B2B Sales Pipelines: When Do You Want to be Told the Truth?
An old colleague of mine - a highly experienced sales leader with many years of sustained quota achievement to his credit - recently found his organisation acquired by one of the world’s leading IT players. I asked him how it was going. Now, we all know that there’s often a clash of cultures when companies are acquired, but his answer surprised me. “It’s as if they don’t want to be told the truth”, he explained...
Let me put his remark into context: my old colleague is one of the most consistently successful sales leaders I’ve ever worked with. He’s the sort of guy you would rehire in a heartbeat - an asset to any organisation. I put a lot of his success down to what I would call “positive realism”.
The Advantages of Positive Realism
Whilst my friend always had a positive, can-do attitude, he also always recognised the realities of any sales situation - on the basis that a clear-eyed, evidence-based assessment of the true state of any sales opportunity gave you the best chance of crafting a winning strategy - or of identifying deals that were doomed to fail in advance, rather than finding out at the end of the quarter.
These characteristics allowed him to post exceptional revenue growth (I can’t recall him ever missing his plan) whilst at the same time generating remarkably accurate sales forecasts. I always knew that he had a tremendous grasp of the realities of every sales situation - and his sales people knew that he always expected the same from them. He would often escalate a challenging situation for my attention - and we’d work as a team to strategise a way forward.
Hope Should Never be a Strategy
There was no room for misty eyed sentiment, over optimistic judgement, or confusing the presence of hope with the absence of a strategy. I expected to hear the unvarnished truth from him - and he demanded the same from his sales people. If we had a problem, we wanted it confronted and dealt with, rather than having it swept under the carpet in the hope that a miracle might occur.
This “no BS” attitude didn’t just help him deliver his numbers with great reliability - it also enabled him to systematically diagnose and deal with the weaknesses and constraints in his sales and marketing organisation. And it was all down to insisting on being told the truth at all times.
“They Don’t Want to be Told the Truth”
So what’s changed? Well, it turns out that his new employer has a very different culture, and different expectations of the forecasting process. If there are challenges, they don’t want to hear about them. Bad news isn’t welcomed. Help isn’t offered. Lateral collaborative thinking isn’t encouraged. It’s simply down to him to deliver the number.
As a result, his regular sales pipeline reviews with his new executives feel like beat-up sessions. They just want to hear that he’s going to make his number. Activity is confused with insight. Sales managers that step out of line are put firmly back in their place. It feels like a bullying culture - and so it’s no surprise the forecasts are regularly missed (both up and down).
No Place for a Bullying Culture...
Now don’t get me wrong. I know that over the years organisations with a strong bullying culture have achieved some notable sales successes. You can probably think of a number of them - I certainly can, but I don’t want to air their dirty linen or expose their brutalist past in public. But customers aren’t buying that way anymore, and sales people aren’t succeeding that way either.
To my colleague, it felt like being swept back in time - a return to the age of the Dinosaurs. I suspect that many of his colleagues feel the same way. I rate the chances of the acquisition delivering the expected synergies and desired results as slim. But the truth will only have lost out on a temporary basis.
You Can’t Afford Not to Confront the Truth
Sweeping the truth under the carpet might delay but will never prevent the inevitable. Your chances of growing a successful business will be dramatically enhanced if you create a culture of openness and honesty in the management of your sales pipelines and the generation of your sales forecasts. Make sure that your sales teams know that you expect to hear the truth - and don’t punish them for sharing it.
But before you can expect to achieve this, you need to make sure that your sales people have taken their “happy ears” off and have established a truthful dialogue with their prospects. Make sure they are unafraid to ask tough, honest questions of their customer - and that they expect to receive the same treatment in return. It is as true now as it was in Shakespeare’s day: The Truth Will Out.