It is interesting to see people in Sales and Marketing 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 you are really selling it is possible to connect with prospects in a meaningful way that can help you both determine the potential fit.
Sales Qualification is essential for both efficiency and effectiveness. Effectiveness is all about results, and efficiency is all about achieving those results with the least amount of time and effort. This doesn’t mean that we are looking for a lazy approach to find a win. Rather, it is about identifying repeatable patterns of doing something that circumvents unnecessary activities, time spent, and associated costs. Being good at qualification doesn’t mean that you will be good at closing, but it is tough to become a good closer without having the number of “at-bats” that good qualification leads to.
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 for their type of business? What is the difference between your prospect company and its main competition? This analysis requires a general understanding of the vertical and more specific understanding of the prospect company and 2-3 of their main competitors.
Now that you have identified an area where you believe there is a good fit the next step is to develop your target list for that profile. Much of the information you need can be found in Corporate filings (10-K and 10-Q filings for public companies, and Form 5500 filings for companies with a 401(k) plan – especially useful for private companies), websites like Owler.com and SimilarSiteSearch.com, and from social media sites like LinkedIn.com and Facebook.com). Then search for people in areas that are most likely affected and look for titles that are likely Stakeholders or Decision Makers.
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 important 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 problems before they were had the chance to become major problems. Avoiding problems and unplanned outages were key parts of the messaging.
- In one case I was able to close a significant deal in less than three months by focusing on how a company could provide five years of transactional data for their customers to use to make purchasing decisions in less time than it took the current system to analyze six months of data. Their sales increased after implementing the revised 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 for Customer Support and Customer Satisfaction. Things like stability, lack of maintenance required, data integrity, performance over time, messaging when something abnormal or concerning was observed, etc.
- I sold a $1.1 million deal in less than two months to a medical device company by focusing on the life of those devices often being 10-15 years and how their customers need to be assured that the results will be the same from machine-to-machine, even if one of those machines is much newer than the rest of the machines. 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 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 really complex work helped win this deal.
- Consulting Services – This is not contracting or body shop services (commodities), but true Business and Technical Consulting services that were high visibility and high impact. In these cases expertise, experience, and having a track record of success in different but demanding scenarios provided confidence. Often these were multi-phase engagements to first prove our value before making a large commitment.
- In a bid against two well-established competitors, we won a deal with a large Petroleum company that was 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 then 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 that, “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 in the 1990s and was with a company that 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. This led to many other deals of this nature with other companies. Flexibility and the ability to accommodate changing needs without introducing significant risk or additional cost was the winning messaging here.
As you see from these examples the common theme is helping companies solve their specific business problems. Even in cases where technology was central to that message the focus was always on better results for that prospect and their customers. Value is important but the results 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 great customers and provide important referrals.
It all starts by selling what you know you can do from a business perspective for your Prospects to make their lives easier and business better, rather than selling what you know you have from a technical perspective.
This should be the goal for any business, regardless of the products you sell or 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 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.
- Continual 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) a 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 spent an hour or two researching the company, their history, major events for that company and within their industry, identify their top 2-3 competitors and then contrast our customer with those competitors. This is where my consulting background really came in handy. Showing interest and understanding created credibility, allowing conversations to progress to substantive issues in much less time.
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), improve their systems and grow their businesses. We also received feedback that helped us improve 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 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.
A while back I wrote a post titled, To Measure is to Know. That is only part of the story, so please read on.
The other side of the coin is that what you measure defines how people behave. This is an often forgotten aspect of Business Intelligence, Compensation Plans, Performance reviews, and other key areas in business. While many people view this topic as “common sense,” based on the numerous incentive plans that you run across as a consultant it seems that is not the case.
Is it a bad thing to have people respond by focusing on specific aspects of their job that they are being measured on? That is a tough question. This simple answer is, “sometimes.” This is ultimately the desired outcome of implementing specific key performance indicators (KPIs), but it doesn’t always work. So, let’s dig into this a bit deeper.
One prime example is something seemingly easy yet often anything but – Compensation Plans. When properly implemented these plans drive organic business growth through increased sales and revenue (both likely items being measured), as well as drive steady cash flow by constantly closing within certain periods (usually months or quarters). What could be better than that?
Salespeople focus on the areas where they have the greatest opportunity to make money. Presumably they are selling the products or services that you want them to based on their comp plans. Additionally, certain MBO (management by objective) goals are presumably focused on positive outcomes that are important to the business, such as bringing-on new reference accounts. Those are forward looking goals that increase future (as opposed to immediate) revenue. In a perfect world, with perfect comp plans, all of these business goals are codified and supported by motivational financial incentives.
Some of the most successful salespeople are the ones that primarily care only about themselves. They are in the game for one reason – to make money. Give them a plan that is well constructed and allows them to win and they will do so in a predictable manner. Paying large commission checks should be a goal for every business, because when they are doing that their own business is prospering.
But, give a salesperson a plan that is poorly constructed and they will likely find ways to personally win in ways that are inconsistent with company growth goals (e.g., paying commission based on deal size, but not factoring in the overall impact of excessive discounts). Even worse, give them a plan that doesn’t provide a chance to win and the results will be uncertain at best.
Just as most tasks tend to expand to use all time available, salespeople tend to book most of their deals at the end of whatever period is being used. With quarterly cycles most of the business tends to book in the final week or two of the quarter – something that is not ideal from a cash flow perspective. Using shorter monthly periods may increase business overhead, but the potential to significantly increase business from salespeople working harder for that immediate benefit will likely be a very worthwhile tradeoff.
What about motiving Services teams? What I did with my company was to provide quarterly bonuses based on overall company profitability and each individual’s contribution to our success that quarter. Most of our projects used task oriented billing where we billed 50% up-front and 50% at the time of the final deliverables. You needed to both start and complete a task within a quarter to maximize your personal financial contribution, so there was plenty of incentive to deliver and quickly move to the next task. As long as quality remains high this is a good thing.
We also factored-in salary costs (i.e., if you make more than you should be bringing-in more value to the company), the cost of re-work, and non-financial items that were beneficial to the company. For example, writing a white paper, giving a presentation, helping others, or even providing formal documentation on lessons learned added business value and would be rewarded. Everyone had the right motivation, performed work and delivered quality work products as needed, and made good money doing so.
This approach worked very well for me, and was continually validated over the course of several years. It also fostered innovation, because the team was always looking for ways to increase their value and earn more money. Many tools, processes and procedures came out of what would otherwise be routine engagements.
Mistakes with comp plans can be costly – due to excessive payouts and/or because they are not generating the expected results. Back testing is one form of validation as you build a plan. Short-term incentive programs are another. Remember, where there is not risk there is little reward, so accept the fact that some risk must be taken to find the point where the optimal behavior is fostered.
It can be challenging and time consuming to identify the right things to measure, the right number of things (measuring too many or too few will likely fall short of goals), and provide the incentives that will motivate people to do what you want or need. But it is definitely worthwhile work if you want your business to grow and be healthy.
This type of work isn’t rocket science, and therefore is well within everyone’s reach.
One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the seven years that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.
Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business, but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times since then is that small business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth / upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it they would not bother putting so much at risk. I will write more posts about my business ownership experiences later.
People tend to adopt a different perspective on the decision making process once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet. Even in a large business you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.
What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?
One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of a vendor. A business is in business to make money, so if the work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base.
When you are not thinking or acting like an owner it is all about the sale and your commission. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term, and they often feel that someone else will fix this once it becomes their problem.
How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. My feeling is that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used-up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction. Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.
Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide good and/or services that are different and often better than what larger vendors offer. Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.
Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like travel or training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.
While these are commonly traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations? Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?
These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to change and improvement.