Just how essential is that sales meeting?

Last week some of us saw the worst snow and disruption for 30 years. Whilst many turned out to help the vulnerable and ferry essential workers to their work, the vast majority of us heeded the advice and stayed home.  ‘Only travel if essential’ became the principle advice for almost a week. For those who had to venture out it was a huge and dangerous challenge.

But, for most of us what happened as a result?  Almost nothing.  We could still contact our clients and suppliers.  We could still post to our blogs and shop on the internet. We could phone our friends and FaceTime our family.  Life continued pretty much as normal.  Which made me realise much of what we consider essential actually isn’t.

Is that also true in the world of B2B selling?

When salespeople are asked, “what most limits your ability to reach your target?” the answer is almost always, “time”.  Is that strictly true?  The amount of time available is obviously finite and limited, but how we use it is entirely under our control. How much time is wasted?  How many of those seemingly essential tasks aren’t essential at all.  Let’s look at what takes up most of a sales person’s time.

Failed sales
Sales people have to sell, and try to spend a lot of time doing it, but typically two out of three sales decisions will go against you. There is no bigger waste of time than working on a sale you won’t win.  You must qualify every prospect objectively and accurately, to identify the opportunities you can win and ditch the ones you can’t.  To quote my friends at Advance Sales Academy https://www.commitmentbasedselling.com/, “If you’re going to lose, lose quickly”.

Unnecessary admin.
Sales people hate admin.  Sometimes it’s necessary; you need an accurate forecast, up to date client records and accurate sales reports; but is everything you ask for really needed?  And, because sellers avoid admin, sales leaders spend hours chasing it up – yet another waste of time.  Consider the admin your sales team are asked to complete. Does it add value to your organisation? Does it add value to the sales person? If not, is it vital? If not, dump it.

Pointless sales meetings
The days of the weekly territory plan, with each call scheduled as regular as clockwork, are dead.  Even if it’s not that regimented, visiting a prospect or client without a clear purpose is time wasted.  As a sales leader reviewing a call plan you should ask two questions; “What value does this meeting add for the customer?” and “What value does it add for us?”. If the sales person doesn’t have a convincing answer to both questions, cancel the call.

Just three simple actions that could buy back huge amounts of wasted time, that can be re-invested more wisely and bring improved results.  Try it.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

Less than two weeks to go and no doubt excitement/delight/panic/dread/irritation (delete as applicable) and any number of other emotions are beginning to overtake us all.  It’s a significant and pivotal time of year, but what does Christmas mean for the B2B sales community?

It’s not the end of the world
It may be the end of your company’s financial year and if not, it will be a quarter-end, so you’re under pressure to hit your target, right?  Wrong.  Your customers, and professional procurement in particular, know you will feel under pressure and will exploit it.  Don’t be tempted to give that little extra away just to close a deal in December, that ‘extra special price’ this month will become the baseline for 2018 negotiations.  Short-term gain with long-term pain is never a good strategy.

It’s not the end of the year
Whilst it may be the end of the calendar year, many UK companies align their financial year with the tax year, which runs April to March, so for many, New Year is the start of Q4, the last period of their business year.  That means it’s a time of great activity as everyone focusses on achieving year end goals by March.  Can you help?  Do you have a product or service that could help a company make that final push?  Does your Value Proposition articulate it clearly and concisely?  If not, make sure it does.

Not everyone takes two weeks off
There’s no doubt business activity slows down at this time of year, but that doesn’t mean everyone disappears completely.  Some people may be working right up to Christmas Eve, and between Christmas and New Year, and there’s a good chance it will be more senior people who turn in; the ones with most responsibility, perhaps the ones without young families.  Who knows? Maybe your elusive number one prospect is at their desk, whilst their steadfast gatekeeper is away enjoying the festivities.  Now might be exactly the right time to make that call.

Slow time isn’t lost time
Chances are you’ve been really busy for the last few months; chasing deals, writing proposals, generating leads and all the other stuff that fills every day.  So when was the last time you gave yourself some quality time to reflect and plan?  Maybe when things went quiet in the summer, maybe this time last year, maybe never?  We all need time to sit back, reflect on what’s gone well, or badly, think about new trends and approaches and plan for what lies ahead.  It’s not wasted time, it’s vitally important.  If things are a bit slow, take time out to reflect and plan.  If you’re still full-on, make time to do it.

It is a holiday
Having said all the above, you deserve a break.  Getting the work-life balance right is vital, if you don’t feel well you can’t perform well.  Take time out, and that’s not just running around making sure everyone else has a great Christmas; make sure there’s some you-time in there too.  Relax and enjoy yourself.

Wishing you a very merry Christmas and a happy and prosperous 2018.

How to start a management consultancy business on a budget

I’m delighted to have contributed to the succinct and (IMHO) useful guide:

An in-depth guide to starting a management consultancy business – at Premier BusinessCare


Why most sales managers don’t…

Taking on your first management role is challenging for anyone but for a newly appointed sales manager it’s tougher than most.  Why should that be?

Let’s look at where most first-time sales managers come from – the salesforce.  In the vast majority of cases sales managers are promoted out of the salesforce, and more often than not it’s the top performing salesperson who gets the job.

Spectacular mistake!

It makes perfect sense, your top salesperson is surely ideally placed to pass on their skills, insights and experience to the rest of the team and drive them to new heights of performance? Sadly not.

For a start most naturally talented people aren’t particularly good at identifying or articulating what it is they do so well.  It was one of the first things Huthwaite Research Group, now Huthwaite International, discovered when they began their research into sales effectiveness.  The good people either couldn’t tell you what they did or ascribed their success to a behaviour that, on closer inspection, bore no relation to successful performance at all.

So, your star salesperson can’t pass on their expertise, and what they do pass on is probably wrong!

Then there’s why your top sales person got to that position in the first place.  They are naturally talented, well trained or both.  They are motivated and dedicated to delivering the value their customers are seeking.  The chances are they love selling.  Does any of that qualify them to be an effective manager?  Not in the slightest.

You’ve taken one of your most valuable assets away from what they know and love and dropped them into a role they are incredibly ill-equipped to do.  They can’t turn the job down, it’s promotion, more money, higher status and a better car.  Saying ‘no thanks’ would be career suicide.

So, you sweeten the pill, you let them keep a few accounts, probably their favourite accounts, possibly your biggest accounts.  And because you want to keep them motivated you let them stay in the commission scheme.  And what does you sales manager then do?  They carry on selling.

“Have you done any coaching visits with the team?”  “No, had to see a customer”.

“Have you reviewed the pipeline?” “Sorry, had to see a customer”.

“Have you briefed marketing on the new sales drive?”  “Not had time, the customers needed to see me”.

So your sales manager takes the extra money and the better car but as they’re keeping your best customers happy you can’t complain.

It’s just a pity there’s just one thing they never get around to doing – being a manager.

Are your salespeople adding value or simply giving it away?

Lots of sales organisations talk about ‘adding value’ as a key element of their sales strategy, but what do they actually mean and what, if any, value is really being added? When we look more closely at what companies mean by adding value we hear things like “Going the extra mile” and “Giving a little bit more”.

In most cases it involves the selling organisation giving something the customer values – and not charging them for it. So no value has actually been created or ‘added’, it has just changed hands.
Effective companies realise this and do more. They seek to add genuinely new value by exploring the customer’s problems and needs to uncover new, additional ways their product or service can help.

By discovering new areas of impact that the same solution can address, the seller can create new value without giving anything more away – and genuinely add value for the customer in the process.

Most organisations can identify the value their products and services can deliver and every organisation knows that product innovation is essential for competitive advantage. But what happens when product or service innovation is hard to achieve or maintain? What do you do when there genuinely is little or no significant product differentiation?

Once again it comes back to how the sales organisation approaches its customers. Customers buy what they value, the products and services that satisfy their needs – and the more needs you uncover, the more your solution is valued.

And what if, as well as uncovering more needs we begin to look for different needs?  Perhaps we can explore needs in other areas or, by considering the implications of a problem, link needs across the customer’s business. For example, a failed component may stop production but what effects could that have?  Could it mean order deadlines are missed and penalties incurred? Could it lead to customers being let down and so your reputation becoming tarnished? Suddenly a simple engineering problem has consequences for finance, sales and top management.

And most important of all, if you are the only seller who explores these areas, yours is the only solution that’s addressing them. You have created differentiation not by having product capabilities that your competitors don’t, but by uncovering needs and value that they haven’t.

So there is always product/service differentiation and there’s always genuine added value – you just have to be skilled enough to find it.

Selling is dead (so what’s new?)

A number of discussions have recently appeared with titles like “do customers need sales people” and “should the word sales be removed from the business lexicon” which set me wondering; why the sudden change?

When you dig down into these articles some common threads emerge:

Buyers are a lot better informed:

The often quoted, and regularly disputed, suggestion that buyers are 57% through the buying process before they contact a sales person should come as no surprise.  The explosion of the internet and social media obviously make for more readily available, easily accessible information and hence more informed decisions.

Buyers don’t want to be sold to:

Yes and no; it depends on how you define selling.  If you define it as persuading/manipulating/conning an unsuspecting customer into taking something they neither want or need then absolutely yes.  But if we’re talking about helping customers reach an informed decision that delivers maximum value then of course buyers want to be sold to, who wouldn’t?  The thing is this isn’t new either, it’s more than 30 years ago that my sales manager told me “selling is about finding what the customer wants and helping them to get it”.

The majority of sales end in a ‘do-nothing’ decision:

One article I read suggested 60% of sales end in a do-nothing decision.  I can’t verify that number and it seemed remarkably high – until I thought back to my early days in IT sales, in the 1980’s, when no-decision was widely accepted as the outcome of two out of three sales campaigns.  Remarkably similar to the new statistic and again, it seems, nothing new.  Indeed, my former colleagues at Huthwaite International http://www.huthwaite.co.uk have trained strategies for handling late-cycle concerns for over 40 years.

So, if none of this is new, why are people talking about it now?  We’ve always known that the feature-dumper, once-a-month-coffee-meeter, talking brochure and/or order taker are not effective sales roles.  Or have we?  Sadly it seems these stereotypes of bad practice still proliferate and, for some, realisation has only just dawned.

So what’s the solution?

One simple question every sales person, and their manager, should ask every time they contact a customer or prospect; “How do I add value, for both the customer and my own organisation, in this interaction?”  If you don’t know, you shouldn’t be there.  Value creation, at every customer touchpoint, is the essence of sales success.  If sales people keep that front of brain and act on it consistently, selling has a long and very healthy life ahead of it.

Production – Sales = Scrap

Virtually every manufacturer will be familiar with the concept of Lean and the idea of taking waste out of processes.  Can Lean principles be applied to selling?  Across the manufacturing and engineering sectors we place a huge amount of emphasis on principles such as production values, quality, research & development and innovation, and quite rightly so. But, if engineering excellence is to be turned into real commercial success there’s another element that is too often overlooked – sales:

Business guru Peter Drucker and IBM founder Thomas Watson are just two of the many people alleged to have coined the famous remark, “nothing happens until somebody sells something”. Whoever it was, they were at least partly right. Yet time and time again we see engineering companies, or any company with a strong technical background, failing to take sales into consideration when developing new offerings.

In part that’s a legacy of a time when innovation really was king and, to make a sale, technical sales engineers simply had to present an elegant piece of engineering to equally technically-minded buyers. But times have changed.

Increasingly, the once successful technical sellers are forced to deal with non-technical buyers and, worst of all, procurement professionals. These are conversations technical sellers are less comfortable with. So what are the key sales strategies that ensure great production achieves commercial success?

Technical sellers find it easy to sell to technical buyers because both can immediately see what the elegantly engineered solution can deliver.  Both understand the innovation is better/quicker/cheaper/more reliable etc. and can easily quantify the value such improvements bring. And that’s the first key point: people buy what they value, they always have.  In the ‘good old days’ the seller didn’t have to demonstrate the value because the customer could see it for him or herself. Now, because buyers are less technically aware, they need it spelling out to them.  The product can no longer speak for itself and the seller has to explain what value their innovation brings.

Even then it’s not that simple. Value is a buyer perception and what each individual customer values may be different. For example, a production manager may value, say, ease of installation, whilst a procurement manager values low cost of ownership.  And, just as importantly, what each customer values may be different to the value the seller sees. The key for sellers is therefore to ask the customer about their challenges and needs in order to understand what each individual values.  The seller must then tailor how they present the solution to demonstrate it meets each customer’s specific needs and hence delivers what each customer values.

Then there’s the sales process.  It’s a process like any other and, while some of the stages and outputs are quite hard to measure, it is possible to identify and eliminate waste. So what does waste look like in the sales process?

Visiting customers who are not in a position to buy is waste. This may sound obvious but how many sales people have visit plans based on frequency, spend or routine that take no account of the probability of an immediate sale?  They make the call because they always visit once a month. It’s done under the guise of ‘relationship management’ but is it really worthwhile or is it wasteful?

Perhaps even worse is visiting a customer who does have a desire to buy, then failing to uncover and develop their needs; in effect failing to do the things outlined above.  This is doubly wasteful because not only is the seller wasting his or her (and the customer’s) time, they’re also wasting a sales opportunity.  By going along and talking about themselves and their products or services and failing to uncover needs and build value, sellers miss real opportunities, and actually open the door a little wider for their competitors.

So, effectiveness comes from understanding what your customers need and value, particularly uncovering additional value that your competitors haven’t identified.

And those sales organisations which do that at each and every customer contact will turn great product innovation into commercial reward. Production + Sales = Success!

Unlock your hidden salesforce

By the very nature of the job, service people, and by that I mean anyone who has client contact but is not in sales, are generally highly skilled, often technically minded, people. Yet it seems, across many service functions, the role has become more customer-facing and commercial – everyone has to ‘sell’.

However, the start point is not encouraging. Sales people don’t see service having a role in selling and service people have no inclination, or appetite, to become more sales focussed.

Yet, ironically, service people are often ideally placed to influence purchasing. Service are involved with the customer at the start of the decision making process – before needs are clear and long before a sales person is involved. Furthermore, service people often have greater direct contact with clients than their sales counterparts. And, these contacts are often the very customers who actually use your products and services, whereas sellers are increasingly finding their contact limited to professional procurement. Finally, the client is much more likely to open up to a service person than when they are being formally ‘sold to’.

So, service is ideally positioned to provide advance customer intelligence from their regular client visits, and begin to influence the customer’s thinking, in interactions which are not perceived by the customer as sales meetings.

This means the supplier is seen to be more proactive and responsive, helping to safeguard the account by building value for both parties. For, although good service delivers customer satisfaction, only by adding value is customer loyalty and retention realised. Read more…

It’s not how, it’s how many…..

So runs the old golfing adage, making the point that it doesn’t really matter how skilled or elegant your golf shots are, as long as you get the ball in the hole in fewer strokes than your opponent.

Back in the day the same argument held true for many sales organisations. There’s a story in my own former company of a sales representative who, despite not being close to hit our skilled seller profile, out-performed most of her more skilled colleagues. When we looked at why the answer was simple; each morning she’d drive to the biggest office building she could find, walk into the first office on the ground floor and ask “want any Xerox?” She’d then go to the next office and repeat the question, and so on and so on…  Her success was purely and simply down to the fact she made over 100 sales calls a day, many times more than her colleagues.

If only that was still true today. It doesn’t need much, just a limitless supply of prospects and ultra-competitive pricing – not a lot to ask for. The move away from abundance has had enormous consequences across the entire business community and particularly in how customers manage the buying process. Of course sales organisations have had to change as a result and many have struggled with that change. But not all, some have got it absolutely right.  Let me give you an example.

Our client is a typical ultra-high tech specialist provider with strongly differentiated products who have grown rapidly but now face a new challenge. Traditionally they have sold their solutions to the people who use them, in their case design engineers.  However, today’s environment is more joined up. Their customers have realised the solutions have impact across the whole business and, in response, more, less technical people, like finance and procurement, are involved in the buying process. And our client has recognised they can help customers make fundamental improvements in entire business processes.

That changes the whole sales dynamic. Now the client has the opportunity to sell across the entire customer organisation at all levels, from engineers to supply chain specialists, the environmental team, sales & marketing and the executive board. And to meet this change they have changed their customer interface at every level. Now, by equipping all their customer facing teams with the right analytical tools to understand each differing contact’s needs, and the skills to uncover and develop them, they have created a multi-faceted but customer-centric sales organisation that truly reflects the deep, complex selling relationships that exist today.

Which begs the question; have you?

It’s not what you say it’s the way that you say it…

I was in my doctor’s waiting room recently and noticed a box of toys, provided to keep bored children amused.  Above it was a sign which read ‘We’d be grateful if toys are returned to the box after use. Thank you.’  I was struck by how impactful this was compared with the usual ‘Please return toys after use’ or brusque ‘Return toys after use’ you more often see, and began to reflect on why.

The third option, Return toys… is a command, and most of us don’t like being told what to do.  Despite being the most direct and, some would argue, the most forceful message, it’s actually the opposite.  It’s like a red rag to a bull and almost invites the contrary or indifferent to deliberately ignore it, hardly the outcome the writer desired.

The second option, Please return toys… is a request, and most of us are willing to do what we’re asked, particularly if we’re asked politely.  However, responding to a request creates a feeling of obligation; most of us would probably comply but perhaps a little resentfully.

The first option is something else entirely.  It’s not asking or telling us to do anything, it’s not an instruction of any kind, it’s not about us at all.  It’s an invitation and allows us to decide what we should do about it.  But, and here’s the clever bit, it’s an invitation to make someone else happy and we are all hard-wired to please.  If we can do something that makes someone else feel better, especially a small thing, and especially if we know our actions are appreciated, we’ll gladly do it.  And that’s what the notice does, ‘We’ll be grateful’ is the invitation to please, ‘thank you’ acknowledges our action is appreciated and ‘return toys’ is the small, insignificant task we now will do gladly.  It’s brilliant writing, the toys are tidied away and we feel good about doing it – a great result.

So what does that mean in the world of management?

All managers, by the nature of the role, have to get other people to do things.  And other people, by the nature of their roles, are not always inclined to do it.  So what are the options?

Sometimes, when time is short and the outcome critical, a command will work, “leave now, there’s a fire” is pretty compelling.

A request, particularly from your boss, is hard to ignore. “Can I have your forecast by 5.00 please?” will probably be met but at what cost?  The subordinate may feel resentful and under-valued and the quality of the forecast may be questionable.

But “I’d appreciate your forecast by 5:00, thanks” is a different story.  Here’s a chance to make your boss happy and be appreciated for doing so – who’s not going to take that opportunity?

So, next time you want something from your team choose your words carefully.  It may get you more than you asked for.