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.
I often come across two key challenges, when consulting enterprise b2b sales teams:
Several deals in the pipeline keep on getting pushed out, after which they finally get closed to the dreadful “No Decision” stage. Then, everyone seems to agree these deals should not have been qualified-in in the first place. But, the next quarter, the same things happens again.
After closing a deal to the even more dreadful “Lost to Competition”, post-loss analysis reveals that prospects believe the product differentiators are not that aligned with their needs or budget. Yet, no one picked up on that before the decision.
Such problems are nearly always the result of weak execution of the early stages of the sales process. And typically, this weak execution is a result of a poor design of the sales process. The Sales Process simply does not align with the Buying Process.
The Sales Process
For most B2B sales teams, the Sales Process invariably looks like this. The first stage is “Prospecting” – finding a prospect that potentially has a need for your product or service. “Qualification” then follows, with validation steps around BANT (Budget, Authority, Needs, Timing). When that gets cleared (or, more likely, when the rep thinks it does), the whole sales train comes in motion with numerous activities focused at linking your solution to the prospect’s needs: “Discovery”, “Demonstration”, “Proposal”, “Negotiation”, etc.
The Buying Process
In reality, the Buying Process (all that happens at the prospect’s side) begins much earlier than the Sales Process (that what happens at your side). At the prospect’s side, a company typically goes through three phases, before they start looking for a solution. These phases roughly go like this: 1) Something Changes, which then 2) causes or aggravates Pain or friction, which then 3) gives rise to Needs. Which triggers the search for a Solution. For instance, that Change that gets the whole Buying Process in motion, could be the prospect’s competitor creating price pressure, or new government regulation, or margin erosion, or a current vendor not performing. Or – the Big Change – the prospect’s customer (often the Consumer) is changing. They want things faster, easier, in a self-serve fashion, or cheaper (because that’s the expectation set by companies like Netflix, Amazon, Uber, or other companies that don’t even play in the prospect’s industry). This Change creates Pain because the prospect’s current processes and infrastructure were created before this Change occurred. People at the prospect then realise something needs to be done (or not), they define their needs, and then look for a solution to meet those needs.
In those three phases where Change leads to Pain, and then to Needs, some crucial decisions get made on the prospect’s side. And not all of them are made explicitly, some just ‘happen’. The internal owner of the problem is assigned or arises, the priority over other business problems is determined, an initial business case gets established to determine whether to indeed move forward, needs get defined, a rough view of the solution gets formed, expectations around timelines are set, and resources and budget get earmarked. Once that’s established, the search for a solution starts. The main stage in the Sales Process that covers those first three important phases of the Buying Process, is that “Prospecting” stage. Sure, it’s not always all that linear, but key factors that determine the potential fit of your solution really get shaped in these very early stages.
In other words, fundamental decisions that impact your ability to win the deal are made in the “Prospecting” stage – before the evaluation really starts. The reality is that once an opportunity clears that BANT qualification hurdle, your ability to influence is greatly reduced. The train has left the station, and if you weren’t steering it, there’s no point jumping on board.
And that’s where the Sales Process design often is wrong. Sales emphasis actually increases as the ability to influence reduces. Sales management tends to only get involved once opportunities are well progressed – post Qualification. Solution Consulting and Processional Services assign domain experts once it gets to “Discovery” or “Proposal” stage. Management start scrutinising things once an opportunity is in “Decision” stage. In other words – when the reps or sales manager’s ability to influence the outcome is minimal. CEOs get introduced at the tail end, when the processes set in motion typically don’t allow prospects to change tack, even if they’d wanted to. Yet, that super important “Prospecting” stage – where the ability to influence is at its highest – hardly gets any scrutiny.
How to fix it
Determine your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) and ensure you Get in Early. Focus; selling change in enterprise is about quality, not quantity. Agree on the importance of the “Prospecting” stage, and rearrange your weekly sales meeting to ensure the agenda also addresses the top of the funnel. Have Marketing and Sales Development present, to share their Lead Generation activities to start conversations early. In your CRM, consider breaking up “Prospecting” into “Reaching out”, “Initial Meetings”, “Selling Vision”, and “Vision Match”, before moving on to “Qualification”. In the 1:1s with the sales reps, scrutinise opportunities in qualification stages and don’t be afraid to slow things down. If you don’t already have one, create a process around qualification; have multiple people constructively review such opportunities to avoid eagerly qualified opportunities lead to “No Decision”. Review those “No Decision” opportunities in more detail to find the cause. I often come across reps that qualify too eagerly simply because they want Solution Consultants involved, and the Sales Process dictates that SCs only get assigned to opportunities past Qualification stage! If that’s the case, train reps to have better business conversations to avoid they rush into showing what your solution looks like. Consider changing your Sales Process to involve SCs before “Qualification” with key accounts. Whatever you do, develop an understanding how your prospects buy, and what you really can still influence at what stage. A simple first step is to stop calling it a Sales Process; it’s a Buying Process.
Being able to articulate differentiators is the single most important skill for any B2B sales professional. It’s often also the most difficult; that’s why a large part of your sales training is devoted to it. As you make that skill your own, you have to be critical and be aware that your competitors will be just as confident as you when they come out of their sales training. They will develop their pitch around different differentiators and try to convince your prospect those are more important than yours. Of course, selling then is about the right questioning to understand the client’s needs, and to get them to buy into your point of view rather than the competitor’s. I am sure your sales training addresses that, too. But so does your competitor’s training.
There is a powerful question that most sales trainings don’t teach you to ask. It’s a bit of a no-brainer, which is probably the reason why it gets overlooked not just by your sales team, but by your competitors, too. It’s single best question I’ve learned to ask, and has often lead to game-changing insights. It’s pretty straight forward: “Dear customer, thank you very much for deciding to go with us after such a thorough evaluation. What made you decide that way?”. I ask this question after every single win, and always learn something new – which I then take into my next pitch. For instance, when I worked at Responsys a couple of years ago, one new client told me she back-channeled with customers of the shortlisted vendors, and heard our SaaS solution never had unexpected outages. Also, our local support team was really helpful. The sales training I’d had didn’t mention these as differentiators, but once I learned these were differentiators, I made a point of telling prospects to focus on that during the reference calls they requested. Other customers would give me reasons that did align with our differentiators, but used their words, and provided a context that helped me understand the customers’ business even better (yep, even after the deal was won! Clients sometimes open up more to sales people after the decision is made). And it wasn’t just about the customer agreeing our offering was better – sometimes, this simple question would lead to insights around competitors’ strengths or sales tactics that nearly got them to sway the deal their way!
I think another reason this question hardly gets asked, is that sales people think it could reflect a lack of confidence. They believe clients decided to go their way because they were so good at convincing them about their differentiators. The win simply is a confirmation of the sales team’s awesomeness and since the client already signed, why take the risk of coming across so timidly? To not let overconfidence or ego get in the way of gaining such powerful insights, develop a good talk track and processes around that question. Maybe an Account Manager, or senior leader could own that conversation. Maybe even an outside party. Whatever you do, make it part of the sales process! You’ll see that new customers will appreciate the humble ask, and always are willing to help you do even better.
“Please skip the slides, we’ve already been to your website. Just show us your demo, and we’ll let you know”
“No, don’t send a sales guy, just send us the guy who can answer our technical questions”
“We’ve done our research already, just give us your price”
You probably have had a prospect tell you something like that. You’ve also seen these (for us B2B sales professionals) unsettling statistics saying 70% of a business buyer’s journey is completed before the sales rep comes into the picture. Or that 90% of a buyer’s research happens online. All of this proves what we all already know: B2B buyers are much more independent as they contemplate options during their evaluation process. However nice your smile, they won’t call you in until the Buying Cycle is well on track.
Inbound and content marketing, with a big focus on educating prospects during those early stages, is typically seen as the solution to this challenge. And often, it works well. But there are scenario’s where relying on inbound marketing is not only an ineffective approach, it can actually create noise and distractions that will seriously hamper your sales success. Scenarios where a prospect needs to look at their problem from a different angle. Scenarios where you need to Get in Early to have a chance to show them that. Scenarios where the prospect can’t explore options fully without involvement from an expert – you. In SaaS, two pipeline characteristics are typically evidence of these scenarios. First, there is a lot of activity at the top of the sales funnel, with very low conversions. Prospects are interested, but unconvinced. Secondly, annual renewal levels (for those that did convert) are well below 90%. Customers didn’t really understand what they bought, didn’t integrate it properly, bought it for the wrong reasons, didn’t manage internal expectations around ROI, misjudged the impact of self-service, or a combination of all that. Oh, and that same buyer who told you he wasn’t interested in meeting a sales guy, probably blames you for not making him aware of what they really were buying.
I often come across SaaS companies that struggle with these challenges. Particularly US-headquartered companies that assume our market is as mature as theirs, and implement the same sales strategy here. Frustrated with the lack of success, they ramp up marketing to get more leads. Or tell marketing to just get better leads. Or they end up questioning the skills of the sales reps. Or, the worst of all, they start discounting to get the deal or renewal. All in all, a slippery slope.
So, what to do?
Assess the level of change your solution will have on the people, processes and technology side at your customers. With change, I mean how much the buying organisation needs to adjust before they get value from your solution. Do they need to change processes? Do they need to restructure responsibilities or even departments? Are end-users skilled to perform all tasks that come with self-service, and do their job descriptions and KPIs support that? Have they ever bought something like this before, and do they know what questions to ask? Most of all, do they even know what success looks like? With all focus on your exciting SaaS offering, it’s so easy to forget (on both sides) that a successful implementation and renewal need more than your technology alone.
If the Change Impact is low, inbound is probably the best approach. The introduction of your solution represents an incremental improvement of how they currently work – not a Big Change. Just ensure your content and processes make it really easy to buy from you. The Change Impact will be high on the other hand, if your offering involves automation of manual activities, or new self-service tasks that traditionally sat with IT or other non-functional users. Or if you rely on buzzwords like Machine Learning or Artificial Intelligence – anything that has represents a Big Change to people, process and technology. In that case, a pure inbound driven approach is likely to create too much noise with the wrong prospects kicking the wrong tires. Instead, develop an old-school outbound strategy with a focus on those prospects that are most likely to buy. Don’t drop inbound all together, as long as you focus – it’s about quality, not quantity. Fight like hell to Get in Early into the Buying Cycle. Embrace Challenger Sale or Insight Selling, slow down your prospects, and position yourself as a Trusted Advisor for Change.