These are challenging times for many B2B sales organisations - particularly if you have a high-value, relatively complex product or service proposition that requires lengthy consideration. Prospects are understandably cautious about spending money, and “getting to yes” often involves persuading a significant number of stakeholders of the need to take action…
As a result, average sales cycles are getting longer, accurate sales forecasting is becoming harder, and a significant and growing proportion of deals are ending with the prospect simply deciding to “do nothing” - at least for the moment. It can be a frustrating time for sales people, and a doubly frustrating one for sales managers and chief executives.
Is applying more effort the answer? Probably not by itself - it’s clear to most sales leaders that simply exhorting their sales people to “sell harder” isn’t likely to provide a miracle cure, and could even be be counter-productive if pursued to extremes. Rather than selling harder, the more effective strategy must surely be to find ways of selling smarter.
That’s why I’m suggesting that this could be an excellent time to reassess your sales fundamentals, to reflect on recent lessons learned, and to identify and implement some of the best practices that are helping many of today’s most successful B2B-focused organisations to maintain revenue, profit and market share growth despite the economic climate.
I’d like to offer a handful of “back to basics” suggestions that could help you to make the most of the opportunities that undoubtedly still exist out there.
Are You Clear About the Problem You’re Solving?
When times are tight, prospects are less inclined to spend money on “nice to haves” or things for which it’s hard to create a truly compelling business case. They spend money because they have to in order to solve a significant problem, to address an important issue, or to achieve an important goal.
But not all issues are created equal. There are a number of issues that might cause a prospect to want to speak to you. But you need to carefully distinguish between interesting issues that might spark an enquiry, important issues that might result in serious consideration, and those business critical issues that they cannot afford not to deal with.
That’s not to say that the other types of issue aren’t relevant to the sales conversation - but you need to find ways to either elevate interesting or important issues to business critical ones, or to take the opportunity out of the forecast and continuing nurturing it until the problem reaches a level where they are prepared to spend money on addressing it.
What Does an Ideal Prospect Look Like?
If your sales people are to invest their prospecting energies effectively, they need to have a clear picture of what an ideal prospect looks like - and the same is true of your marketers. You have to see beyond the traditional demographic characteristics like size, industry and geography and look for the environmental, situational and behavioural qualities that separate great prospects from poor ones.
Your top performing sales people probably understand this instinctively, but many sales people end up wasting an awful amount of time chasing prospects who are unlikely to buy (or, if they do buy, are unlikely to buy from you). Get your sales people together. Ask them to think “outside of the box” about the common characteristics of their best customers, as well as the predictable reasons they lose deals.
Use the inputs to define the common characteristics of the organisations you are most likely to be successful selling to. Get your marketing people to target their campaigns on the organisations and problems you are best placed to deal with. And get your sales people to probe for these characteristics when they qualify their sales opportunities.
Have You Implemented a Consistent Sales Process?
Putting your sales people on a sales training programme doesn’t guarantee that they will sell in a consistently successful way. In fact it doesn’t even guarantee that they will implement any of the techniques they have been expensively trained on. The most consistently successful sales organisations are the ones with a thoughtfully defined sales process that is based both on the winning habits of their top sales performers and on more widely-recognised best practice.
If you haven’t got a defined sales process - or if you have one that you sense is being inconsistently applied - now is the time to establish one. Review your most successful recent sales campaigns and look for the common characteristics. What key stages and milestones did the prospect appear to go through? What actions did your successful sales people take? How can you embed that learning into your sales process?
Don’t just think in terms of your sale peoples’ actions - it’s equally important to understand your prospect’s typical buying process, and to anticipate their concerns and motivations at each point in the journey. What information does the prospect need, and how well are you able to provide it? And does your current sales process clearly align with your prospect’s decision-making process?
Are You Doing All You Could to Enable Your Sales People?
According to studies conducted by the American Marketing Association and other reliable sources, the vast majority - more than 80%, by most counts - of the sales tools and collateral created by marketing goes unused by sales people, who then spend a frightening amount of their potential personal selling time reinventing their own materials and tools.
It’s incredibly wasteful and often frustrating for everyone concerned. If you suspect that you might have a problem in this area, you need to take action. First, get your sales people to explain to your marketers what sales tools they actually use and how they use them, share what they have developed for themselves, and identify the missing tools they need to support their sales efforts.
Don’t allow either side to take defensive positions. Your goal must to be to establish a pact between sales and marketing that sales input will be considered before any new sales tool or piece of collateral is created, and an agreement that no new piece will be developed unless and until it is a clearly defined role to play in facilitating the prospect’s buying process.
When Was the Last Time You Cleaned Out Your Pipeline?
Sales pipelines, if not actively managed, have a habit of getting clogged up with deals that have stopped moving - which may then block the progress of other more dynamic opportunities by diverting resources away from them. Before you get started, make sure that you’ve clearly defined your sales process. Make sure that your process has clear definitions of what you expect to happen at each stage, and - most important - has clear, evidence-based milestones that determine how opportunities progress from stage to stage.
Then you should systematically review every deal in your pipeline against the objective criteria you have established. Don’t confuse sales activity - or unsupported optimism - with tangible evidence of the buyer’s true behaviour. Concentrate instead on working out where each prospect really is in their buying decision process, and for observable evidence that they see you as their preferred option. Ensure that each opportunity is accurately placed in the sales pipeline.
Almost inevitably, deals will move backwards or fall out of the pipeline altogether. The apparent value of your pipeline may shrink dramatically. But the loss of value is an illusion, because those opportunities were never going to close when the sales person hoped. Better to find out now, and deal with the consequences, than find out later when it’s too late to deal with the hole in your forecast. Going forwards, you need to continue managing your pipeline on a “no room for speculation” basis.
Are You Realising the Potential of Your Investment in CRM?
My last suggestion? Make the most of your CRM. Most sales organisations have invested in some form of CRM system. Few have managed to come anywhere close to realising its potential for improving their sales performance. Worse, many have ended up with an implementation that sales people grudgingly regard as a management-imposed administration system rather than a true sales enablement tool.
The first key to getting the most out of your CRM system is for your sales people to see it as something that helps them win more business. Don’t ask them to enter superfluous information they know will never be looked at again. Focus instead on collecting the sort of data about deals that will enable you as a manager to coach and support them more effectively. Explain that you are looking for patterns of successful behaviour that can help all sales people become more effective - and deliver on that promise through your actions.
Make sure you’re using CRM data intelligently. Make sure that your reports show you sales velocity - the length of time each opportunity takes to pass through each stage - so that you can identify both the stuck and the fast-moving opportunities. If you use percentage probabilities for each stage, do some analysis and make sure that the percentages you use reflect actual recent performance. Look for trends and act upon them.
Most functions in any organisation - sales included - benefit from getting back to the fundamentals on a regular basis. I hope that my suggestions help you to identify and eliminate some of the wasted effort that may be currently going on inside your own sales organisation, and that they enable you to reassign your resources in a way that directly impacts your revenue numbers.
You may find it helpful to download and review “20 Best Practices: An Essential Check-List for B2B Sales & Marketing Organisations” which will allow you to compare your current Sales and Marketing processes with the winning behaviours of Today's Best-in-Class companies. You can download your copy here.
Note: this article first appeared in the September 2011 edition of Entrepreneur Country magazine.