In the hierarchy of things that you can do to improve your sales performance, there are both simple and complex solutions. Depending on your company’s particular situation, both the simple and the complex solution could provide value to your organization. They are not mutually exclusive. The question is: what should you do first?
The difficulty with sales problems is that they can be hard to diagnose and solve. There are lots of interlocking pieces to the sales puzzle, and the temptation is to assume that hard problems require complex and expensive solutions. Therefore, depending on your company’s size and resources, this could mean that your most pressing sales problem doesn’t get addressed because there is no budget or that a large investment is made to implement a new selling process and train your entire sales force how to sell to that model.
My experience has shown that a company with ample resources will typically default to the complex solution because CEOs and sales managers make the often faulty assumption that the simple solutions are already in place. A company with more limited resources will also tend to overlook the simple solutions to their sales problems because they have been conditioned to believe that the only answer to a hard problem costs money. If they search online they will find a parade of reputable sales training and consulting firms promoting selling systems that promise to fix their sales problems. But those approaches often require a substantial investment of money over a substantial period of time.
However, irrespective of company size, if management were to investigate and do a little digging they will usually find that the fundamental disciplines every company needs to flawlessly execute their sales plan, and that they believed were in place, have either faded due to management inattention or never existed to begin with. They assumed that all sales leads were promptly being followed up. They assumed that all salespeople were being responsive to their prospects and customers in zero-time with the information and answers to the questions they need to move forward in the buying process. They assumed that customers were receiving the level of unconditional support required to turn them into loyal repeat customers. They assumed that their frontline salespeople knew their products inside and out, or at least better than their customers did. Well, we all know what happens when you assume.
As with any investment, the dollars invested in new selling systems and sales training involve a certain element of risk. You can’t precisely predict the outcome although the potential payoff of improved sales productivity, over an extended period of time, can be large as well. So, imagine a company’s surprise when, after they have invested in an expensive new selling system. modified their sales model and re-trained their entire sales team, they determine that they are experiencing the same sales problems as before.
The fault doesn’t lie with the new selling system. The problem is that the company is trying to build a new sales house on a shaky foundation. The biggest return on the dollars you invest in your sales team will come from ensuring that you are mastering the fundamental sales disciplines ( and incorporating those into your daily routines. Before you embark on an upgrade program do the simple things first. Then take the next step to renovate and upgrade your sales house.
Are you Walking the Dog or is the Dog Walking You?
There exists a touch of schizophrenia in some of the writing and blogging on sales, sales improvement and sales training today. On one hand, there is general agreement that the world has changed, that universally easy access to information has shifted the balance of power in any sales transaction from the seller to the customer, converting the old familiar sales cycle into the buying cycle. Selling has become a “customer-oriented.”
And yet, on the other hand, there still remains a major emphasis in selling today on the notion of controlling the sales process and controlling your prospect and customers. (If you Google “controlling the sales process” you’ll get 31,400,000 results.) However, there is perhaps no bigger myth in sales today than that of a salesperson controlling the sales process or their prospects.
Many companies and salespeople still nominally employ the traditional “control-oriented” sales model today. It is easy to understand why people gravitate towards this approach to selling. Being in “control” is comforting. It is a hard habit for sales managers and salespeople to break. Even though it doesn’t work.
I like to believe that I am in control when I’m taking my dogs for a walk. Unless they decide that a compelling new smell emanating from the bushes demands to be investigated. Or some yappy purse dogs straining on their leashes in the opposite direction on the other side of the street need to be greeted and sniffed from stem to stern. Like prospects, my dogs indulge my need to appear to be in control.
Paradoxically, the primary tactic a salesperson often employs in a vain effort to control the sales process centers on controlling and metering the flow of information to the prospect. Rather than helping the salesperson with his or her control issues, the prospect experiences this absence of information as poor responsiveness and poor sales service. Whatever advantage the salesperson had hoped to gain by “controlling the prospect,” he or she will have lost.
This approach is the exact opposite of how effective sellers today are using responsiveness, content and speed as competitive advantages to help the buyer make an informed purchased decision in the least time possible. Notice the emphasis on “helping the buyer.” Selling must be a service in support of the buyer. And service, by definition, is about giving, not holding back.
Rather than making life harder for salespeople, openly relinquishing any claim to controlling the sales process and the prospect frees a salesperson to develop more effective ways to create value for the customer and differentiate their product and company through how they sell.
Acknowledging that you are not in control of the prospect forces you to focus on your prospect’s requirements, specifically in terms of the information they must have to make an informed purchase decision. And, how you can meet their needs by using the resources that actually are under your control to sell with the maximum impact in the least time possible to win more orders in less time.
I read a blog posting recently about what a salesperson could do to increase sales. The title was something catchy like “A Billion and One Tips to Increase Sales.” It was hard to argue with the premise of the post. Everyone in sales can use good advice on increasing sales. It’s the reason I continue to read everything I can about sales. There is always something new to learn.
In this case, this author’s useful quick tips were all about creating more sales activity. He was asking the question ‘What should you do if you have prospects but they aren’t moving forward fast enough?’ and providing answers that were designed to create a flurry of sales activity around prospects to stimulate them to engage and move forward with the seller.
But is selling the same as sales activity? And, if a prospect is not yet fully committed to the buying process, is random sales activity the way to get them engaged?
Nothing is sometimes better than something
I had a salesperson, named Arte, working for me once who had confused activity with selling. He came into my office one day and told me that he had invented his own method of selling that he called SWARM. The acronym stood for Surround With Activity to Regain Momentum. His thought was to envelop his prospects in a constant swarm of sales activities such as of phone calls, visits, emails, voice messages, invitations to webinars and seminars, product demonstrations in the hope that eventually something would stick and the prospect would relent and engage.
How’d that work for Arte? Not so well. But he got high marks for creativity.
Unfortunately, similar to Arte, many salespeople fall into the trap of believing that doing something, anything, with a prospect is better than doing nothing. This happens all the time when the prospect has gone radio silent. There are lots of reasons why this occurs and it is the job of the salesperson to determine the answer and respond appropriately and with content that has value for the prospect. But rarely is the correct response to bombard the prospect with trivial, time-wasting requests and interactions.
Keep in mind the customer’s objective
In a sales situation, or buying situation, it is important to keep in mind that the goal of the customer is to gather the information or data they need to make an informed purchase decision with the least investment of their time possible. This is not to say that customers won’t spend the appropriate time to purchase a product or service. This just means that they won’t spend a minute more than they have to.
Create and deliver value each time you talk to your prospects and customers
If you are selling you should only be taking actions with a customer that have a defined purpose, deliver clear value and support the customer’s goal. To that end, instead of unthinkingly reaching out to the customer and demanding some of his or her time with a trivial request, consider the opposite approach: make sure that every interaction you have with a prospect or customer achieves Maximum Impact in the Least Time (MILT) possible. It requires planning and thought to make certain that each time you interact with the prospect or customer you are providing information that will bring them closer to their goal of making an informed decision. But the result is that you will bring value to the customer through your selling. If you want a customer to engage, create value for them by your actions. Wasting their limited time with “sales activities” does the opposite.
Selling has a purpose. It is not the goal of your prospects or customers to spend time with you. In fact, the opposite is true. They want to accomplish their job, which is to buy a product or service, while spending as little time with the salesperson as possible. The winning salesperson will usually be the one who knows how to make that happen.
Which is more important in selling: Process or selling skills?
This is one of the classic debates about sales and selling. It is very similar to the ‘nature vs. nurture’ debates that young adults without kids and too much time on their hands indulge in. (Anyone with kids quickly learns the answer to this…) The answer is that both process and skill are required to succeed in sales. However, process provides the platform for skills to flourish.
What Would Michael Do?
Take the case of an elite athlete like Michael Phelps, the world champion swimmer. Michael Phelps trains like a demon, spending hours face down in a pool every day, to showcase his skills on the world’s biggest stage, the Olympics. He won an unprecedented 8 gold medals in swimming at the Beijing Games in 2008. There is no doubting his obvious skills. Having conquered the world once, the question was would he return to the London games in 2012 and try again?
In preparation for the Beijing Olympics, Michael followed the training regimen put together by his coach, Bob Bowman. It was a process that focused on the quality of the daily work Michael did in preparation for competition. Every workout he swam and the details of how he performed in that workout, every weightlifting session, every cross-training session were meticulously recorded, tracked and analyzed. Bowman and Phelps knew that the most accurate predictor of how Michael would perform in the big competitions was the data collected about his daily training process over the previous months and years.
The Day-to-Day Process
This is similar to selling. How you execute your sales process on a day-to-day basis will be the most accurate predictor of whether you will win orders and meet your objectives. An effective and disciplined sales process can do for you what it does for Michael Phelps. If you work hard, it will put you in a position to compete for and win orders. It is how well you execute the basic sales activities that comprise the steps of your process, and how often, that will ultimately lead to the order.
As he began his preparations for the London Olympics Phelps strayed from the process that had led him to the podium eight times in Beijing. And, with all the skills in the world, his results in competition suffered. He was losing to swimmers that previously couldn’t compare to him. What did he do? He redoubled his commitment to the process laid out by his coach. He might have rebelled against the process but he returned to it because he knew that if he invested his hard work into it results would follow.
Listen to Michael Phelps being interviewed after a competition today and he defaults to talking about his process. The race result might now have been a first place finish but he will talk about how well his training is going instead. His focus is on how is he performing each day in each step of his training process. He knows that if he executes his process he’ll put himself in the position to achieve the results he expects.
In the same way sales process can provide a much clearer snapshot of potential sales than simply looking at your pipeline of prospects. Well-defined sales processes provide a method to continually assess and measure the underlying sales activities that will lead to orders. Using metrics to continually measure and fine-tune sales processes, just as Bob Bowman did with Phelps’ training regimen, leads to improved outcomes for salespeople of all skill levels.
Your Process Enhances Your Skills
I had a client where one of the more senior salespeople, a grizzled sales professional, Ollie, was determined to resist management’s efforts to implement some fundamental and essential sales processes to respond to a changing sales environment. Ollie had always managed his sales territory his own way and while he possessed great sales skills and experience he was floundering. He found himself at odds with evolving prospect and customer expectations for salespeople in terms of responsiveness, follow-up, content delivery and service.
The processes that Ollie’s management implemented saved his sales career by requiring Ollie to become more responsive, more proactive and timely in follow-up, more knowledgeable of the products he sold, more conscious of eliminating time-wasting sales calls and making every customer interaction achieve the maximum impact in the least time possible in order to compress buying cycles.
This does not mean that a salesperson should ignore the skill components of selling. We should always be working to improve our sales skills no matter how much experience we have. But sales skills need to be utilized in support of defined sales process to create the most value for the customer. And the salesperson.
Why are your sales so slow? I’m not referring to your order rate. I am talking about the activities and processes that have to be happening in Zero-Time in order for you to achieve your sales goals. One thing leads to another and if you are running in place in February, you’ll be running to catch up by March and hopelessly behind by June.
Here we are, still near the beginning of a new year, when hopes for the next twelve months should be running high. And your selling efforts feel like they are stuck in the thick mud. Just like they were last year. This is not the way to kick off what should be your most successful sales year ever.
Everyone has a reason or an excuse for slow selling. Believe me, we have all been in a situation where you question your sales manager about why it is taking so long to move a customer along in their buying cycle, and they don’t have an answer that makes sense. Or any answer at all.
I ask all my new clients to identify the reason, or reasons, why they are not growing, why their sales efforts are stuck in neutral. The responses I receive are typically all of a piece. As CEOs they can identify the symptoms but not the causes of the problem. But as CEOs and sales managers of SMBs you can’t be a doctor who can only diagnose the symptoms of the illness without prescribing a cure.
I group the symptoms of sales lethargy into the S-L-O-W acronym.
S is for Status Quo.
Too many companies are just coasting along. The CEOs are not really satisfied with their results but they are too worried about making any changes that could rock the boat and potentially jeopardize the sales they do manage to capture. Maintaining the status quo is not a way to thrive.
“Status Quo is ancient Greek for ‘slow death.'”
Folks, say hi to Milt again. (To learn more about Milt, check out my book, Zero-Time Selling, or this previous blog post. )
Actually, Milt, Status Quo is not Greek. It is Latin for “the current state of affairs.” But when an SMB’s sales are stuck, maintaining the status quo is the same as slowly dying.
“As I said.”
L is for Lack of Urgency.
In today’s economy you can’t expect the customer to operate on your schedule. The timeframe for every sales action has to be immediate. Customers do a lot of online research on your product before they ever call you and when they do they are single-mindedly looking for answers to their questions. The first seller with the complete answers wins.
O is for Outdated sales practices.
Unfortunately many SMBs still operate their sales teams like it is 1912 not 2012. Their only concessions to the 21st century are a website and email.
“What would you call my pager?”
Your customer and their buying behavior have been irrevocably altered by technology over the past 15-20 years. And if your sales practices and sales methods haven’t changed in concert with your customer then you can’t expect to effectively compete for their business against competitors who have evolved.
W is for Weak sales management.
I don’t like to point fingers.
“But you will.”
SLOW starts at the top.
Even a highly self-motivated sales person will find it hard to succeed in company where the status quo rules, where everyone’s motor revs at a slower idle and where the sales systems and processes were obsolete before the turn of the century. A successful sales culture begins and ends with management. The CEO and sales management have to commit to change and urgency.
Make a change today to get your sales going!
Now, as you move further from the old sales year and deeper into the new sales year, now is the time to evaluate what you can do to shake things up, to change the routines your sales team have followed year after year. Break some of your bad old habits and reach a level of sales success that you haven’t achieved before.
Here are THREE tips you can put to use today. These are not permanent fixes. Or suggestions for how to comprehensively revamp your sales efforts. There are just small ideas you can put to use TODAY that can begin to make a difference and break you out of the SLOW mold. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. Just choose one of the following steps and put it into play.
Make One Change Today.
Take a close look at your sales routines; your sales processes. Tell each of your salespeople to choose just one customer facing activity and change it. Now. Don’t just pay lip service to change. Do something about it. This is not a change that requires a committee to plan and implement. I’m advocating something much more simple than that. Just choose one aspect of your day-to-day sales activity and change it. Simple.
Create a Metric.
Every aspect of your sales process is measurable. Do you have metrics for each step of your selling process? Are you measuring how long it takes to respond to your sales leads? Or how long it takes you to write a quote and deliver it to a prospect or customer? Choose a single aspect of one sales process and assign a metric to it. Then measure it today and again tomorrow.
Tell someone about the change you made or the metric you’re tracking. Tell a colleague that you have undertaken to make a change in your sales routine. Tell your boss which part of your sales process you have begun to measure and what the goal is. When you tell someone else that you are making a change they will be interested to learn if it is helping you. As a result they will ask you how it is going. And you will need to have an answer for them. Being accountable for change is a big motivator.