Month: November 2019
It is interesting to see Sales and Marketing people still focusing on features, performance, cost, and even value without creating linkage to what that means to a company from a business perspective. Once you understand what your prospect is buying and why they need it, you can then connect with them in a meaningful way to increase your win rate.
A sales adage from the 1940s (source) asserts, “No one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.” Today, that basic understanding of why people and companies buy is still often lost in sales and marketing messages. Sales success is all about solving problems and satisfying needs.
Several years ago, my team and I were selling a new Analytics Database that was genuinely different. Still, our message was identical to every other database vendor – “70% – 100% faster than every other product.” It is nearly impossible to differentiate your product using a non-differentiated message. Don’t treat your product or service as a commodity if it is not one.
I flipped the messaging to focus on business needs. We created a weekly webinar focused on Why Fast Matters. Query response time is important, but responsiveness to customer needs and requests is essential. What if they did not need to wait a week or two to have new indexes created or a month to have a Star Schema updated? They could just run queries as-is, maybe wait a minute instead of a second or two, and have what they need then and there. That message resonated, and we sold the first 50% of that product globally. When the Australian team began using our messaging, their sales also increased. Funny how that works.
Effectiveness is all about results and intended outcomes. Efficiency is about achieving those results with the least amount of time and effort invested. It doesn’t mean that we are looking for a lazy approach to find a win. Instead, it is about identifying repeatable patterns of doing the right things that circumvent unnecessary activities, accelerate the sales cycle, and minimize related costs.
The way to help yourself understand what you are selling is to view things from your prospect’s perspective. What struggles are they likely facing? Where are the greatest opportunities to help their type of business? Are you analyzing data to attempt to assess their unmet needs? Your insight can become a huge differentiator, especially if you can teach them different and better ways to do something (ala the Challenger Sales Model).
What is the difference between your prospect company and its main competition? This analysis requires a general understanding of the problem space and a more specific understanding of the prospect company, its history, and 2-3 of its main competitors. It also requires an honest account of how your company and products compare to the competition so that you can play up your strengths and limit your investment in areas where the fit is not as good.
The next item to focus on is messaging. Below are a few examples from my career –
- Analytics & Big Data – The focus here is often on data volume, the currency of the data, speed of queries, cost, maintenance, and downtime. Those things become essential later in the sales discussion, but initially, companies want to know what problems your product or solution will solve.
- Some of my fastest deals sold because I demonstrated ways to make better decisions faster and/or identify minor problems before they were had the chance to become major problems. Avoiding problems and unplanned outages were critical elemants of the messaging.
- In one case, I closed a significant deal in less than three months by focusing on how a company could provide five years of transactional data for their customers. Those customers could use the data to make better purchasing decisions in less time than it took the current system to analyze six months of data. Their sales increased after implementing this modernized system. Helping their customers make better buying decisions faster was the winning message.
- Embedded Products – While many companies focus on APIs, features, or cost per unit, I would focus on how the product I was selling made things better and easier to manage for improved Customer Support and Customer Satisfaction.
- I closed a $1.1 million deal in less than two months to a medical device company by focusing on the life cycle of those devices (often 10-15 years) and how their customers needed consistency from machine to machine. Consistency over time was the winning message here.
- After being approached by a Defense Contractor for a relational database product for a new Flight Simulator system, I changed the discussion to the complexity of flight control systems, the need to correlate 30+ operational systems in real-time, and the importance of taking a verbal command and translating it to specific commands for each related system. That led to the sale of a NoSQL product that was ideally suited for this complex environment. The idea of letting our software handle the highly complex workload helped win this deal.
- Consulting Services – These were not contracting or body shop services (commodities), but actual Business and Technical Consulting services with high visibility and high impact. In these cases, expertise, experience, and having a track record of success in different but demanding scenarios provided confidence. These were often multi-phase engagements to prove our value before making a significant commitment.
- In a bid against two well-established competitors, we won a deal with a large Petroleum company worth nearly $500K. The proposal included information that we uncovered about the system and use case and later verified with the prospect, a section on our people and some past projects, and a high-level project plan with firm-fixed pricing. We won the bid, and I later found out that our cost was $50K higher than the largest competitor and more than $100K more than the other competitor. The customer told me, “Your proposal demonstrated the understanding of who we are and what we need, and that confidence provided the justification to select your company and pay a premium to have the job done right the first time.”
- My first million-dollar deal was with a company where we demonstrated our ability to solve problems. They knew they needed assistance but were not exactly sure where. I created a “Pool of Days” concept that provided flexibility in the work performed (task, deliverables, and scheduling) but had minimum monthly burn rates and an expiration date to protect my company. The winning messaging this time was that flexibility and the ability to accommodate changing needs without introducing significant risk, or additional cost were better ways to buy consulting services. This approach led to many other deals of a similar nature with other companies.
The common theme is helping companies solve their specific business problems from these examples. Even when technology was central to the message, focusing on better outcomes for that prospect and their customers was essential. Value matters, but positive results and better outcomes matter even more for most purchasing decisions.
Nobody wants to be responsible for taking a chance on a new vendor and be responsible for a high-profile failure. Helping instill confidence early on makes a huge difference, and following through to successful implementation results in happy customers who become loyal customers that provide references and referrals.
Success starts with selling what you know you can do from a business perspective for your Prospects. You are solving their problems with solutions they need and avoid getting lost in the noise of the unfocused messaging coming from most of your competition.
I’m sure that everyone has read articles that state some “facts” for managing your “sales pipeline” or “sales funnel.” Things like needing 10x-30x of your goal at the start of the process, down to needing 2x-3x coverage at the start of a quarter to help increase your odds of achieving your goal. Now, if it was only that easy…
First, what are you measuring? The answer to this question is something that anyone with a sales quota should be able to succinctly answer. For example, are you measuring?
- Bookings – Finalized Sales Orders
- What happens when Sales Operations, Finance or Legal pushback on a deal? You have a PO, but has the deal really been closed?
- Billings – Invoicing Completed
- This includes dependencies that have the potential to introduce delays that may be unexpected and/or outside of your control.
- Revenue – In-depth understanding of Revenue Recognition rules is key.
- How much revenue is recognized and when it is recognized varies based on a variety of factors, such as:
- Is revenue Accrued or Deferred? This is especially key for multi-year prepaid deals.
- Is revenue recognized all at once – such as for the sale of Perpetual Software Licenses? (even this is not always black and white)
- Is revenue recognized over time – such as with annual subscriptions that are ratable on a monthly basis?
- Is revenue based on work completed / percentage of completion? This is more common with Services and Construction. Combining contracts, such as selling custom consulting services with a new product license, can complicate this.
- Are there clauses in a non-standard agreement that will negatively affect revenue recognition? This is an area where your Legal team becomes an invaluable contributor to your success.
- Cash Flow – Is this really Sales forecasting?
- The answer is ‘no’ in terms of Accounting rules and guidance.
- But, if you have a start-up or small business this can be key to “keeping the lights on,” in which case the types of deals and their structure will be biased towards cash flow enhancement and/or goals.
- How much revenue is recognized and when it is recognized varies based on a variety of factors, such as:
My advice is to work closely with your CFO, Finance Team, Sales Operations Team, and Legal team to understand the goals and guidelines, and then take that one step further to create policies that are approved by those stakeholders and are then shared with the Sales team to avoid any ambiguity around process and expectations.
So, now the hard part is over, right?
It could be that easy if you only have one product that is well established, has a stable install base, has no real competitive threats, where the rate of growth or decline is on a steady and predictable path, and where pricing and average deal size is consistent. I have not seen a business like that yet but would have to believe that at least a few of them exist.
Next, what are you building into your model to maximize accuracy? Every product or service offered may be driven by independent factors, so a flat model that evenly distributes sales over time (monthly or quarterly) is just begging to be inaccurate. For example:
- One product line that sells perpetual licenses may be dependent on release cycles ever 18-36 months.
- A second product line may be driven mainly by renewals and expansion on fairly stable timelines and billings.
- A third product line may be new with no track record and in a competitive space – meaning that even the best projections will be speculative.
- And finally, there could be Services associated with each of those product lines and driven by an even greater number of dependent and independent factors (new implementations, upgrades, implementing new features, platform changes and modernization, routine engagements, training, etc.)
Historical trends are one important factor to consider, especially because they tend to be the thing that you have the greatest control over. This starts with high-level sales conversion rates and goes down to average sales cycle, seasonal trends, organic growth rates, churn rates, and more. Having accurate data over time that can be accurately correlated is extremely helpful. But, factors such as Product SKU changes, licensing model changes, new product bundles, etc. increase the complexity of that effort and potentially decrease the accuracy of your results.
Correlating those trends to external factors, such as overall growth of the market, relative growth of competitors, economic indicators, corporate indicators (profits, earns per share, distributions, various ratios, ratings, etc.), commodity and futures prices (especially if you install base tends to skew towards something like the Petroleum Industry), specific events, and so forth can be a great sanity check.
The best case is that those correlations increase your forecasting accuracy for the entire year. In all likelihood what they really do is provide valuable inputs that allow you to dynamically adjust sales plans as needed to ensure overall success. But, making those changes should not be done in a vacuum, and communicating the potential need for changes like that should be done at the earliest point where you have a fair degree of confidence that change is needed.
There will always be unexpected events that negatively impact your plans. Changes to staffing or the competitive landscape, reputational changes, economic changes, etc. can all occur quickly and with “little notice.” That is especially true if you are not actively looking for those subtle indicators (leading and trailing) and nuances that place a spotlight potential problems and give you time to do as much as possible to proactively address them. Be prepared and have a contingency plan!
Forecasting accuracy drives confidence, and that confidence leads to having the ability to do things like getting funding for new campaigns or initiatives. Surprises, even positive ones, are generally disliked simply because the results were different than the expectations and that begins to fuel other doubts and concerns.
Confidence comes from understanding, good planning, helping everyone with a quota and the teams supporting them to do what is needed when it is needed to optimize the process, and then to have an effective approach to determine whether deals really are on-track or not so that you can provide guidance and assistance before it is too late.
It may not be easy, but it is the thing that helps drive companies to that next level on a sustainable growth trajectory. In the end, that is what matters the most to the stakeholders of any business.
As an aside, there are myriad of rules, regulations, and guidance statements provided by a variety of sources that apply to each business scenario. I am neither an Accountant nor an Attorney, so be sure to consult with the appropriate people within your organization or industry as part of your routine due diligence.