The management skill that’s missing in two-thirds of sales organisations

Posted by Bob Apollo on Wed 17-Apr-2013

Miller Heiman’s always-excellent research programme has thrown up another compelling statistic: only 34% of all the sales organisations surveyed believed that their management team was “highly effective in helping the sales team advance sales opportunities”.

34percentWell, you’ve got to wonder: if the majority of sales managers can’t perform that basic task "highly effectively", what value are they adding to the process? And what’s stopping them from supporting their sales people more effectively? To put the statistic into context, in “world class” sales organisations, the figure is not 34%, but 93%.

Stop behaving like a "forecast accountant"

That’s right: nearly three times better. What’s the explanation? Joe Galvin, CRO for the Miller-Heiman Research Institute, has suggested an answer - and I’m inclined to agree with him. He points out that in many organisations sales managers are seen as “forecast accountants”.

Trust me, it's not a compliment. The forecasting accountant school of sales management (and you’ve got to believe that this sort of thinking has been encouraged and nurtured by the widespread deployment of CRM systems) is largely focused on facts and numbers.

You can hear same forecast accounting-driven questions spinning around the room in many pipeline review meetings: “What’s the deal value?” “What’s the close probability?” “What’s the next step?” and “When’s it going to close?” The numbers get rolled up into a projection, various fiddle factors are applied, a weighted pipeline is created, and the actual results rarely bear any resemblance to the forecast.

By the way, if you want further validation of the resulting issues, another excellent piece of recent research from CSO Insights has shown that, on a deal-by-deal level, sales forecast accuracy is at a close to an all-time low of 46.5%.

"Narrowing" vs. "Broadening" questions

Narrowing BroadeningSo what do top-performing sales managers do differently, and better? The CEB has an answer. Forecast accounting questions are “narrowing” or focusing questions: they invite a short, simple pseudo-factual response - often the one the sales person believes will get the sales manager off their backs the fastest.

Top performing sales managers typically demonstrate a very different questioning style. They ask “widening” or broadening questions: questions that encourage the sales person to think, share relevant experiences, offer lateral insights and stimulate the sales person to stand back and see the big picture.

Widening questions help sales people to recognise for themselves what they don’t know about their opportunities, and can lead to fresh insights and strategies for filling in the gaps in their knowledge. They are particularly powerful when combined with the sales manager's fund of relevant experiences and anecdotes.

Combining and blending the two types of question

I’m not suggesting that sales managers don’t need to ask narrowing questions - simply that they are not enough. So how can sales managers combine “narrowing” with “widening” questions?

If you’re in a one-to-one dialogue with an individual sales person, the two types of questions can be interleaved in the same conversation. But it’s harder to flip from one to the other and back in large sales meetings.

In large group pipeline meetings, it’s often more useful to dedicate some time to “narrowing” questions across all deals, and then switch to “widening” questions for a selected sub-set of key deals where the learning can be most valuable.

Involving the whole team in these “broadening” questions can not only provide a valuable learning experience for all concerned, but also allow more people to take a look at the issues involved and contribute their insights.

Striking the right balance

If you’re a sales leader, and you’re not yet striking the right balance between “narrowing” and “broadening” questions, try consciously and deliberately asking more of the latter. You’ll not only find that your sales people will end up winning more business, you’ll also earn both their respect and their gratitude.

Have you got any great “broadening” questions? Please share them with other readers in the comment box.

Topics: CSO Insights, Revenue Management, Complex Sales