Being successful in sales nowadays requires a whole lot more than your basic product knowledge, list of probing questions and answers to common objections. In today’s world, we need a powerful attitude that’ll elevate us to that of an equal to our buyer.
As spending authority rises higher within organizations, the number of senior managers or executives able to sign off on significant purchases declines. But because leaders are more likely to seek the opinions of others, there’s been a proliferation in the number of people involved in the buying process. As a result, sales professionals are overinvesting, or worse, wasting time and resources trying to sell to people who don’t have the authority to say “yes,” and can only say “no.”
If CEO’s and CFO’s calculated the cost of this inefficiency in sales hours invested, travel costs, organizational resources applied, they’d faint.
It’s a fixable issue, though because they can use these trends to take a leadershipapproach to the selling process. This is notably different from the consensus approach advocated by the authors of a March 2015 Harvard Business Review article, “Making the Consensus Sale.”
That article relied on surveys by CEB, a member-based advisory company, of more than 5,000 stakeholders involved in B2B purchases. The surveys found that, on average, 5.4 people must sign off on every purchase. This is revealing data, but the interpretation made was that, to succeed, sales reps must drive consensus within the purchasing organization—in essence, that they must sell to a committee.
My conclusion is different. In my work I consistently see and hear that there are actually fewer decision makers than ever to sell to. Not more. This has been consistently the case in evaluating over a hundred sales opportunities sales opportunities with clients. See what conclusion you draw when you examine the opportunities being pursued by your company and considering the following.
Budget line items don’t indicate five or more people accountable, it’s usually one. Sure multiple divisions may financially support a purchase, but I’ve never seen an allocation of budget responsibility go to more than one leader. Few purchase agreements or checks have five signature lines and I’ve never heard of a contract signed by “the committee.”
For example, let’s say a six-person board is asked to choose from among three vendors. The odds that all six will agree on one choice are slim. Like anyone else, when providing the feedback needed to make a decision, the members of boards and committees are governed, to a certain extent, by self-interest. Perhaps one person brought the vendor into the organization, or another owes the vendor a favor. Accountability or fiduciary responsibility is key here.
There is no doubt that more leaders today favor a collaborative approach versus a command and control style. But it’s still the buyers job as a leader to create alignment among a team, and if a salesperson has to work on creating consensus, it’s a sure sign authority has been at least partially abdicated (among other problems). It’s unlikely that the seller is going to be able to provide the leadership needed and that’s why nearly 60% of sales cycles end up with no decision being made. Ultimately, while more people do have their hands in the decision-making pot, the inescapable truth remains, one person truly decides.
What’s a seller to do? I’ve worked closely with sales organizations in a variety of industries from consulting and technology to consumer-packaged goods observing sales calls, developing opportunities, and formulating strategies. I’ve realized that while all have their nuances, there are some useful commonalities in leading sales cycles where multiple influences are involved in some fashion.
A sales professional does need to have an understanding of the circumstances, objectives, and concerns of the various stakeholders, in order to better help the buyer to make a decision. This needn’t be an overly complex effort and the real caution is to make sure that too much time and resources are spent doing so. It happens so easily because it’s a path of less resistance as stakeholders are often eager and willing to spend time with sales discussing their specific requirements, and sharing their opinions on what the sales recommendation or proposal should consist of. This can become a significant distraction.
The priority has to be creating an appropriate level of engagement with the person making the decision, who is often more difficult to access. Only with an understanding of that buyer’s specific goals for the business can the views of others be put in perspective for what is in the best interest of the customer.
None of this is to suggest a seller should adopt the scorched earth policy by brashly insisting they talk only to the decision maker and treat others impacted as second-class citizens (A mistake I’ve seen plenty of sellers make in the name of getting in to the C-Suite). Most of the time, that just alienates people and rarely had the desired effect.
The key to doing this effectively is identifying their role in the decision and regarding them professionally with respect. Sales teams have a variety of code names for these people, including Influencer, Champion, Promoter, or Supporter, all of them conveying the idea of sponsorship in one form or another. Working with these influencers to gain access to the decision maker is the best bet. That could mean a meeting together, providing an introduction, or even arranging the meeting for the seller. The reasons for doing so range from increased success rates of an implementation with early involvement from the buyer, hearing clear and unfiltered expectations from them, and of course a recognition that if there is someone with the fiduciary responsibility for a purchase, that its irresponsible not to meet with them prior to submitting a proposal. There are many approaches, each of them taking in to consideration the best interest of the potential client.
A financial services firm I’m working with has successfully utilized the strategy of involving their executives to help in creating interaction with priority prospects. A technology consulting firm is working with influencers to highlight the importance of identifying the business outcomes and ROI of a systems implementation—all of which require input from the real buyer.
I’ve seen all of these situations occur and I’ve also seen circumstances where those influencing a decision would not help to create access. In the instance of the latter, this is a major red flag, and without that interaction it’s clear that there is a low probability for success. It’s one of the hardest things for sales professionals to do, but at this point its better to reduce the effort or let go entirely.
Its reasonable to stay minimally engaged as long as the focus is to ensure proper interaction with the buyer. These professionals are no doubt important to the process and can be critical allies once the sale is made and must be implemented. But the most common mistake sellers make is squandering time, effort and energy selling to these people by demonstrating capability, over-investing in diagnosis or needs analysis, and sometimes even negotiating fees. Remember attempting to sell to them is wasted time—after all, they can’t really buy from you and can only say “no”.
“Get to the decision-maker,” has long been conventional wisdom. But selling in today’s environment requires more. It requires a sophisticated approach balancing common interests with your point of view. One that recognizes that, even in an age of committees, one person still has the power to say “yes.”
As a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I found it exciting when the third trailer for the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII, The Force Awakens was released. Part of the appeal of the Star Wars saga is that it is the classic hero’s journey. But there’s a lot more. Having worked with leaders in over 25 different industries, I can tell you with certainty, that if you pay close attention, there are some incredibly powerful instructions for how to successfully lead. Here are seven, in honor of the forthcoming episode in the saga.
1. Let go of attachments. In Star Wars, the Jedi refer to this principle as it relates to people so that they are solely focused on serving. But we all need to let go of attachments to outcomes. This has nothing to do with doing everything within your ability to reach goals or achieve objectives. Always strive for the outcome, of course. But you can’t control outcomes, so the key is to maintain your focus on the actions that get you there. When we get too attached to outcomes you see poor decisions, choking at important moments, and at worst counterproductive or even dishonest behaviors.
2. Always in motion the future is. You can tell by the syntax that Yoda spoke these words (If I have to explain who Yoda is at this point, more work have you to do.) When executives formulate strategy and create plans, its important to recognize that you are always acting on incomplete information. What’s more is that its unlikely you know how much incomplete information you have! Leaders have to make rational decisions based on their knowledge and experience. I’m not saying that information isn’t important, but I see it frequently used to stall. Mostly driven by fear of making a wrong decision. More on fear in a moment.
3. Calm is powerful. The senior-most Jedi are often found meditating. Because it helps them maintain focus. Think about how it feels when you are around a leader who is anxious, frenetic, or whirling around “crazy busy”. Does it inspire a lot of confidence? In my experience analyzing the data on what nearly 200,000 direct reports said about their bosses, the answer is unequivocally no. In fact, many times it makes a person look like they can’t handle the job. Don’t mistake calm for a tranquil or even lethargic state. Rather, it’s about focused attention, centeredness, and upbeat energy to inspire confidence.
4. The most powerful devote time to honing their skills. This goes for the dark side of the force and the light. I’m hoping you are on the light side. Regardless, you don’t wield telekinetic powers to move space ships without a lot of practice. This includes being proactive in continually developing new skills. But it is also about practice. I’ve seen too many people attend a training program and fail to practice any of what was learned afterward. In the same way you can’t become a proficient golfer in a day or two, the interactive skills required of excellent leaders require practice. Practicing difficult or important conversations before having them and practicing strategic messages for maximum impact. Whatever you are developing for growth, your deliberate practice is significantly more valuable than the famed 10,000-hour rule. Prioritizing the intentional development of skills is how the best practice—constantly, to meet the intense requirements of the job.
5. Fear is the path to the dark side. We don’t talk about fear a lot in business but I sure do hear a lot of it. The way it is popularly talked about—sometimes in a humble-bragging way is with stress. But stress is most often being afraid that something will or won’t happen. None of us can completely escape fear, so complete avoidance isn’t realistic. Its vital to be attentive to those fears and make sure that they don’t completely control your actions. An overdose of fear or stress is the root cause of many poor decisions. Don’t let it control your destiny.
6. Listen to your novices and frontlines. In a favorite moment of mine, a Jedi Master asks a group of children just starting to learn about the force to help solve a conundrum. One of the children quickly resolves the mystery, prompting the recognition that “wonderful is the mind of a child”. That’s because they are unfettered in their thinking and able to see things others don’t. Leaders ought to prioritize spending time with the front lines of the organization as well as new employees. They are the best source for simple, logical, and rational ideas to address issues. Front line personnel are also a tremendous source of innovation.
7. Do or do not there is no try. This phrase is a favorite of even non Star Wars fans (its amazing to me that such people exist), and needs little explanation. Commitment and driving for results, high engagement, and the willingness to give our best effort, are hallmarks of not just great leaders, but of great people.
Of course, there are more lessons in the Star Wars saga, but these are the ones I find most prevalent and useful in my work with executives. And with Episode VII on the horizon, there will clearly be more for all of us to learn.
If your sales team has trouble cross-selling, it isn’t because you have a cross-selling problem. You have a selling problem.
Here’s the rub. The promise of more to offer customers sounds wonderful as a growth strategy. And the ability to provide more for clients is unquestionably attractive. But how many times have you heard about that promise getting broken because for some reason, cross-selling isn’t happening at the projected or desired rate.
I hear it from CEOs who grapple with why the combined entity created from mergers or acquisition fails to deliver on an investment thesis. I hear it from sales executives who struggle to understand why more customers don’t use multiple offerings. I hear it from front-line sales managers and sellers who have a difficult time increasing adoption rates of their new offerings.
The source of the cross-selling problem comes from people not selling properly. For if they did sell correctly, then cross-selling would be as comfortable as a cross breeze. (I live in Florida and couldn’t resist that.)
2 Cross-Selling Challenges
Here are two primary issues organizations often face when trying to cross-sell and how sellers can handle them:
1. Different Buyers Buy Different Things
While a company may need the new or extra products you offer, it’s very possible that a different buyer handles the acquisition of them. If sales are getting stuck because marketing efforts aren’t attracting the correct buyers or salespeople are pursuing the wrong buyers, those have little to do with cross-selling.
One organization I work with sells IT hardware and services. The services were added recently to create the overused, but still accurate, term of a “solution.” Services sales have lagged, however, and a primary reason is that the person who buys computers is different than the person who buys consulting services for the data center.
But finding the appropriate person to sell to is not unique to cross-selling—it is the starting point of any selling effort. Make sure your people are engaged with potential buyers who can actually say yes to what you are selling.
2. Varied Circumstances or Needs Addressed
When I worked with partners at PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the Big Four consulting firms, our objective was to expand opportunities beyond the classic audit. It turns out the firm has more value to offer than the assurance of financials. Much more. But to effectively sell those high-value services, these partners needed an understanding of the myriad drivers of need that would indicate appropriateness.
Maybe an acquisition strategy would support a valuation project. Perhaps a conversion to a new ERP system would require technology strategy. But recognizing those circumstances, and being able to identify issues on the horizon that a CFO may have not yet taken action on, is valuable. And it provides the context for discussions about a new service.
A hallmark of the overused, but still accurate and effective term of “consultative selling,” is unearthing specific customer needs that can be addressed by what you have to offer. However, if your sellers are not intimately familiar with the issues or problems a new service helps clients address, it’s a tough road. It won’t be enough to just tell the customer how good a new product or service is, aka talking brochure style.
Again, that’s not isolated to cross-selling. Knowing how your product or service addresses customer needs is what effective sellers do every day.
Product training and education must support this. Even very effective solution-oriented professionals will revert to a pitching approach if education only addresses what is new. Sellers also need to understand the context of how the new thing benefits buyers.
Further, if there are multiple subject matter experts who get involved in complex sales (e.g. trust experts in banking or technology specialists in IT sales), I can make a strong argument that product or service knowledge may not matter much at all to salespeople. Because if sellers understand who their buyer is, and have a depth of knowledge about the issues that they are most keen to address, then getting specs on a product or details of a process is easy.
But again that isn’t just true of solving cross-selling issues because those things are at the heart of most successful sales, period.
Don’t allow your selling issue to masquerade a cross-selling issue. Recognize it for what it is, and address it head on.
It’s common for a CEO to say he wants a sales culture, or more specifically, a culture that supports sales. It sounds good especially to shareholders and corporate boards who have a sense that selling is kind of important for achieving revenue growth. Sales teams like to hear it, too, as it feels like recognition for the importance of the role.
But most efforts involving culture devolve into big science projects led by human resources and disregarded by others. With no disrespect to HR—in fact, I started my career in HR—that department will never be able to change the culture of a business. That is a job for the leaders of the business, and sales leaders have to step up to the challenge of working across the organization to drive this change.
To create a culture of selling, you must consider three fundamental principles:
1. Focus on the Value Sales Creates
Culture is about mindset. That means to create a sales culture, you must start with what people believe about selling. Our beliefs shape our behaviors, so you need to know what people in your organization think or feel about the sales force. Do they view the sales organization as a vital part of the value created for clients, or do they see it simply as the distribution function?
Companies that have a strong culture of selling focus on the value that is created because the sales organization does considerably more than communicate the competitive advantages of products and services. They are the advantage.
2. Practice What You Preach
Actions more than words cause people to change their beliefs. While leaders must actively communicate how the selling function supports the value chain of the entire company, they must also show how it does that.
Role models need to be recognized throughout the business as the standard for performance. Publicly identify those who achieve strong results for the business. This goes beyond revenue generated. The real exemplars are those who achieve strong results for the business and do so in a way that demonstrates how they helped differentiate your business from a competitor or how they positioned your products to form a unique solution that the customer hadn’t considered.
Yes, profit and revenue are the quarterly (or monthly or weekly) report card. But highlighting them as the only things that matter undercuts the importance of how those results are achieved.
3. Reinforce the Right Behavior
The culture you create depends on your reinforcing the right behavior and having consequences for inappropriate behavior. Leaders must, therefore, determine specific expectations and standards across the business and translate those into actions. What are the appropriate response times on proposal support requests? How are members of the sales team expected to participate in territory research?
By asking such questions as “How would I know we have a sales culture?” or “What would be different if our culture were more sales-focused?” you’ll quickly come up with answers that decode what it looks like in your business. Then provide the rewards and consequences for sales reps’ behavior.
Note: it’s a mistake to recognize someone for results if they were achieved following undesirable behavior. For instance, if a seller reaches his quota but does so by significantly discounting prices, that is not something to recognize when you are trying to increase margins. You need to provide recognition for actions that will drive future success.
Organizations that have a strong sales culture understand there is a significant connection between the value customers are willing to pay for and the role of the sales organization. Great products and services are table stakes for selling today. The companies that win most have a culture in which everyone recognizes that the sales organization is part of the competitive advantage of the business.
Getting the competitive advantage from the people you already have.
Of all the strategies for growing your business, organic growth is the most daunting. But with the uncertainty and high failure rates of M&As and partnerships (most studies indicate between 70% to 90% of the time they fail to meet stated objectives), organic growth is also the path to the highest value for your business.
To drive that kind of growth with new clients, new product or service configurations, and expand your business with existing clients, use the most powerful lever you have—your sales organization. Effectively mobilizing your sales team involves much more than setting a stretch target and funding a compensation plan to reward its achievement. It is about utilizing your sales organization to shift from communicating your competitive advantage, to being your competitive advantage. Here are three points to help you accomplish that goal.
“The moment when employees interact with customers or prospects is when your strategy comes to life.”
1. Involve your sales team in corporate strategy and goals.As the CEO, you’ve thoughtfully formulated a winning strategy, but the moment when employees interact with customers or prospects is when that strategy comes to life. According to a study by McKinsey, organizations that made the sales organization a vital part of their strategy outstrip their peers 50% to 80% in revenue and profitability. Make sure your sales leadership team gets your strategy. That doesn’t mean just understanding the strategy at a basic level, but being able to pragmatically apply it to daily decisions, especially relating to priorities and focus. Is your sales team working with the right kind of prospects? Are they playing to the advantages you’ve carefully invested in and determined matter most?
2. Be as engaged with your sales leader as you are with your executive team. I’ve worked with a lot of CEOs whose main interaction with the sales organization is an inspection of last month’s performance and next month’s forecast. CEOs often are more comfortable working with finance, technology or operations, and as a result, push a lot of the sales interaction to the VP of Sales. Obviously, those other areas are crucial, but don’t make the mistake of delegating the direction of your sales organization. You must establish the focus of this function of your business to ensure it creates value for your clients. I describe that in my HBR article, Would Customers Pay for Your Sales Calls, which highlights that sales is much more than just being the conduit for your products and services to reach clients.
3. Marry sales and marketing. These are two sides of the same relationship. Sales nurturing, for example, actually takes place within marketing. Define your expectations for collaboration as a means to better acquire, expand and serve clients. Establish interdependent objectives and let investment decisions flow from them. If they are separate, you are the only person in the company who can steer their relationship toward a powerful synergy.
When CEOs utilize their sales organization as a substantial part of the value or differentiation the company provides for clients—not just the communicators of that value—it becomes a considerable advantage. It is difficult for competitors to recognize or copy, and it becomes an additional source of brand equity. The key is that this can’t be delegated to your VP of Sales, or worse, to HR to run training programs. It’s a strategic decision about organic growth that the CEO must lead.
Who are the hidden leaders in your workplace? Can you spot them? They could be right in front of you, mixed in with the worker bees and confident extroverts. Hidden leaders are enthusiastic employees who make good decisions, listen well, and are considerate of others. With a strong sense of fairness and integrity, they often help others to succeed. They are focused on business goals and the customer experience.
In The Hidden Leader, Edinger and Sain explain that organizations must be open to discovering leadership traits in unexpected people. They sometimes remain hidden by choice, chance, or position. It is up to managers to recognize the value these unsung contributors bring to the organization’s bottom line and long-term success.
After hidden leaders are identified, how do we engage these “strategic energy sources”? Edinger and Sain suggest two ways: Flatten the organizational structure so that they “pop up in the landscape,” and provide opportunities for hidden leaders to maximize their contributions.
Organizational culture also can help hidden leaders thrive. According to the authors, a culture with an emphasis on performance measurement is key. This allows managers to expose all employees over time to the core characteristics of hidden leaders. With guidance and measured results, all employees have an opportunity to develop leadership qualities. In this way the performance we expect from hidden leaders becomes the norm for all.
A culture where initiative is rewarded also is imperative. Too often managers skip over employee efforts in their pursuit of results. Initiatives that fail may still serve as paths to innovation. To create a culture of innovation, management must be willing to reward those who try something new, even if it doesn’t get the desired results. The Hidden Leader helps readers identify, encourage, and reward initiative that can lead to innovation.
The authors provide detailed worksheets and questionnaires for immediate use, accessible through quick response (QR) codes and URLs. The book’s website (www.thehiddenleader.com) provides additional information to guide readers through the process of discovering and grooming hidden leaders.
By following the steps in the book and its supplemental materials, organizations can cultivate their best employee advocates. Full chapters in the book are devoted to enabling integrity, building relational skills, creating a results focus, and instilling customer purpose. The authors also identify steps organizations can take if one or more of these key traits is missing in employees.
With their straightforward and accessible writing style, Edinger and Sain provide a fresh look at leadership potential. They weave in personal examples to show readers that hidden leaders can be developed and nurtured, becoming a company’s hidden competitive advantage.