked my friend what did the trick, she said her team prepared as if it was biggest and most important finalist presentation they had ever participated in.
Best Practice: Treat every meeting like a finalist presentation. Learn how to prepare for the big day.
She brought the team who would service the account, the potential account manager, a regional executive and a video from her company’s CEO imbedded into her PowerPoint that was customized for the prospect. She noted that her biggest competitor was presenting right after her. They sent one person and she learned later that their presentation was a generic one-page marketing piece.
Best Practice: Bring the team. It’s great practice for those who are not in front of customers every day. If you don’t win, you still may be setting the table for the future with that prospect. Learn how to get your whole team comfortable presenting.
Imagine that! Allocating resources full bore on a deal with a low probability of success. Do other organizations do that? The answer is not many. A lot of organizations handicap themselves out of deals. They look in their CRM and see that they have tried to sell to that buyer in the past without success. They think the buyer is just kicking tires or leveraging them on price. Another great excuse is they haven’t met the buyer yet. They place a low percentage of winning in the CRM.
The organizations that handicap themselves will not allocate resources on a low percentage deal. They will tell their sales people not to spend so much time on a deal like that, don’t burden marketing, don’t take anyone important and use generic marketing materials. In doing so, they take the passion, urgency, energy and enthusiasm out of the deal. They have set themselves up to fail.
Best Practice: Don’t skimp on preparation and resources. Learn how to prepare the right way and bring the right resources to every meeting.
Winning companies tell their sales people to jump in with both feet. It’s alright to drop everything, muster your resources, and prepare with a mindset that you are winning the business right then and there. When you present with conviction and purpose it reveals your company’s attention to detail, planning and execution.
Now more than ever in the midst of a strange economic time, establishing value is key to closing business. If you can’t clearly articulate how your product can be used to increase revenue or decrease costs, how do you expect customers to understand why they should choose you over the competition? According to a study conducted by Forrester Research, the number one inhibitor to achieving your sales quota is the inability to effectively communicate a value message.
Top Inhibitors to Achieving Sales Quotas
- Insufficient leads: 13.3%
- Poor sales skills: 16%
- Too many products to know: 21.4%
- Information gap: 24.3%
- Inability to communicate value message: 26%
“Value proposition” is a phrase that became ubiquitous during the 90’s. Buzz word or not, establishing the value of your product or service without overwhelming potential customers with a landslide of features and benefits is crucial. So how do you do it?
- Learn about your customers. Study their market, what they sell, the competitive landscape, the organization size, and the roles involved in the decision-making process. Next, conduct informational interviews within your network. Talk to anyone in the industry who has been exposed to your ideal customer. Finally, talk directly to your customers and/or prospects. Find out about their goals, how they measure and track their success, and ask about their pain points. Once you have done your research, you’re equipped with the knowledge to successfully position yourself to appeal to your target audience.
- Demonstrate value. Take what you’ve learned about your customer and start crafting a message that demonstrates the value of your productfrom their perspective. How will your product eliminate pain points and help them achieve daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly goals? Some examples are:
- Imagine a day without the stress of x, y, and z. With the time you save you’ll be able to accomplish twice as much of what you need to do.”
- “Whether it’s daily, weekly, or yearly we understand that goals are always top of mind. Let (product X) help reduce the time it takes to meet those goals by taking advantage of x and y capabilities.
- Position and differentiate. What makes you different from your competitors? Is it your exceptional customer service, large number of capabilities, or the price of your product? Whatever it is, be sure to reiterate the difference across all sales and marketing channels. Make sure what you’re saying on your website is demonstrated similarly on your social channels, in your marketing materials, and through the words that sales reps use with customers. It sounds obvious, but unfortunately many organizations fail to do this.
Understanding your customer, demonstrating value, and positioning yourself are all simple strategies to help streamline the sales process. Don’t fall into the 26% that are unable to communicate value messages about their product consistently and effectively.
All of our clients have made some investments in their sales organization. Whether it be money spent on sales training, a time and territory management offering, or an outing for team-building, many companies are making important investments in their people. However, one disconnect we see is that while companies are willing to spend money up front, they don’t always do the follow-up work needed to reinforce the lessons learned.
One area in which many companies have invested is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. While their potential is invaluable, it’s clear that CRMs are not being used as tools to optimize the dollars spent in their people. Here are three questions to assess your sales training optimization as expressed through your CRM.
- Do tools reflect the steps in the sales process and promote the common vernacular used in training so everyone speaks the same language? Matthew J. Boyle, marketing director at a Massachusetts accounting and consulting firm, describes this scenario, “When employees manage their own contact information and share it unsystematically, data-quality issues proliferate, and compiling and sorting correct, current information becomes an immense task. This can result in a firm that functions like several different small practices under one roof instead of a cohesive whole.” CRM’s customized with company-wide vernacular can help.
- How do salespeople internalize their customer’s needs and what steps are necessary to complete the sale? This can be laid out in a CRM as well. If companies were better at defining and following up on sales steps within their CRM, training would be internalized and wins would increase. For example, salespeople could attach the follow-up letter outlining their sales meeting. That way, managers could coach to the correspondence, communication skills would increase, forecasting accuracy would improve, and trends could be analyzed.
- How do you coach through the information in your CRM? Organizations can all have the same training experience, yet inevitably skill levels will still vary dramatically. With a CRM based on a well-defined sales process, management will be able to quickly assess where individual development is needed. For example, a CRM would show that a salesperson has sent samples to a prospect. This is useful information, but it can also show that there has been no meeting or discussion of that prospect’s needs prior to the samples being sent. Product sent to a client before goals are shared is money down the drain. A manager could see this and use it as a coaching opportunity to reinforce the skills taught in training.
Like all good relationships, the match between training and the CRM is reciprocal. We help companies maximize their training dollars and dollars spent on CRMs by making sure both systems are optimized and well-integrated. Let us help your company design and implement a sales process that is optimized through your current CRM.
Virtually all the experts would agree that the following mistakes are commonplace when salespeople start to negotiate. Awareness of these challenges may improve your ability to negotiate considerably.
- Getting emotionally involved. This one tops the list because, above all, your attitude toward something determines your success. If you appear needy, conveying the message to your prospect that you’ll do almost anything to get the business, your prospect will sense this weakness and exploit it. Avoid statements like, “We’d really like to get this done,” “I need this to make my quota this month,” and “What do we need to do to get you to buy from us?”
- Making unilateral concessions. A unilateral concession is agreeing to a prospect’s request too quickly, and without asking for something of equal or greater value in return. For example, your prospect asks you to lower your price by 5%. Your response is, “Sure, we can do that.” Put yourself in your prospect’s shoes and reflect on what message your response sent. First, he or she is undoubtedly thinking that since you agreed so easily, he or she should have asked for more. Second, he or she knows that since you dropped your prices so easily, you’ve probably overpriced the product or service. This creates doubt about the overall quality of what you’re selling. Finally, you’ve demonstrated your inexperience as a negotiator, opening yourself for more abuse as the negotiation goes on.
- Not understanding the prospect’s pain and alternatives. This is your “ace in the hole” and without it, you are defenseless. As we’ve previously mentioned in this book, most salespeople qualify poorly, betting on their powers of persuasion, features, and benefits, and charming personalities to get the job done. That doesn’t work. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to stand your ground if you don’t know what the prospect’s business objectives are, and the downside if the problem is not fixed. Therefore, you must uncover how severe their pain is, how it impacts both the company and the individual you’re negotiating with, and what happens if the problem doesn’t get resolved through negotiations.
- Talking too much. When you are monopolizing the conversation it’s impossible to “read” your customer or learn what their specific needs are. You’re giving information, not receiving it. Falling into this trap is a sure way to lose.
- Not understanding your objectives and value items. Failure to have worked out, in advance, your list of primary (best case) and secondary (fall back) objectives will create confusion and indecision for you. If you don’t, you’ll just end up winging it, which is a surefire road to disaster.
Do you know many kids who dream of a career in sales? Maybe you do, but I wouldn’t bet on it. The idea never crossed my mind. Which may explain why I did not go into sales. But it would have been unquestionably rude if I didn’t open the door when Sales finally came knocking with a few words of wisdom about learning to ask the right questions and listening. Lessons we can all learn from.
As a marketer, I know that there will be crossover and collaboration with my colleagues working on deals with other organizations. As a company, we want to make sure people in need of our services can find and work with us. In order to do my job, I have to ask myself the same questions that you would hopefully hear in a sales call. And questions about challenges are challenging. For me, the change in perspective came through a Flannery Sales Systems workshop where a wee little question had a colossal effect on how I approach my marketing work. It was a paradigm shifter:
What are you looking to achieve?
It all starts here – the salesperson looking to see what a potential client identifies as a need and pinpointing a concrete business objective. You would be surprised at how often people are focused on a single puzzle piece without seeing the whole picture. Salespeople, on the other hand, not only map how products or services fill gaps but also shine a light on gaps the client may have completely missed. In a sense, the salesperson is the link between prospects identifying what they really need and actually getting it. It would not be ridiculous to say that the word “salesperson” doesn’t cover the work salespeople do, work that goes beyond “selling” and encompasses listening, understanding, and truly connecting the dots.
The paradigm-shifting question above moves us away from voraciously closing deals and towards a hunger of truly understanding someone’s business challenges. Closing a deal prematurely and neglecting to understand a client’s business objective is a gateway for future misunderstandings. Losing a client down the line may not be the result of bad account management but rather the incomplete identification of what your client was looking to achieve in the beginning. Which is why I prefer “matchmaker” to “salesperson.”
What are you looking to achieve? I repeat the question to myself like a mantra in both business conversations and outside of work. You cannot fill a gap without knowing anything about it or why it was there in the first place. When your product is a service like market research, consulting, or custom workshops, as is the case for us at Nimdzi, it becomes more critical that early conversations have truly identified a concrete need the potential client has. I know my colleagues make it a priority before even mentioning what we can offer. And of course, the paradigm-shifter is only a part of the conversation. Flannery covered much more than asking an opening question and listening for concrete needs. Our team walked away calibrated and equipped with a framework that helps us serve our clients.
If you’re a marketing manager not in direct sales, you could greatly benefit from understanding the sales process. This is because it will equip you with a new acuteness for identifying needs, listening for challenges, and orienting yourself. What are you looking to achieve?
Nika Allahverdi is the Global Marketing and Engagement Manager at Nimdzi Insights, an international market research and consulting firm. She drives the marketing efforts at Nimdzi and works with various departments to conceptualize campaigns and strategize to implement them. She is also Nimdzi’s marketing consultant for localization business professionals.