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.’
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, which means why people really buy what you are selling, it is possible to connect with prospects in a meaningful way that can increase your win rate.
There is a sales adage from the 1940s (source) that asserts, “No one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.” That basic understanding of why people and companies buy is still often lost in sales and marketing messages today.
Several years ago my team and I were selling a new Analytics Database that was truly different, but our message was identical to every other database vendor – “70% – 100% faster than every other product.” It is nearly impossible to differentiate your product with a non-differentiated message.
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 being responsive to business customer requests is often more important. 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 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 the right things that circumvent 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 sufficient “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 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 their vertical and more specific understanding of the prospect company, it’s history, and 2-3 of their main competitors. It also requires an honest understanding 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 you are less likely to win the business.
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 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 needs to make their lives easier and business better, rather than selling what you know you have from a technical perspective where you are far more likely to get lost in the noise of the messaging from most of your competition.
My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.
Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to achieve their full potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and a commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different. The potential reward outweighed the real risk.
Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then looked for examples of exceptional performance, and finally created a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement on an ongoing basis. From then on it was analyzing my results, thinking daily about even the smallest improvements, and then trying to do even better the next day.
Good enough was never good enough. Introspection can challenging so one thing that I have done is to take time to celebrate wins and intentionally focus on remembering how that feels. In times of stress or frustration those memories can be motivational and help you back on track quickly.
Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority. I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle. Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman.
What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And just like basketball, it takes practice to master. But, with mastery comes success and the illusion that something is easy (or that you happen to be very lucky). The Seneca quote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is so true.
Regardless of the system used, what is most important is that you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them. There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of an ongoing process of improving.
Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work will help you improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.
For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an understanding about why what they are selling should matter to me – and are able to articulate that quickly and confidently. I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of both good and bad sales techniques.
So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!
One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the time 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 is those 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.
People tend to adopt a different perspective when making decisions 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. I was responsible for a Global Business Unit with $50+ million in annual sales and ran it like a “business within a business” because I had P&L responsibilities and the decisions I made mattered to the success of my business unit
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 just a vendor, or at least do not try to take advantage of you (and vice-versa).
A business is in business to make money, so if your 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 within an organization that was a better fit. That is true for employees at all levels.
“Bad” salespeople (who may very well regularly exceed their quota) only care about the sale and their commission – not the fit, the customer’s satisfaction, or the effort required to support that customer. 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 as they are not focused on growing accounts and their compensation plans generally only reward net new business and first-time sales.
How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. I believe 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 are willing to experiment and take risks. They reward that behavior. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide goods and/or services that are tailored to those specific needs.
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 unnecessary travel or unnecessary training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.
While these are common 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? What do you value and what is your culture? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? Does your management style reflect this aspirational vision?
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 towards change and improvement.
I was reading an article from Nancy Duarte about Strengthening Culture with Storytelling, and it made me think about how important a skill story telling can be in business, and how it can be far more effective than just presenting facts / data. These are just a few examples – I’m sure that you have many of your own.
One of the best sales people that I’ve ever known wasn’t a sales person at all. It is Jon Vice, former CEO of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Jon is very personable and has the ability to make each person feel like they are the most important person in the room (quite a skill in itself). Jon would talk to a room of people and tell a story. Mid-story you were hooked. You completely bought what he was selling, often without knowing what the “ask” was. It was amazing to experience.
Years ago when my company was funding medical research projects, my oldest daughter (then only four years old) and I watched a presentation on the mid-term findings of one of the projects. The MD/Ph.D. giving the presentation was impressive, but what he showed was slide after slide of data. After 10-15 minutes my daughter held her Curious George stuffed animal up in front of her (where the shadow would be seen on the screen) and proclaimed, “Boring!”
Six months later that same person gave his wrap-up presentation. It was short, told an interesting story that explained why these findings were important, laying the groundwork for a follow-on project. A few years later he commented that this was a very valuable lesson because the story with data was far more compelling than just the data itself.
A few years ago the company I work for introduced a high-performance analytics database. We touted that our product was 100 times faster than other products, which happened to be a similar message used by a handful of competitors. In my region we created a “Why Fast Matters” webinar series and told the stories of our early Proof of Value efforts. This helped my team make the first few sales of this new product. People understood our value proposition because these success stories made it tangible.
What I tell my team is to weave the thread of our value proposition into the fabric of a prospect’s story. This both makes us part of the story, and also makes this new story their own (as opposed to being our story). This simple approach has been effective, and also helps you qualify out sooner if you can’t improve the story.
What if you not selling anything? Your data has a story to tell – even more so with big data. Whether you are analyzing data from a single source (such as audit or log data), or correlating data from multiple sources, the data is telling you a story. Whether patterns, trends, or correlated events – the story is there. And once you find it there is so much you can do to build it out.
Whether you are selling, managing, teaching, coaching, analyzing, or just hanging out with friends or colleagues, being able to entertain with a story is a valuable skill. This is a great way to make a lot of things in business even more interesting and memorable. So, give it a try.