Sales as a Second Language – Learning to Speak “Sales”

If you follow the media coverage these days, you would think that everyone in business is learning how to speak a foreign language. It seems there’s a widespread perception that speaking a second language is a real asset: Rosetta Stone, the popular language training software firm, continues to report double digit customer growth. Here in Chicago, Language Stars (the firm that specializes in teaching kids foreign languages) caters to increasing parental interest by jump-starting kids’ second language skills. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe learning a second language wouldn’t be valuable in a future career?

I make this observation, because when it comes to sales effectiveness, I find that many senior executives haven’t learned “Sales as a second language”.

My colleague Spencer Maus recently pointed this out in a discussion about how business leaders decide they need help with their Sales team. He asked, why do executives decide that they need your sales effectiveness services? We reviewed this question in depth, and I want to share the valuable insights I gained from Spencer.

As a business executive, your career trajectory may or may not have included participation in Sales. No doubt, many smaller business founders/owners personally captured their firm’s original customers, or perhaps, someone with sales background was brought in to help the founders with Sales. My personal experience in larger firms is the majority of executive leaders didn’t advance through the Sales ranks.

Whether we started in Sales or elsewhere, our life experiences and business activities always expose us to sales situations. We accumulate personal and business experiences either as a potential buyer or in selling products or services to prospect and customers. Executives often participate in customer relationship development and key sales decisions.

Regardless, it doesn’t mean that person running the business has professional sales experience. For example, young attorneys may witness relationship development and selling by more senior partners and associates, but that doesn’t translate into real sales training, networking skills development, or how to find new clients in the context of a legal practice. More senior colleagues may have relied on personal friends or sales naturally evolved out of existing client relationships – not exactly what I would describe as professional selling.

While there’s nothing wrong with cultivating a personal network or getting additional business from an existing customer (especially true within Professional Services), that’s probably not enough to sustain a growing business in any industry. In my view, there are three important prerequisite elements that define an organization’s ability to professionally perform business development:

Intentional Sales Process

A defined, intentional sales process is the first prerequisite element. Defined, in that someone actually sat down and assessed how business development is done, what tasks are completed, the sales content (deliverables) produced, and how long it takes to perform each sales task. Call this “business process analysis” or whatever technical term makes sense, but as the cliché goes, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.

Intentional, because everyone has a de facto sales process – it may be an ill-defined process that doesn’t produce intended results, but you still have a process. Management should put pre-meditated thought and effort into creating and managing a process that really works.

Sales (versus Marketing) Messaging

Intuitively, there should be a firm-wide consensus about what customer-facing employees say to prospects and customers, versus what is documented on your website, written in proposals, or presented in marketing collateral. Despite the critical importance of sales conversations, many firms fail to examine whether they have the right sales conversation with prospective customers.

While judging conversation quality can be subjective, there’s no reason why there can’t be internal consensus about what works or doesn’t work in a sales conversation. (I’ve documented in a previous post a detailed process to successfully assess sales conversations and messaging quality using the 99 Questions Methodology.)

Some business leaders believe it’s enough just to have good personal conversations and develop relationships. Here’s a brief story that illustrates why this approach has a limited probability of producing short-term results: one of my clients’ sales people regularly took prospective clients to lunch and they developed great personal relationships. After months of lunches, you would think that all the personal attention would have produced significant business, but these sales people never so much as asked the prospect if they could sell them something! Needless to say, these sales people had great customer “friends,” but no pipeline! They also didn’t have jobs once Management figured out what happened!

Create a System

Another famous cliché I have experienced is that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. If you have a reasonable volume of business development, there has to be some way of tracking the process, monitoring employees’ communications, and evaluating whether their sales efforts are successful. For example, hiring more people because there is more work may not indicate real success. In fact, it may demonstrate how inefficiently you deliver products and services, versus generating more revenue and profit. Tangible methods of evaluating sales activities help to determine if the Sales people are producing expected results.

However, tracking the process doesn’t mean simply buying and installing a CRM system to record “sales” activities. There should be intense introspection to identify your target customers, how you connect with them, the steps that go into relationship building, how you know a sales cycle is making progress, how you evaluate each customer-facing person to determine if they are meeting relationship and revenue goals. Many firms acquire sales technology products based on the mistaken belief that a technology solution addresses these questions. By example, inputting data into an opportunity screen of a CRM tool doesn’t translate into effectively managing a client relationship.

Would You Learn a 2nd Language this Way?

To revisit the 2nd language analogy, there is no guarantee that you’ll easily adopt another language just because you are competent in speaking English. It takes training and practice, along with insights about why you need a second language, how you will use your second language, setting goals to become proficient in speaking the language, and making an intentional effort to continually improve. Systems like Rosetta Stone help to accomplish those goals by managing the learning process, and tracking results.

Why would you do differently when it comes to developing new business? Assuming you understand an entire body of business practices around creating, building, and managing a Sales organization is like deciding you can learn French just by reading movie subtitles. The recognition of Sales as a second language should be the realization you have the opportunity to help your business become more successful by learning and adopting best practices.

Bonne Chance!

If you are interested in discussing how to implement “Sales as a second language” or if you want to evaluate your selling process, sales messaging and/or sales systems, please contact me. You can find my colleague Spencer Maus at his website on marketing and public relations best practices, Spencerconnect.


Prospecting, Funnel Metrics & GTR

In recent posts I have focused on messaging strategy and the 99 Questions Methodology to enable new customer prospecting efforts. In this post I’d like to discuss the topic of prospecting from a different perspective, and share with you a new partner relationship I’ve formed with Velu Pelani, CEO of GTR Consulting. GTR is a Chicago-based firm that specializes in consulting. My sales operations background complements GTR’s extensive experience doing development and customizing for clients. I want to share the story behind why I am partnering with GTR to illustrate an important sales management lesson.

We can all agree that prospecting is one of the most formidable job challenges for sales managers: coaching and motivating sales people to prospect is at best, a difficult responsibility. There always seems to be uncertainty about prospecting tactics (yes, we can stipulate that everyone hates cold calling), the amount of time dedicated to prospecting, how much prospecting is needed to make quota, and even where prospect “lists” will come from. Given this chaos, sales managers often ignore important prospecting fundamentals. Prerequisite steps are needed before kick-starting the process and subsequent pipeline management activities that take over a sales manager’s time and effort. Ignoring the fundamentals compounds this effort and creates problems in overseeing the pipeline, which I will illustrate in the story below.

Sales manager prospecting requirements came up when Velu and I reviewed a unique sales tool that extends by aggregating the opportunity pipeline into a single graphical display. The tool allows sales managers (and their teams) to view and manipulate their pipeline much more efficiently than using reports or dashboards. It also identifies opportunities that don’t appear to fit in a particular sales stage for whatever reason (e.g., they age past certain point, etc.).

One of the tool’s strengths is its extensive capabilities to calculate an “ideal” pipeline. As we reviewed the product, I asked the following question: How does the tool determine the number of pipeline opportunities that should be ideally pursued at each stage in the sales cycle?  More important, on a broader level, how do tools like this address how many deals are needed above the funnel in order to make quota?

To be clear, the question isn’t whether the tool can calculate an ideal pipeline. The issue is, can sales managers really understand and apply this information in a meaningful way? To really leverage this or other tools, we need to apply a fundamental sales management practice known in the sales and marketing community as Funnel Metrics.

Funnel Metrics helps managers understand that from the very top of the sales funnel process (where leads are generated by marketing campaigns and/or where sales people cold call), there is a certain number of customer contacts you have to work with and move down the funnel so that you end up with the desired number of closed deals, resulting in your quota. When I consult with clients, I use a diagram that looks like this:

Funnel Metrics Diagram
Funnel Metrics Diagram

To determine your Funnel Metrics, first define the current or desired sales cycle stages you have in your sales process (six stages in the diagram). Then, take your total annual revenue number and divide it by the average revenue per deal to get the number of deals you need to win in a year.

Now put that number in the Close Box (in this case, 10). Work backwards from Close to figure out how many deals are needed at each stage, and how many are eliminated at each stage. For example, it takes 13 proposals to get to 10 wins, and 25 qualified deals to get 10 wins. You do this for each stage, finally getting to the Leads at the top of the Funnel. Each stage stands on its own.

You can calculate the Probability of winning a deal at each stage by dividing the number of deals at any stage into the number of Closed deals (e.g., 10 closes / 13 Proposals = 77% close rate.

Now you have a way to see where your overall pipeline is compared to the Funnel Metrics. It’s based on your actual experience, so no one can deny it (unless you are completely re-vamping your process, in which case you can create “ideal” Funnel Metrics to start). You can also compare individual rep’s pipelines against the Funnel Metrics see how they are stacking up. You can look at performance at each stage and determine how you need to coach each rep based on how their pipeline compares to the Funnel Metrics. Finally, you now know if there’s enough Leads to close the total deals needed to make quota. There is much more you can do with this as you might expect and I’m happy to share ideas with you.

Why is this important to Velu and his clients? While the concept of Funnel Metrics is not complex, Velu realized that neither he nor his client managers have a working knowledge of pipeline and funnel metrics practices inherent in the pipeline tool we reviewed. The value of these tools (like CRM itself) comes from knowing how to manage the process and the people in the first place. Tools support that knowledge, but they typically assume you already know what to do. I can say from personal experience that I didn’t understand Funnel Metrics when I first became a sales manager. (See my previous post about Sales MANagers versus Sales MANAGERS for more insight.)

As we pursue engagements with clients, GTR and I will work together to drive greater insights into client’s sales effectiveness by encouraging them to invest in their sales process and practices, and by working with the sales leaders to help them gain valuable insights into how they can improve sales team performance. This leads to better results from and real efficiencies in managing the pipeline with pipeline tools found on the AppExchange. I am excited to be partnering with Velu and his team!

NOTE: If you would like a copy of my Funnel Metric Spreadsheet or would like to do a free 30 minute Funnel Metric exercise, please contact me by clicking here.

I am Captain of The Obvious

For a moment, allow me to be “Captain of The Obvious” in the sales world:

“You don’t know what you don’t know”

And another famous cliché:

“It is what it is”

Let me explain why I’m using clichés to begin this post. The essence of what it means to be a Sales Manager in today’s marketplace is to work in clichés. You sit in sales meetings reviewing pipelines, arguing (again) the definition of a “qualified” deal with each rep. Your team members passionately describe how “good” their deals are, but half their opportunities are “stretched” over 60 days, and nothing seems to be moving. You need to hire a new rep, but takes 3 months because your HR person “doesn’t have a good job description”. More important, you sense the frustration in your management team peers, and worse your CEO keeps asking, “Why can’t we change this situation?”

Arguably the clichés above point to a certain resignation in the sales organization, and in management itself, that these problems are commonplace. And by commonplace, it follows that somebody ought to know how to fix these issues, or at least know enough to have a plan for addressing them. But when push comes to shove, the “why” question continues to be asked and the problems seem to be chronic. Continue reading “I am Captain of The Obvious”

Practicing Sales MANAGE-ment

In my last post, I challenged the notion of Sales MAN-ager versus Sales MANAGER because I believe many Sales Managers don’t spend enough time actually managing their people. Instead, they focus on pipeline administration and sales “results” instead of managing behaviors. An critical part of Sales Management is the effort Sales Managers make to work with their sales people on personal development. One of the most important things you can do as a Sales Manager is to address sales behaviors instead of results. I want to share how you can create an appropriate process of monitoring and managing sales performance based on behaviors. Continue reading “Practicing Sales MANAGE-ment”

Don’t Confuse Sales with CRM

CRM has had a huge impact on executive perceptions about what it really takes to manage sales teams.  I credit CRM vendors for selling the benefits of CRM while minimizing the extensive planning and implementation effort that went into accruing those benefits. (Hence, the phrase, “Never confuse selling with delivery!”)

Because of this, I think that senior management and Sales leaders mistake what is done in CRM for sales management.   Yes, you can monitor sales pipeline and activities in CRM, but what did you do to establish the fundamentals behind these outputs before you started using the tool?

I would argue that managing Sales has nothing to do with CRM at all.  After all, there was Sales before there were computers and CRM tools. Certainly CRM helps you perform sales and management tasks more efficiently, but it’s only a tool.  It’s not the endgame.

Continue reading “Don’t Confuse Sales with CRM”

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