This assertion is as true in business as in sports, individually and in teams. So, let’s break it down.
When I watch my local football team, I occasionally see a shift in facial expressions from excitement to frustration – often right before the end of the first half. Sometimes, they recover during halftime and come out renewed and ready to win, but the “gloom and doom” expressions usually translate into suboptimal performance and mistakes. It is frustrating because you know they have the talent to win.
The same thing happens in business – especially in Sales. Sometimes it occurs in the middle of a sales cycle, similar to the example above. Unfortunately, too many people allow a couple of data points to determine their future trajectory. Why is that?
Whether you own a company or manage a group of people, good leaders aim to optimize their workforce by finding the balance of factors that result in happy and loyal employees who are doing their best for themselves, their customers, and their company. There are a ton of motivational theories out there, such as Expectancy Theory, Reinforcement Theory, the Role of Instrumentality, Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation, and more. Since one size rarely fits all, the challenge becomes an effort of reward-focused personalization, which can be a lot of work.
People will often win or lose before they even start. Their negativity, self-doubt, and anticipation of failure become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This post focuses on self-motivation, attitude, mindset, and creating the habits that lead to better success.
Below are four simple questions that someone should ask themselves when they question their ability to succeed in a position, company, or industry. There are always many ways to point the finger of blame elsewhere, but the first step should be to look in the mirror.
- Do you believe that you can win where you are today? If not, why are you still there? Customers and prospects can sense insincerity, so if you don’t believe in yourself, you shouldn’t expect them to believe in you. Maybe the company is terrible, and everyone is failing. If that is true, then it is probably time to look elsewhere.
- What have you learned from past successes and failures, and how have you adapted based on those lessons learned?
- What are some early indicators of success or failure that you have identified? Are you adapting to the situation if you run into those indicators now? It could be that the best approach is to cut your losses on this attempt and move to the next sooner rather than later (i.e., qualify out quickly).
- What are you doing to improve your skills? It is funny how small, continuous improvement efforts lead to a greater sense of confidence. Greater confidence often translates to increased success.
I have found that consistently doing the right things is the best way to maximize my success. Start developing habits and routines that have led to winning in the past, but don’t expect them to work forever. Everything changes, and you should change too. Look for things that are working for others, try them out, and if they work, incorporate them into your routines.
Success truly is a mental game, and everyone can win. The person who continues to win over time is the person that does not get stuck in time. Be curious, get excited, and adapt. And once you get there, start helping others. It is nice having mentors, but also great to become one.
As the saying goes, The rising tide lifts all boats. Winning can be a team sport, but it begins with individual contributors having winning attitudes. Unfortunately, the same can be said for losing, so decide now what you want and go forward with energy and confidence.
Let’s start with two of my favorite personal quotes:
“Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity.” – Seneca, Roman Philosopher.
“Become the person who would attract the results you seek.” – Jim Cathcart, Author of “Relationship Selling”
Why are those quotes important? Because they point out that you are responsible for your own success.
Great companies with great products or services and great management teams make it much easier to be successful, but anyone who is prepared, curious, focused, motivated, and has a system that they follow can become successful anywhere.
My experience has shown the following to be true:
- Without preparation and understanding of your prospect, their customers, and their competition you are unlikely to succeed. This understanding provides the foundation for asking relevant questions to both understand the real need and to effectively qualify a deal in or out.
- Most sales occur because a Product or Service solves real and immediate business problems, or ties into strategic business initiatives.
- Your early goals should be around getting the meeting, having real discussions, understanding problems from your prospect’s perspective (including the terminology they use to describe those problems), and helping them describe what success “looks like to them” and why that is important (logically and emotionally). At this stage, you are learning and positioning, not selling.
- Deal qualification is an essential skill that enables you to focus your time and efforts where you are most likely to succeed. The faster you are able to “qualify out” a prospect that is not a good fit the better it is for you and that prospect. Eternal optimism is not a plan for filling your pipeline.
- If you have a supporting team then make sure that everyone understands the situation, their role and contribution to success, and what you want them to focus on. Never assume that things will just fall into place on their own.
- Have a repeatable process to track activities, measure progress, and identify the best next steps. Remember, “To measure is to know.” (Lord Kelvin)
- The sale is not over until your new Customer is happy. Become their internal advocate within your own organization and you will be rewarded with the customer’s trust, loyalty, and repeat business.
Ideally your Sales Leadership Team has defined a Sales Strategy, created a couple of repeatable Sales Plays and compelling supporting materials such as: Success Stories; Case Studies; ROI and TCO charts; brief but targeted Demos; and realistic Product Comparison information for internal use. These become the foundation for repeatable and scalable success.
But, if that is missing then collaborate with your peers, seek guidance from your leadership, and get creative. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for your own success so don’t allow things to become excuses or a crutch. In the words of the Buddha, “There are three solutions to every problem: Accept it, Change it, or Leave it.”
To help ensure success you will need to follow a Sales Methodology. Here is a link to a good high-level overview from Spotio.com. I’ve used several and there are pros and cons to each. None of them effectively addresses the successful progression from:
- Initiation, Understanding, and Qualification.
- Defining a compelling Solution and successfully positioning it against the competition.
- Closing the Sale, which is an area that many salespeople fall short.
The sales methodology that I personally believe is one of the easiest to use and most effective is MEDDIC. It is a Deal Qualification process, which is more encompassing than a simple Lead Qualification approach. The biggest blind spots are that it fails to address these four key areas:
- Influencers within a buyer’s organization. Knowing who these people are and what their biases may be will allow you to direct various resources towards each, and ideally provide a multi-threaded approach for each and every deal.
- Incumbents and the sentiment towards those vendors and their products. This is key to not wasting time on an opportunity that you would be unlikely to win.
- Related/Adjacent needs. Being able to tie success to multiple areas provides leverage and increases the value of your solution.
- Timeline/Urgency. This allows you to work backward from milestone dates for efforts like typical lead times for Legal and Purchasing, Integration Testing, QA/QC, Training and Documentation, etc.
Being prepared, creating a common vision of success that is based on the outcome rather than the approach, being responsive, and developing relationships and trust based on knowledge and a desire to help are easy ways to differentiate yourself from many lesser salespeople. Invest in your skills, set aggressive goals, and always hold yourself accountable for your own success.
Do this and you will become part of the 20% of any sales team that ‘moves the dial.’
Over the years I have helped both successful companies and start-ups improve and strengthen their Channel and Strategic Alliances programs. Those companies do a great job closing deals but usually have concerns about not generating or receiving enough new business leads. Or, they develop strong relationships with one or two vendors, only to find later that a key vendor has been sending deals to a competitor. You may not have experienced this yourself, but if you have please read on.
Most traditional channel models support Distributors, Resellers, OEMs, and ISVs. Business mainly flows upwards to the main vendor. If that vendor has popular and widely used products then business can be good because there is sufficient demand. But when that is not the case your sales pipeline usually suffers.
Doing something the same way as everyone else may not be a bad approach when there is enough business for everyone and your growth goals and aspirations are aligned with your competition.
Sales Channel business is usually not the main source of revenue for most companies, but it does have the potential to become the largest and most scalable revenue source for nearly any business. Just think about the money that is being left on the table by not adopting a growth mindset and executing a new and better strategy.
In the summer of 2016 I attended the “Sage Summit” in Chicago. It was impressive to see the Sage Group’s efforts to build, strengthen, and protect their community of Customers and Channel Partners. They made the effort to foster higher levels of collaboration between the various types of partners – implementation services, consulting and staff augmentation services, complementary product vendors, etc. They had created their own highly successful Business Ecosystem, which is an excellent proof point.
When designing a channel partner program my personal focus has always been on finding the balance between promoting and protecting the business of partners with helping ensure that the end customers have the best experience possible (and have some recourse when things do not work out as expected). There are a variety of methods I have used to accomplish those goals, but the missing component has always been the inclusion of a systematic approach to seed relationships between those partners and facilitate an even greater amount of business activity.
Nearly a year ago I began working with a management consultancy run by Robert Kim Wilson, which has a business vision based on his book, “They Will Be Giants.” I will provide links at the bottom of the post for this book and other relevant resources. Kim asserts that Entrepreneurs with a Purpose-Driven Business Ecosystem (PDBE) are more successful than those without one and provides examples to prove his point. Having experienced Kim’s own PDBE I see how purpose fosters trust and collaboration.
As I did more research I have found that, especially over the past two years, there has been a lot of focus placed on Business Ecosystems and Business Ecosystem Organizers (such as Sage in the earlier example). Those findings reinforced the PDBE approach, and external validation is always a good thing.
Just as important from my perspective is that this concept applies to businesses of any size, and it is especially helpful to small to midsize businesses. The fun part for me is exploring a specific business, analyzing what they do today, and quantifying the benefits of adopting this new strategy.
So, how does this new type of Business Ecosystem work?
- The Business Ecosystem Organizer expands the overall network, vets new “Business Ecopartners,” and provides a framework or infrastructure for the various Business Ecopartners to get to know one another, exchange ideas, and discuss opportunities.
- This can become an incredible source of sustainable revenue for companies willing to invest in the necessary components to grow and support their own Business Ecosystem.
- Business Ecopartners will have access to trusted resources that can augment existing business and take-on new, bigger projects by leveraging the available expertise.
- Suppose that you have products or services that work with commercial CRM (Customer Relationship Management), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), or SCM (Supply Chain Management).
- You have seen a growing demand for functionality that relies on highly specialized technologies like:
- Cryptocurrency support.
- Blockchain for both financial transactions and things like traceability in your supply chain or IoT data.
- AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning) to detect patterns and anomalies – such as with fraud detection, Deep Learning/Neural Networks for image recognition or other complex pattern recognition.
- Graph databases to better understand a business and infer new ways to improve it.
- Knowledge Graph/Semantic databases to assist with Transfer Learning and deeper understanding.
- It would not be practical or cost-effective for most businesses to build these practices in-house so partnering becomes very attractive to your company.
- This type of business can also be very attractive to a Business Ecopartner because someone else is handling sales, billings, account management, etc.
- Other Business Ecopartners could leverage your products or services for their projects and engagements, thus becoming another source of revenue.
- By leveraging this network your business can essentially compete on imagination and innovation – something that could become a huge source of differentiation from your competition.
Value realized from this New Business Ecosystem model:
- These new sources of business and talent can become a real competitive advantages for your business.
- This becomes the source for Sales Amplification because your business is extending its reach and expanding its growth potential – directly and indirectly.
- The weighted (based on capabilities, capacity, responsiveness, and Ecopartner feedback) Business Ecopartner network model could lead to exponential business growth over time – and that is a winning strategy for any business.
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.
This should be the goal for any business, regardless of the products you sell or the services you provide. The idea is to create a mutually beneficial relationship that motivates people to want to continue working with you, despite the availability of competitive products and/or the possible concerns or objections of others (e.g., those pushing for a “Corporate Standard” involving another product.)
The best part is that this concept applies to all companies and all Product Life Cycle stages. Whether your company is on a rapid growth trajectory towards ‘Unicorn status,’ your offerings are mature and may be viewed as ‘less exciting,’ or your products are on the decline and you are seeking the ‘longest tail’ possible – this will help. At each phase, there are credible threats from competitors that seek to grow through the erosion of your business.
Several years ago I was responsible for two product lines in two major geographic regions (Americas and APAC/Japan). Our attrition rate (“churn”) had traditionally been slightly below the industry average. We began seeing an increase in churn and a corresponding slight decrease in organic growth. Both were indicators that something needed to change.
After discussions about tactical approaches to address this, our small leadership team agreed that this was a strategic issue that we needed to address. The result was an understanding that we needed to create ‘Customers for Life.’ Everyone agreed with the concept, but due to a variety of differences (culture, who our customer was – end customer vs. channel partner, buying patterns, etc.), we agreed to try what was best for our own businesses and share the results and lessons learned.
My approach was to focus on developing strong relationships that fostered collaboration and ultimately led to growth and success for both parties. The basic premise was simple:
- People tend to buy from people they like, respect, and trust. Become one of those people for your customers.
- Helping companies achieve better outcomes leads to greater success for both our customers and us.
How did we do it? It was a systematic process that included the following:
- Develop simple profiles for each customer (e.g., products used, date of first purchase, size of footprint, usage and payment trends, industry).
- A minimum size – based on either the size of the product footprint, annual amount spent with us, or size of the company, was used to prioritize companies and organizations having the greatest potential impact.
- Make contact multiple times each year, and not just when you wanted money.
- These “out of cycle” contacts turned became very important.
- Ask questions about key initiatives, milestones, and concerns.
- The responses were documented, and that helped seed following conversations and demonstrate an interest in what they were doing.
- Request meetings to understand how they are using our products and get a brief update on what our company has been doing.
- Meeting people face-to-face is always good.
- Learning more about their business, systems, goals and challenges created opportunities to really add value.
- Look at what they were doing with our products and offer suggestions to do more, do something better or more efficiently, call out potential problems and offer suggestions and discuss best practices. Often, I would have a technical expert follow-up and provide an hour or two of free assistance relating to those findings.
- Look for opportunities to congratulate them.
- It demonstrates that they are important enough that you are paying attention.
- Google Alerts made this easy.
- Regularly ask our customers if there is anything that we could do to help them.
- They would often reciprocate, which led to an increase in references and referrals.
- Continuous Improvement – Analyze the results and refine the process as needed.
As I met with our Customers and Channel Partners I would explain what ‘Customer for Life’ meant to us, and the potential benefits to them. Prior to the meeting, I would check to see if we had (or they wanted) an NDA in-place so that they could speak freely without having concern that this information would be shared with potential competitors. It was a good step towards developing trust and helping them feel comfortable in disclosing information that would help us understand their situation.
Prior to the meeting, I would spend an hour or two researching the company, their history, major events for that company and within their industry, and identify their top 2-3 competitors. This is where my consulting background really came in handy. Showing interest and understanding created credibility and ask relevant questions, which allowed conversations to progress to substantive issues in much less time. From there I could focus on specific points that would add the most value to that specific customer.
Over the course of two years, my team and I helped our customers innovate by providing different perspectives and ideas, modernize (e.g., move to spatial analytics to get a more granular understanding of their own business, or cloud-enable their systems to increase responsiveness to their business and control costs), improve their systems and grow their businesses. We also received feedback that helped us improve our products and a variety of processes – something that benefits all customers. Collaboration and success created strong relationships with many of those customers.
From a business perspective our customer churn decreased by 50% over the same period, and organic growth increased slightly more than 20%. We had achieved our objectives and improved our bottom line. The concepts behind Strategic Account Management, Voice of Customer, Customer Loyalty and Customer Success had blended into a practical approach that was not burdensome and provided a great ROI.
One of my biggest lessons learned was that adopting this mindset and creating a repeatable process is something that can be done anytime, and really should be done sooner than later.
Every day that you are not creating your own ‘Customers for life’ there is a good chance that your competition is.