There’s this awkward truth that sales professionals never talk about. A challenge that usually doesn’t get brought up in sales meetings or bid reviews, doesn’t get complained about at the water cooler and definitely doesn’t get discussed amongst friends. It’s such an uncomfortable topic, that most sales trainings don’t really address it, or at best kinda dance around without calling it out. But however uncomfortable it is, it’s still the truth. People don’t like to deal with sales people. Buyers don’t like being sold to. Us B2B sales professionals are seen as a necessary evil that should be avoided, if possible. We get grouped into the same bucket as second hand car salesmen and snake-oil sellers who can’t be trusted and are only driven by personal gain.
That view is not a recent development either. This underlying negativity towards the sales profession has been around for a while. Wolf of Wall Street, Gordon Gecko, Glengarry Glen Ross, the Boiler Room and other populistic depictions of our profession, all enforce that snake-oil stereotype of dishonest human beings whose main motivation is personal gain, with no regard to damage done to others. And these stories always end it tears; the last scene tends to involve a culpable and sweaty insider wired with a microphone, followed by the FBI raiding the sales villain’s premises. Not exactly the poster children that make us proud of our profession.
Sure, in the last twenty years, the sales profession has smartened up. But so have the buyers. I am sure you’ve seen the stats from the likes of Gartner, Forrester and CEB saying “57% of the purchase decision is completed before a customer even calls a supplier”. And “two thirds of the buyer’s journey is now done digitally”. Those headline grabbing numbers obviously simplify things, but nonetheless, they do expose the existence of our uncomfortable truth. B2B buyers prefer to research their options online, away from the sales person. Only when there’s no other way to get the information they’re after, do they call in the rep – like when they want a demo or pricing.
Of course, poor sales practices are to blame for these perceptions and the resulting behaviour at the customer’s side. Us sales people have to be more customer centric, and be more consultative. We need to listen, and help the buyer find a solution that fixes their pains. We should tailor our messaging to the customer’s needs, and show how our offering is the best solution for them. In short, the best sales people are problem solvers who guide buyers to find the right solution. Right?
Wrong. In SaaS sales, we don’t need problem solvers. What we need is problem seekers.
Problem seekers help customer uncover problems they’re not aware of yet. Problem seekers guide customers to look at their pains in a different way, because “the old way of doing things, no longer works”. Problem seekers take buyers by the hand as they formulate their needs, the budget they need for that, and the people they should be involving, before they start looking for a solution. Problem seekers take control way before BANT happens. Because when Budget, Authority, Needs and Timelines are established, it’s already too late – it becomes a matter of problem solving. And there are three reasons why problem solving in SaaS sales is a bit of a shitty exercise that makes us frustrated and want to give up.
Firstly, our uncomfortable truth means that buyers won’t let you in – they will do their problem solving research online. They simply don’t need sales people to find a solution. Secondly, we sell SaaS, which is a (typically multi-tenanted) solution that roughly does the same thing for everyone. We don’t develop features or customise modules specifically for individual customers. In other words, the only way that we can solve a customer’s problem, is when what they’re looking to solve, co-incidentally is exactly aligned with what we’re selling. Clearly, counting on that happening, severely limits our chances. Finally, even if a sales person is able to provide an eye-opening new view that makes a buyer rethink the way they look at their problem, it’s hard to get a B2B buyer to back-paddle. Once a multi-stakeholder buying team has decided on budget, business needs, the people to involve, and the timelines to commit to, it’s an uphill battle to go back and change things. It’s possible, but no one likes to do it.
So what to do?
Much of this thinking you’ll recognise as challenger sales. Whether you adopt such (or similar) sales methodologies or not, it’s important you acknowledge the role customers allow you to play. Once BANT has happened, your ability to take control, or even to add value, is limited. If you truly want to add value, become a domain expert about the problem, not just your solution. Adjust your sales pitch to talk about your customer, rather than you. Focus your outbound activities by segmenting your market based on propensity to buy, not just industry. This allows you to get in early, before a client starts shopping around. Make sure your internal sales reviews and CRM reporting focus at the early stages of a deal, not the later stages. True value for the buyer can and should be added early on, when key decisions around the problem are made. Become a problem seeker and work hard to get a seat at the table when that happens. Because it’s during these very early stages where deals are won, not the later stages.
Sales has changed. Thanks to the transparency and wealth of information the internet provides, prospects are more knowledgeable than ever. They research trends, compare vendors, learn what questions to ask, hear what to be heedful of, back-channel references, and uncover so much more before they accept our reach-out for that first meeting. According to CEB, the typical B2B buyer is already 57% through the purchase process before reaching out to sales.
This makes B2B sales, particularly complex enterprise sales, very challenging. For us to build rapport, influence strategies, requirements, budget and evaluation criteria, getting in early is crucial. Most of us have smartened up and adjusted our selling strategies to this fundamental shift. But I often see sales professionals in this cat-and-mouse game where they come up with smart ways to get in front of prospects, while prospects do everything to avoid just that. A new perspective is required to break this silly game that the customer always wins.
What we’ve been trying to do is to transform sales reps into domain experts. Which at face value makes sense – the last thing a prospect wants, is to get a meeting with a sales rep who starts the meeting with “So, tell me about your problems…”.
Prospects have no time for sales reps who only ask questions and need to call in the troops to go deep and share relevant insights. If prospects haven’t learnt anything from you in your first meeting, they’re not going to respond to you chasing them for that second one. Today, domain expertise is the currency in sales.
To meet that expectation, we’ve tightened the collaboration between sales and marketing. Great marketing content has allowed sales to be seen as thought leaders who keep prospects interested with a constant stream of insights. But having great white papers, webinars, case studies, and industry events will not turn the sales rep (or even the organisation for that matter) into thought leaders. The sales rep needs to speak the prospects language, understand the technology ecosystem, be able to articulate examples, refer to what other clients have done, and always be able to add value. Merely referring to the marketing content, however great it is, doesn’t turn the rep into a domain expert. It just makes the prospect leverage that content while still trying to keep the rep out of the conversation.
So we have gone further – we’ve trained the reps to be more consultative. We changed our sales processes to create value for prospects in the early stages of the buying cycle. Rather than waiting for the prospect to define their needs and counter with a solution, methodologies like the Challenger Sale and Insight Selling have positioned reps to get in early to teach and tailor. But it takes time to develop the credibility and confidence of a rep to bust open doors based on his or her domain knowledge. Lots of time – depending on your industry, buyer, or solution, this could easily be a two-year journey, as reps in Analytics, Security, Marketing Automation, CX and AI (to name a few) will attest.
So, what to do?
I believe there is merit in exploring this challenge the other way around. Rather than transforming sales reps into domain experts, we should transform domain experts into sales reps. Rather than taking commercial acumen as the foundation to build domain expertise onto, we need that domain expertise to be the starting point. We should look into our organisation and leverage the Solution Consultants (SCs), the Client Success Managers (CSMs), even the Professional Services (PS) or Delivery professionals and see how we can expand their skillset into sales. They have a credibility that easily gets them that first meeting, and the knowledge and experience that reps yearn for to be seen as a trusted advisor.
The problem of course is that SCs, CSMs, and PS professionals are typically not skilled up to be reps. And they sometimes think they can’t deal with the pressure, anxiety and rejection that comes with the sales job. While I always assumed that the skill and mindset gap would be too much of an uphill battle, several people have proved me wrong in the last few years. I have seen SC-turned-rep’s get their first meeting way quicker than sales reps. I’ve seen CSM-turned-rep’s develop deep relationships that traditional reps can only dream of. I have seen them close deals faster than traditional reps. Most of all, I have seen them get more satisfaction from their job, precisely because their domain expertise is valued so much, and is the springboard to develop a whole set of new skills.
Naturally, to successfully turn SC, CSMs, and PS professionals into sales reps, they need to learn sales skills like account planning, presenting, negotiating, etc. They need to develop commercial acumen, they need to learn to independently set a course and make tough decisions on qualification, win strategy, pricing etc. They need to learn to say no. Most of all, they need to learn how to deal with rejection and develop their resilience. I’ve been in sales myself long enough to know that that’s not a small feat, and I know that not everyone will be cut out for sales. But depending on your industry and product, exploring this option could be easier to accomplish than the other way around.
Even if you’re not willing to try to move people from these roles into sales, I suggest you leverage them more in your sales process. Get them to work closer with the reps, particularly in the early stages of the sales process. Because that domain expertise is what prospects want. That’s the currency. People with domain expertise don’t need to chase prospects for that second meeting. The prospect will be chasing them.
In August, I wrote how a kitesurfing accident that left me in a coma triggered a deep curiosity on the topic of resilience: the ability to brush yourself off after getting knocked down. I wanted to find out what we can learn from people who don’t just get back on their feet, but actually come out stronger – and how to apply their skills in the sales profession. Because the reality is that in sales, we’re exposed to a steady stream of setbacks, which could lead to disappointment, stress or demotivation. Yet, we don’t really get trained on how to best handle these upsetting events. Some of us cope well, others don’t. Why is that? This is the third article to share what I’ve learned about resilience for the sales professional.
Picture this. You worked super hard to hit your target, but this year, the sheer number of unexpected ups and downs made it practically near-impossible. Your key sponsor at that mega deal you’ve been working on resigned, pushing it into next year. For opportunities that you did manage to close, prospects threw you so many last-minute curve balls, that your whole legal team unfriended you on Facebook. They even ignore your outreaches on LinkedIn messenger. Your best solution consultant went to the competition, and although the new guy has potential, that wasn’t exactly what you needed in the last quarter. To top it off, management introduced new pricing and discount approval processes that make you wonder what they exactly mean when they tell you to be customer-centric.
Still, somehow, at the end of the rollercoaster ride that we call Q4, you made it. You hit target! Like Tom Hanks’ incomprehensible dodging of bullets, grenades, shrapnel and rockets amidst the complete chaos on Omaha Beach, you made it and you’re still in one piece. Phew!
Then, in the first week of the new financial year, it slowly sinks in. That shitty inner-voice you’ve been suppressing during your well-deserved, but all-too short break, gets louder and louder. When the invite for Sales Kick Off lands in your inbox, there’s no way around it – you have to face it. You. Are. Back. To. Zero. Yep – your YTD bookings are exactly $0! Your new target looks Pretty Big and Improbable and you’re not sure where to start. Welcome to the new Financial Year.
I spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit after my kitesurfing accident, followed by six long rollercoaster weeks in hospital. Too many operations to count, and too little energy to fully grasp all the ups and downs. But finally, after 54 days and nights in hospital, I got discharged. On 17 January 2014, under the watchful eye of my lovely wife, and on crutches, I wobbled back into our home. I was over the moon to have her with me around the clock, and to sleep in my own bed again. To not have the constant noise around me from doctors and other patients, and to have proper food (no offence, Chef de Cuisine of Royal North Shore Hospital).
Still, that first week back home felt a bit like the first week of the new Financial Year. I had fought so hard through all the ups and downs, just to get to zero. Arriving home was just the start of the journey. Numerous operations still lay ahead, as well as several months of hospital check-ups, 13 teeth to repair, and at least a year of physiotherapy. What I really wanted, was to get to the end. I wanted My Old Life Back. I wanted what I had before the accident.That was my target.
However meaningful (see Part 2) the target of Having My Old Life Back was to me, it felt, well…, Pretty Big and Improbable. So, here’s what I did.
First, I defined success. “Having My Old Life Back” is not exactly a tangible goal that you can measure, so I broke it down into sub-goals. One of those sub-goals was kitesurfing. If I were able to kitesurf again, I would have that aspect of my life back. Other sub-goals were around going back to work, getting to my old body weight, being able to do the Govetts Leap hike in the Blue Mountains, being able to drive, and many more. All of them together represented my target of Having My Old Life Back.
However, these sub-goals, and particularly the kitesurfing one, still looked Pretty Big and Improbable. To make them more manageable, I broke them down further into S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely) goals to work on over the year I gave myself to recover. For instance, I wanted to kitesurf again on or before 31 December 2014. Working back from that date, I targeted doing that hike by 1 December latest. Working back from that, I had to be able to walk 10km by 1 October, and 5km by 1 August. A first (wave)surf session by 1 June. Swim 10 laps by 1 May, and 4 laps by 1 April. From my very rough calculations and assumptions, that sub-goal of kitesurfing by 31 December meant that by 1 March, I should make it to the roundabout. That roundabout is located just 40 meters from where we live, the first waypoint on the road to the beach, and my first S.M.A.R.T. goal.
Then, I determined what activities I needed to do to reach those S.M.A.R.T. goals. In the first week, that was 5 squats times 2 a day. Lifting 2 kilo weights, times 5. The exercise with the elastic resistance bands – 10 times 2. In the second week, 10 squats times 2 a day, lifting 3 kilo weights, and so on. That Pretty Big and Improbable goal of kitesurfing had become very specific and therefore, a lot more realistic.
I printed the 3 pages of the spreadsheet with S.M.A.R.T. goals, activities and their timelines and stuck it to the wall in the bedroom. For many months, this spreadsheet was the first thing I looked at in the morning, and the last thing I updated in the evening. I made it to the roundabout on the 24th of February, and ended up kitesurfing on 28th September! Sure, I had setbacks – surfing took a year longer because the wrist didn’t heal and the joint unfortunately fused together. Fixing the teeth took over 2 years. I unexpectedly developed gallstones and had an emergency operation to remove the gall bladder. Pain befriended me. But those setbacks were easier to digest because my spreadsheet kept me stubbornly focused on the short term activities for the next goal. And this focus gave me the confidence that it would eventually lead me to my end goal. And it did; I not only have my life back, I have a much better life now, nearly 5 years after the accident.
Back to your sales challenge. You just received your Pretty Big and Improbable target and weren’t sure where to start. Here’s what I suggest you do. Follow this same approach by breaking it down in to S.M.A.R.T. goals and start with the end. From historical data, calculate your Average Deal Size. With that, determine how many deals you need to win to get to target. Using your previous win rates, calculate how many qualified opportunities you therefore need. Knowing your average deal cycle, calculate how they roughly should be distributed over the quarters. Determine how many stage 1 opportunities you’ll need by what date. How many qualified leads, how many first meetings, how many unqualified leads. Finally, you’ll give yourself a target of how many email and phone reach outs you need to do this week to get those new unqualified leads.
Even if numbers are not going to be 100% correct, this approach enforces a mindset to break down a Pretty Big and Improbable task into a set of very specific activities. Sales still is a numbers game and activity creates opportunity. Thoroughly plan it all first, then focus on execution, and trust the process along the way. Lock in a monthly review to see if you’re on track, fine-tune the sub-goals, dates, and activities, and just keep going at it. Before you know it, you’ll reach your roundabout.
In August, I wrote how a kitesurf accident that left me in a coma triggered a deep curiosity about resilience: the ability to brush yourself off after getting knocked down. I wanted to find out what we can learn from people who don’t just get back on their feet, but actually come out stronger – and how to apply their skills in the sales profession. Because the reality is that in sales, we’re exposed to a steady stream of setbacks, which could lead to disappointment, stress or demotivation. Yet, we don’t normally get trained on how to best handle these upsetting events. Some of us cope well, others don’t. Why is that? This is the first follow-up article to share what I’ve learned about resilience for the sales professional.
Let’s debunk the first myth straight away. Resilience is not a trait. It is not a characteristic that you’re either born with, or not. Resilient sales people are not ‘just tough and determined individuals’ that shrug their shoulders when difficulties arise. The behaviours that make people resilient are in fact based on skills and practices that are teachable. Things that you as an individual, and organisation, can put in place to be better prepared when hard times hit. Sheryl Sandberg, who unexpectedly lost her husband and wrote a book to share her lessons learned on the harrowing journey that followed, says that resilience can be built. It is not about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone, she writes. Although her experience is way more heart wrenching than mine, one commonality stood out for me. She needed to get her life back on track, just like me after my accident. We both had a ‘meaningful cause’, a higher purpose to reach for, that kept us focused during our recovery – a journey with its own number of setbacks along the way – and helped us pull through.
To appreciate how purpose builds resilience, Mandela’s plight is as impactful as it gets. The setbacks he experienced – including the 27 years he spent in jail – did not make him give up his fight against apartheid. Quite the opposite – he really came out stronger when he became the president of South Africa in 1994. Malala, the Pakistani schoolgirl who fought for gender equality in education and got shot in the face by the Taliban, showed a similar resilience. She not only survived her ordeal, but decided to bring her crusade to the global stage, becoming a UN Messenger of Peace, and the youngest ever Nobel Prize winner in 2014. She is also now doing speaking engagements across the world, and will be in Australia in December.
Us sales professionals tend to not have as idealistic a cause as Mandela or Malala, but if we want to be more resilient, we’d be wise to seek a higher cause than our quarterly commission cheque. The companies I worked for that had a clear and inspiring vision did much better in retaining talent when we hit some rough patches. Sales professionals who really bought into the positive change that the company was bringing to the world were the ones who were always more determined, while seemingly needing less energy! The reps who were there just for the money were the first ones to give up when times got tough. A vision creates meaning, which in turn, builds determination.
What if your company doesn’t have a meaningful purpose or vision? I suggest you don’t wait for HQ to inspire you – the strongest vision that made me power through hard times at work was the one where we as a local team agreed to build the best sales team in Australia (and I believe we did!). What if your team can’t agree on one? Create your own. Find a deeper meaning than your quarterly target. Asses the skills you’re building and determine how they support your overall career over the long run. Print them out, and hang them up to remind yourself of what you’re working towards when times get tough. In part 3, I’ll be sharing insights around how setting specific goals around my vision helped me built resilience during my recovery.
Even if you’ve only been in B2B sales for a short while, you already know this: Sales is exciting and fun, but also comes with disappointment. As sales professionals, we are exposed to many events that can cause stress, anger or frustration. We have prospects who don’t call us back, we miss out on RFPs, we don’t get shortlisted, we miss our target, we lose an existing customer, we get meetings cancelled on us without reason, and we are given territory restructures and targets we don’t always agree with. Most of all, we lose more deals than we win. I’m not asking for pity here, but a career in sales is also a career with enough, let’s say, opportunity for disappointment.
Good sales people brush themselves off after getting knocked down. Great sales people go further. They actually thrive in the face of stress, setbacks and adversity, and come out stronger. They are resilient sales professionals. After 20 years in sales, I like to think I am one of them. I’m still going strong, with the conviction that every year, I am getting better at it. But at a personal level, my resilience got the test of a life-time a couple of years ago. I am a very experienced kitesurfer, but got involved in a horrible accident; I somehow got entangled in another kitesurfer’s lines, got lifted up and fell 30 feet down onto the beach – face first. A trauma helicopter raced me to the hospital where X-rays revealed my face was shattered into 9 pieces, my pelvis broke off my spine, my wrist was beyond repair and vital organs had been damaged by bone splinters. I was in a coma for the first 10 days, and had dozens and dozens of hours of surgery in the weeks after. I left the hospital two months later, and although I lost 10 kilos in body weight, I gained a total of 47 screws, 11 titanium plates, and one brand spanking new titanium eye socket.
It took nearly two years to fully recover, with lots of setbacks along the way. Once I got my life back, I felt the way a race horse must feel after her blinkers are removed at the finish line of the Melbourne Cup Race. Exhausted, satisfied but not exactly sure what happened. From doctors, surgeons and physiotherapist, I kept hearing how lucky I had been and how my determination made it a very unusual recovery (did I mention I am kitesurfing again?). They told me that other people wouldn’t have made it to such a great outcome. To start with, a third of Intensive Care Unit survivors falls into depression. What Nietzsche said is wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t make you stronger. Not necessarily. Many people come out weaker, or barely get their old life back; physically or mentally.
In the corporate environment, people who experience serious setbacks don’t always come out stronger either. Instead, the continuous flow of setbacks slowly demoralises or burns them out. Which explains why we are all familiar with terms like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Anxiety, Stress at Work, Burnout, Depression and so on. Sure, there are inspirational stories of people who somehow scramble back up, but in popular media, not much attention is devoted to how these people exactly manage to come out stronger.
I became curious about that very topic. What is it they do, and what can we learn from them so we are better equipped when we face a great deal of adversity in sales? Because the reality is that in my career, I’ve had many, many sales trainings, but not one of them on resilience. Not even a few pointers. We’re just supposed to dust ourselves off and get back in the saddle. Clearly, more resilient sales people would bring higher productivity, create a more fun work environment, more stability and consistency, more happiness, and lead to more deals won.So I started reading. About resilience. About positive psychology. About the plasticity of the brain, and the working of hormones like cortisol, dopamine, and adrenaline. I read autobiographies from Mandela and Malala, to understand their incredible journeys of resilience. I read books from CEOs about how they guided their companies through turbulence and setback after setback. And I found a few common themes, or skills which resilient people apply. All of them are applicable in corporate sales. I am super excited to present these in a first workshop this week, and will be sharing my findings on my website and linkedin in the coming period. Stay tuned!